‘Blue Roses Falling’ shows Big Muddy’s digital diversity—just when it’s (almost) time to get back to live

ST. LOUIS —The return to live shows is on the horizon for the Big Muddy Dance Company, which has made the most of a global bad hand by quickly pivoting to digital and remaining steadfastly focused throughout the pandemic. The company has thus far taken two approaches to digital dance; in November, Lemp Legends was a cinematic tour through the nooks and crannies of the historic Lemp Mansion. Collide, by contrast, was filmed at the Grandel Theatre and streamed for the sake of safe, at-home viewing in January, representing a more conventional experience as if watching from the seats.

Blue Roses Falling, Big Muddy’s latest endeavor shown online March 26-29, serves as a kind of middle ground and completes the triptych of digital works presented this season. The evening-length premiere is mostly similar to Collide in approach, with a pre-performance speech recorded by Big Muddy’s leadership team seated in armchairs at the Grandel and static camera shots of the full stage. An interlude employs elegant video effects (designed by Marc Macaranas) that playfully distorts the dancers’ images. This part gets us closer than would be possible even in the cozy Grandel, zooming in so close on their bare feet that we can see sock marks and leg hair.

I might be getting ahead of myself, however that section, a slightly trippy intermezzo within artistic director Brian Enos’ latest opus, feels like the lynchpin holding the two halves of the 45-minute piece together. Another through-line: original music by Fancy Feelings, a Brooklyn-based duo comprised of Oli Chang (Animal Feelings) and Zac Colwell (Fancy Colors). The new set of tracks suits Enos’ choreographic sensibilities to a tee: moody and enigmatic in some places and downright snappy in others. The score mixes electronic sounds with recognizable instruments like piano, guitar, saxophone—is that a cow bell? Or maybe a pan flute?!?

The dance, too, vibes on feelings that are both natural and contrived. The first half is performed in white, button-down dress shirts, open and untucked from the dancers’ simple black pants. Before the intermezzo, they swap the pedestrian garb for classically dancey, long-sleeved blue biketards. The music feels deeply inspirational here, informing hip shifts and shoulder pulses when a beat occasionally drops and smooth, silky solos and group canons characteristic of most of Enos’ abstract works when the music is more atmospheric.

Yet his musicality is sometimes a mystery to me. Because Fancy Feelings’ score is an album, each track has a short pause before the next one starts. There’s an ever-changing sensation that is often reflected in the tempo and timbre of each dancer’s mood, but the thing comes across more like a sketchbook of musings than a cohesive whole. A long stretch of blue fabric makes a brief appearance, gorgeously enveloping a dancer and two partners, only to be haphazardly discarded at the back of the stage and never seen again. Fleeting partnerships and trios are delightful as they’re happening, but do little to bond me to these dancers or give a sense of who these figures are and why they’re dancing together.

Maybe it’s digital fatigue, but what this virtual premiere of Blue Roses Falling did best, for me, was serve as a scrumptious placeholder while we await the return to live performances. It’s coming soon, with the rescheduled Lemp Legends appearing on site at Lemp Mansion April 21-23. Blue Roses Falling will also be revisited for an in-person, one-night-only performance at the Big Top on May 22. Can Big Muddy recreate the saliency of those sock marks from hundreds of feet away in a circus tent? I don’t know. I’ll be curious to see what of this company’s choice digital experiments can be maintained in a new-again live arena, such a vastly different vantage point than the 13″ MacBook on which I’ve watched most dance this year. One thing’s for sure: I can’t wait to find out.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance dance critic, contributing to the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine. She is senior editor of See Chicago Dance. Lauren covers dance across the Midwest and writes regularly for Dance Magazine and Pointe with additional bylines in Milwaukee Magazine, St. Louis Magazine and Dance Teacher. Forthcoming publications include essays on ballet training in Chicago (University of Illinois Press) and Shirley Mordine (University of Akron Press). In 2020, Lauren published an opinion piece on the impact of COVID-19 on the arts in the South African journal Agenda. Lauren holds degrees in dance and kinesiology and has presented research on dance training practices at the National Dance Education Organization and the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. She has co-facilitated critical dance writing intensives in Chicago and Durban, South Africa, and participated in writing residencies at the National Center for Choreography, Bates Dance Festival and JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Lauren teaches dance history and kinesiology for dancers, with part-time appointments at Loyola University Chicago and Illinois Wesleyan University.