Thoroughly Modern Milwaukee

January 29, 2008

On a given night at Danceworks in Milwaukee, you might see Elizabeth Johnson, a lush, blonde, ballet-trained mother of three, put on her heels and lingerie and turn pole-dancing into a feminist art. Dani Kuepper, the new artistic director of The Danceworks Performance Company, might do an exquisitely contemplative dance to Japanese chimes—or she might cavort in a bear suit. Or New York choreographer Seán Curran, who has made Milwaukee a second home, may drop in for a brilliant solo turn as a mustachioed, folk-dancing immigrant.


Anything can happen in this busy studio space, which accommodates an audience of about a hundred. Founded as a service organization in 1992, Danceworks has become the epicenter of a small but vibrant modern dance scene fueled by the dance department at the nearby University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The two institutions have worked together to create something from next to nothing—in a city where modern dance seems invisible to most major arts donors, and government support is near zero.


Dance has grown apace at UWM in the last five years, to the point that some non-major classes have been farmed out to Danceworks. The department has eight full-time faculty and many part-timers, most of them connected to Danceworks in one way or another. More than 50 dancers and choreographers cluster around UWM and Danceworks. They might have to wait tables now and then, but they make most of their living dancing onstage, making dances, teaching classes, working in the Danceworks office, or teaching in Danceworks’ burgeoning Mad Hot Ballroom program (based on NYC’s venture that was made famous in the 2005 movie of the same name). Mad Hot, a raging success in city and suburban public schools, is one of several Danceworks outreach efforts.


Former UWM dance chair Marcia Parsons, now an associate dean, cemented the department’s relationship with Danceworks early on. She allowed the budding Danceworks Performance Company to put on its very first show at UWM during spring break of 1996. All 10 newly minted Danceworkers had come through UWM, including artistic director Sarah Wilbur. The lanky brunette with strong technique became the prototypical Danceworker: passionate about the art, entrepreneurial in outlook, and as ready for pratfall comedy as for kinetic fireworks or arching lyricism. Wilbur left Danceworks for Los Angeles last summer after 10 years.


She left a large body of work behind and had enormous influence on UWM dancers who entered the scene during her Danceworks tenure. One such dancer is Kelly Anderson, who graduated in 2004. Wilbur cast her memorably in Unlikely Event as a sexy but borderline deranged stewardess tending to rows of styrofoam-head passengers. In the unlikely event of a water landing, she would decide which head gets mouth-to-mouth. Splashdown leads to resuscitation, love, heartbreak and wacky violence.


“When Sarah left town, she gave me all the heads,” Anderson says, “and the rights to perform Unlikely Event any time.” Anderson can play both smoldering sensuality and comic mania, and her stewardess act got both. Like many UWM grads, she’s a free spirit. In 2004 Anderson posed in a bikini made of raw steaks for posters advertising her Bad Meat bad-girl show. After the photo shoot, they had a barbecue.


“You find your own voice here,” says Janet Lilly, in her third year as dance department chair. Lilly toured the world with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for nine years prior to joining UWM in 1995. “Our mission is to show students how to revel in the art of making a dance. First we got the technical level up, then we worked to raise the creative level. Now we’re working on the theoretical and academic aspects. We want thinking dancers.”


She’s especially proud of Anderson, who lived in New York and then in Portland, Oregon, before moving back to Milwaukee. “I’m definitely a nomad, but presently I’m a resident choreographer with Danceworks,” Anderson says. “I dance in New York and I dance in Portland, so it makes sense to be in between. I realized that because so many New York choreographers come to the MFA program in Milwaukee in the summer, I could show myself to more of them here than in New York.”


In this roundabout way, a master’s program aimed at real-world dance artists in mid-career builds opportunity for UWM’s young undergrads and strengthens the Milwaukee dance scene. Graduate students—Gerald Casel, for example, now on the faculty at NYU—come to UWM for summer intensives while they maintain their careers. Casel saw Anderson in Milwaukee and hired her to dance in New York.


On the other end of the pipeline, UWM and Danceworks co-produced Casel’s New York company at Danceworks last summer. That was Casel’s MFA thesis show.


Some UWM grads going back to the mid-1980s are working together in Milwaukee. Debra Loewen, who founded her Wild Space Dance Company 21 years ago, is the dean of Milwaukee choreographers. Loewen is best known for her site-specific dances; her latest, Vanishing Line, was set in a harbor on Lake Michigan, with the dancers entering via a 77-foot sailboat.


“UWM is absolutely essential for me,” Loewen says. “I’m not so interested in the technique of the dancers they produce as in their level of curiosity. What are they reading? They encourage a curiosity about ideas there, and they give the students room to explore.”


Christal Wagner, 22 and fresh out of school, is the young powerhouse everyone is talking about just now. She grew up with toe, tap, baton, and ballroom 90 miles away in Ripon. She’s strong, tall and fast, with breathtaking amplitude. She’s also the newest member of The Danceworks Performance Company. Wagner will get her chance this season to choreograph on the company of 10, which for the first time includes two men.


“Eventually, I’ll go to New York or somewhere,” Wagner says. “But right now, I can support my career here. I’m in the Danceworks company, and I can also perform with Elizabeth Johnson.”


Johnson’s troupe Your Mother Dances, like Loewen’s Wild Space, is independent of Danceworks. But YMD benefits from the venue, support services and most of all from the high quality dancers who stay in town because of Danceworks. Wagner is staying, in part, because as a Mad Hot Ballroom instructor and a Danceworks dancer, she’ll maintain a higher standard of living in Milwaukee than she would in New York.


Danceworks wrings a lot of activity from a budget of $800,000. Donations and grants cover only a small portion of that figure. The company earns most of it through ticket sales, hall rentals, outreach activities, and studio classes.


Executive director Deborah Farris has organized Danceworks to serve other dancers as it is serving Wagner. Now Farris is scheming to create a Danceworks brand encompassing all studio, outreach, and performance activities. She wants to raise contributed income, but more than that she wants to sharpen and raise the organization’s public profile.


Farris and Kuepper, the veteran Danceworker who succeeded Sarah Wilbur, are planning multiple concert series. They envision clearly defined phases, from producing showcases to split programs and evenings devoted to one artist, to help develop local choreographers and establish their images before the public. The long-term goal is a bigger stage, a bigger house, and a bigger audience.


“We’re fortunate to have so many passionate artists here,” Farris says. “We want to value our artists and make them feel valued in our city.”

Tom Strini is classical music and dance critic for the
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and