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Memories of Milwaukee

Dancing about Jones Island

Apr. 22, 2009
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The first thing John Gurda wants you to know is that Jones Island was not really an island. "It was a peninsula at the end of a narrow spit of land. The only time it was an island was when they cut a new river mouth," explains the local historian, author of the acclaimed The Making ofMilwaukee. "But it was never an island like Ellis Island."

On the other hand, there was a James Monroe Jones who opened a shipyard on the peninsula in the 1850s, many years before the land that still bears his name became synonymous with the port of Milwaukee. Mr. Jones would never have imagined that a century and a half later a local dance group would choreograph the history of his island. Wild Space Dance Company's Map of Memories, which debuted last year, returns by popular demand for a second staging. Gurda will give a pre-performance talk each evening.

Part of the romance clinging like fog to Jones Island concerns a little-known group, the Kaszubians, who called the place home from the 1870s into the 1920s. Polish but with distinct costumes, customs and dialect, the Kaszubians of Jones Island were fisher folk who transplanted their village life on the Baltic Sea to Lake Michigan. The predominant inhabitants of Jones Island for many years, the Kaszubians were squatters living in shanties and making their living from the lake.

"They didn't pay taxes, so they didn't get services," Gurda says. After a while a public school teacher was ferried to the island by rowboat on weekdays to teach the children. On Sundays, the islanders took a boat across the Kinnickinnic for mass at St. Stanislaus.

With Milwaukee's Socialist Party as their defenders, the inhabitants resisted efforts by Illinois Steel to force them from their homes. But in 1914 the city of Milwaukee began condemning the land for a sewage treatment plant and an expanded harbor. "The city paid the islanders, so they were less resistant, and the city did not take the land until they actually needed it, so a few stragglers remained past the 1920s," Gurda explains. The last holdout, a saloonkeeper, was ejected in 1943 in the name of wartime port security.

Gurda is one of the stars of the show, but Map of Memories wouldn't exist if not for the interest of Wild Space's artistic director, Debra Loewen. She became fascinated by the only detailed published account, Fisherfolk of Jones Island, a 1988 Milwaukee County Historical Society book by Ruth Kriehn, an elderly dancer whom Loewen befriended several years ago. Loewen and company are no strangers to original, site-specific dance compositions for historic Milwaukee locations. Wild Space performed two separate works at Turner Hall, one at Gordon Park Pool and another at MIAD's Gas Light Building.

The photographs in the Fisherfolk book inspired Loewen as much as the text. "I was struck by the quality of movement within the limited space of the island," she says. The planks and boards covering the muddy paths between shanties suggest avenues for dance; the men's work of hauling fish onto their boats and the women's work of knitting the nets provided a vocabulary of motion.

Some dances represent particular inhabitants, such as an old couple arguing, a young lovers' pas de deux and two old sisters suspected by neighbors of being witches. "They are tiny dances, like snapshots following snapshots," Loewen says. There is much rolling and turbulence, like the waters around Jones Island.

Music is drawn largely from the repertoire of Polish 19th-and 20th-century classical composers, Chopin through Gorecki. Mozart accompanies the schoolteacher, a German woman, across the Kinnickinnic. Ambient sound collages of storms, bells and boats give rhythmic and tonal support to some of the dances. Spoken narratives in English and Polish are heard. The visuals are lifted from Fisherfolk photos and projected behind the dancers.

"People sometimes think of history as dead words on the page," Loewen says. "But it's a lively thing if you have a good way of communicating it. People do like to learn. Map of Memories offers a chance to connect with human characters in a particular place and audiences can take home something beyond just the cool moves on the breaking edges of artistic boundaries. I hope people will leave feeling that they've spent a little time on that island with those people."

Wild Space performs Map of Memories May 1-3 at Studio 1661, located at 1661 N. Water St. For tickets, call 271-0712 or check www.wildspacedance.org.

Comment on this story at expressmilwaukee.com.


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