Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Moved to Dance: Three Artists Who Chose Memphis for Ballet Memphis

Ballet Memphis is lauded as one of the most diverse professional ballet companies in the nation.

Its dancers come from Memphis and all over. There are Californians, New Yorkers, Arizonans, and Pennsylvanians. Some are originally from other countries such as Spain, Japan, and Panama. They each bring their unique cultural influences and training to mix with the spirit of our city, resulting in an energy and style that’s refreshing and exciting to watch.

Ballet Memphis enters its 32nd season this weekend with “Shelter,” a program of works they’ll present in the Fly Studio of their Midtown home September 8th & 9th. Get to know a few of the dancers you’ll see on stage and read about what it was like to move to Memphis.

Iori Araya

Iori Araya by Trey Clark

When did you realize you wanted to be a professional dancer?

It was probably when I got a scholarship to go to the Australian ballet school at 14. It was a full time professional ballet school and I had to make myself push everyday to be a professional ballet dancer there, because I left my family, friends, and even my education back in Japan to study ballet at the ABS.

How did you meet/audition for Ballet Memphis?

I did the open audition in NYC and they didn’t call my number in the end. But 3 months later I got an email from Brian [McSween, Ballet Memphis Ballet Master] telling me to come take class the following week, so I went, and a few days later (on my birthday) I found out that I got a contract!

What factored into your decision to move to Memphis to dance?

When I first came to the states I joined New Jersey ballet. I was dancing there for three years but I wanted to move onto a ballet company that had longer season and more diverse repertoire.

What was your first impression of Memphis when you arrived?

I don’t see Asian people…

What is your favorite thing about Memphis so far?

Our new Ballet Memphis studio in midtown! I love telling people that I work in this beautiful gigantic building!

What has been the hardest adjustment to make to living here?

Moving to new places is always hard. But I settled really quickly since dancers here are so nice and my roommate Lilit, is pretty cool.

I missed the first month of work due to my visa problem, so that was hard seeing other people dance, and not myself.

What is one thing that has surprised you about Memphis?

I was surprised to see all these cute cafes, bars and also the weekend market! I love going to the Cooper Young farmers market on Saturdays and getting the organic bread from st. Honore bakery and then grab a coffee or matcha latte at muddy’s bake shop.  

Ricardo Dyer

Ricardo Dyer by Trey Clark

When did you realize you wanted to be a professional dancer?

I started out doing musical theatre as a kid and I always thought my long term goal was to be on broadway. Eventually, I realized the only element of musical theatre that I enjoyed was dance. I was about 15 years old when I decided to switch my focus to strictly dance and from then on my goal was to be in a professional ballet company.

How did you meet/audition for Ballet Memphis?

I had a friend from college that had spent two seasons with Ballet Memphis  prior to me joining. I decided to give her a call and ask her how she enjoys dancing there and whether or not I should consider auditioning.

Ricardo Dyer by Trey Clark

What factored into your decision to move to Memphis to dance?

The deciding factor to move to Memphis most certainly was the fact that I was offered a contract. However, I knew moving here to dance with Ballet Memphis was definitely the next step forward in my dance career. It was definitely the right thing to do.

What was your first impression of Memphis when you arrived?

Stepping foot into Memphis, I was immediately embraced by the culture and history. There’s a lot to learn about and there are many traditional ways to Memphis that are unique.

What is your favorite thing about Memphis so far?

I love how Memphis finds it essential to continue to progress and make changes to the city that influence more culture and community. Living in Memphis for about a year, I’ve heard of many good changes that have happened recently.

What has been the hardest adjustment to make to living here?

The hardest change about moving here is adjusting to a smaller community. Being from NYC, I’m used to being star struck by something new every day. It was a huge change for me living in a community where you are well acquainted with one another.

What is one thing that has surprised you about Memphis?

The most surprising thing about Memphis was learning about the amount of talented artists that come from this city. It’s impressive to know that these artists came from a city that wasn’t/ isn’t at its fullest potential and they still manage to find their way to the top.

Lilit Hogtanian

When did you realize you wanted to be a professional dancer?

When I was 6 years old, after my first ballet class. It was a love at first sight kind of thing.

How did you meet/audition for Ballet Memphis?

I was on tour in Memphis with the Dance Theater of Harlem and Dorothy [Gunther Pugh, Ballet Memphis CEO & Founding Artistic Director] came to watch the show. She asked me to take class with the company, so I stayed a few extra days and auditioned.

Lilit Hogtanian by Trey Clark

What factored into your decision to move to Memphis to dance?

I had heard good things about the company from my friends that already worked here. When I took company class, there was a great positive energy in the room, which is one of the most important things to me when making a decision to move to a new company.

What was your first impression of Memphis when you arrived?

I had never really been to the south before, it was a huge culture shock. I remember noticing that there was a slower pace and that people were a lot friendlier.

What is your favorite thing about Memphis so far?

My favorite thing about Memphis so far would be the cost of living! I had lived in Santa Barbara and New York, which were very expensive. It is nice living in a city that is not financially stressful. I also love all the live music in Memphis, you can go out almost any day and find a live band playing somewhere.

What has been the hardest adjustment to make to living here?

The hardest adjustment is probably the lack of public transportation, and that it’s not a very walkable city.

What is one thing that has surprised you about Memphis?

The one thing that surprised me the most about Memphis was that it is more developed than I thought it would be. It is growing and developing while keeping its character and authenticity.

Catch Iori, Ricardo, and Lilit on stage with the rest of the company in the season opener “Shelter” and see the full Ballet Memphis season lineup at balletmemphis.org.