Wild Space dances downtown in elegant space
Debra Loewen’s site-specific dances are less and less about framing dancers and more and more about dancers raising awareness of spaces.
Thursday through Saturday (Jan. 27-29), Loewen, her Wild Space dancers and their audience will inhabit the Milwaukee County Historical Society, in the 1913 former Brewers’ Bank on the southwest corner of Pere Marquette Park downtown. The recently refurbished Beaux Arts beauty glows with gold leaf trim and gleams with the polished brass and steel of its vaults. Loewen’s affection for the place came through as we walked the building on Jan. 21.
“My goals are, first, to bring out the beauty of the space,” Loewen said. “I want to convey its jewel-box quality and its presence and stability. I want to reveal the architecture in the form and structure. We’ll move in ways that complement the architectural forms. Second, I want to get at the history of the place and what’s here.”
Milwaukee historian John Gurda, a regular contributor to Loewen’s projects, will give a pre-show talk at 7:15 each night for members of the audience who buy premium tickets. Beyond that, dancers will wear costumes representing different periods in the bank’s life, and oral histories Loewen recorded years ago with Milwaukeeans long since gone will provide part of the sound track.
The building is a wedge with curved corners. Its base faces Kilbourn Avenue; and it tapers toward Third Street. The former path of Plankinton Avenue, now covered by a parkland walkway, determined the shape of the bank back in the 1910s. An open main floor gives the place sweep. An elegant marble stairway roughly in the center of the main floor descends to the basement and gives the building mystery. A broad mezzanine, supported by impressive, main-floor-to-ceiling columns, runs the perimeter.
The building’s shape shaped Loewen’s design of the dance.
“We’ll surround the audience from above,” she said. “They’ll see arms and legs coming out from behind the pillars on the mezzanine.”
A distinct tile pattern defines a wide area in front of the south vault on the main floor. It suggests a stage, and Loewen isn’t fighting it. She’s bringing in benches will let the audience settle in for a series of presentational dance events meant to evoke the past, with costumes from the 1890s through the 1940s.
“That’s the History Channel part,” she joked. “We drawing on Historical Society archives that predate the bank.”
Wild Space has danced on and around abandoned smokestacks in the Menomonee Valley, in the Milwaukee Art Museum, in vacant factories, in the bottom of a dry swimming pool, at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, on a schooner in the harbor. Loewen has responded to each in a specific way.
“This is not a gritty space,” she said, of the Historical Society building. “We have to line up with the formality of the place.”
The longer she’s been in the building, the more she has appreciated its unique qualities and the more she has explored its nooks and crannies and relationship to the park and the city. In one passage, she will split the audience into four sections. Each will travel to four dance “stations,” including a dance out in the park, to be viewed through the east windows, and another in the basement vault, where the exquisite Jade Jablonski will be in period costume “at work.”
As she peered at the beautiful basement vault, Loewen marveled over what went on here, once.
“One artisan made all the vaults,” she said. “There were no digital transactions. People brought their pennies here. They could see these vaults and know their pennies were safe.”
This piece, called Past Present, runs 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World Third St. (Gurda talks at 7:15 p.m.) Tickets are $35 and $25, $20 for students and seniors; call Wild Space, 414 271-0712, or visit the company website.