We love the arts here in St. Louis, from fine art, to music, to live theatre, and more. We also love to experience the arts for free. This is evidenced by the fact that, next to Washington D.C., St. Louis offers more free major attractions than anywhere else in the nation, including the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center, Laumeier Sculpture Park, and a whole host of other cultural attractions.
Our coastal brethren may write us off as an arts-centric city; but here in the heartland, we know that can’t be farther from the truth as residents gather each summer to celebrate theatre at our beloved MUNY, or listen to the sounds of the St. Louis Symphony in Forest Park. Our flourishing arts industry is experiencing something akin to a renaissance, with innovative partnerships and productions, such as this past summer’s opera in jazz, Fire Shut Up In My Bones, co-commissioned by Opera Theatre St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis.
This October, the city’s love and support for the arts will produce yet another provocative performance in Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder. A partnership between Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Nine Network of Public Media, and Jazz St. Louis, with support from Alison and John Ferring, Terry & Sally Schnuck, and Garden View Care Centers, the “more-abstract-than-a-musical” experience will surely add to the richness of the St. Louis arts scene, and will represent one of the largest, if not the largest, partnerships of its kind in St. Louis history.
“What I’ve seen in the last ten years or so is that local donors and patrons have really stepped up to support the arts through funding, donating the space or venue for performances, and making sure the arts are accessible to everybody, not just a select few,” Erin Warner Prange explains. Prange, a retired dancer and current Executive Director of The Big Muddy Dance Company, says that the rising and generous support from private and corporate donors has nurtured an environment ripe for interesting and cutting-edge collaborations, resulting in a healthier arts community and culture for the St. Louis region.
It was this creative energy that Tom Ridgely felt when he arrived to St. Louis a year ago from New York to helm Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. He describes it as a desire for investing in “St. Louis-made.” Leveraging this energy for inspiration, Ridgely stumbled upon a YouTube video of Such Sweet Thunder, circa 1960. “The dancing in the video is kind of silly and dated, but the music is so captivating. There is this great potential for bringing different audiences together to experience something creative together,” Ridgely says. He began asking around to identify potential dance and music partners, and thus was born the exciting collaboration. Nine Network soon jumped on board as the media and technology partner to round out the eclectic ensemble.
That Duke Ellington would be inspired by Shakespeare is serendipitous. In 1956, while on tour with his orchestra in Canada, Ellington encountered the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which was occurring simultaneously. After conversations with festival organizers, Ellington announced his next album would be a conceptual project paying homage to the famous playwright’s works. Along with his longtime composer/arranger, Billy Strayhorn, the duo immersed themselves in Shakespeare. The project, consisting of twelve parts, was composed and recorded over a three-week period, and features St. Louis native, Clark Terry, a member of Ellington’s orchestra at the time. The 1957 debut performance was hailed by coast-to-coast audiences, and the album is included in NPR’s Basic Jazz Library.
Ridgely’s hope for this production is that audiences leave with a new-found appreciation for Shakespeare and Ellington, who have long left us. “What’s great about Such Sweet Thunder is Shakespeare inspired Ellington to create something that honors and presents Shakespearean work in an entirely new format. It invites us to discover fresh ways to keep these creators relevant in our lives because the stories and music still resonate today. This will be truly a unique experience that is St. Louis-made.”
“In that way, it’s also special because the project is bringing together four vastly different organizations, exposing four different audiences to something they might never have experienced, and potentially discovering an interest in a new artform,” adds Prange. For the collaborators, the journey has offered valuable insight and learning opportunities, making each organization stronger.
Such Sweet Thunder, which features 2 actors (Ron Himes of the Black Rep., and Rayme Cornell of Webster Conservatory), a full company of dancers, a 15-piece band, and video technology, will be directed by Bruce Longworth, acclaimed director of Shakespeare in the Park, and choreographed by Dexandro Montalvo, who has choreographed for Robert Moses’ Kin Dance Company, The Black Eyed Peas, and DanceWorks Chicago, among others.
Longworth’s adaptation tells a moving and timeless love story between two characters, who are an amalgamation of some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. The performances will take place in the state-of-the-art Public Media Commons October 3-5 at 8 P.M. While shows are free to attend, registration is encouraged, and guests are invited to bring lawn chairs and blankets. Light snacks and beverages will also be available for purchase.
What: Such Sweet Thunder
Where: Public Media Commons in the Grand Center Arts District
3656 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63108
When: October 3-5 at 8 PM
Cost: Free, registration is encouraged