A Moving Tribute

Danceworks and UWM come together to stage a performance honoring the late Ed Burgess.

When Ed Burgess died suddenly in May of 2011, the Milwaukee arts community mourned and paid tribute with several performances in the following season. And because Burgess was a performer and collaborator in several theater and dance groups in town, the tributes were many: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students and fellow faculty, the Milwaukee Repertory, Theatre Gigante.

But Janet Lilly, one of Burgess’s UWM colleagues and close friends, had to put her creative tribute on hold. Lilly, who had just accepted a job with the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, was on her way south only a few months after Burgess passed.

In 2012, Lilly created “Requiem,” her choreographic tribute to Burgess for the first anniversary of his death. She set it on students at Greensboro, even though they never met Burgess. This month, Lilly will bring “Requiem” to Milwaukee as part of the Danceworks Performance Company’s concert, Breathe. In it, Burgess’ impact on the Milwaukee dance community will be visible through the dancers, as well as the dance.

“Most of the people here were my students and Ed’s students,” Lilly says one afternoon as the company of 15 warms up. In addition to the members of Danceworks Performance Company, many of whom studied at UWM, the group includes “community members” who also studied at UWM at various times. “To start, I had people go around the room and tell what ‘vintage’ they are from,” Lilly says. “I see them still as students, like they are preserved in amber.”

But, as Lilly observed, now they are “all grown up and successful.”

Like many choreographers working today – at least those of the “postmodern” ilk – Lilly involves the dancers in the process. Here, each selected one of four verses from an 1885 collection of humorous epitaphs. The dancers then chose a short gesture for each word, and then “danced” the poem by stringing the gestures together. From there, Lilly takes over – editing, adding, subtracting, and moving the dancers on, off and around the space: “I look for intersections. I look to see if there are any gestures that look similar or connected. I look for ways to connect the dancers in space.”

This embrace of the dancers’ vocabulary seems tailor-made for a tribute to Burgess, who loved and accepted dance of every style and form. And although the raw material for the dance comes from the language of gravestones and the stuff of requiems, Lilly wanted her tribute to Burgess to be primarily about the art form to which he devoted his life.

“Ed is someone who unabashedly and unapologetically loved dance,” Lilly says. “These days, dancers question their art form all the time: Is it valid? Is it good for your body? They argue about philosophical ideas, or about traditional versus nontraditional spaces. They love this sort of thing.

“But for Ed, The Dance? He respected it for what it was. Utterly. There was no apology. I always admired and appreciated that about him. So I wanted to make a dance for dancers about dancing.”

[mark]Breathe[/mark] (March 5-7). Danceworks Performance Company. Next Act Theatre. 225 S. Water St., 414-278-0765, danceworksmke.org.

This story appears in the March, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.