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Wild Space’s Debra Loewen Marks Three Decades of Dance Making with ‘Wild at 30’

May. 2, 2017
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Photo Credit: Jessica Kaminski

Debra Loewen laughed when I asked her how it feels to have her Wild Space Dance Company turn 30. She invited me to quote her laughter and continued: “My God, how did this happen? The amount of work I’ve made in that time is just staggering, so in some ways, I feel like ‘Stop, Deb!’ I guess I had a drive to do it but when it’s time to look back and assess, it’s hard.”

Loewen is celebrating the anniversary with “Wild at 30,” a multifaceted show of old, new and site-specific dance theater work. Her cast includes dancers from every period of the company’s history. Founding members will recreate excerpts from early dances and newer members will present revivals and premieres. “I wanted to bring back some of the fun things,” Loewen explained, “things that I thought would work in the Next Act space, for which big dance-y things or abstract things that require you to look for complicated patterns are not suited. And it’s hard for me not to have new work in the show because this is now and people move differently and read differently onstage and think differently.” 

Loewen started making site-specific dances in college and pioneered such performances in Milwaukee. “Somebody’s got to start it, right?” she once asked me, adding half-jokingly that it was just because, as a new choreographer in town, she couldn’t afford to rent theater space. But Loewen does much more than fill interesting city sites with movement, sound and light. From Wild Space’s 1988 performance in the empty Gordon Park swimming pool to the breathtaking banquet of sights and sounds that filled Villa Terrace’s gardens last fall, her work analyzes these environments, helps us really see them and feel their history, their idiosyncrasies, the ways they represent ideas, hopes and follies. Transforms them, too; you’ll never see a site the same way once you’ve seen a Wild Space show there.

Wild at 30 will take us to places we’ve never been in Next Act Theatre and help us rethink the building’s familiar spaces by changing our relationship to them. Act One will consist of four simultaneous events in the theatre, lobby, box office, offstage hallway and rehearsal room. Each will be repeated four times with certain changes as audience groups visit each site in turn.

Loewen was especially drawn to the rehearsal room. “A lot of people don’t realize that this is where people work, audition, practice music and have meetings,” she said. She plans to set a long table with food there. “For many years, I did summer workshops out where I live in the country. We’d dance all day and then put a big spread on the table. There’s something about the communal table where ideas get started and passed around, and I definitely wanted to have David Figueroa and Jennifer Goetzinger and Tom Thoreson in that room.” The three are Wild Space founding members. A fourth, Diane VanDerhei, will join them at the Saturday performance. All are seminal Milwaukee artists who’ve played roles in the creation of our city’s current arts scene. What a treat to see them with dancers who followed in and widened the paths they carved.

Act Two will take place in the theater. It’s a revue of new work and brief excerpts from early shows, including holonoloh from the company’s debut concert in April, 1987, a short piece choreographed by founding member, Cate Deicher, who danced it with Goetzinger, who’ll dance it this time with Figueroa under Deicher’s direction. “It’s beautiful these many years later on these older bodies,” Loewen said.

Thoreson will reprise a satirical 1995 piece, Romantic Options, that’s as timely in theme today. Middle generation dancers Randy Talley and Veng Yang-Strath will revive duets with longtime Wild Space dancer/choreographer Dan Schuchart. The list of returning artists and collaborators is extensive and illustrious: among them, dancer/choreographer Mauriah Kraker with a new solo and lighting designer Jan Kellogg with a lighting event. Newcomers Maggie Seer and Nicole Spence of UWM’s dance department each have a premiere and the entire cast will perform in a partly improvised piece toward the show’s finale.

Loewen’s home was robbed last year. Among her losses were irreplaceable video records of Wild Space performances and rehearsals. “That loss was such a violation I couldn’t think about it for months,” she said. “Then I thought, well, I was not meant to be in that world. I made a decision to look at this show as a celebration, a show about memories of people, things specific to people, that we laughed about and loved. In theater, what I love most are the small things. I don’t need the big story or big context or anything fancy. I’m drawn to the humanity.”

Performances are at 8 p.m., May 4-6 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit wildspacedance.org

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