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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Danceworks: A Choreographic Laboratory

Milwaukee dance company embraces its identity in 'Want or Need'

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For decades, experiments in dance have opened possibilities for other forms of theater. Today, every Milwaukee dance company routinely presents work made entirely from scratch, offering strings of world premieres that frequently test the realities of an art whose possibilities seem infinite. Dance can occupy any environment. Anything the human body does can be material. Language, media, audio and visual art are there to be used or not. Stories can be told or avoided. Contemporary dance tends to be highly personal, idiosyncratic in the best sense, process-oriented and of the moment.

Choreographer and dancer Dani Kuepper has been a member of the Danceworks Performance Company (DPC) since 1998. After taking on the artistic directorship in 2007, she has gradually transformed DPC from a collection of dancers serving the vision of a single company choreographer (and occasional outside guests) to a company of choreographers dancing one another's works and helping to realize each individual vision.

DPC has become a choreographic laboratory, a place beyond the university for serious dance-makers to practice their art. "I'm pushing willing participants to the end of the diving board," Kuepper says in our interview. DPC membership today requires a full investment in the choreographic process whether as dancer or choreographer for a given performance. Some risk-taking is made possible by the fact that the performance company is just one facet of the larger Danceworks institution, with its extensive educational and community outreach activities, but the artists have also been careful to keep the work accessible.

To close its 15th season, DPC is presenting a concert of six original works that demonstrate and further this identity. "Want or Need" is the show's provocative title.

aeb.jpgEach artist in the current company has a distinct and versatile stage presence. Along with Kuepper, the talented seasoned members are Associate Artistic Director Kim Johnson-Rockafellow, Melissa Anderson and Christal Wagner, all striking performers. Holly Keskey and Simon Eichinger have made dramatic contributions for several seasons now. Sarah Gonsiorowski and Liz Zastrow are ending strong first seasons, and 20-year-old Cameron Mathe will make his company debut.

Frequent DPC collaborator Steven Moses, a guest choreographer for this show, suggested the concert's title. An interest in Buddhism had set him thinking how the line between want and need is blurred in our consumer society (e.g., I need a minivan). The group found the thought wide enough to inspire their disparate choreographic imaginations.

Individual wants and needs were listed and compared. For Kuepper, an obvious common thread was the need for more time. This is certainly understandable for professional artists who are also teachers and, in some cases, parents. "I need more time," Kuepper says, "because of the expectations of what I want to provide." It takes time, she observes, to develop trust in the dance-making process. Often the hardest time for a person to find is the time to imagine. Toc Tic, her new dance for the full company, addresses this through impossibly fast steps.

Kuepper has choreographed more than 20 dances for DPC. "Want or Need" will include a revival of The Gate, created for DPC's 10th anniversary in 2007, when the company was all women. It was made at a difficult time in Kuepper's life. By revisiting it, she hopes to honor the changes that time brings. For her, that theme is the heart of this concert.

It's one reason the group is reviving Sarah Wilbur's 2006 dance I Before We. Wilbur was the founding artistic director and choreographer of DPC from 1997 until 2007, when Kuepper assumed the role. Deeming Wilbur's dance a company classic, Kuepper said it shows "how a change in one person affects a whole group." Wilbur has returned to remake the dance for the present company.

Three world premieres complete the program. Moses' I Have What You Need, seen in preview, is a moving duet for an emotionally entangled Kuepper and Keskey. The working title for Wagner's dance is I ____ You. In it, dancer Anderson is literally floored when she finds her lover, played by Mathe, with another woman. Sarah Gonsiorowski's Of Mindful In(At)tention is a duet for Eichinger and Keskey that explores how we communicate our wants and needs.

Performances are April 27-May 6 at Danceworks Studio Theatre, 1661 N. Water St. Call 414-277-8480 or visit www.danceworksmke.org.


John Schneider is the
Shepherd Express' assistant A&E editor, a member of Marquette University's performing arts faculty and a playwright, director, performer and musician.