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Wild Space’s History Lesson

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Apr. 30, 2008
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  In 1870, immigrants from the Kaszuby region in northwestern Poland and Germany took up residence on a peninsula between the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic rivers, finding it a suitable substitute for the HelPeninsula on the Baltic coast. After digging a channel to create an isolated island, they lived for many years on this small patch of land, subsisting on the fishing industry which was not only a food source, but also made up their entire economy. By 1920, however, the city had begun to commandeer JonesIsland for use in the development of a more lucrative and industrialized harbor. Considered “squatters,” the Kaszubian and German immigrants were forced to move from the area, their presence and impact on the city largely forgotten.

  Thankfully, Wild Space Dance Company’s Artistic Director Debra Loewen brings the rich history of this vital community back to life with Map of Memories. The nine-member company, along with three guest-dancers, will perform mostly modern and contemporary work inspired in part by traditional Polish and German folk dances with a backdrop of projected authentic archival images of life at JonesIsland. The aim of the piece is to create a consciousness about the impact that those early settlers had on the city. “People will come that do not necessarily attend modern dance events and they will appreciate the history of it all. This show puts a spotlight on an under-recognized culture that is and has been part of Milwaukee’s roots,” says Loewen.

  The complicated task of documenting JonesIsland’s deep history within just a singular performance doesn’t rest entirely with Loewen and her company. Well-respected Milwaukee writer and historian John Gurda, author of The Making of Milwaukee, will engage the audience with the historical background of JonesIsland and the surrounding area. A pre-performance talk 45 minutes prior to the start of each evening show will focus on the unique transition of Jones Island from fishing village settled by immigrants to the industrial hub of Milwaukee’s harbor system that it is today.

  To showcase the island’s picturesque lifestyle in the early 1900s, Loewen employs the compositions of Fryderyk Chopin and Franz Peter Schubert, but also uses some more flighty or skittish music with a twist to reflect the good nature and vibrancy of the JonesIsland inhabitants. The stage will be covered with a drop cloth, used to give the intimate space a more expansive feel and also serving as the screen for the projected images. Though the performers don’t don traditional Polish or German dancewear, the amount of authentic Polish and German text and language used will be substantial. According to Loewen, the cultural enactment and romanticized interpretation of life at JonesIsland in Map of Memories will be a welcome homage to Milwaukee residents with Polish and German heritage. “People that attend will be able to say, ‘This is for me. This was created for me.’ Those with ties to JonesIsland can be proud that their histories and family lineage will be reflected so warmly after being such a large part of the quilt that is our city.”

 The production runs May 2-4 at Danceworks Studio Theatre.


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