The INOVA space on the first floor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Kenilworth Building does what art galleries are supposed to do: disappear. White walls, concrete floors, high black ceilings – an über-neutral background for the objects.
But today, the art is something of a distraction. At least for Debra Loewen, the director and leading creative mind behind Wild Space Dance Company. “It’s so hard to see it clearly,” she tells me as she tries to mentally brush away the objects in the current exhibit. “I had a few hours here when it was empty, back in September, but I wish I had more time.”
It’s only a minor obstacle that doesn’t stop Loewen from seeing the space in her own particular way – as both place and stage, filled with dancers and spectators moving and looking in ways that somehow bring out the most essential qualities of the room. That is what Loewen and Wild Space do: help people see places in new ways. She has looked at Milwaukee spaces and places this way for almost three decades – parks, bank lobbies, sculpture gardens, warehouses, even a parking garage, where the “place” in question was the Milwaukee night skyline. And she has imagined bodies moving in them, two women in swirling white skirts wading through the Menomonee River, a man climbing around the smooth steel machinery of a century-old bank vault, a group encircling the base of a massive brick chimney.
Now, on this November afternoon, she is filled with ideas for her new piece, Sight Readings. “I don’t like to frontload ideas for a piece [by saying], ‘This dance is about this.’” But wheels are turning. Compared to parks and bridges, this is small, even contained. She wants to explore the idea of proximity and what it means to move in a gallery, a space where people look at things in a particular way.
She walks slowly through the space, eyes wandering, considering distances, angles, volumes and possible compositions. She peers around a corner into a dead-end nook that has collected janitorial equipment. “This could be very interesting,” she says. She sees a narrow passage and thinks about dancers disappearing and reappearing. A screening room with a small platform of theater seats; “I want to see the dancers in the seats, and the audience moving around them.” Then she stops and looks up at a massive movable wall that divides the gallery’s main space. “If only we could make this move during the performance,” she says with a sigh, “the Space Odyssey monolith coming at you.” But two forklifts would be involved, which isn’t possible in a space crowded with people.
For Loewen, there is always a push-pull
between the imagined and the impossible, an ambitious vision that is often only partially
But ultimately, those moments of crisis are part of the creative charge, the “throw all the balls in the air” moments. “Everything is going on,” she says. “Nothing is going on. Nothing makes sense. I like saying, ‘OK, what am I going to do with this?’ It’s exciting and terrifying, but that’s what it’s about.”
Loewen’s creative life seems to have always been driven by the tension between aspiration and pragmatism. She grew up near Stevens Point and started making dances in high school (in an early piece, the dancers wore garbage-can lids on their feet). After moving between several colleges, she landed at the University of Illinois, where she found a like-minded group of composers and artists. From there, she taught and led a company at the University of Delaware, continuing to work outside of traditional spaces, then spent time in South America and a year or so in New York City. In the late ’70s, New York was a hotbed of experimental dance and theater, which might seem like a perfect fit for Loewen’s sensibility. She was part of the scene, and found a mentor in postmodern dance pioneer Robert Dunn.
“I liked working in New York,” she says, “but making work there is really hard if you don’t take that traditional path. I had to reconcile the desire to make things, and the silly hoops you need to jump through to get things done. Eventually, I didn’t feel it was right for what I wanted to do.”
Which brought her to Milwaukee, where she and her company have been an essential part of the city’s creative life for nearly three decades.
“Milwaukee continually inspires me,” she says. “There’s not a lot of ‘noise’ here. And there’s a work ethic people really dig into. Coming back to it again and again is really good.”