By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Apr 13, 2005 at 5:26 AM

{image1} The City of Milwaukee and Debra Loewen have a great relationship. As the founder and artistic director for Wild Space Dance Company, she supplies Milwaukee with innovative, artistic contemporary dance performances. In return, the city acts as her muse, providing performance spaces so filled with character, you could hear them speak if you were actually listening. Well, Loewen was listening. Whether it's the Milwaukee Gas Light Building, Turner Ballroom or the Milwaukee Art Museum, she is gifted with the ability to make any space her own.

Her site-specific dance events are one way she sparks local interest in her work. She ties her pieces into the city we know and the buildings we love. For the past 18 years Loewen and Wild Space have had a challenging yet focused mission: to expand the audience for contemporary dance. Though there's little competition for this kind of thing here, she's got her work cut out for her.

"I don't think there is a large audience for contemporary dance here or anywhere," she admits. But by fusing experimental music, visual art and enticing choreography with the familiar beauty of a Milwaukee landmark, she successfully taps into the curiosities of those who might otherwise visit the theater once and be done with it.

In an effort to put Milwaukee on the dance map as well as keep her audience supplied with fresh and creative work, she introduced Dance Imports in 1997. An exchange program of sorts, Dance Imports allows Loewen to invite regional and national companies to Milwaukee where she produces half a show for them, and in return, they produce Wild Space in their city for half a show.

"It's been really rewarding," she says of the program. "Not only is it good exercise for us to prepare for new audiences, but it also gives people here a taste of what's happening in, say, Chicago or Minneapolis."

The new companies Dance Imports brings to Milwaukee are successful at drawing the crowds, which Loewen says sometimes reach 400 people a night. Though the high attendance numbers are great, Loewen says she is more concerned with quality over quantity.

"I wanted to use my connections to bring in smaller companies whose work I admire, companies who might not otherwise produce themselves here," she says. "I wanted companies that I knew would have an audience here and would complement my own work."

This season Dance Imports welcomes guest company Hedwig Dances of Chicago to perform "Blues Dances," a collaboration between Hedwig artistic director Jan Bartoszek and Chicago Blues legend Erwin Helfer. Wild Space offers two pieces, "Never Stand Still" and "Trace Elements." Both companies will perform on April 15 and 16 at Alverno College's Pitman Theatre.

As a Dance Imports piece, "Never Stand Still" was designed to work in a variety of settings, most of them traditional theaters. But for April's performances at Alverno, Loewen had something else in mind. With walls stripped down to bare brick and the standard curtain cast aside, Loewen did her best to do away with the formal elements of a traditional theater to make it look anything but.

"I'm not a big fan of traditional prettiness, like you are apt to find at the ballet," she says. Her pieces tend to be edgier, with grittier, industrial environments juxtaposing the graceful choreography. "I need a space that is going to support that."

"Trace Elements," says Loewen, is a piece inspired by "the haunting beauty of the unrestored Turner Ballroom." To make it work at Alverno, she's revamped it a bit from being site-specific to a stage piece, including reworking much of the music. But wouldn't changing the music alter too much of the original piece? Loewen says no.

"When it comes to composition of the piece as a whole, music has always been second for me," Loewen says. "It allows me to be more flexible and experimental, and not feel inhibited by what is already there." As more of a visual artist, Loewen focuses on form and the relationship of space and movement. The music acts as an enhancer, but not a base. "Most importantly, I want to be able to look at the dance in silence and still be interested."

Regardless of venue or music, it is the dancers themselves who most accurately express her art. Like any artist, she relies on her medium for inspiration and collaboration. "They bring me the colors, and I paint with them."

Tickets for the Dance Imports performance on April 15 and 16 are available by calling the Alverno Presents box office at (414) 328-6044.

Wild Space's Web site is

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”