Wild Space Dance’s ‘Map of Memories’ sheds light on a disbanded Milwaukee community

By - May 2nd, 2009 02:16 pm


My grandfather John was born on Jones Island in 1907 along the shore of Lake Michigan. He was a fisherman, as were most residents of Jones Island.  Back in the early 1900s, the marshy and densely forested island was a burgeoning and bustling fishing village adjacent to downtown Milwaukee. Settled by Kaszubian (people from a Slavic region of north-central Poland) and German immigrants some 30 years earlier, it was home to many families and at one time supported as many as sixteen hundred people. Residents of Jones Island had a reputation for being the wild ones of the community. Indeed, my parents once related to me that upon hearing my grandmother was going on date with a ‘Konkel’, my great-grandparents cried, “Oh no!  A Kaszub!”

The Jones Islanders were a part of Milwaukee, but also retained their own identity. The island supported businesses (taverns mostly),  women and men worked there, and children were taught there. The islanders did not pay any city taxes and eventually were regarded as squatters. They were progressively evicted to make way for the city’s industrialization needs. Today Jones Island is home to Milwaukee’s sewerage treatment plant and the Port of Milwaukee. My grandfather, John Konkel, died before I was born and I can only wonder what he would have thought about Wild Space Dance Company‘s energetic interpretation of what life on the island was like.

Map of Memories is not only an enthralling 90-minute kinetic display of beautiful sinewy human motion but also history lesson. A performance event features a fascinating pre-show talk by Milwaukee Historian John Gurda about the origins of Jones Island, its inhabitants, and its eventual change into its support for modern industry.

Jones Island, it turns out, was never an island. It was a peninsula about a mile long and a quarter-mile wide, sculpted by the waters on either side. Gurda describes the island as a dangerous paradise for the fishing villagers.  He clarifies that they were a part of Milwaukee but also lived their own lives on their own terms. Ice flows were common rides for kids and the surrounding water a cause of death for many. The present island is now what could be called “made land,” created by spoil-dredge and other debris dragged up from under the water.

The dances you see in Map of Memories were inspired from stories collected in a book called The Fisherfolk of Jones Island. Voice-over and projected slides provide lines of story connecting the dots of dance. Sometimes just the sound of pencil markings on paper, or water, or the sound of wind provide the accompanying music.

Some interpretive sections of the performance are obvious in their narrative, for instance, a section called “Miss Flanders and the Ferryman,” about a school teacher enthusiastically, if sternly, teaching her class, another about courtship, and one about what the residents did when there was no fishing. Other pieces, titled “Missing” and “Undertow” are more nebulous. Intriguing, twisting, and turning female dancers keep our eyes peeled and engaged. But what is the relationship? Are they mother and daughter? Two sisters? Friends? It’s not clear, but the beauty of the morphing interwoven body sculptures ensures that we’re always entertained. The movement throughout Map of Memories, both fine and sweeping, is done with such finesse that it mesmerizes you into a mindful appreciation.

I can’t say what my grandfather would feel, but if he was anything like me then I believe he would find it a captivating piece of entertainment. The fishing village of Jones Island was unique to Milwaukee’s history, and it’s nice to know it’s long from forgotten. As John Gurda put it, the story of Jones Island — from native inhabitants to modern industrialization, is the story of Milwaukee.

Wild Space Dance Company and Map of Memories is under the artistic direction of Debra Loewen. Company members include: Angela Frederick, Jade Jablonski, Laura Murphy, Monica Rodero, Dan Schuchart, Katie Sopoci and Randy Talley. Guest dancers: Dylan Baker, Cassie Motta, Beth Mueller, Javier Marchan and Tom Thoreson. Map of Memories continues through May 3rd at Studio 1661, with shows at 4:30 and 8:00 on Saturday, and at 2:30 and 8:00 on Sunday. John Gurda’s pre-show talk can be seen for a premium ticket price. Contact: 414.271.0307 or visit the Wildspace website.

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