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Monday, May 13, 2013

UWM's New and Haunting Springdances...impermanence

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A lot is new this year in the UWM Peck School of the Arts Dance Department under chair Simone Ferro. It is easy to see it as a new lease on life following the period of mourning precipitated by the loss last year of several faculty members and the shocking death of the department's beloved chair Ed Burgess. Congratulations to Ferro and the department for the bright new energy and air of experiment that surrounds the department this year.

Instead of the accustomed annual showcases of faculty-student work presented under the titles Winterdances and Summerdances, the department will have presented five adventurous public concerts by the time the school year ends. We've already had FALL(ing), a collaboration with Present Music and Milwaukee Ballet, and New Dancemakers: In The Loop from the senior class. Ahead, on May 17-18, Ferne Caulker Bronson's important Sweet Grass Project will have its premiere; and on June 13-15, Summerdances - Stephan Koplowitz: Water Sight, Milwaukee, a commissioned work by the guest site-specific choreographer Koplowitz, will be performed outdoors at the North Point Water Tower and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

This weekend was Springdances...impermanence, an hour-long collection of new work by three faculty choreographers and their student dancers, all created to original music by Milwaukee's Tim Russell who performed it live.

The dancers are college students. This program was about them. The use of a studio in the Dance Department's Mitchell Hall on campus as the performance venue added to the pedagogic atmosphere. The choreographers are very accomplished, however, and the academic setting gives them freedom to experiment. In both process and result, the choreography emphasizes the life experiences of the dancers. The issues young artists face become the stuff of the performance.

I'm a fan of Russell's dynamic computer-generated scores and the way they accompany dance. I never tired of it during this show, although while it unified the concert it also had the effect of making the dances seem more similar than perhaps they really are. Conversely, each dance was indeed haunted by the program's theme of impermanence. This was one of the most intellectually rigorous and somber dance concerts I've seen. Death and change were in the air.

Maria Gillespie, founder and director on Oni Dance in Los Angeles and a new Assistant Professor of Dance at UWM, was the program's artistic director. She also choreographed the opening dance, titled "Where is together." Inspired by the photographic self-portraits of Francesca Woodman, the dancers sometimes aimed photographers' flood lights at other dancers as the paused or fell off-balance. They would clutch their throats or hold their faces, shake and seem to die and rise. Toward the end, they formed a kneeling diagonal line, which they maintained through a wonderful series of transformations. The work closed with two women dancing; one seemed to die in the last moment. I remembered that photographs are sometimes thought to "kill" their subjects by fixing them to a single moment.

Dani Kuepper's "What's the Fix?" followed. Characteristically witty with flashes of humor, the Artistic Director of Milwaukee's Danceworks Performance Company opened the piece with a group of dancers failing to hold a cheerful pose. They spoke plenty of text as the dance-drama unfolded. Broken things—lights and ankles, for example—could not be fixed. Awaited friends did not arrive. I thought of Godot, though the dancer was thinking of love. Obsession gave way to resignation. "Don't worry, it's fine, she's not coming."

"Vestiges" by visiting assistant professor Christina Briggs Winslow was also Beckett-like. Piles of white paper dress patterns littered the stage like refuse and bodies sometimes lie among them in the dim light. There was terrific partnering among the women dancers in the opening section, along with split-second timing by the lighting operator. Dancers were lifted or caught by other dancers as the dove backwards and sideways into blackouts. This often electrifying dance was exciting in its flashes of virtuosity and strength from the all-woman cast. Gradually, they dressed in the paper and ran hard and fast around the circumference of the space, over and over, first one, then many, with the paper shredding on their bodies. This was as grim a dance as I've ever seen and also, finally, breathtaking.