The Real Story: Inside The Big Muddy Dance Company’s “Beat Ballads” With Choreographer Shannon Alvis
All of those parts are woven into the performance in layer after layer of creative choices …
There are a lot of different kinds of dance concerts. You could divide them up into different categories in a lot of different ways, but with The Big Muddy Dance Company getting ready to present their brand new show Beat Ballads this weekend, let’s just look at one of the ways that some are different from others. Some dance concerts are presented by a dance company. Some are not.
Is that really such a big difference? Yeah, it’s a big difference, and The Big Muddy Dance Company is a great example of why. In any dance concert, what the audience sees on stage is a hyper-concentrated presentation of all of the creativity that went into putting the show together. That’s what an audience experiences, but most of what they see isn’t visible as separate parts,. All of those parts are woven into the performance in layer after layer of creative choices — choreography, score design, lighting, staging and costumes. When a group of artists in a dance company work together, train together, perform together, and grow together, there’s a continuity in their creativity that can bring much more to the stage, much more to the audience.
… you’re seeing the creative interactions that make for the richest kinds of expression.
So if you go to see a great dance company like Big Muddy put on a concert like Beat Ballads, you get to see the ideas and imagination that come together in any artistic expression, the same as you might in a dance festival or in an independent production. But because this is a concert by a dance company, you get to see more. Somewhere inside, or in back of, or interwoven with every moving part are more parts, more movement. What you’re really seeing are the myriad micro-collaborations of artists who know eachother; you’re seeing the creative interactions that make for the richest kinds of expression.
Like the interaction between a company’s leadership, who can imagine and develop larger ideas like The Big Muddy’s Fortissimo Season: Celebrating Musical Minds through Movement (with Beat Ballads being the second program in the series). Like the interaction between a dance company and its community, in this case with Big Muddy’s exploration of St. Louis’ rich musical heritage in Beat Ballads. Like the complimentary and cross-inspiring interaction between the choreography of a company’s artistic director (in this case, Eno’s company premiere of Hadal Zone) and guest choreographers (a world premiere work by Marc Macaranas, and the remounting of With You Always by Shannon Alvis, accompanied by St. Louis’ own Steph Plant of The Leonas). Maybe best of all, when you see a dance company, you get to see the continuous creativite inspiration of dancers who have performed together enough to find all sorts of deeper harmonies in the way they make dance together.
Shannon Alvis is a respected independent choreographer who has her own extensive experience with dance companies. So we asked Shannon about working with Big Muddy, about With You Always, and especially about the music for her piece. Here’s what she told us:
The dancers were very focused with a collective energy and desire to thrive in what we were doing.
Johnny Nevin: In your career —first as a performer and now as a choreographer — you’ve worked with a number of great companies. The Big Muddy Dance Company is a unique and special company in many ways, and it’s been remarkable to watch how, with their consistent creativity, they’ve established themselves as a successful company. Having had so much experience with other storied dance companies, what was it like working with Big Muddy to create With You Always?
Shannon Alvis: First of all, after having danced together at Hubbard Street for so many years, Brian Enos is a dear friend of mine. Getting to know and work with Big Muddy was already a special opportunity. When I walked into the studio for the first day, however, I didn’t realize what an absolute gift the experience would turn out to be! Brian has a lovely group of dancers in the company, and we worked very intimately with one another in making the piece. With You Always truly created itself during my stay there is St. Louis in a way that hasn’t quite ever happened in my choreographic career. I had chosen the music, but had no idea what the piece would really become upon walking in. The dancers were very focused with a collective energy and desire to thrive in what we were doing. Having a group that size, not too small and not too big, allowed us to have everyone involved and important in the work. One of my favorite things about the piece actually, is the individuality that stands out within the very detailed structure that it holds.
I will never forget seeing the happiness of Steph and of the dancers during that initial exchange, and it’s unforgettable moments like this that make me want to be a choreographer.
Johnny: Big Muddy will be presenting your work With You Always at Beat Ballads, which is the second production on The Big Muddy’s Fortissimo Season: Celebrating Musical Minds through Movement. But it was originally comissioned for their Footnotes program in April of 2019, which featured works set to music from St. Louis composers and musicians. Can you tell us the very interesting history of how you came to find the original music for With You Always?
Shannon: When Brian came to me with this idea of ‘St. Louis music,’ I honestly had no idea what I would do. I started my research looking historically at the music scene in St. Louis, which is such an important part of the city. I then started to think about how wonderful it might be to look at current local artists in the area in hopes of celebrating something of today. I stumbled across The Leonas in an article written several years ago and immediately after listening to their album, Forbidden Fruit, knew that I wanted to use their music. When I approached the two singers, I think that my request came as a bit strange and out of the blue for them. I was also unaware that they had been on a sort of hiatus at the time, pursuing other work and life endeavors. I knew I must use their music however, and really pushed for it to happen.
In the end, I couldn’t have been happier that it worked out the way it did. Steph Plant, the singer of the three songs used in With You Always, has become an amazing inspiration and now friend of mine. Her music is truly what inspired the choreography, and the piece in the end, was largely for her. We made movement that really tries to embody the sounds of her voice and the heart that she sings from. Her passion is palpable and creates a very specific atmosphere for the dancers. We talked a lot about honoring the music, and Steph, and how to let her voice guide them through each moment. At the end of the process last Spring, Steph came to the final rehearsal, and I remember being so extremely nervous. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like for her to see something — something that I imagined to be so personal — interpreted by someone else. I wanted so much for her to be happy! With You Always turned out to be one of my most special and rewarding experiences. I will never forget seeing the happiness of Steph and of the dancers during that initial exchange, and it’s unforgettable moments like this that make me want to be a choreographer.
The Big Muddy Dance Company presents Beat Ballads –
a blended mosaic of soundtracks and movement, sponsored by Kathleen and Kent Turner, at The Grandel Theater in St. Louis (3610 Grandel Square , St. Louis, Missouri 63108) on Friday, January 24, 2020 at 8pm and on Saturday, January 25, 2020 at 8pm.
“As the second production on The Big Muddy’s Fortissimo Season: Celebrating Musical Minds through Movement, Beat Ballads gives a nod to the brilliant composer Joby Talbot through the feature of his eclectic mix of soundtracks. This mosaic repertory concert also includes a company premiere of “Hadal Zone” by Artistic Director Brian Enos, a world premiere work by Marc Macaranas, and the remounting of “With You Always” by Shannon Alvis, accompanied by St. Louis’ own Steph Plant of the Leonas.”
Tickets are available online from Metrotix.