There are probably places near where you live that you've never visited. Maybe you've meant to stop by but just haven't had a reason. Wild Space Dance Company, based in Milwaukee, has been introducing audiences to all sorts of hidden treasures and forgotten places for three decades. Established in 1986 by Founding Director Debra Loewen, the company is experimental and collaborative in their work, partnering with Milwaukee Public Schools, offering summer camps and residencies in neighborhoods, and supporting emerging dancers and choreographers. Their projects use movement to open up fresh perspectives about overlooked spaces and are infused with contextual details like local stories, oral histories, historical photographs and artifacts.
Wisconsin Humanities has been proud to support Wild Space's innovative work and most recently awarded a Major Grant for a project called "Everyone is Welcome." Set in Forest Home Cemetery and Arboretum in Milwaukee's diverse Southside Lincoln Village, the free public performance explored the notions of belonging, rituals, traditions, and burial customs. The dances were choreographed and performed by fifteen diverse artists representing the histories, cultures, and present-day stories of the people living there. Historian and author John Gurda began the event with some background information and then guided the audience through the cemetery to find dancers in different settings - among the statuary of Black leaders, near the mounds made by people indigenous to the area, on an island reserved for Hmong burials, in the Lady of Guadalupe gardens, and by a headstone honoring the only recorded lynching victim in the city’s history.
During this Arts & Humanities month, celebrated nationally in October and proclaimed locally by Wisconsin Governor Evers, we wanted to highlight the way Wild Space projects weave together the arts and humanities to create opportunities for community reflection, education, and inspiration.
We caught up with Dan Schuchart, artistic director at Wild Space, to learn more about the "Everyone is Welcome" project.
WH: What would you like people to know about the work that Wild Space does?
Dan: Wild Space Dance Company has been making art and building community in Wisconsin for thirty-seven years. We are most known for site-specific dances that activate unique, overlooked, or forgotten spaces with movement. Our dances take the audience on adventures through built and natural landscapes, visual art, history, and the human condition. We have a full season of events that also include more traditional performances in theaters. Our work is highly collaborative and offers opportunities for emerging artists. In addition, Wild Space also offers a wide variety of outreach and educational programming.
WH: For anyone who hasn't been to a Wild Space performance or event, what can they expect?
Dan: Be ready for anything! Although our work is generally in the contemporary dance aesthetic, each show is very different because we are responding to the location in which we are performing with all its history, context, and architectural potential. We have created dances on bridges, in parks, parking lots, museums, empty warehouses, and historical buildings (even hanging from the sides of the buildings). Often the audience will be asked to move through the site to witness different events, a bit of a walking tour. For example, at Forest Home Cemetery, we had five locations the audience moved between, each offered a new perspective and field of opportunity for the dance.
WH: What kinds of impacts do you feel came out of "Everyone is Welcome" or other projects?
Dan: A consistent impact with our site-specific dance is bringing awareness to new or overlooked locations. After a show, it is very common to hear audience members remark that they had never known about a place or always driven by without a second thought but will now return to these places. This was certainly the case at Forest Home Cemetery, which is also a beautiful arboretum, and in the summer, one of the coolest and quietest places in Milwaukee. As historian John Gurda shared in his pre-show talk, Forest Home has historically been a place for people to gather, picnic, and walk.
“Everyone is Welcome” was also part of our InSite: Choreographic Exchange Program which supports choreographers of color to create new works in underserved neighborhoods. The five choreographers for this show were able to dig into their personal and cultural past when creating. This personal exploration was then woven into the historical significance of Forest Home Cemetery, celebrating the land and people at rest. Interviews with the choreographers can be found HERE. This is our second season presenting InSite, and we hope the program continues to flourish and grow, connecting with new communities through dance.
WH: What did funding from WH allow you to do?
Dan: A mission of Wild Space Dance Company is equitable pay for artists, the choreographers, dancers and collaborators whose labor brings these works to fruition. The Wisconsin Humanities funding greatly contributed to this. In addition, we were able to commission the preeminent Milwaukee historian, John Gurda, to give a pre-show talk before each performance. Gurda presented stories from his book, Silent City: A History of Forest Home Cemetery, which was written during his time as historian-in-residence at Forest Home. The talk was wonderful, ranging from notes on the geological landscape, the prominent names buried within to the ways the cemetery has grown and been used throughout the years. The talk set a beautiful historic context for the performance.
WH: What’s on the horizon for Wild Space?
Dan: We have a full Fall season of events. A new creative process series called Choreo Kitchen will be at MARN (Milwaukee Artist Resource Network) on October 12 and November 9. Three choreographers have a single rehearsal to make a new dance in response to a box of mystery prompts. The limitations and unexpected connections become a springboard for making. The evening will also include live music. Then on November 30-December 2, we are presenting Look Again at UW-Milwaukee Mitchell Hall Studio 254. We are in the process of securing our next site-specific location for the Spring. Although we are not quite ready to announce, we can say it will be very exciting! Tickets, info, and updates are available at our website, wildspacedance.org.
WH: How can people support your work?
Dan: One of the best ways to support our work is to come to the performances and help spread the word! We are a non-profit organization, so we are always grateful for donations to support our artists and educational programming. Those interested can give through our website, wildspacedance.org/donate.
We invite you to learn more about Wisconsin Humanities grant program here!