Interview with Dani Kuepper, the Danceworks MKE Artistic Director

Danceworks MKE Artistic Director Dani Kuepper. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Danceworks MKE Artistic Director Dani Kuepper. Photo by Mark Frohna.


By Livia Peterson

Danceworks MKE is one of the seven companies participating in the No Studios inaugural dance festival this weekend. Despite the dance festival is sold out, the Friday’s reception is free and open to the public and features live streamed interviews with the companies, commencing at 7pm. With that said, I conversed with the Artistic Director Dani Kuepper and we discuss the event and more.

Let’s discuss the company.

Livia Peterson: Danceworks instructs youth and adult dance classes. How does the instructors approach teaching varying ages and dance techniques?  

Ms. Kuepper: In the Danceworks studio, our youngest student is three months old and our oldest student is in her 80s. Danceworks mission is to enhance the joy health and creativity of the Milwaukee community through dance. All of our dance instructors take that mission very seriously, regardless of the age of the students, and work to challenge and inspire every dancer at every level beginning through advanced. We hold over 90 classes per week in the studio, with a stunning variety of dance styles including ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, ballroom styles, bar fitness classes, tap and the list goes on! 

Livia Peterson: How do you approach season programming? 

Ms. Kuepper: Danceworks Performance MKE is an ensemble of professional artists with dynamically different movement training and experiences. The group maintains a commitment to celebrating the vitality and diversity of the Milwaukee arts community, creating works of physical virtuosity and ingenuity, gathered on fertile, common ground. As the Artistic Director, I am honored to envision and enact a performance season that engages audiences with versatility and authenticity.

Livia Peterson: Danceworks incorporates theatre into its performances and collaborates with local theatre companies such as Skylight Music Theater and Milwaukee Opera Theater. How do the differences between theatre and dance combine in the performances?

Ms. Kuepper: Interdisciplinary collaboration has become a trademark of Danceworks Performance Milwaukee. Open communication and generosity are absolutely necessary to ensure a successful collaboration. Mutual respect for the different ways artists create and communicate allows real growth of individual artists and artistic organizations. A commitment to the collaborative process allows us to do together what we cannot do alone. As a choreographer I have been stunned throughout my career at the amazing talent and commitment to artistic community that exists in Milwaukee. I count myself lucky to thrive as an artist in the city where I’ve developed so many meaningful relationships with artists and arts organizations.

Let's discuss the dance festival.

Livia Peterson: What can we expect from the performance? 

Ms. Kuepper: Danceworks Performance Milwaukee will be performing a structured music and dance improvisation with violinist Allen Russell and bass player Barry Clark at Dance Fest. The improvisation is reliant upon audience interaction. A few members of the audience will be asked to select 2-3 words from a stack of cards that will determine the movements and sounds that the artists perform. The improvisation may be inspired by word combinations such as SWING & FLOAT or perhaps GLIDE and POW. The audience will have the opportunity to see how these action words are interpreted by dancers and musicians. This interactive element is intended to help illustrate for the audience the relationship between sound and movement and reveal the "game" of the improvisation. 

Livia Peterson: What is the typical rehearsal time for special events such as this? 

Ms. Kuepper: Rehearsing for a performance like this requires the dancers and musicians to explore different structures to shape the arc of the work. In this case, we devised some ground rules that include the following: 1. All of the dancers will begin and end in stillness, in close proximity to one another. This helps the musicians and everyone understand when the improvisation is completed. 2. Before every improvisation, each dancer is assigned a number 1-12. As the improvisation is intended to be 12 minutes long, the number assigned has an instruction in relationship to time. For instance, if a dancer has selected the number four, they are to estimate when they feel it is four minutes into the improvisation and take their energy level up as high as they can in the fourth minute. For the remaining eight minutes of the 12 minute improvisation, they decrease the energy they are exerting until they resolve into stillness in the twelfth minute. Each dancer has a different number - or minute - assigned to them, which ensures that each will crest in energy at various times throughout the improv. How do we know what time it is when we are not wearing watches or carrying phones? Developing an internal "group clock" is a very important part of the rehearsal process. 3. Finally, we rehearse improvising using the audience interactive word cards as inspiration. We practice moving inspired by two words at a time out of the deck of cards. 

Livia Peterson: You're collaborating with Ailey II and five fellow dance companies. How does collaboration guide the choreographers and dancers? 

Ms. Kuepper: While improvising, we work to observe, listen and interact through movement and sound. Following each improvisation, we discuss what worked, what was serendipitous, and what was confusing or not as successful. To address the groups' observations, we work together to establish a new way to frame the improvisation. Sometimes that means adding more instruction to simplify and clarify the structure, or it may require that we add a wildcard element in order to ensure ingenuity in every improvisation. Our artists are highly skilled improvisers that have invested a great deal of time and energy into training their bodies technically and also exploring the ways that improvisation  expands upon this background and creates new opportunities. Sharing the concert with Alvin Ailey II and the other dynamic companies from Milwaukee is an exciting opportunity to connect in shared space and build understanding and awareness outside of our familiar circles. Danceworks is honored to be a part of this event and looks forward to developing relationships in Milwaukee and beyond!

Thank you for the lovely conversation, Dani!

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