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):

The BEATLES are coming to Milwaukee!

I am not quite sure why there is a sudden renaissance of Beatles music in Milwaukee this year and next but here are the facts!

photograph by Robert Freeman used as cover art for the Beatles first Capitol album, Meet the Beatles!

Starting tonight, the Milwaukee Ballet is presenting a live in person program in their Baumgartner Center for Dance entitled Encore (info and tickets here). One of the pieces features Trey McIntyre’s A Day in The Life, set to the music of The Beatles. Encore runs from today June 3, 2021 through June 13, 2021. Beyond the typical excitement around the ballet being back on stage…the BEATLES…insert screams here.

And as previously announced, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater will be presenting William Shakespeare’s As You Like It next February 15 to March 20, 2022 in their Quadracci Powerhouse Theater AND as the Rep warns us: “Interwoven into Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy, the production features over 20 Beatles songs performed live including “She Loves You,”“I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Let It Be.” Audiences will be rolling with laughter and singing along to some of the best songs ever written”…the Beatles…insert screams here!

So find your old Beatle boots, your Carnaby Street duds, and get your wig hat on your head…and maybe bring a few cough drops to assuage a sore throat (but unwrap them before the curtain goes up!)

The Four States of Music In Contemporary Dance

Let’s start with disclosures and disclaimers! LOL!

[This is the first time that I have gone in and edited/updated an article that has already been published. But after some on line discussions and a lot more thought, I have made a few changes to state three. I am surprised that I changed my mind because this whole article has been floating in my brain for a couple of years at least. But I think I am adding some precision to my ideas with these changes. They are minor but…]

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree…many many moons ago…in art education of the visual arts. And part of our base requirements was to take one class in each of the other art disciplines. Now being a bit reserved at the time, I wasn’t sure how to satisfy my dance requirement. I didn’t take dance theory or dance history…and was afraid to take dance in performance despite feeling that I should…I compromised and took a course in eurythmics which was a bit daring for me but very rewarding. I don’t remember much about it other that trying physical movement around a dance studio to the prof playing piano or listening to odd snippets of music or even Gregorian chant. Whether that decades old experience contributes to my thoughts here is beyond knowing.

Also, most of my actual live/life experience with dance in performance was the occasional Nutcracker. And then a major life change event opened the opportunity to attend dance concerts and I took advantage of that. Fortunately Milwaukee has a number of very talented companies performing their own contemporary works, a very decent professional ballet company, and an exciting dance program at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. I was enthralled.

Now, as I said, I have never studied dance theory or dance history. So am calling my dance experience with contemporary companies as contemporary dance. I don’t know if dance has had the movements that visual art has experienced…whether there is a period of modern or post-modern dance or dozens of ‘isms’ in the meantime. So it’s just going to be contemporary dance today!

And with no theory training…this is just an intuitive perspective article…I am just making this up! To paraphrase a paraphrase by John Cale of a quote attributed to Mark Twain and others: “I don’t know much about dance, but I like what I know”!

Now on with my meanderings: The Four States of Music in Contemporary Dance:

Our first state: we have the relationship of dance and music, just as we expect it to be. Whether classical ballet, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, The Twist, or the flailing around we did as youths to impress our partners…dance movements working in time to the music. Foot steps, spins, twists, lifts, marches across the stage all occur in sync with the music. Not only do we find this pleasing visually but since we too can feel that rhythm, it enhances our experience with the dance. It is an enthralling thing of beauty, visually, aurally, and emotionally.

And our second state: we have dance against the music. This is just as exciting and rewarding as our first state of music and dance once you get used to it. The music is just as important here but the movement, the footfalls, the spins, all seem to be filling in the spaces between the beats of the music. This is certainly disconcerting at first but once your heart and head pick up the nuance, it too is a thing of beauty. But I imagine that this is difficult to choreograph and even more difficult to perform.

The third state: this may seem obvious once you accept my premise of there being that state one and two above…and that is dance in defiance of the music. And what exactly do I mean? The dance is being performed, there is music playing, but the dance bears no apparent relationship to the music. It’s as if the music is a necessity to fill our ears and fill our expectation that dance be accompanied by music. And so it is, although the dance itself is ignoring the presence of the music entirely…or as entirely as possible. And no this isn’t just bad performance…when you focus on the performers you see their determined dance movements and sense that they aren’t at all relevant to the music…but this requires as much effort from the audience as from the dancers (well not quite). I know I have experienced this at least once…but my mind wants to say twice. It isn’t very frequent. But the fear here is you may lose the audience with this state.

(“…and that is dance in spite of the music”…is what I originally wrote. and in the comment below a friend of mine who has been involved with dance suggested ‘indifference’. I toyed with that for a while because of its elegance but threw it out and intended to keep ‘in spite’. From the comment: “…in the case of a contemporary dance concert, the choreographer selected the music specifically…for a reason…and is programming against it or around it…or in spite of it.” But after three weeks of wrestling with this, ‘indifference’ seems particularly passive…and ‘in spite’, not precise enough. So tossing around words at 2 AM while intending to sleep, the word ‘defiance’ became the defining word for me! And then I made every effort to memorize that before I succumbed to sleep so that I could recall it in the morning. YES! Defiance is the more appropriate word to describe what I sense in the third state.)

And the fourth state: An obvious remainder, dance without music. That doesn’t mean that there is no sound or no rhythm. It means the dance movements are emphasized by the sounds of footfalls, the sway of arms, the swoosh of costumes, and timely claps or slaps. Well done, this too can draw the audience into the performance because there is no actual music to feel…you lean forward to actually see the footfalls and claps and twirls in order to anticipate and appreciate the sounds. Now I have seen dance without musical accompaniment where the dancers enhance their efforts using canes or staves or other percussive devices. To me that’s a gray area and moves the dance back into the first state above…just that the music is self accompanied and not really dance without music.

So those are my four states of music in contemporary dance…is that a wrap? Well, no, not quite, there’s this little corollary:

Dancing with/to noise. Yes, music is noise but with rules and accepted sounds and expected rhythms. So maybe this noise is non-traditional music for our purposes! LOL!

So when dance is presented with noise…if the noise has a beat, wave, thrum, throb, or rhythm that is consistent or identifiable, then I suggest that we are actually in state one or two above depending on the dancers’ reaction to the noise. If we simply have an ambient noise or white noise for accompaniment, then I suggest we have state three above, dance in spite of the music.

Well, there you have it, my crazy little ruminations on music and it’s use with dance!

[original publication April 24, 2021. additional content and edits May 18, 2021]