Dance Marathon Craze Revisited in Wild Space Dance Company Performance at Lawrence University

The dance marathon craze of the 1930s will be recreated when Milwaukee-based Wild Space Dance Company performs “Physical Evidence” Friday, Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. in Lawrence University’s Stansbury Theatre.

Tickets for the performance, at $10 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and students, can be purchased at the Lawrence University Box Office in the Music-Drama Center, 420 E. College Ave., Appleton, 920-832-6749.

Described as a “high-energy tribute to a bygone era” in a review by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Physical Evidence” follows determined dance contestants and their quest for fame and fortune. Derby races, juggling and endurance stunts create a vibrant backdrop for Wild Space’s inventive choreography.

This will be only the second performance of an updated version of “Physical Evidence,” following its revival show last November in Milwaukee. The biggest hit ever staged in Wild Space’s history, a slightly different version of “Physical Evidence” originally premiered in the spring of 2004.

“Our performance is inspired by the frenzy and challenge of the dance marathons and what drove people to test the endurance of their body, minds and souls,” said Debra Lowen, artistic director of Wild Space, which began a company-in-residence appointment at Lawrence in 2000. “Characters are drawn from real-life contestants in a 1931 Milwaukee marathon, with each company member adding personal touches.”

In telling the contestants’ story, “Physical Evidence” goes back in time — literally and figuratively. The 10-dancer performance begins at the end of the marathon, when the winner is selected and the remaining contestants go home. An emcee connects the retrograde narrative with a running commentary, much like the original marathon hosts. The emcee also engages the audience, which becomes the spectators for the fictional marathon.

Popular during the Depression, dance marathons attracted participants who physically fit, eager to win and willing to adapt their life story to the entertainment the promoters were selling. The marathons offered the spectacle of weary dancers pushed to their limit, rivalry and romance — both real and concocted — and the survival of the fittest. Sprinkled throughout the long dancing sessions were vaudeville comics, specialty acts and weddings that happened over and over again from town to town.

But it was the contestants’ struggle to survive that captivated audiences for more than a decade. Dance marathon participants, to a certain degree, were the forerunners of today’s reality entertainment “stars” on such programs as ”Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “American Idol” and even professional wrestling. In dance marathons, everyday life became celebrity and celebrity shaped the reality of the participants.

Wild Space’s appearance also will feature a bonus performance of excerpts from company member Katie Sopoci’s recent graduate concert. Spirited along by several of Meryn Cadell’s ingenious vocal poems, this quirky, physical romp follows one woman and her many encounters through a life interrupted by musings, misfortunes and mischief. One piece, “I wish I was a cat,” highlights the best of Spoci’s unique, rigorously physical choreography, liquid phrasing and her animalistic to meticulous movements. Sopoci is a master of fine arts candidate at UW-Milwaukee.

Hailed as “richly imaginative and witty” by the New York Times, Wild Space Dance Company was founded in 1986. Known for site-specific works and artistic collaborations, Wild Space merges contemporary dance with music, unusual environments and visual art in its innovative performances. In addition to Lawrence, it is a company-in-residence at Milwaukee’s Lincoln Center Middle School of the Arts.