Memphis choreographer fuses country music with modern dance

Neile Martin has fond memories of listening to the music of country star Marty Robbins with her grandfather.

The choreographer and dancer will soon produce “Saddle Tramp,” a modern dance interpretation of Robbins’ musical stylings.

“I was looking for my next inspiration, my next project, and was listening to (country) music, and there’s all these stories in cowboy music,” Martin said. “It’s kind of like the joke, ‘My wife left me for my best friend, my dog died, or I like beer,’ but there’s also something haunting and hard and isolating about country music and the idea of the landscape and Americana.”

Martin wanted to explore ideas like isolation and relationship.

“I took the music of Marty Robbins and I built a story off the stories already in his songs,” Martin said. “The music itself, and the ebbs and flows … fits really well with modern dance. They play into each other.”

“Saddle Tramp” is the name of a Robbins song.

In the chorus, Robbins croons:

“Saddle tramp, saddle tramp

I’m as free as the breeze and I ride where I please

Saddle tramp”

In Martin’s version, Connor Chaparro stars as Saddle Tramp.

Chaparro is also the assistant choreographer.

“I have the title of choreographer, or director, but it is a hugely collaborative process,” Martin said. “I could not do it without my amazing dancers’ input as artists and people and they helped shape so much of the dance.”

Seven dancers are in the cast, including Martin, who makes a cameo.

The dancers include Jill Guyton Nee, head of dance and an associate professor in the University of Memphis department of theatre and dance, and Tamara Prince-Parrish, an adjunct dance professor in the department.

Current college students and graduates of the department comprise the rest of the cast.

Martin herself is an alumna of the department. She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater, with a dance concentration.

She trained at Ballet Memphis as a child. At age 16 she enrolled in Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school for high school-aged artists in Michigan.

As an adult, Martin danced professionally in New York, Chicago and Cincinnati. She was continuously gone from Memphis from 2011 to 2017 and didn’t move back permanently until 2020.

The reason she returned home was one familiar to many in the performing arts industry: COVID-19.

Martin said she knew she always wanted to end up back in Memphis making her style of dance. She just wasn’t sure when that would be.

Now firmly back in Memphis, Martin wants to focus on creating narrative dance work.

“I feel like my style of dance can be viewed as esoteric or maybe it doesn’t always have a concrete through line as maybe a lot of people are used to if they have seen more ballet, and so I like to connect the two ideas,” Martin said. “Doing stories we’re familiar with but using non-familiar movement.”

She also said that narrative dance allows her work to deal with “hard” issues that she believes art should deal with, but in a context could make it a little more palatable.

To that end, the “Saddle Tramp,” shows are not child-friendly, she advised, due to subject matter like violence and sexuality.

The shows are a split bill — each night of the show begins with a performance from a local act, there’s an intermission and then the 45-minute dance performance begins.

On Thursday, the concert openers are Benton Parker and Jon Hay; on Friday, the concert opener is the John Paul Keith Duo (with singer-songwriter Keith and bassist Matthew Wilson); on Saturday, the concert opener is singer-songwriter Bailey Biggers.

For Keith, it will be both his first time playing at The Green Room and his first time playing the same show as a dance act.

“I’ve backed a burlesque show once, but that’s completely different,” he said with a laugh.

Keith said he’s excited about the upcoming fusion.

In July and August 2021, arts collective Off the Walls Arts put on a Martin-co-choreographed and directed production of “FIREBIRD.” It featured a metal sphere Memphis sculptor and Off the Walls executive director Yvonne Bobo created.

For their “FIREBIRD,” Martin created a modern dance version of the Igor Stravinksy ballet.

Martin collaborated again with Bobo to choreograph and direct “Carnival Vitas: Dance of the Animals” for the U of M’s department of theatre and dance. The show, which premiered in October 2022, featured giant dancing animal puppets.

“It was basically like a nine-month project where we worked with middle school kids to design these 15-foot puppets, which then Yvonne … fabricated them. A bunch of people made them and we had a carnival kind of thing at the (Off the Walls) warehouse. And then I took the puppets and I wrote a dance story around them.”

Martin’s call to audiences is that they view forms of art that may be unknown to them. She thinks this will continue to grow the arts locally, even as it has significantly grown, in her view, so much since she was a younger person in the city.

That sort of viewing might take place with pieces like “Saddle Tramp.”

“To find curiosity to push themselves to see things they’ve not seen before, or go to shows that feel unfamiliar,” Martin said. “That’s how we grow our arts community.”

“Saddle Tramp” will be performed at the Crosstown Arts Green Room Thursday, May 18 through Saturday, May 20. Preceding concerts are Benton Parker and Jon Hay on Thursday, The John Paul Keith Duo on Friday and Bailey Bigger on Saturday. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. 

This article was originally published at “”

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