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Ballet Memphis Names New Artistic Director, Steven McMahon

Jenny Myers for Ballet Memphis

The top leadership of Ballet Memphis has just become a pas de deux.

Steven McMahon, 34, was named Artistic Director on Tuesday, taking over half the role occupied by company founder Dorothy Gunther Pugh since 1986. 

While Pugh will stay on as C.E.O., McMahon will take charge of the artistic and programming decisions and continue to choreograph new works. Many of his pieces are now part of the company's standard repertoire.

Pugh said she had been quietly casting around for a successor, but found a shared vision in the dancer she hired in 2004 and promoted to Associate Artistic Director in 2016. 

"He's not out to put the crown on his head," she said. "He's in it for the right reasons. He is doing this in service to things that are bigger than ourselves and our own singular careers."

A native of Glasgow, Scotland, McMahon studied at The Ailey School in New York City before relocating to Memphis at age 19. He quickly became a versatile, Everyman-style soloist on Ballet Memphis' eclectic-looking roster. 

As his dance career progressed, so did his evolution into a go-to company choreographer. McMahon's humane, ballet-based style takes physical and dramatic cues from choreographers he's danced under, such as Trey McIntyre and Mark Godden, and musical cues largely from the Western symphonic tradition. 

His popular Wizard of Oz ballet, for example, tossed aside Judy Garland for an assortment of works by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. 

His take on Peter Pan retained the familiar aerial gymnastics, but built his Neverland upon a mountain of robust orchestral music by Malcolm Arnold and William Walton -- both English contemporaries of J.M. Barrie. 

In that respect, McMahon's 30-plus works for Ballet Memphis -- two of which, Romeo and Juliet and  Cinderella, will be remounted next season -- bring the sensibilities of a Western-European immigrant to a Western classical dance tradition being sustained in a city that views imported traditions like origami paper.

McMahon says that Ballet Memphis will continue to fold and reshape classical ballet, albeit always in close proximity to pointe shoes. 

"It has never been about the art serving itself," he said. "It's about using the art to serve larger questions about the world and our community. How can you use the technique of ballet or contemporary dance or however we want to call it to hold a lens up to our everyday life?" 

At 34, McMahon is now one of the country's youngest artistic directors of a big regional dance company.

Expectations are high: the company recently opened a $22 million new rehearsal, performance and educational facility on Overton Square. That expansion also created new financial challenges at a time when many Memphis nonprofits are fishing in the same pond of arts philanthropy. 

The Brooks Museum, Crosstown Arts, Theatre Memphis and the Metal Museum are among groups jockeying for substantial gifts from reliable arts funders such as the Hyde Foundation, one of Ballet Memphis' major donors. 

Pugh's focus as C.E.O. will be to broaden the base of financial support for a company that now faces a $4 million annual budget. 

"This kind of institution simply cannot depend on a handful of incredibly generous donors," she said. "This is a civic institution."

Pugh says McMahon's relative youth could speak to a younger generation of dance fans who may be looking for more responsiveness within the art form.

"This season when we hired choreographers, what we saw was an almost cathartic need for how to deal with our world since 2016," Pugh said. "We're going to have a dialog that asks: "Have we got the capacity to be productive and inspirational, welcoming human beings to face the challenges that lie ahead?'"

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.