Passing by the nondescript brick building at 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Center, just blocks from Saint Louis University, you might imagine that rows of desks for office workers line the walls inside, or perhaps a small factory is churning out goods. The industrial exterior belies the vibrant interior of the newly opened Marcelle Theater, (which was indeed a scaffolding supply company in a former life). Within its walls, The Big Muddy Dance Company is twirling, stepping and leaping through rehearsals, preparing for some of the most creative dance performances in the St. Louis area.
“Diverse, engaging and entertaining repertoire is always the goal,” says Big Muddy artistic director Brian Enos. “When programming a Big Muddy performance, I try to include something for everyone. Ranging from contemporary ballet to dance theater, and everything in between, we present works that can be enjoyed by those who are already passionate about dance, and that will also make a dance lover out of those who may be seeing a dance performance for the first time.”
Enos began his work as artistic director at Big Muddy last year, and is currently overseeing the company’s fifth season. Since its founding, Big Muddy has performed at a host of venues around town, including Casa Loma Ballroom, The Pageant, Soulard Preservation Hall, Grand Center’s Sun Theater and Sheldon Concert Hall. The diversity of venues has forged a strong connection between the company and the city, Enos says.
While Enos shepherds Big Muddy artistically, Erin Warner Prange, one of the original Big Muddy dancers, serves as executive director. “My journey through a professional dance career runs directly parallel with the history of Big Muddy,” she says. A St. Louis native, Prange had danced her way through Colorado, Boston and Rhode Island before returning to the Midwest.
“I came to (Big Muddy founder) Paula David when I arrived back to St. Louis in search for professional-level classes that I could take to keep up with my technique and creativity,” Prange says. “She held classes at The Dance Co-op in Crestwood in conjunction with rehearsals for exploring movement. She had the vision to create a professional, full-time repertory company that would put St. Louis on the national map of dance, and I felt the urge to take a leap of faith and become a part of that picture.”
Prange joined six other dancers under David’s direction, performing in private homes, parks and small venues as they built an audience and donor base. “After five years of diligence, hard work and focus, it’s amazingly satisfying to see where we are today as a company and how much we've grown in such little time,” she says.
Having worked as a dancer for both David and Enos, Prange says she appreciates the differences in teaching styles and programming nuances. “The most important attribute in both of them that instills my loyalty is their constant drive toward excellence and entertainment,” she says. “They both understand that the performance is not about the dancers, but the about the audience. Big Muddy will always strive to promote high-quality art within an entertaining experience. Working with Brian on his own choreography is such an interesting process because his eye for detail is so refined, and he carries that detail into every aspect of his job.”
In addition to the company’s local performances, Big Muddy offers dance classes for students of all experience levels (beginners, advanced and professional) in everything from ballet to contemporary to jazz.
The company is also very active in community outreach and engagement, performing at senior centers and housing facilities in the area at no cost. “Community outreach has been, from the beginning, and continues to be, as important as any other facet of the organization,” he says. “Our Senior Embrace outreach program has become hugely popular among local retirement communities. We normally perform between 25 and 30 performances per season, and this season we're expanding it beyond St. Louis with our Route 66 Tour. Over the course of two weeks in September and October, we’ll be traveling to communities in Missouri and Illinois along Route 66, and performing our Senior Embrace program, which we're very excited about.”
No matter what aspect of the company she’s involved in, Prange says the dancers’ “determination and unison” remains constant, driving Big Muddy toward excellence. “Most fans in St. Louis would attest that Big Muddy is one of the friendliest arts organizations in the area, because we honestly love what we do, and want to share that joy with the masses,” she says. “I believe the dancers have carried on the mission of the company – to invigorate life through dance in everything they do: teach and take classes, rehearse with guest choreographers, visit with audience members and interact with senior citizens in our outreach program.”
While the company is firmly rooted in the community, Enos says he’d like to expand Big Muddy’s capacity for national touring – something he believes will benefit not only the dancers and the company, but also the visibility of arts in St. Louis. “While we will always remain a company with deep roots in St. Louis, we’re starting to look outside of the city to raise awareness of Big Muddy on a national level,” Enos says. “We’re also working to increase touring outside of the St. Louis metropolitan area, which will serve to further increase not only the visibility of Big Muddy, but dance in St. Louis in general.”
3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, 314-338-4058, thebigmuddydanceco.org
The Big Muddy Dance Co. Upcoming Performances
Fall Friend Raiser, Oct. 29 from 6:30 to 9 p.m., Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive
Season Kickoff, Nov. 21 at 8 p.m., Edison Theatre at Washington University, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.
Mud Tracks, Jan. 22 to 23, The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Blvd.
New Dance Horizons, Feb. 26 to 27, Touhill Performing Arts Center, 1 University Blvd.
Spring at the Sun, May 21, Sun Theater, 3625 Grandel Square
Spring to Dance, May 27 to 29, Touhill Performing Arts Center, 1 University Blvd.
The Big Muddy Ball, June 2, The Sheldon, 3648 Washington Blvd.