Tom Strini
State of the Milwaukee Arts


Danceworks keeps growing, as joy trumps recession.

By - Aug 9th, 2012 10:06 pm

Danceworks’ Mad Hot Ballroom Competition 2012. TCD photo by Brian Jacobson.

The mission of Danceworks is to enhance the joy, health and creativity of the community through performances, classes and outreach activities integrating dance and other art forms.

“Remember all the hours we put into that mission statement, back in 2005?” Deborah Farris, Danceworks executive director, asked. She directed the question to artistic director Dani Kuepper, who joined her in a state-of-the-Milwaukee-arts interview. Kuepper nodded and Farris continued:


Deborah Farris

“Some people had a problem with the word ‘joy,’ it was too much, over the top. But that’s what we do. We bring joy. Just think about our city, think about Mad Hot Ballroom, all of those kids, teachers and principals dancing. People who never thought they could dance are dancing and finding out they’re good at it. Our city is dancing. We’re fulfilling our mission.”

The Mad Hot program brings ballroom into 50 schools, most of them Milwaukee Public Schools. Mad Hot has been fabulously successful for everyone involved, as has Danceworks’ Intergenerational Dance Project, which gets seniors up and dancing, with school kids in the mix. Danceworks, though non-profit, earns an uncommonly high percentage of its income. A full slate of classes in its studios, at 1661 N. Water St., adds a lot. They teach everything from ballet to hip-hop and welcome everyone from adult beginners to professionals.

The revenue target for classes in fiscal 2011, which ends Aug. 30, was $290,000. Danceworks actually took in $360,000.

“That’s encouraging, given the difficulties with contributed income,” Ferris said.

Contributions do come in, though, and help meet a $1.15 million budget. Danceworks has grown very rapidly; five years ago, its budget was $300,000. The organization expects to finish the year with a surplus in the $6,000-$10,000 range, which will be its fifth straight year in the black.

“We on something of a plateau,” said Farris, Danceworks’ executive in 2002 (the company recently celebrated its 15th birthday). “Now we’re about sustainability. But we still haven’t found our sweet spot. Demand far exceeds supply, but we must be smart about growing to meet that demand.”

Christal Wagner Matt Haas-danceworks

Christal Wagner, in “Maria de Buenos Aires.” Matt Haas photo for Danceworks.

Dance fitness is the new piece this year on the class and revenue side. Farris thinks that people will show up for a “dance fitness” class who wouldn’t think of joining a “modern dance” class, though the two might have more in common than you’d think. Danceworks will also offer a voucher plan, so dancers can prepay for classes and go when they can, rather than be tied to, say, every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m.

“We’re trying to make it broad,” Farris said. “That’s the key to our sustainability. We don’t want to live in a narrow tunnel.”

The classes, Mad Hot, Intergenerational and a menu of more traditional school residency and outreach pay the rent and give area dancers employment. It beats waiting tables, and helps knit a close dance community in Milwaukee. Danceworks and the UWM dance program, which work together closely, are the two centers of the vibrant Milwaukee dance scene. (The Milwaukee Ballet, once insular, is entering the circle, but that’s another story.)

The Danceworks Performance Company is the most public band in Danceworks’ broad spectrum of activity. The company is both entertaining and daring, and the skill level has been very high for quite a long time, now. Some dancers have been with DPC almost since the beginning — Kuepper joined in 1998. But the company has a nice mix of veterans, mid-careers and young dancers straight out of school (mostly UWM). Danceworks, by the way, usually gets the cream of the crop — its mix of activities makes it possible for dancers to actually make a living in their chosen field. DPC also gives its members ample opportunity to develop as choreographers.

Kuepper presides over DPC and creates many of the company’s dances. She listened to the financial talk with interest. Farris noted that the bottom line for fiscal 2011 included something many groups don’t like to report: depreciation.


Dani Kuepper

“That’s me,” Kuepper deadpanned. “My body depreciates in value every year.”

Danceworks will not be able to write off the body of this spectacularly athletic mother of four for some time. (During the interview, 3-year-old Rita climbed onto her lap and said, “Mommy I want to dance.” Kuepper told Rita to find an empty room and go for it.) She’ll be dancing a great deal, as always, on the DPC 2012-13 season.

Kuepper said that she’s thinking more and more about collaboration not only with other companies around town, but also with independents.

“The concert with De Facto this summer opened the doors,” she said. “We’ve sent out an open call for choreography from the community for our Serendipity concert in February.”

In April, DPC, the Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra will get together for their collaboration centered on William Walton’s Façade, a setting of poems by Edith Sitwell. This is the second time around for these groups; they did Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires together last season.

DPC’s repertoire, almost all of it created for the company, ranges from intimate tragedies to virtuosic abstract dances to outrageous burlesques to pop-culture riffs. They like to laugh, and will in What’s So Funny? which opens the season in late September. Five local actor/comedians will supplement the 10 dancers. Dancers will sing and tell jokes as well as dance, and the comics will dance and sing in addition to telling jokes.

“It will be a lot of fun — and very marketable,” Kuepper said.

DPC shows almost always sell out the company’s studio theater, but the space seats only about 100 and Farris wants to keep ticket prices low. So the level of income is out of proportion with the quality of the output. They’re doing more performances this year, to get the most out of the demand, especially with the comedy show. And Farris sees ample opportunity for underwriting of these concerts as an avenue to donated dollars, which have proven elusive.


A dance fitness class at Danceworks.

I’m sure that Farris will point out that giving is a joy. And what’s more central to the mission than that?

For season details and to subscribe, visit the Danceworks website.

Note that three shows remain on the DanceLab summer series: The Pursuit of Tappyness, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 10-12;  Art to Art, in which choreographers pair up with artists from other fields, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17-19; and Steamroller, an outdoor, family-oriented, participatory event involving dance and visual art, day-long on Saturday, Aug. 15.

Previously on State of the Milwaukee Arts: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Milwaukee Ballet, Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Florentine Opera.

Don’t miss anything! Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s TCD Guide to the 2012-13 Performing Arts to keep track of Danceworks and all of Milwaukee’s groups. Sponsored by the Florentine Opera.















Categories: A/C Feature 1, Dance

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