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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

Milwaukee Dances

Danceworks teaches Milwaukee to move

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“Serendipity” is the title of the new Danceworks Performance Company opening this weekend at their user-friendly studio on North Water Street. Happy accidents certainly occur in the development of artworks and institutions, but the success of Danceworks, now in its twentieth year, seems the result of hard work by a caring team that knows the value of art and shares a passionate commitment to the well-being of others. The organization employs 86 people and serves nearly 50,000 in a range of programs.

“My parents were involved in the civil rights movement,” says Deborah Farris, Danceworks’ executive director since 2002. “My effort is to see that every individual in Milwaukee has the opportunities they deserve in life. As dancers, we understand personally what movement means. You want to share that joy that comes from living in your body.”

“When Deborah came, I felt a shift, a new vision,” says Dani Kuepper, a member of the Danceworks Performance Company since 1998 and its artistic director since 2007.

Danceworks artists choreograph and perform an eclectic collection of concerts annually. They also teach some of the nearly 100 weekly classes in ballet, modern, ballroom, hip-hop, jazz and African dance, as well as visual art and health and fitness classes. Classes for all ages are held at the company’s Downtown home, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts.

Danceworks serves another 20,000 children annually through school residencies. Dance classes are tied to specific curricula, helping students learn math, reading, writing, art and science. The driving question, Farris says, is: “How can we make someone’s life better, especially now that kids’ school opportunities have shrunk so drastically? It’s a double-edged sword—an opportunity for us but so sad!”

Another current focus is the Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap program. Several thousand children from some 43 schools now have fun with these dance forms while learning essential social skills, such as respect for the opposite gender and how to work successfully with partners and in groups. The 12-week program includes performances at each participating school and culminates in an all-day citywide competition at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in May. Students can graduate to an advanced program and dance all over town.

There’s also an inter-generational program that joins children and the elderly in visual and performing art projects at senior centers. Danceworks likewise offers visual art classes, gallery exhibitions, touring performances, summer camps and a multi-faceted laboratory program used by many community artists to test new ideas and collaborations—which returns us serendipitously to “Serendipity.”

Collaboration and experiment are fundamental to the company’s aesthetic. For “Serendipity,” Kuepper invited the regional dance community to submit choreographic proposals. From a dozen respondents, Danceworks chose Emma Draves, a UW-Milwaukee MFA grad currently with a company in Chicago, to make a dance for them. Draves fuses contemporary dance with classical Indian dance. “We chose it because it’s so unusual,” Kuepper said. “It’s lush, intricate, physically demanding and we didn’t know if we could do it.”

Potential serendipity also lies in grouping together new works choreographed separately by Danceworks artists. Teamwork with unknown results will be highlighted in the opening piece, an improvisation directed by Danceworks’ Joelle Worm. Joined by some very talented guests (Katharina Abderholden, Jessie Mae Scibek, Christina Briggs Winslow and Edward Winslow), the company dancers will improvise within agreed-upon structures, something they’ve never done before in performance.

The dependably wonderful Kuepper will contribute two premieres—a group dance based on Vivian Meier’s street photography and a solo for herself set to Strauss’ Tales from the Vienna Woods, likely to be very funny. Danceworks members Kim Johnson-Rockafellow and Liz Tesch will premiere works for the company, which also includes Melissa Anderson, Alberto Cambra, Christal Wagner and Liz Zastrow.

“You need a team,” Farris summarizes. “When you’re tired, you ‘get in the wagon,’ we say. Someone will pull you for a while. We’re all part of the story, we need each other and that’s how we view the whole community. We have to have the heart to work together. The world certainly demands it.”

“Serendipity” runs Feb. 1-10 with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m., and Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at Danceworks Studio Theatre, 1661 N. Water St. Call 414-277-8480, ext. 6025 or visit danceworksmke.org.


John Schneider teaches theater at Marquette University and is the
Shepherd’s assistant A&E editor and dance critic.