at Link’s Hall

January 31 and February 1

It can be hell, trying to be a postmodern dancer in Milwaukee. As in the cultural deserts of other small midwestern cities, you have to find good dancers, sympathetic critics, an audience, and funding. And with so few models and colleagues, a choreographer has to make dances out of herself. It may be hard to keep your vision turned outward, to prevent the dances from becoming too personal and idiosyncratic.

Debra Loewen of the Wild Space Dance Company has managed to assemble a group of dancers that includes a couple trained in the best companies in the world, and if the press kit is any indication, the troupe has found a sympathetic critic in Milwaukee. Now Loewen is working on her vision.

The text for To the Committee is composed of extracts from Eliot Feld’s 1981 congressional testimony. Feld notes that if the Pentagon reduced the length of its 37 newest attack submarines by just one and three-quarter inches, it could continue to fund dancing at current levels. “I want you to know that it’s a matter of just inches,” Feld says. The dance itself seldom rises above agitprop to Feld’s level of imagination, despite some interesting stage business of hiding in the closets of the Link’s Hall space. Loewen’s movement palette is limited, and she establishes a dull rhythm: spurts of activity are followed by a slower pace. The dancers (David Figueroa, Heidi Heistad, Ann Mosey, Tom Thoreson, and Diane VanDerhei) bounce off each other and grab parts of their own bodies; they grab an ankle as they roll on their backs, or pull their heads off-center. The movement is introverted, referring only to the dancers’ own bodies. The dance seems to be about the difficulty of making dance: getting funding, establishing links with other people, finding an idea. It seems to be more a journal entry than a finished dance.

Loewen’s solo expands on the diary angle. Dressed in a wool cap, snow boots, and parka, Loewen drags a blanket full of firewood onstage and upends the logs about the space. She pulls off the parka and boots, revealing thin green pajamas. She then talks about a costume she once owned that had capsules of mercury sewn into it; the capsules were wired to a computer and a synthesizer, which would create a sound each time Loewen moved. Moving her shoulder in isolation, she sings sotto voce the sound the costume made. She jokes that the only thing her friends liked was hearing her play “Yankee Doodle” on it. As she weaves between the sticks of firewood, we see that the costume is the source of her idiosyncratic movement style; she moves her joints in isolation to create imagined isolated sounds. Loewen then tells about a time the computer burst into flames; she transforms the story into a stage picture of candles burning on the upended logs and on the backs of her hands. Her imagination fails her after this point; in the rest of the dance, Loewen reacts to the vast array of props onstage but cannot advance the work to a satisfactory resolution. The dramatic development is interesting, from backwoods Wisconsin (possibly her childhood?) to a dream-world present of pajamas and flickering candles, but suggests a retreat into an inner world. Her movement is interesting only as an illustration of the stories.

Loewen shows some fulfillment of the promise of her solo in Disturbing the Peace, which uses formal movement structures. A dance for two women and two men (Figueroa, Mosey, Melanie Lien Palm, and Thoreson), Disturbing the Peace starts with a trio in which two dancers cooperate briefly, then abandon each other. Loewen repeats the phrase, adding Thoreson, and we see that there was a gap in the phrase before. Loewen repeats the phrase with different dancers dropping out and the speed increasing until the dance seems to burst out of its ordained form. At the same time Loewen bursts out of the movement vocabulary, based on contact improvisation, that has constrained her other dances. The partnering becomes faster and the abandonments come quicker, as Loewen includes balletic and t’ai chi-like movements performed to sections of Jurgen Knieper’s score for Wings of Desire. The sudden intrusion of a German voice signals the end of the dance. Palm, Thoreson, and Figueroa form a line and walk toward the back wall, repeating an earlier phrase. The dance ends in a lift that suggests an imminent abandonment. Although the dance’s program notes mention Vaclav Havel, the movement ideas are more powerful than the political ideas.

A structured improvisation, Ready/Set, seemed out of place in this concert of finished works. But Wild Space regularly uses improvisation to create dances. During the rehearsal process for The Water Last, the final work on this program, the dancers improvised while Paul Gaudynski improvised synthesizer music to accompany them. The improvisation suggested a haunting melody that Gaudynski used as the basis for the score, which gives the dance a strong musical impulse. With accomplished dancing by Mosey, Thoreson, and VanDerhei and an expressive vocabulary of modern-dance movements, The Water Last was easily the best work of the concert. Despite the athleticism of the movement, the dancers capture the lethargic quality of moving through humid summer air. This is headlong dance, without politics or ideas, only strong emotion and precise movement.