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Cecly Placenti, Artistic Director

  • Writer's pictureCecly Placenti

Illuminate: Water Street Dance Milwaukee

Water Street Dance Milwaukee


June 23 and 24, 2023

The Broadway Theater Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Water Street Dance Milwaukee located in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a suburban community twenty miles north of Milwaukee, is evidence that high quality dance exists outside of major US cities. Led by Artistic Director Morgan Williams, there is something for every dance lover at a Water Street Dance performance. Blending contemporary dance with ballet, jazz and street styles, audiences are enticed with an exciting and comprehensive mix of movement performed by accomplished and capable dancers.

With the company’s latest show, Illuminate, Williams proves himself a prolific choreographer, presenting dances rich in texture and nuance. While each work is distinct, his style is evident and his knack for craftsmanship clear.

A dancer stands center stage in a side attitude with one arm over head. Several dancers surround them, kneeling with both hands together beside their faces.
Photo by Heather Mrotek

Opening the evening is Williams’ Birds of Paradise. With easy to miss references to the ballet classic Swan Lake- the four cygnets hand-holding variation for example- Williams pays homage to perhaps the most ubiquitous dance about birds while creating something all his own. Twelve dancers, bathed in placid blue light, sprawl in various ornamental poses. One dancer ripples her arms like wings causing the other dancers to stir. Their shrill bird calling, gratuitous given their avian movements, are momentarily distracting. However, as the dancers flock together, undulating their spines in unison, serenity prevails. The birds, dressed in black pants and white shirts, traverse the stage like a wave, ebbing and flowing in movements that suspend and recede. Complexity builds as dancers roll to the floor and rise again, leaving some behind to continue the choreography with slight variation. The performers continually break off into duets and trios before dissolving back into the group.

Williams' use of counterpoint between stillness and movement, between detailed phrases and small gestures- a technique also present in his other works on the program- indicate a keen eye for composition and an emerging stylistic stamp. He creates seamless transitions between groups of dancers that mirror the way flocks of birds change formation in the sky. In this way, Birds of Paradise builds in complexity over the course of its twenty-eight minutes. Starting with duets and moving into trios, quartets and sextets, Williams highlights a variety of partnerships within the larger group as shapes appear and dissolve in a continuous flow of motion. This kaleidoscopic effect adds intricacy without being overbearing. In fact, it is mesmerizing.

Birds ebbs to a moment of stillness that mimics its opening. Suddenly dancer Freddy Aguirre erupts in a flurry of quick, sharp movements, enticing the rest of the flock to take flight. Smooth, flowing choreography gives way to powerful jumps that arc across the stage as the dancers run and fling themselves into the air. When the flock gathers once again in unison and the lights begin to fade, a peaceful sense of community pervades.

Williams’ Goodbye, a World Premiere, is tender and captivating. Seven dancers sway, slowly extending their arms in gestures of greeting and parting. Their movements are so slow they are barely perceptible, and when the performers freeze mid sway it is easy to think your eyes tricked you into seeing movement at all. Dancers connecting for fleeting moments, picked up in lifts only to be immediately placed down and lifted by new partners, is another hallmark of Williams’ work, as is movement that alternates flow with interesting syncopated rhythms. As crisp movements soften and blur, Goodbye manifests the act of remembering, reminding audiences how, over time, memory elicits impressions rather than exact detail. Saturated in gorgeous amber light, the dancers perform short solos and duets in the midst of circling bodies as if lost in their own thoughts despite the busy world around them. In the end, they walk into darkness, separate and reaching for invisible hands- the end of a journey through longing and separation to finally arrive at acceptance.

A group of 12 dancers all standing with their right leg in retire position. One arm overhead. one arm to the side.
Photo by Heather Mrotek

Water Street Dance’s professional company, made up of eight core dancers, is filled out with members of their pre-professional training program to create a larger ensemble. Williams is onto something. Sustainability through training and professional opportunities for the next generation of artists could very well see Water Street Dance, established in 2019, flourish for years to come. This business model, which also allows for collaboration with accomplished choreographers from the Wisconsin area and beyond, may serve to embed Williams and his cast firmly in the Milwaukee dance community as leaders and innovators.

Guest choreographer Annie Franklin from Chicago presents Umbra, also a World Premiere, in which a trio of women reverberate and spasm as if being passed through by electrical currents. Surges of staccato movements rebound through their torsos and limbs before settling into stillness. At first in fits and starts, the performers slowly harness the force inside them and their dancing becomes bigger and more elastic. Staying close together for almost the entirety of the seven minute piece, the women engage in stretches of continuous movement punctuated by sudden isolations, as if cogs in a machine working to generate power. Dynamically performed, Franklin’s ultra-specific, sculptural hip-hop style is right at home on dancers Kata Alava, Sami Frost and Teresa Noonan and they performed her work with intensity and strength.

Fragmented, Williams’ most ambitious work on the program, lives up to its name. Divided into six sections, the work feels purposely disconnected and a three sided wooden trellis surrounding the stage gives Fragmented an ominous feel. The dancers climb on, push off and dance inside this structure that serves as both a barrier and a support. Momentary blackouts divide each section into a series of vignettes highlighting varying relationships amongst the cast of fifteen. Like the places in our minds we keep hidden from others, the dancers, dressed in all black, give the audience only shadowed glimpses into their world, which is sometimes aggressive and at others supportive. The lights fade and reappear as the dancers move, leaving the audience to wonder what it is they are kept from seeing. And why.

In one section, poet Brooklyn emerges and recites poetry about healing. Hooded and faceless dancers illustrate his verse sometimes literally, forming seats and alters with their bodies, or move abstractly to the tempo of his voice. In Fragmented’s final section, rolling mylar mirrors appear and provide the audience, and the performers, with new visual perspectives. As the mirrors are rolled around the stage in their own choreographic patterns, dancers emerge from behind them in short solos. Flawless transitions between each dancer as a mirror passes by to briefly reveal them is both enchanting and poignant. Illuminated by light and reflection, the performers assimilate the parts of themselves once in darkness.

While Williams’ and company present a compelling evening of top notch dance, four pieces that span virtually two and a half hours is a lot to digest. While not a long time frame for a four act ballet or Broadway production, watching several dance works that are thematically disconnected requires a different kind of engagement from audiences and can feel overwhelming. While Williams has room to grow as a curator, the art he makes is exciting, intelligent and not to be missed.

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