UWM Springdances: Meet Maria Gillespie
“I’ve been wondering if who I am depends on where I am and who I’m with,” Maria Gillespie said, at an interview Wednesday on the topic of the Springdances show, which opens Thursday at UWM.
Gillespie, the newest member of the UWM dance faculty, contributed a new work to the show and is its artistic director. The Nashville native came to Milwaukee in September, after 16 years in Los Angeles and several in New York before that. Classical questions of constructs of identity loom large in Gillespie’s mind just now, as she strives to redefine and balance her professional and personal life.
“When you come in as an outsider,” she said, “you have to make clear who you are, and make it clear again to yourself. It’s like looking in the rear-view mirror and saying, hey, that’s my identity back there.”
The minute the semester ends, she’ll fly to L.A. for a month or so of rehearsals with Oni, the dance company she intends to maintain indefinitely there. The company will give shows in Beijing and Los Angeles in the next few months, and in October Oni will dance in Milwaukee. In between all that, she’ll dash to Mexico City for some scholarly research.
“I’m trying to find the balance between the creative and pedgogical,” she said. “I haven’t learned how to do it yet. This is a big shift — I don’t have my world here, my company, my partner.”
Gillespie taught dance as a adjunct professor for years at Long Beach State and at UCLA, where she earned her MFA (the BFA is from SUNY-Purchase), but her first tenure-track position is at UWM. Adjuncts teach class and go home; tenure-track assistant professors have all sorts of committee, housekeeping and policy duties. Keeping up with that and trying to run a dance company 2,000 miles away is a daunting combination.
“I just maxed my credit cards on plane tickets to Beijing,” she said. “Now the fund-raising begins.”
Simone Ferro, chair of UWM’s dance department, tried to ease the rookie’s burden by not requiring her to put on a show, but Gillespie did not want to let her first year pass without one. Thus UWM’s first ever Springdances, an addition between the traditional Winter- and Summerdances.
“I make dances with my students,” she said. “That’s how I acclimate. I met all my company dancers as students at UCLA. The studio is where you forge relationships and dancers and the absorb you language. I’ve never conducted an audition — it’s always been, ‘Hey, do you want to dance?’”
Gillespie’s process involves a great deal of improvisation and personal ideas, from both her and her dancers. That didn’t change just because she’s dealing with UWM student dancers for this program. Not surprisingly, her currently heightened curiosity about identity seeped into Where Is Together, the new work for Springdances. Gillespie charged her dancers to devise some word or phrase that says “this is me.” Then she had them translate those phrases into movements — which naturally evolve into abstractions, but inevitably retain some hint of the personal.
Gillespie began Where is together with the photography of Francesca Woodman, whose images at extremely slow shutter speeds give the effect of a vanishing self-portrait.
“When do you vanish and when do you appear as yourself?” Gillespie said. “When you’re alone? In a group? In the desire to be swept up, do you lose individuality or become yourself more fully? It’s a lot about capturing and presenting that identity. And about the instability of identity — as a positive thing. Something’s changing, and you’re changing. Change is inevitable, and you can shape it.”
Dani Kuepper and Christina Briggs Winslow, colleagues on the UWM faculty, also contributed to Springdances. Like Gillespie, they began with photography. Kuepper chose the street photography of Vivian Maier, with their their contrast of “opulence and decay.” In Briggs Winslow’s piece, inspired by the double-negative photographic process, seven dancers appear to leap out of their skins, as if they were images disappearing from the darkroom into the dark. As the dance evolves, the paper dresses disintegrate, leaving telltale vestiges of their passage.
“It’s about the transient nature of things,” Gillespie said. “What’s left behind when the dancers vanish?”
Concert Details: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 9-11, UWM Mitchell Hall, Studio 254. Opening Night Reception Thursday, Post-Show Discussions Friday evening and Saturday matinee.
Tickets are $17, $12 UWM faculty, staff, seniors, & alumni, $10 other university students, $9 UWM students, $5 ages 13-18, PSOA students. Free to under 12 and Dance majors. Call 414 229-4308 or visit the Peck School website.