Dance Notes: Debra Loewen's choreography of ideas | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Dance Notes: Debra Loewen's choreography of ideas 

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"When I was just out of college I worked with a musician, and we built this leotard that had movement-sensitive switches on it," says Debra Loewen, choreographer and artistic director of Milwaukee's Wild Space Dance Company. "It was hooked up to a computer, which was hooked up to a synthesizer. So every sound you heard, I created by my movement."

Loewen, who just turned 40, is describing one of the many stories she's "accumulated" and plans to use in the talking solo premiering this weekend at Link's Hall. Solo is one of five pieces Wild Space will perform as part of the Link's Hall Midwest Exchange Program, the brainstorm of manager Bob Eisen. "Everyone wants to get their work out of where they live, in front of a different audience," says Eisen. "But touring is expensive--now more than ever. I'm trying to create opportunities within the midwest, so people can drive and keep their costs down."

Eisen also expects the touring groups to "keep the work simple." Though Link's Hall was recently renovated, watching performances there is still a little like watching in your living room. Loewen, who usually performs in a proscenium theater, plans to rework several pieces. "The trick is to distill, not deflate them," she says. "A proscenium can absorb very full movement in space. That can get on top of you in a small space.

"One dance we'll be doing, The Water Last, is a trio with see-through costumes. My sense is that those are going to be like dressing up for the wrong party. So I am making adjustments. That dance also used film--the film was projected in front of the dancers, and it looked like they were underwater because there were all these stingrays and sea turtles. But projection won't work in this space. So my plan right now is to have everybody start the piece sopping wet--this dance is not meant to be a precious thing, I want it to be bold. We'll see what happens."

Though Loewen has shown her work at Link's Hall twice before, in the late 70s and in 1984 in a solo improv concert, this is the first time her five-year-old company will appear in Chicago. The group has on occasion done a full evening of improvisation, but there will be only one improv piece on this program, Ready/Set, which adapts musical structures to dance. "There's a section called 'Harmony in Thirds and Fifths,'" says Loewen. "We asked each other: What does proximity mean to dancers? How does it feel to be that close in harmony and then merge or pull away from harmony?"

Loewen seems constantly on the lookout for ideas to inform her dances. Another work on this program, Disturbing the Peace, is based not only on Vaclav Havel's book of the same name but on a psychological construct called the "prisoner's dilemma."

Loewen explains that in the prisoner's dilemma two people must decide whether they're going to cooperate with each other or not. "It's a way for psychologists to talk about compliant behavior, how you get someone to cooperate. A psychologist scores each individual on his or her interactions. The highest scores are given to those individuals who cooperate with each other. But if one person defects and the other is still trying to cooperate, the defector gets a higher score than the cooperator--because the cooperator's the sucker. And you both get a little lower score if you both defect.

"How do you translate those terms into movement? What does it mean to defect? It doesn't always show up in the partnering, some of it is gestural. I'd throw things out to the dancers, like "I want you to cooperate up to a point, and then I want you to change your mind.' It was very disturbing to watch this behavior--people would go to embrace, and someone would scoot out and begin to cooperate with someone else.

"At the same time I was thinking about Havel's choice to remain in prison, his choice to have a dissenting voice--the whole idea that whatever choice you make, it affects everything that happens around you. The piece ended up being very stark, which kind of surprised me. But it also succeeded, because what I did not want was this romantic homage to activists or dissidents."

The Water Last, also a "very serious" dance, was made during the gulf war. But the evolution of this piece is more elusive. "It was odd, working during a crisis like that. Here I had this opportunity, being in this warm studio with all these wonderful people that I love--it was very sad, it really affected the work. The only thing to do was to bury myself in the physical ritual, to come to terms with that relationship since I couldn't control the other stuff. I put a lot of emotion into just the movement itself. As opposed to making a statement. It was not the time to make a statement--I didn't have any words."

Also coming to Link's Hall this season are the Chicago group Jellyeye (formerly Long Bone) February 7-9, in a feature-length drum narrative called Avalanch Ranch, and works choreographed by Eisen, February 21-23. Wild Space appears tonight and tomorrow night at 8 at Link's Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield; tickets are $7. Call 281-0824 for information and reservations.

The dance world, always small, has become significantly smaller. Peter Tumbelston, who was executive director of MoMing until it closed in December 1990 and who served, among other things, as a consultant to the Dance Center of Columbia College on such projects as "Dance Africa" and "Dancing in the State," died of AIDS on Monday, January 27. All who wish to honor this limpid, optimistic man are invited to attend a memorial service on Sunday, February 2, at 7 PM at the Dance Center, 4730 N. Sheridan; call 419-8384 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Brozek.

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