The word "cancer" doesn't make most people want to dance. Not so for breast-cancer survivor Jo Jean Retrum, director of Dance Wisconsin. For her, cancer represents a change of perspective - something worth celebrating. "It changed my life," she says. "Things that would upset you before don't upset you anymore."
This shift drives Dance Wisconsin's New Works: Dance for Life, Joyful Inspirations, which will be performed at Madison College's Mitby Theater Oct. 13. I asked Retrum about the origins of the works - and a special appearance by a dancer from the Milwaukee Ballet.
What are some of the inspirations behind New Works?
Five years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was sort of ironic because a month before, one of my dancers had said, "I'd really like to choreograph [Melissa Etheridge's] 'Run for Life' as a dedication to breast-cancer survivors," and the next month I was diagnosed. So it sort of became our theme. Since our show is in October and that is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we've really tried to tie in certain pieces every year to that. We use it as a fundraiser for the Southern Wisconsin Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation. They both helped me because my insurance dropped me and I had no way to pay for all of my treatments. We really tried to make the pieces a little more uplifting this year.
How have you partnered with those groups?
We market along with them, and we have information [at the theater] for people. We've done surveys and things to help with breast care awareness so they go to get checked and do self-exams. We really try to do an educational component before the show. I have the survivors stand up after we do [program opener] "Run for Life."
Why should someone who's never seen a live dance performance come to New Works?
Because it's such a mixture of styles of dance, it really appeals to so many different people. There's a hip-hop dance this year, there's a tap dance, and there's a comedy ballet. One of my dancers is with the Milwaukee Ballet, and he's been exposed to lots of different choreographers. His is just a unique, cool piece. So it's not like someone would think, oh, I have to sit here and watch ballet all night.
Who's this dancer?
Justin Genna, [a former student] who has been in our Nutcracker the last two years.
What is it like for your current students to work with an alum who's dancing professionally?
I think it's very inspiring. It shows them what they are capable of doing because they know other dancers who have achieved their dreams and goals. It's not like that is out of their reach. It's very exciting for them and exciting for me that I've trained all of the show's choreographers since they were very little. You just watch them and think, wow, look at what they can do.