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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

‘Speaking of Happiness’ Through Dance

Wild Space explores the elusive quality

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When I think of happiness, I think of my European friends deeming the quest for it as “so American.” When a character in a Theatre X play cried “I just want to be happy” on tour overseas, it was a surefire laugh line, taken by the audience as satire or a burlesque of Chekhov. Back home, the line was met with uneasy sympathy. That was in the 1980s. Recently, it’s been suggested that the traumatic events of the last decade have brought Americans closer to the experience of Europeans with their front-row seat at the arena of monstrous crimes and tragic consequences. So has the pursuit of happiness become inherently comedic here now, too? Inevitably set in quotation marks?

There’s good reason to make happiness, here and now, a subject for art, as Wild Space Dance Company is doing. Speaking of Happiness is the title of an all-new, full-length performance premiering at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Theater April 22–24. It’s team-choreographed by the impeccable founding director of Wild Space, Debra Loewen, and two talented company members, Monica Rodero and Dan Schuchart, whose skill at choreography became apparent to me in last fall’s “Performance Art Showcase” at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Rodero and Schuchart joined Wild Space eight years ago while finishing undergraduate dance degrees at UW-Milwaukee, fell in love, and became a couple. For them, life and dancing are intertwined at every level.

Although the other dancers sometimes look to Loewen as leader by habit, Rodero and Schuchart have had an equal hand in creating this work. It began with self-questioning, Rodero says. “We asked the dancers, ‘Are you happy?’ ‘What makes you happy?’ The dancers had to join the conversation, not that we have come to any consensus,” she says.

Loewen mentions that they could have taken a “populist” approach and worked, for example, from interviews with people outside the group. She says they’ve chosen the harder way by posing and answering some of their own questions about human relations and community.

The three devised scenarios for improvisation by the dancers, weighed results, made tough editing decisions, and gave sequence and shape to what excited them. Some beloved material was cut because it had no place in the final structure; other material was preserved in fleeting images, ideas that pass in seconds. On viewing a draft of the finished piece, lighting designer Jan Kellogg compared it to watching a carousel in which the figures passing in the foreground suddenly reveal themselves before vanishing around the curve.

Happiness As Obligation?

Speaking of America, Rodero, who was born in Spain, spoke of American culture’s claim on the right to be happy, and a corresponding burden of obligation to be happy. Loewen describes an experiment in which two groups listened to a recording of Stravinsky’s dissonant masterpiece The Rite of Spring. The first group was instructed to enjoy it; the second was given no instruction. The second reported a happier experience.

Speaking of the last decade, Schuchart noticed that the amount of writing about happiness has increased dramatically, confirming its growing popularity here as a theme. Some of this writing has influenced the work. For example, Daniel Gilbert’s celebrated book, Stumbling on Happiness, presents research that shows that unhappiness is far more often the result of inaction than of any actions taken in life. It’s what we don’t do that we tend to regret. It’s a compelling thought that translates well into dance: All movement is happier than none.

Schuchart pointed to a beautiful, perhaps life-changing, distinction drawn by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel Prize winner: that between “being happy in your life, and being happy about your life.” Rodero referred to research showing that happiness increases with a rise in annual income, but only up to $60,000. After that, you don’t get any happier, no matter how much you acquire. Those results seem significant. (None of us could personally verify them.)

“Happiness exists, but it’s so fluid, brief, fleeting,” Rodero says, “that it’s almost better to think of it as something else.”

Loewen notes that our experience of the present only lasts from three to seven seconds. “After that, it’s history; and the question becomes, does the memory match the experience?”