The Whitaker Rehearsal Hall at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri St. Louis campus was filled last week with a sense of anticipation, excitement -- and a healthy dose of underlying tension.
Dancers from the Modern American Dance Company (MADCO) stretched and warmed up as choreographer Gina Patterson, MADCO Executive Director Stacy West, members of the production team, musicians for the performance and invited members of the media waited for the first complete run through of the company’s production of “Liquid Roads.”
The excitement – and tension – at the run through were certainly understandable. MADCO will present the premiere performances of “Liquid Roads” this Friday and Saturday, April 11 and 12.
But a lot more is riding on “Liquid Roads” for MADCO than two successful performances this weekend. The new show represents MADCO’s effort to place the dance company in the national spotlight.
The organization was founded in 1976 by Alcine Wiltz and Ross Winter as the Mid-America Dance Company. The group first gained national attention in the early 1980s through Winter’s “Madcracker,” a witty takeoff on the ubiquitous Nutcracker ballet.
After Ross died in a car accident in 1994, West, who had been a dancer in MADCO, was appointed artistic director. She began building the company’s repertoire by hiring guest artists to choreograph new works, renamed the group the Modern American Dance Company in 2005 to get away from being typecast as only a Midwestern troupe, and in 2007 accepted an invitation from the Touhill to be that venue’s Professional Dance Company in Residence.
The process of getting to “Liquid Roads” and the potential for national touring began almost three years ago.
“In 2011, Michael Uthoff from Dance St. Louis came to me with a new idea for a fall project that he wanted to produce every year called New Dance Horizons,” West said during a conversation at the Rehearsal Hall with Gina Patterson and myself. “He would produce a show in which Dance St. Louis would facilitate the collaboration of world-class choreographers with local dance companies. It’s very expensive for MADCO and other local companies to commission the level of choreographer we’d like to be able to be working with on a regular basis. So this was a great way to help local companies improve and create better work.
“Michael asked me if there were any choreographers out there I would really be interested in working with. And I said, yes, Gina Patterson. So Michael and I took a trip to Richmond, Va., to see a work Gina had choreographed for the Richmond Ballet. We really liked what we saw.”
Patterson, a native of Pennsylvania, began her career as a singer and dancer with the Pittsburgh Opera before focusing on dance with the Pittsburgh Ballet. After a lengthy career as a dancer – primarily with Ballet Florida and Ballet Austin in Texas – Patterson gained acclaim as a choreographer. Her works have been performed by those companies, as well as by Nashville Ballet, Dayton Ballet, BalletMet, Ballet Pacifica, Hubbard Street 2, Montana Ballet, Atlanta Ballet and others.
For Patterson, music has always been a primary component in the creation of her choreography, so when Uthoff and West emailed to ask whether she would be interested in using blues and jazz music in her work with MADCO, she jumped at the chance.
“I just love working with every type of music,” Patterson said. “And I hadn’t really worked that much with blues and jazz, so for me that was an added bonus to the project. It was something I felt I could really dig my teeth into… especially thinking of the roots of music in St. Louis.”
Patterson began researching St. Louis history and its musical traditions. And soon West put her in touch with Art Dwyer, a founding member of the Soulard Blues Band. Dwyer and the band agreed to play live for the debut performance of Patterson’s MADCO work at the New Dance Horizons Festival at the Touhill in October 2012.
Patterson began to listen to Soulard Blues Band recordings and picked out several of the band’s songs that would serve as the basis for her choreography for the new work.
“When I heard the band’s version of ‘St. James Infirmary,’ it just grabbed me and went to the depths of my soul!,” Patterson said. “I did more research, and found the song was often played at jazz funerals in New Orleans. And my grandmother had just passed away. So that New Orleans funeral tradition – which is a celebration of life first and foremost and that combines energy with sentiment -- became the focus of the show. We decided to call it ‘Second Line’.”
“Second Line” was a resounding success at its premier performances – despite the fact that the backing musicians changed five weeks before the first show. The Soulard Blues Band was booked, but the musicians connected MADCO and Brian Casserly, who used to be the lead vocalist with the band and now has Cornet Chop Suey.
Casserly, who plays trumpet and saxophone in addition to singing, hired St. Louis musicians Matt Murdick on keyboards, Joe Pastor on drums and Tony Esterly on guitar. (NOTE: For “Liquid Roads,” Eric Slaughter will replace Esterly on guitar.) The first time they actually played together live was at the tech rehearsal the afternoon of the first performance of “Second Line.”
“I had the band listen to the recordings of the five songs we were going to do, and it all worked,” Casserly said. “In fact, ‘Second Line’ was so successful that we did it quite a few more times.”
West said the demand for “Second Line” led to the idea of expanding the piece.
“The MADCO board and I had been looking for a signature piece that we could develop to launch ourselves as a national touring company,” she said. “And we decided that if we could expand ‘Second Line’ into a longer work, it could be that piece.”
The company got an $80,000 grant from the Regional Arts Commission to promote it for national touring after the premiere. Once that funding was in place, West sought out Patterson to convince her to turn “Second Line” into a larger work with the potential to tour nationally.
Patterson, West and Casserly knew from the start that “Second Line” would be included in the new show, but they needed a theme – and a name -- for the expanded piece. The decision to incorporate original music into the expanded show led to both the theme and the name – “Liquid Roads.”
The original music “allowed it to have a life of its own,” Patterson said. “I could build the story from there -- basically taking existing music and putting those pieces together to start storyboarding and blocking. Then I could go the musicians and tell them I need a song that feels like this and involves the river. Or I need a song with a train sound or about steamboats. And bit-by-bit, the music kept making the story richer. I just love this journey that it’s taken. It’s been so amazing.”
The theme of the show evolved from the musical tradition of St. Louis – and specifically the way the Mississippi River became a highway for the music as it traveled up river from New Orleans – “Liquid Roads.”
“The title song is original and has the lines ‘Generations mark my soul with half-remembered code’,” Patterson said. “That to me is the heart of the whole show. Because what it says is that everyone who came before us influenced everything we are today. There’s a real sense of generations – grandparents, parents. The work tells the story of the cultures that preceded us and the history of the city on a human level. The music came up river and influenced the culture all along the Mississippi. And it’s still influencing music and culture today.”
According to Casserly, “Gina is … doing something that is just groundbreaking – having the performers of the music live on stage. There are 28 different musical pieces. You have to reproduce the same music for every performance. But it’s performed live, so there is still leeway for wonderful improvisation and the interaction that happens between the dancers and the musicians. And you’re also interacting with the audience. But it’s a little scary. I had a dream last night that I forgot where I was in the program. And here I am today watching the first full run through!”
“Working with the musicians has been phenomenal,” Patterson said. “I live to work with dancers. And then to add musicians, I’m in dreamland! You can shift things back and forth. If I need to extend a transition for 30 seconds, we can make that work.
“With something like ‘Liquid Roads,’ you have to be really vulnerable and ask the dancers and musicians to be very vulnerable. It’s communication on a deep level. I’m excited, because they all have really given a lot and dug deep. And I know from my own experience with other productions that it’s really going to show. I can’t wait to see where it goes!”
Working to go national
West has already begun getting the word out about the show to presenting organizations and venues around the country. The company will actually present excerpts from “Liquid Roads” at regional and national booking conferences later this fall.
“Ideally, the best thing you can do is bring your group and put on a performance (at these conferences), but that’s very expensive,” West said. “MADCO has never had the money to go beyond one conference a year with just a booth. But with the grant, we can now showcase MADCO in performance. And we’re hoping that we can get MADCO and ‘Liquid Roads’ booked around the country for performances in 2015.
“Dance is my passion, and it’s also my passion to promote it in St. Louis,” she concluded. “If you think of the arts scene in St. Louis, you can name cultural organizations like the Symphony, the Opera and the Rep. But if you name a dance organization; it’s likely to be Dance St. Louis -- which is a presenter and not a dance company. It’s really my mission to change that. A city this size should really have a dance company in the national ranks -- and be in that list of great St. Louis cultural institutions. So why not MADCO?”
For more information about “Liquid Roads” and MADCO, go to: www.madcodance.com.
When: 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, April 11 & 12. Beginning at 7 p.m. as well as after the concerts, the Sidney Street Shakers band will perform. Local swing dance clubs will also offer demonstrations.
Where: Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, Touhill Performing Arts Center, UMSL
How much: $30
Advance Tickets: Available at the Touhill Ticket Office, online at www.touhill.org, or by phone at 314-516-4949.