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Fine Arts Guide 2012
By forging new alliances, Milwaukee's artists are creating new shows. And a heady dose of audience participation.

Photo by Dan Bishop.

It's a balmy summer night in June and though Milwaukee's major arts institutions have closed for the season, there is performance aplenty. At the Danceworks studio, just down the hill from Brady Street, choreographer Petr Zahradnicek shows a work-in-progress to a small, invited audience. At the Milwaukee Art Museum, hundreds of artsy partiers fill the atrium and mill through an exhibition of French poster art. And at UW-Milwaukee’s Kenilworth Square East, choreographer Luc Vanier presents a dance work exploring the relationship of physical and emotional states of being.

But there’s something else unusual about these events. Zahradnicek’s “Love in a Time of War” started as a poem by Chad Piechocki, which was set into a soundscape by composer Seth Warren-Crow and then choreographed into a dance performance by Zahradnicek, a Milwaukee Ballet company member. The see-and-be-seen MAM crowd isn’t just looking at paintings but also watching can-can and burlesque dancing, sampling French food and wine, and creating tchotchkes at DIY craft tables. And Vanier’s “Somatophobia” is a technology wonderfest complete with projection screens, iPads, body-mounted motion sensors and a 10-foot-high samurai “robot.” Swan Lake it is not.

Welcome to the Milwaukee arts scene, 2012-13 edition.

The eclectic, genre-bending events of that summer evening will be repeated again and again over the course of the coming season. Sure, there are ballets, art shows, concerts and plays. But there is also an increasing number of “events” that defy traditional categories and boundaries. It’s a season where collaboration will create some of the most interesting and unusual art the city has seen in some time.

Collaboration, of course, happens all the time. Designers create theater settings for ballets and operas; composers create music to move a play from scene to scene;

actors and directors rely on each other to hone a dramatic moment. But artistic associations between different

kinds of artists have become more common and unorthodox. It’s not a surprising development as the arts struggle for attention in an era with an exploding number of what marketing pros call “leisure-time options.”

Last season’s production of “tango opera” Maria de Buenos Aires brought three groups together (Danceworks Performance Company, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra) as well as three core audiences. “We squeezed people in but still had to turn some away,” says Dani Kuepper, artistic director of Danceworks. “It was thrilling.”

Although it’s wonderful to fill a space, artists aren’t solely concerned with audiences. If they were, they’d produce reality television or made-for-YouTube cat videos. Rather, they want challenges. They want to grow. They want to create something fresh that engages the community and speaks about the world. And for many, collaboration offers opportunities to step outside comfort zones.

Creative collaboration, Alverno Presents’ David Ravel says, is not a brand-spanking-new phenomenon. But there’s clearly an interest in stretching out and looking beyond traditional limits. And that’s good for artists and audiences, and for Ravel, too: “It’s an interesting way for everybody to avoid taking the work for granted,” he says. “We think we know what a concert is like, what a dance show is like. We know what to expect when we go to a play. So we might not be fully present to the work.

 “An unusual combination,” Ravel continues, “makes the experience fresh for the audience and gets them to reconsider all the stuff we think we know.”

This arts season will feature several collaborations among artists, performers and organizations. Some are unusual first-time alliances, some are created by groups where unique and unusual partnerships are standard operating procedure. And some simply bring a number of talented artists to the same creative task. Their origins are as different as the projects themselves. And they should add up to an interesting and rewarding season.

Diagram the various short- and long-term relationships involving area arts orgs, and the arrows will eventually lead to Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Jill Anna Ponasik and Danceworks’ Dani Kuepper. Instrumental in producing last season’s extraordinarily memorable Maria de Buenos Aires, the two worked with UW-Milwaukee dance professor Simone Ferro and Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra director Richard Hynson to bring dancers, actors, musicians, singers and designers together for a single event – the “tango opera” by Argentine composer Ástor Piazzolla.

 “It was such a successful collaboration,” Kuepper says. “Each organization contributed independently and uniquely. It was something we each couldn’t have done alone.”

Kuepper became artistic director of Danceworks Performance Company in 2007, and since then, the group’s work and influence has spread through the community with collaborations, education programs like Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap, and a stronger overall vision of Danceworks as a collective of dancer-choreographers.

In 2008, Ponasik took on the role of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s artistic director and quickly transformed the organization from a respectable producer of small-scale traditional opera into one of the most innovative companies in Milwaukee. In the last year alone, MOT has commissioned new operas, created ingenious versions of classics like Amahl and the Night Visitors and Iolanthe, and staged cleverly themed song recitals like this season’s Guns n’ Rosenkavalier, a seemingly unholy alliance of heavy metal and classical song.

“We’re definitely going through a period of reinvention,” Ponasik says, “actively redefining what we do and looking for what people in the community need. They might say, ‘I want to write a full-length piece, but I don’t know what that is.’ Well, maybe we can have a few breakfasts and find out. Do you want to write a superhero opera? OK, we can help with that.”

For Kuepper, collaboration is about “the unexpected,” the necessity to deal with the unfamiliar. “It’s satisfying to plan a season and know that the dancers are going to be challenged in different ways. That’s what collaborative projects do.”

And they’re at it again.

Building on the success of Maria, the two will again work with Richard Hynson on a music-dance-theater piece. But the similarities end there. Composer William Walton’s Façade – an “entertainment” he created in the 1920s along with poet Edith Sitwell – is a suite of nonsense poems read with instrumental accompaniment. There are several published versions of the score and poems, and part of the challenge (and creative fun) will be shaping the elements into an evening that includes dance, music and theater.

It will certainly bring a variety of Milwaukee performers together to create something unique, and Ponasik and Kuepper are happy to be the creative glue to hold it together. “We can hunt for opportunities for people to do what they do,” Ponasik says. “And if we can provide those, we’ll have a robust artistic community in Milwaukee, and it will make the city a better place.”


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