Wild Space made me happy
At the end of Speaking of Happiness, the eight Wild Space dancers place hands on shoulders and form a conga line, but don’t dance a conga. They move to a relaxed, vaguely East European folk waltz, in odd little steps just technical enough to be interesting and just easy enough to look like fun.
They’re an affectionate little tribe in this vignette, the very picture of happy communal endeavor, and the feeling is contagious. Everyone seemed to be smiling as they left the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Theater Thursday — a fit ending for a show that takes a wise look at the elusive concept of happiness.
Co-choreographers Debra Loewen, Monica Rodero and Dan Schuchart argue, through movement, that it’s the little things in life that count. No soaring love duets, fancy costumes, big jumps or grand gestures here. The company, decked out in scruffy street clothes and bare feet, exposes intimate gestures and small human interactions.
The sentiments of the dance are warmth and tolerance. The stance is wry and resigned, and the approach is almost as theatrical as dancerly. The idiom is loosely athletic and involves lots of close physical contact, which was with two exceptions friendly rather than erotic.
The dancers talk quite a bit, and their faces are important, both of which are risky. These dancers remain steadfastly unaffected and never reach for pathos or a cheap laugh. They’re honest in the moment 100% of the time and because of it are funny and touching, more so as you get to know them.
Speaking of Happiness unfolds in 24 overlapping, wildly varied episodes across 80 unbroken minutes. It would be tedious to describe them all, but here is a sampler:
•Angela Frederick instructing Javier Marchán in the art of the embrace. He turns out to be a poor student (“No, no, now you’re pulling my hair…. Um, you’re standing on my foot…”). The physical aspect of this comedy routine develops into an in-place dance of exquisite awkwardness.
•Rodero and Schuchart dance slow, close duet made ever so delicate by this requirement: They must frequently exchange a cupcake without extinguishing the flame on the birthday candle that adorns it.
•The same two making out passionately while Yeng Vang-Strath calmly observes as she eats an ice-cream cone, as if she had stopped before a cage at a zoo.
•Three women keep their bottoms in their chairs as they chase the table that Schuchart and Marchán keep whisking away. It’s funny, but would a secure place at the table make them happy?
•Two women carry a litter bearing wine glasses filled with water to various levels. A third woman gently strokes the glasses to produce musical tones. As they slowly make their way across the stage, you realize that she’s playing Ode to Joy from Beethoven‘s Ninth.
•With all its theatricality, Speaking of Happiness does offer some real and beautiful dancing. Michelle diMeo‘s sinuous solo is a marvel of expressive flexibility and strength through the middle of the body. And I loved the clever way Rodero and Schuchart’s close partnering captured the speech rhythm from the airport farewell scene in Casablanca.
This subtle, ingratiating show never bowls you over. It draws you in. It is ingenious in a thousand small ways and demonstrates that little things mean a lot. They can make you happy for 80 minutes and maybe all the way home.
Wild Space will repeat Speaking of Happiness at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Stiemke, 108 E. Wells. Tickets are $25 and $20, $15 for seniors and students. Call The Rep’s box office, 414-224-9490, or visit the Wild Space website.
Click here for an interview with the three choreographers.