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Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009

Wild Space Dance Company’s ‘Trace Elements’ of Milwaukee’s Past

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Nineteenth-century German Romantics anguished over the discrepancy between what the unfettered mind can imagine and the earthbound body can achieve. Physical training programs, which included rhythmic movement and gymnastics, were cultivated in an effort to bridge that gap and bring individuals closer to ideals of health, harmony, clearheadedness, freedom and courage.

The Germans who fled to Milwaukee in the mid-19th century, many of them leading voices in the failed democratic revolutions back home, also brought with them a social democratic political vision and a passionate civic activism. Their clubhouse, as historian John Gurda calls it, was Turner Hall, organized in 1853. There they ate, drank, partied, planted the seeds of Milwaukee Socialism, trained in gymnastics, danced and presented exhibitions of physical feats. These political philosophers, writers, athletes and artists gave Milwaukee an international reputation as the “German Athens” of the United States, a comparison to the birthplace of Western culture.

The haunting, surely haunted second-floor ballroom of Turner Hall has just entered a new phase as a commercial roadhouse, and now the building is the site for Deb Loewen and her Wild Space Dance Company’s newest, danced response to the physical remains (Trace Elements) of Milwaukee’s cultural past.

Loewen has created site-specific dance theater in the ballroom twice before, but this time the audience will also descend to the cavernous basement where the “turners” trained with mats, rings, ropes and trampolines. Loewen sees this as the graceful ballroom’s underbelly, a site for sweat, grit, risk and the ambition to fly free. The most striking sight in the basement today is a gigantic climbing wall, a spectacular vertical dance floor. The audience, divided into groups, will move from spot to spot while the dancers use the room’s elements in unusual ways, each gymnastic apparatus representing a kind of station in a pageant-like meditation on place and time. Then everyone will gather for a last dance in the ballroom with its own intimations of (im)mortality.

Trace Elements will be performed Friday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Sept. 19, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., at Turner Hall, 1034 N. Fourth St. Bob Teske, director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, will give a pre-show talk before each performance. Prices range from $15 to $25. A 6 p.m. fish fry is included with a $40 ticket on Friday. Seating is limited. For tickets, call (414) 271-0712 or visit www.wildspacedance.org.

This summer, choreographers Betty Salamun of DanceCircus and Roxy Kess of Xalaat Africa created a 35-minute program of combined African and modern dance for nine youngsters aged 9-17. It will be presented on Sunday, Sept. 20, at the SoHi Family Festival, south of Highland on North 27th Street.

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