Tom Strini
Where We Are Now

Wild Space Dance

By - Jul 6th, 2010 01:25 pm

Even the of best times aren’t great for modern dance, but the Wild Space Dance company, which Debra Loewen founded in 1986, appears to be hitting its stride in the worst of times.

Debra Loewen, Wild Space founder and artistic director.

“We have an unusual strategy,” said Rick Clark, managing director of Wild Space Dance Company. “These are difficult times for non-profits. We’re expanding. We asked ourselves what we could do that was new. We did some research, we expanded our board, and we got new ideas and new connections.”

Clark previously worked in administration for much larger organizations, including the Columbia City Ballet (S.C., $2 million budget) and the New Jersey Ballet ($1.8 million).

“Dollar for dollar, Wild Space is the most efficient place I’ve ever worked.”

Two years ago, Wild Space got by on about $163,000 in total income. In 2009-2010, that fell to $149,819, as contributed income dipped. But earned income rose last season. Clark expects to continue that trend in 2010-11 and sees contributed income rising as well, as a result of new initiatives. He’s projecting $175, 240, for the company, which always balances its budget and which at present carries no debt. The fall show is already covered.

The audience has grown — Wild Space sold out the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Theater for three shows in April, for example. That is partly because Loewen has found her full voice as a choreographer in recent years, and her cohort of dancers is very strong. The work has been great lately and people are taking notice.

But the company has also been more savvy in its marketing. In the past, Wild Space did its Stiemke show in December and played to 50% houses. Loewen doesn’t do holiday shows and Wild Space can’t compete against them. The move, this season, to April made a big difference at the box office. Loewen and Clark also analyzed the performing calendars of every other group in town to avoid conflicts.

Also on the earned-income side, Loewen, Clark (who is also director of wellness and physical education for the Milwaukee Turners) and company members have devised a school curriculum that focuses not only on dance but also on health and nutrition. Five schools jumped on board, which creates income for the company and work for its dancers. That has led to summer workshops. Wild Space has a long relationship with MPS; its studio and offices have been located at Lincoln Middle School of the Arts for many years.

“We went from nothing in the summer to five programs,” Loewen said.

All of this has boosted revenue and allowed Loewen to plan to add a day-to-day business manager in the fall. That would free Clark to focus on fund-raising, marketing and new initiatives and Loewen to focus on artistic matters.

Loewen has always followed her own taste and interests and she continues to do so. Her forte has been site-specific work. In addition to the aesthetics, Loewen sees community service in bringing the charm of neglected urban spaces to the public eye. The great success of her Physical Evidence, in the burned-out Turner Hall Ballroom, helped to convince the Turners’ board of its viability as a performance venue. Now, the joint is jumping year-round with indie music acts and programs by Milwaukee arts groups.

Likewise, Wild Space danced around Lake Shore State Park, a Lake Michigan wonder in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, at several warehouses, on the Holton Street Marsupial Bridge over the Milwaukee River, and at the towering, haunted chimneys at the west end of the Menomonee Valley.

This sort of thing seemed quirky and unmarketable 25 years ago, when Loewen put her dancers at the bottom of the empty Gordon Park Pool. But her eye for fascinating geographical and architectural spaces has intrigued more and more people over the years. Loewen has become an international expert on site-specific performance. She’ll be in Venice in November to run a workshop on the subject.

A shadowy Wild Space at a Third Ward warehouse earlier this year, in Loewen and Tom Bamberger’s By Accident and Necessity.

Loewen surrounds these adventures with research and historical documentation and often brings in John Gurda, the historian of all things Milwaukee, for ancillary talks. Thus she can reach beyond the dance audience to those who care about architecture, the city and its history. When she did a piece about the Polish community that settled Jones Island in the 19th century, she drew major support and audience from Polish Milwaukeeans unlikely to attend the ballet.

People with control over venues are starting to come to her. Loewen, Clark and I spoke on the patio of the Lynden Sculpture Park. Wild Space will perform there Sept. 9-11. David Uihlein, chair of the family foundation that runs the old Bradley Estate and its fabulous collection of outdoor Modernist art, sought out Loewen to help present the once barely accessible garden to a broader public.

“David knew of us because of Turner Hall,” Loewen said. “He wants people to see Lynden as a performing space. “People follow us to see where we’re going next,” Loewen said. “People will see Lynden at night, which no one ever sees, because it closes at dusk. People will love coming here.”

2010-2011 Wild Space Season

A Place for Everything, Lynden Sculpture Gardens, 2145 West Brown Deer Road, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9-11,  pre-show talk with John Gurda 6:30 p.m. Rain date: Sunday Sept. 12. With original music by Josh Schmidt.

Past Present, untold histories, Milwaukee Historical Center/Bank Building, 910 N. Old World 3rd St., 8 p.m., Jan. 27-29. Pre-show talk by John Gurda, 7:15 p.m. Wild Space will help celebrate the Milwaukee County Historical Society’s 75th anniversary and the grand re-opening of a landmark building.

How To Get From Here To There, Milwaukee Rep Stiemke Theater, 108 E.Wells St., 8 p.m., April 22-24. Loewen and dancers explore the desire to travel, in tales of journeys, wanderlust and the delight of getting lost.

Click here to purchase tickets for any Wild Space Performance, or cal 414-271-0307, or e-mail the company at

Categories: Dance

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us