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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

Tall Tales from the Wide Sky

Danceworks Performs Wild Stories

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Change and loss are such defining parts of the human condition that it’s impossible to imagine art without them. Dani Kuepper, fresh in her role as artistic director at Danceworks, can surely attest to this. When longtime collaborator and co-director Sarah Wilbur left for California last summer, Kuepper was nudged into new territory. She seems up to the task as she readies her upcoming solo concert, Tall Tales from the Wide Sky. Through interviews with company members and participants of Danceworks Intergenerational Multi-Arts Project (IMAP), which pairs middle-school kids with senior citizens in creative pursuits, she developed an evening-length work that blends her choreography with the sometimes truthful, sometimes wild stories she gathered.

You’re in a new role. How’s the transition going? I think it’s going as well as possible. Certainly if Sarah said tomorrow, “Hey, I want to move back,” I’d be all for it and we’d go back to our shared role. … Because I’ve got kids, and I work at UWM as well, I couldn’t take on much more, but I’ve been able to take on just the fun part, which is choreography and planning the artistic portion of it.

Has your process changed without Sarah? Definitely. But it’s my goal to always challenge myself about how I’m making work. I think some people maybe keep zoning in and try to refine one idea or one kind of style, and that’s great—maybe someday I’ll want to do that. But right now I feel like every dance I make I want to be totally different from the time before. Tall Tales from the Wide Sky is evening length, and we’re going in a lot of different directions inside that hour, but we’re going in concise places. One piggybacks the next. It travels very well within that hour. Sarah and I created pieces like that in the past, together, with short little vignettes.
But this time I’m doing it on my own.

Tell me about the story-gathering process. I’m incorporating a lot of text, taken not only from the dancers in the company, but also from community members, through the IMAP. We used Anne Bastings’ TimeSlips story-telling process, which she developed to help people with Alzheimer’s tap that creative part of their brain. The way you do it is you look at a picture that’s sort of fantastic and you say, “What’s going on?” You keep it as openended as possible. You don’t ever say something like, “Why is that woman kicking herself in the butt?” because all of a sudden you’re putting a story in there that maybe they didn’t see.

That’s our finale section, our tall tale, the fantastic story … Most of the stories seem to be of this woman with superhuman powers, or something really exciting about her. She’s going in a certain direction, she’s got a vision. I really like that this person in the picture became someone really fantastic that everyone was excited about. But there’s a lot of more-intimate stories, real stories about people’s personal lives, and that leads up to this finale.

How did you get the real stories? The other stories that the company members provided, and some of the [senior] adults, had to do with the question, “What is something that you lost?” That question provoked a lot of maybe sorrowful responses, but silly things too. There was a link, to me, with people who have memory loss. With Alzheimer’s, they’ve lost even the ability to remember that they’ve lost something. That became the link; that’s a universal question. Everyone can answer that in a million and one ways. But you can’t ask that question of people with Alzheimer’s and get a true answer. They might give you an answer—maybe it’s true, but you don’t know. It’s been a totally fun project. Sometimes you choreograph dances that you can’t stop thinking about; you can’t stop dreaming about them. I’ve been having a lot of fun, and getting lost in the process.

Tall Tales from the Wide Sky runs Jan. 25-27 at Danceworks.