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Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012

Wild Space Delivers a Tasty Performance

'Delicious' dance at Rep's Stiemke Studio

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Tastes vary. How do we acquire them? When applied to the inedible, why do we call it taste? We devour ideas, find certain behaviors indigestible. In fact and metaphor, we are what we eat and we eat what we are. Food is love, art nourishes and cooking is an art.

A driven pioneer of contemporary dance theater in Milwaukee, Debra Loewen is also a serious cook. In her newest full-length dance, Delicious (Feb. 9-11 at the Stiemke Studio), she examines both passions. Playing with the similarities between choreography and cooking, she considers the formative powers of kitchens and dinner tables, family relations, memories of taste discoveries and the bodily sensations that accompany the development of values and identities.

Loewen is the founding artistic director of Wild Space Dance Company and the newest Milwaukee Arts Board Artist of the Year, the sweetest honor our community affords a local artist. The board's grant review panel heroically pools the fee the city pays them for their work, and awards it to a Milwaukee artist of their choosing in recognition of his or her contribution to the city's cultural life. Other cities may have arts boards this noble, but I doubt it. Loewen was honored for a quarter-century of groundbreaking work in dance, an honor she unquestionably deserves.

“I'm so happy I'm not doing a retrospective,” she says of her 25th anniversary season. As always, she is moving forward, surprising the audience and posing fresh challenges for herself and the Wild Space performers.

Memory and transformation are her main themes. Comparing it to the cooking process, Loewen quotes the painter Jasper Johns on art making: “You take something, you do something to it and you do something else to it.” To cook up this performance, she followed Johns' recipe. A verbal cue, such as “hot lunch” or “secret ingredients,” might produce a gesture, image or movement phrase from her improvising company of 10 female dancers. To that, Loewen would add something and something else, creating layers of interest. “It's a slow process,” she says. “You can't be afraid. You have to stay vulnerable.”

In turning the language of hunger, thirst and satisfaction into physical poetry, the women had to abandon self-consciousness. Loewen doesn't suppress any of the meanings of words like “delicious, hot, spicy, succulent,” but when choosing musical accompaniment, she rejected every “honey pie, sugar candy” song because they strangled other associations. A funny song about tuna fish and “The Potato Chip Polka” were too scrumptious to resist.

The young women will dance against the voice of Julia Child discussing how to roast a suckling pig. A New York restaurateur driven by childhood memories to recreate her mother's food smells and a food critic's tale of a 43-course meal that “made him think” are also in the soundtrack of Loewen's dance-theater-cooking program hybrid. Dancer Yeng Vang-Strath will give her secret family recipe for the iconic Vietnamese beef noodle soup called pho within the dance.

Loewen spoke confidently about the performance, having just returned from Lawrence University in Appleton, where Delicious had a well-received preview. She'll take a step further at the Stiemke by bringing actual cooking onto the stage. Jennifer Goetzinger, a professional chef and founding member of Wild Space, will cook, feed the dancers and perform with them. The episodes fly by too fast to feed the audience as well, but several local restaurants will be there with specialties for sampling afterward. “I can't invite people to a cooking show and not feed them something,” Loewen exclaims.

Add $5 to the cover for a 7:15 p.m. pre-show cooking demonstration by chef Michelle Evans of Braise, a new restaurant using locally produced ingredients. Loewen will also discuss the choreographic process at the pre-show. The performance starts at 8 p.m. Wild Space is partnering with Hunger Task Force in its community food drive. Your gift of a nonperishable food item will include you in a drawing for a gift certificate from Braise.

For tickets,
call the box office at 414-224-9490 or visit www.wildspacedance.org.

John Schneider was the first recipient of the Milwaukee Arts Board Artist of the Year Award for his work with Theatre X and the John Schneider Orchestra. He teaches theater and dance at Marquette University and is the
Shepherd Express' assistant A&E editor.