In honor of Danceworks’ 20th Anniversary, we are sharing 20 stories of individuals who have made an impact on—or who have been impacted by—Danceworks and our programs. This is the sixth in our series, “20 Years, 20 Stories.”
The tempting treat that dangled before my eyes was the promise of finding a place to live close to a place to dance. This was the motivation Todd used to get me to move back home to Milwaukee from the beautiful, mild-wintered Chapel Hill rather than him move there. He sent me an article on a new dance studio opening just north of downtown. He said we could live close by and be near the Lake, restaurants and shopping. He also enclosed a schedule of classes and arranged for a visit.
By 1997, Danceworks co-founders Mary Newton and Polly Morris had decided Danceworks needed a resident dance company. Sarah Wilbur, along with about nine other newly graduated, gifted UWM dance majors, formed Danceworks Performance Company (DPC), of which Sarah was the first Artistic Director.
In 1999, together, Todd and I stepped through the doors of Danceworks’ newly renovated space at 1661 North Water Street and sat down to watch a rehearsal. I remember she was wearing a yellow top. It matched her disposition—she seemed to glow. Her name was Sarah.
I was drawn to the strong individuality of each of these highly athletic women who seemed to be as comfortable upside-down as right-side-up. It wasn’t long before we were dancing together (though I had a strong preference for remaining right-side-up!).
One afternoon after class, we sat and talked—Sarah and I—in the long windowed hallway facing the river. I had started work on my MFA at UWM, in dance of all things, at 45.
“I don’t know what I’ll do with it,” I remember saying, “but I’m dancing and it’s getting me connected. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be Executive Director of Danceworks or something like that.” (Lesson: Be careful what you say, it might happen.) I knew my dancing days were numbered, and the next best thing would be to help make it possible for others to do it.
I think it is fair to say that, while Mary and Polly put Danceworks on the map, Sarah put the follow-spot on it. As artistic director, she brought Danceworks into the light of the eyes of the community. DPC was designed to be a collective of dancers, each contributing his or her own unique choreographic voice. That structure still remains to this day.
Leadership is important—even within a collective—and Sarah lead with a distinctive style, sense of innovation, quirkiness and athleticism, along with a work ethic that never quit. When she moved on to pursue her MFA in L.A. (and now PhD), it took two if not three people to replace the load she had carried with great enthusiasm and sense of fun.
To get a deeper inside look at what it was like to work with her in DPC, I asked several of our founding company members who are still with us to share a good Sarah story. Andrea Hill Johnson, the stunning, statuesque glossy-haired dancer who caught my eye that day I first watched rehearsal captured it beautifully:
I have to say that it is hard for me to remember one funny story about Sarah. When I think about Sarah and the 20 years that we have been friends, all I feel is joy and laughter. There were too many funny times during our college dancing days–far, far too many DPC laughs (our trips to the Kohler Center for the Wide Sky Project were monumental for supreme hilarity. Actually, any of our road trips…too funny). Even more ridiculous times creating Danceworks’ first Outreach Portable Performances (she and I would have to bargain over who had to be the ‘dude’ during the swing portion of Dancing through the Decades). I continue to laugh with Sarah between the many miles that separate us. Laughter and love always bridge that gap. Sarah = laughter, through the good and the bad. I am fortunate to have gone through it all with her and continue to do so.
Something I’ve never confessed to anyone — when I went back to Chapel Hill after that weekend visit to Milwaukee and Danceworks, I headed straight to TJ Maxx and bought a yellow top to dance in.
On behalf of all of us at Danceworks, here’s to you, Sarah, and to your ongoing, continued success!