UWM’s Winterdances 2023: Longing Is Momentum In Disguise

For me, the Winterdances presented each year by the University of Wisconsin’s Peck School of the Arts Dance Department is a relief from the winter doldrums of February. Winterdances are performed by a variety of student dancers generally in original choreography developed by faculty members or guest choreographers. This year was no different with four very distinct pieces from UW-Milwaukee Department of Dance faculty Daniel Burkholder, Mair Culbreth, Karlies Kelley, and guest artist Kia Smith, artistic director of the South Chicago Dance Theater.

The dancers in the opening dance, Mair Culbreth’s this kind of bird flies backwards are utterly fearless. The perfect environment for Culbreth’s vision would be dancers untethered of gravity but given that impossibility, most of them performed above the stage via rope and harness. The open presented us a single dancer poised halfway up the proscenium, stage left, feet to the wall, and gracefully moving back and forth in lush motions of legs, arms, and torso. Visually mesmerizing, I held my breath in awe of the dance and a dread that she might fall. The set itself was simply the curtain and backdrop but with beautiful projections of forest scenes…primarily graceful scenes. And the dance transitioned as another solo dancer traversed the stage from one side to the other just in front of the curtain forest, repeating and recalling the graceful motions of our proscenium introduction. And then finally the curtain opens and we are presented with the entire ensemble moving from again graceful motions while suspended from the rafters…but more energetic and daring…and interacting with an apparent affection and awareness of each other. And then they also alit on the stage and added a bit more drama to their dance. All of this was accomplished against a backdrop of music (“The Three of Us” by Ben Harper, “Exit Music” (for a film) by Radiohead performed by Vitamin String Quartet, “Survival Gear” by Albert Mathias, “Wish To Continue” by Paul Westfahl) and spoken text (Train #80: The Carolinian) written by Culberth and spoken by Jeanette Winterson. This text discussed a difficult personal journey for the choreographer and a discussion on how hummingbirds fly. Our intrepid dancers here were Emma Becker, Lauren Fleury, Charlotte Reynolds, and Sami Steffen, This dance made me cry. I don’t know why. I have never cried at a dance concert before.

In a compelling tribute to migrant workers and their contributions to big projects, choreographer Karlies Kelley brings us Canal Builders, celebrating the actual builders of the Panama Canal. Playing before images and videos of the construction of the canal, our dancers bring us an evolution of sound and dance from the marching feet of workers entering the work zone to Caribbean inspired beats and dances…all driven by their own percussive efforts on the wooden boxes they carried…reminiscent of the boxes used by the laborers to carry their belongings. Decked out in work coveralls and carrying their little ‘drums’, McKenna Coartney, Giselle Leon, Miranda Parker, and Katherine Speltz, moved us through their work transitions…from hesitant co-workers to full fledged team mates in their jobs. And adding drive and flair to the sound mix, Eliana Alcocer added additional percussive effects to fill in the rhythms!

I am not sure that I would ever have expected to watch dance performed to Pink Floyd but after intermission, we were graced by Natalie Dibert, doing exactly that. Dibert performed in a very atmospheric dance using the curtain…the full stage…and smoke to bring visual life to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (Pts. 1-5) by Pink Floyd. The piece was choreographed by Daniel Burkholder in collaboration with Natalie Dibert. I hope in a future iteration will we see choreography from Dibert herself.

And our last offering was a large ensemble work presented by dancers, Emma Becker, McKenna Coartney, Natalie Dibert, Lauren Fleury, Miranda Parker, Charlotte Reynolds, Kalista Roling, Katherine Speltz, Anna Stachnik, Madison Westreich, and Rae Zimmerli to the music: “Kara-“ by Big X; “Shadow 5” by Max Richter (recomposed from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons); “Women Talking” from Pro Sound Effects Library; Vivaldi’s “Sinfonia for Strings in G Major” performed by Budapest Strings conducted by Karoly Botvay; Henri Gilles de Pusieux’s “Rachel Plorat Filios” performed by Early Music Consort of London conducted by David Munrow; “New Stuff” by Travis Lake. Choreographer Kia Smith gave us a dense and active piece that made it hard to focus on what might be the most compelling action as the dance progressed and the ensemble entered and left the stage…and performed in unison or broken into pairs or trios. This dance was an enchanting close for the concert.

One side note here…all four of these presentations were accompanied by music in one form or another. But the dancers weren’t actually responding to the music. They could have performed these works in silence…but the moods and environments being expressed wouldn’t have been felt as effectively without the music. The audience certainly needed the audio input to get the whole from the parts. If you want to read about my thoughts on dance vs. music, click here.

Extra credit reading? Here’s the program! It includes notes from the director and bios of many of those involved.

PSA: Winterdances 2023 at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts!

This is a favorite event of mine. Mid-winter break with some great dancing and inventive and challenging choreography. Details:

Winterdances 2023: Longing is Momentum in Disguise (February 2 – February 5) features four premieres where artists activate personal and collective transformation of memory and visibility with a tenderness and fierceness of being. These dances invite us to places within, where empathy and compassion create connection and where limits create worlds we want to live in. Featuring works from UW-Milwaukee Department of Dance faculty Daniel Burkholder, Mair Culbreth, Karlies Kelley, and guest artist Kia Smith, artistic director of the South Chicago Dance Theater. Sound design and percussion by Andy Miller.

Mainstage Theatre Dates/Time:
Thursday – Saturday, February 2 – 4, 2023    7:30 p.m. CT
Sunday, February 5, 2023    2:00 p.m. CT

Ticket Pricing – In Person:
General – $23
Senior/UWM Faculty & Staff – $18
Student/Youth – $12
UWM Students – $4

Ticket Pricing – Livestream:
Single – $18
Household – $33
UWM Dance Majors – $13

More information and to order tickets, click here. UWM’s Mainstage in their Fine Arts building is a very intimate space to experience live dance. I highly recommend it.

And my response to Winterdances 2022 can be found here!

UWM’s Winterdances 2022: All That You Touch You Change

Milwaukee has a robust and highly skilled dance scene in a large part because of the dance program at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts. And for me, their Winterdances program is a much anticipated highlight in a dreary month of February.

screen capture from UWM events site

This season’s presentation featured four new works by four choreographers who had something to say and a cast of dance students who were able to give voice and moment to the choreography. A side note, the first three pieces also credit the dancers with assistance in developing the works. And there wasn’t a ballet slipper in the house!

The opening dance was Weight of Inscriptions, choreographed by the department’s artistic director Maria Gillespie. The main stage theater at the UWM Fine Arts complex features a thrust stage and in this case it was configured as a large circle and the circle was completely covered with a sheet of white drawing paper. Now we are used to thinking of dancers as moving through space, controlling that space, interacting with one another, defining the space between themselves, and existing as a kinetic time based media. But in this work the focus shifts to the two dimensional as each dancer takes up charcoal and makes marks across the stage. But not just any marks…they are defined by two points of the dancers body…a pivot point such as a hip or stomach…and then the end of the hand holding the charcoal as the dancer reaches out and pivots around on the floor of the stage. It creates some rather mesmerizing arcs and circles and should remind us all of the designs we drew after being given our first compass. But the dance goes beyond even the overall drawing. The dancers area of action while drawing is limited by the lighting which expands or contracts as the dance evolves and the dancer(s) have to react within the lighted areas. This was all very effective and captivating to this member of the audience. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an opportunity to document the fluid lines on the floor at completion. But by dance end, the dancers had attracted their share of charcoal to their costumes. Performers: Sydney Bannach, Mckenzie Johnson, Grace Winkel, Rae Zimmerli. Guest Artist Performer: Cuauhtli Ramirez Castro.

And this was followed by it’s own little performance piece, albeit not a ‘dance’. Two stage hands came on to pick up and fold the circular drawing paper…to clear the deck…and prevent spilling excess charcoal on the stage. It was a slick bit of choreography in its own right and reminded me of the ground crews at the old Milwaukee County Stadium rolling up the tarp after a rain shower. Yesterday these two individuals earned their own round of applause.

Next is probably the most intriguing dance of the series, second wave of the plastic tide, choreographed by Simone Ferro. This dance has a powerful story to tell and goes all out to tell it in a very dramatic and energetic manner. The dance features six dancers in costumes that have fluttery pieces attached that reminded me of feathers. So of course the tale of Icarus comes to mind…but the energy and contrasts…would also suggest influences from African or Pre-Columbian dance or tales. The stage here included a central ramp inside the proscenium portion of the stage leading to a low platform that overlooked a mattress padded area. And in repetitions the dancers proceeded up the ramp to the platform and tried to leap off the other side while a companion held them back…until they lost their grip and the lead dancer fell to earth on the mattress. Each fallen angel then rolled aside to make way for the next Icarus and picked up a piece of detritus and found a place for it along the front of the stage. As they proceeded the front edge began to fill up with litter…and as the title suggests plastic litter and from my seat the items looked like one of the most prominent pieces of litter of our time, an Amazon Prime plastic envelope. The musical accompaniment here was live and courtesy of a number of percussion students from the UWM music department…and the intensity of the drums cleanly emphasized the intensity and dynamics of the dance. Performers: Deajah Barney, Kaylee Branshaw, Destiny Garland, Lily McClutchy, Maddie Westreich. Guest Artist Performer: Gina Laurenz.

After intermission, Equation of Motion brought the tempo down a bit and restored a sense of tranquility to the scene. Using recorded music that tended toward an ambient meadow or woodlot environ, Ashley Ray Garcia, Lauren Fleury, Maya Hirsig-Smith, Emma Meznarich, zaak Ordonez, and Cheyenne Willis brought a fluid sensibility to Anthony ‘YNOT’ Denaro’s choreography. This was a welcome break to just watch dance without feeling on edge…but don’t let me fool you…the music built up and the piece moved to a rewarding dramatic climax.

And the last piece, by choreographer Parijat Desai, is In Her Defense. Here again we are immersed in a story telling line directly involved with understanding and protecting nature. On a stage crowned with naked tree branches that are dramatically limned via colored lights, our dancers perform what might be construed as rituals or supplications around a drawing that they create on the stage. Just to the left of center stage we again find a length of drawing paper and the dancers take turns drawing lines or arcs…sometimes apparently free hand and sometimes outlines of their arm…as the drawing finally resolves into a tree. Eventually the drawing brings all of the dancers together and a physical tree branch is used to create a percussive effect while pounded on the floor and then used to crush a blue pigment on the drawing and daub it around to resemble leaves. According to the program notes, Parijat developed this piece as a part of an ongoing process to make an evening-length work called How Do I Become WE with Parijata Dance Company. And In Her Defense explores our interconnectedness with the natural world and imagines a group of warriors-people who are learning to connect with the land and training to defend Her. Performers: Ava Ferrier, Chase Gilbertson, Zoe Glise, Jessica Lueck, Miranda Parker, Libby Steckmesser, and Jasmine Uras

Unfortunately the pandemic removed one of the joys of attending live dance performances…all of the dancers wore masks (as did the audience)…so we didn’t see any added nuances or signals of intent that faces so often portray.

For more information on choreographer notes, music used, and biographies of the choreographers, and the artistic director’s statement…for the on line program: hopefully this link will survive for sometime. OR see it below (we’ll see if this works):