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A New Frontier
Wild Space Dance Company's "Acts of Wilderness."

(photo by Matt Schwenke)

Where does Nature begin?
Or end? With culture? Technology? Civilization? Art?

Big questions, I know. Really big, abstract questions. But Wild Space Dance Company’s Acts of Wilderness—a remarkably rich stroll through Milwaukee’s newest park space—made these questions tactile, sensory and beautiful (Friday night’s pastel-tinted dusk sky helped, too).

The connections start with the setting: Three Rivers Park, a rolling path through the Menomonee River Valley that blends the city’s natural landscape with its industrial heritage and real manufacturing. One of the essential parts of  “Acts” is moving through a less-than-controlled environment. Airplanes soared overhead, locomotives moved through the adjacent rail-yard, PA-announcements from nearby factories cut into patches of silence.

Against this background, Wild Space director Debra Loewen and her dancers enacted a series of dance-theater vignettes. Glowing in the darkness thanks to Jan Kellogg and Tony Lyons’ environmental lighting, they were mysterious and ethereal in purely visual terms. But they also questioned that quintessentially American tension between wilderness and civilization.

Jose Luis and Kelly Radermacher welcomed us into the space with a dance set on the slope of a hill. Next, perched in a perfectly square frame set into a freeway buttress, Emily Zakzrewski became a moving tableau that suggested paintings of Native Americans or industrial workers—we tame The Wild through capturing it in art. On a high ridge, Angela Frederick danced with bright orange fabric rippling in the wind, a vision in the distance. As the audience walked closer, they saw a shamanistic dance that included a figure made of tree branches and bright fabric.

Joseph Pikalek enacted the pioneer spirit, perched next to a small pond with campfire blazing, he chopped wood and howled at the moon.

Next, a small pond. And darkness. Waiting for the audience to assemble in the right spot was part of the pleasure. Vague figures moved around the slope. Lights came up on the entire company surrounding the water, reflected in it. The movement, still, quiet, contemplative. Moving to the foot of a high ridge, which obscured the valley expect for the top of the Falk Corporation smokestack. There was more darkness and silence. But then one dancer appeared over the ridge, subtley backlit, ghostly. Then another. Pairs appeared and receded, trios, larger groups. A whole collection of variations, perhaps inspired by a broad horizon and a vast expanse of sky, punctuated by a single vertical column of brick.

A transition had another soloist on a ridge (Brenna Marlin), this time in blue and white, a moon to the previous scene’s orange sun—the skirt seems like a fluttering moon on the horizon, and it’s made of Tyvek, home insulation fabric, a fitting reminder of the surroundings. Opposite from Marlin, along another path, two dancers move glowing white cubes across the landscape, pattern and order slowly taking over.

If those scenes represented Loewen in her minimalist mode, she showed her expansively Romantic imagination in the final section. The audience spread across the span of the park’s westernmost bridge, and looked out onto a landscape scene right out of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romanticist that helped define the idea of The Sublime. The Menomonee River—reduced to a shallow stream—flowed gently, illuminated by two small torches. The bank sloped dramatically up into grassy ledges and small hills. A paved path curves like a tributary emptying into the stream. Dancers—now in white—moved along the ledges in twos and threes. Three fires on the horizon, along a far-off ridge, and dancers made their way down the path toward the water. Then, a distant glow on the river, as the pioneering Pikalek wades toward us pulling a small barge ablaze with a campfire. As he moves toward us, from under the bridge, directly below the audience, Mauriah Kraker and Laura Murphy slowly work their way against the current, pails in hand, collecting and pouring out water as their flowing skirts spread out over the surface like full moons. It ends with Brenna Marlin easing her way into the river as the lights fade.

For all Loewen’s and Wild Space’s environmental work I’ve seen, Acts of Wilderness struck me as the most inventive and profound. I loved how the audience moved through it, their curiosity engaged as lights rose on an event in the far distance, drawing them toward it. I loved the way it played with distance, allowing you to observe from both far and near. Mostly, though, I loved how it built on this place as it is, not as we hope it to be. It digs deep into the landscape and into the past, and explores the meanings of this little piece of the world that’s right in our backyard. 

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