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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011

Wild Space: Dancing Through Time

Intriguing performance to explore the Milwaukee County Historical Society building

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“I’ve worked in construction all over downtown Milwaukee and I’ve seen this building all my life, but I’ve never set foot inside.It’s beautiful!” exclaims a middle-aged workman, the only person other than me to visit the Milwaukee County Historical Society building during that noon hour.

I was enjoying a personal tour of its newly restored interior, guided by the founding director of Wild Space Dance Company, Deb Loewen, who has devoted recent months to creating a dance concert meant to reveal and revel in the glories and eccentricities of the building, a former bank built in 1913 by Milwaukee’s famous brewing company magnates for their workers.

The polished brass doors of vaults are prominent on all three levels.Imposing, manly, powerful, they were designed and built exclusively for this “Brewers’ Bank.”

“People believed that when they put their 25 cents in the vault, it stayed there ’til they took it out again,” Loewen says, reflecting on the drastic change in the culture that is part of her subject. “The structure of this building says that this is a solid, secure place:It has strength, symmetry, weight.You feel comfortably protected.There’s some romance to it—in the amazingly articulated ceiling, for example—but no mystery.You don’t want a bank to be mysterious; that’s too confusing.”

The blue and gold carved ceiling is spectacular.Like that workman, I had always enjoyed the building’s big-windowed, ivy-covered exterior bordered by Pere Marquette Park and the Milwaukee River, but had never ventured in.

“I want everyone to take their coats off, settle in, feel comfortable and think: I can’t wait to see the next exhibit,” Loewen says. “What you can find in the library and photo archives is amazing.”

Years ago, she found a program book there from a 19-day dance marathon in Milwaukee in 1933 that inspired a Wild Space concert.In the upcoming Past Present, archival photos of the city and its people will appear on the walls.

For characters, Loewen returned to interviews she’d conducted in the 1990s with elderly Milwaukeeans about their adventures growing up in the early 20th century. Dancers will seem caught in time, the ghosts of bank workers and others, “the underpinnings of the place,” as Loewen describes them.

“The idea is to play with history,” she says. “I want to bring things from the past to the surface, but not in a linear way. It’s a dance, not an enactment.”

The audience will gaze from the main floor up at dancers on the wraparound second-floor balcony, and later from that balcony down on dancers moving through the concourse, entering and vanishing beneath them.At other times, audiences will be led in small groups to various areas of intrigue to watch dancers in vaults, in barred basement rooms, and in the snow-covered park and distant pavilion outside, viewed through giant windows in the city’s night lights.

In an unavoidable nod to the Johnny Depp movie Public Enemies, which caused some excitement in town when bits were filmed at the building, Past Present will include a little “trench coat trio” danced at the spot where the public once handed their cash to the tellers.

Loewen and her appealing dancers enchant public places by creating memorable, thought-filled performances within them.What I have enjoyed most about her work, in addition to its rich humor and emotional punch, is that in responding to a site Loewen never makes the obvious choice. I’m continually surprised.

Past Present
will be presented 8 p.m. Jan. 27-29 at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World Third St.Premium tickets include a pre-show talk about the building by Milwaukee historian John Gurda.For tickets and information, call Wild Space at 414-271-0712 or visit www.wildspacedance.org/perform.html.

John Schneider studied tap and ballet for eight years to the age of 14 before shifting to theater and writing.
A playwright, actor, director and college teacher, he still taps with his jazz-pop band, the John Schneider Orchestra.
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