Bringing Them Out of the Shadows
Jenni Reinke’05 leaped, whirled, and writhed on the stage of the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin near Spring Green, Wis., morphing from character to character in the premiere of Mrs. Wrights, her one-woman show. The dance theater production tells the tale of the most important women in the legendary architect’s life: his mother, three wives, and a mistress, with a focus on Olgivanna, his business partner for 30 years and the widow who carried on his legacy.
“Growing up in Wisconsin, I’d heard much about Frank Lloyd Wright and his buildings, but nothing of the women who influenced his work and were influential in their own right,” Reinke explains. “Out of this void, Mrs. Wrights was born. I use my body to make visible the women whose histories have been overshadowed by the tower of male ‘genius.’”
After the 2018 premiere, a graduate of Taliesin’s School of Architecture told Reinke: “That was brilliant and courageous. No one talks about these stories here. It’s like we’re living with ghosts.”
Reinke’s show was produced by Milwaukee-based Quasimondo Physical Theatre and toured across the nation, attracting critical acclaim before the pandemic forced it to pause.
Exploring new forms
Reinke is a dancer, choreographer, actress, writer, violinist, arts educator, and nonprofit professional—although not necessarily in that order. She embraces that fluidity.
“My work is very interdisciplinary,” says Reinke, who is also the company manager for Milwaukee-based Wild Space Dance Company. “I don’t want to limit myself in terms of my ability to research and articulate stories, problems, or ideas. I’ve always been more of a generalist than a specialist. It’s the way my brain works. I can find connections between disparate things.”
She honed those connections at Beloit College. A violinist since age 8, Reinke set out to major in music. But after starting her studies at another college, she craved more intellectual rigor. She found it at Beloit. The focus on the liberal arts fed her mind as she continued to pursue a music major while devouring courses in philosophy, religious studies, and more.
“I was very curious and intellectually driven. I spent so much time reading and writing papers and sitting at a desk in the library and in class,” says Reinke, who minored in philosophy. “But I felt like something was missing.”
She decided she needed to get out of her head for a while. On a whim, she enrolled in a dance class, despite having no previous dance experience, and she was hooked. She’ll never forget her choreography class with Chris Johnson, professor and chair of Beloit’s dance department. “That was one of the most challenging and eye-opening classes in my college career,” she says. “It prioritized knowledge from the body … I really valued being rooted in my body and the intelligence of the body.” Reinke would later tap into that knowledge to bring the characters of Mrs. Wrights to life.
Finding her way back to the stage
Dance initially remained a side passion. After graduating from Beloit, Reinke moved to Hong Kong to teach English for 10 months as part of Beloit’s partnership with Lingnan University. After returning home to Milwaukee, she eventually became the first full-time, year-round market manager for the Fondy Farmers Market, which serves a large, diverse population on Milwaukee’s north side. When she was laid off from her position in 2012, she seized the opportunity to explore something new.
One day after class at a local dance studio, she spotted a poster announcing the formation of Quasimondo Physical Theatre. Intrigued, she soon became one of Quasimondo’s founding members and continues today as president of its board. Quasimondo creates original works through physical theatre, which it defines as “a performance language created by the breadth of our bodies, minds, experience, and imagination that communicates through the senses.”
“It’s still related to the theater tradition,” she explains, “but we’ve pulled in dance and world theater traditions, so it’s very eclectic. We experiment with forms and try to make work that is timely and topical.”
The performances can border on the surreal. A few years ago, the ensemble performed Buboes, a play about the bubonic plague, in a former Linens ’N Things storefront in a downtown Milwaukee mall as Christmas-themed music played in the background.
“It is remarkable how much some of our past work speaks to our present moment,” she notes. “Buboes bears the most direct resemblance. Performed in the style of bouffon—a grotesque form of clowning—the show uses the bubonic plague as a backdrop to dissect contagion and social disorder.”
Developing Mrs. Wrights
Mrs. Wrights grew out of Reinke’s thesis project at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts with a focus on contemporary dance choreography.
While brainstorming thesis ideas, she flashed back to her years working part-time at a local spice shop—the “retirement shop” of William Penzey, Sr., and Ruth Penzey, progenitors of the Penzeys Spices chain founded by their son. Reinke describes the late William Penzey as “an artist disguised as a spice merchant.”
He was also a Frank Lloyd Wright fan. The store’s price tags were printed in Eaglefeather, a Wright font, and architecture was a favorite topic as the staff hand-mixed spice blends. “You know, Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t very good to his women,” a customer remarked one day. That planted a seed that would sprout in Reinke’s mind years later.
The project kicked off in earnest in 2017, when Reinke developed a dance piece about Wright’s first wife, Kitty, as part of a choreography class. Then she sketched out possibilities for other characters. She spent the next year sifting through historical documents to piece the story together.
Reinke is passionate about the potential of dance as an ethnographic tool. “When I couldn’t find information about the women, I went into the studio and used my physical imagination and my kinesthetic empathy,” she explains. “What would it be like to experience this extreme lust for someone physically? Miriam [Wright’s second wife] was a morphine addict, so I researched those symptoms and tried to filter them through my body. At some point I started writing a script, but it was late in the process.”
In 2019, the show played to sold-out audiences during a three-week run at the Charles Allis Art Museum in Milwaukee and toured festivals across the country. In addition to the Taliesin premiere, Reinke has performed at two other Wright buildings: the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater in Racine and the Frederick C. Bogk House in Milwaukee.
Although Covid has shuttered the performing arts world, Reinke is planning to present the show to new audiences nationwide. She feels an obligation to bring the women’s voices out of the shadows.
“I will continue to tour Mrs. Wrights to new audiences, but I am patiently navigating Covid restrictions,” she says. While she waits to return to in-person shows, Reinke is booking virtual performances. “I look forward to embracing the evolution of the show as I set it in new spaces with an older—but wiser—body. After all, I believe it is the ability to respond to the present moment that makes live performance truly alive.”
Nicole Sweeney Etter is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor.
An artist living through the time of Covid
On March 14, 2020, performing artist Jenni Reinke’05 closed a momentous show with Wild Space Dance Company in Milwaukee. “We knew that a safer-at-home order was on the horizon, and it felt like we had just held one of the last live performances in the city for an indefinite amount of time,” she says.
And so it was. Soon, performing arts companies worldwide canceled performance after performance. Among the cancellations were other shows Reinke was part of, and she lost her steady paycheck as a dance and community outreach teacher with Danceworks when the studio closed. A couple of her other gigs were able to transition to remote work, and she was hired as company manager for Wild Space a few months later.
“What I’m most hopeful for is the opportunity Covid presents to make fundamental social changes that could benefit artists and other low-wage workers,” she says. “Although highly respected, artists are not valued in a monetary sense in America. People love art, but they don’t want to pay for it—at least not a living wage. … I cannot speak for all artists, but many are like me, supporting themselves by weaving together income from a variety of part-time jobs in education, nonprofits, and the service industry.”
While Covid has reduced Reinke’s income, she believes her artistic training has fortified her resilience.
“My experience as an artist is supporting me through the challenges of being a human in this current environment,” she says. “And these are existential challenges both artists and non-artists are facing—uncertainty, loneliness, grief, fear, anxiety, expectations, and self-judgment. I feel fortunate to have my artistic training and community to help me process this moment.”
During the first quiet months at home, she reflected on how the arts might change in the pandemic’s aftermath. Reinke believes that smaller arts organizations—like her own Quasimondo Physical Theatre—will be best positioned because they’re already used to operating on a shoestring budget.
“I’m excited for a rupture from the past that supports the work of independent and experimental artists,” she says. “I believe that lean, agile, and innovative small companies and independent artists will be rewarded for their resourcefulness and ability to respond.”
By May of last year, Reinke was working with Quasimondo to unveil QuasimondoTV, which engages audiences virtually through watch parties and live play readings of internationally renowned ensemble-based works.
In June, she began rehearsing again with Wild Space for a series of socially distanced live performances held at three parking lots throughout Milwaukee.
Reinke is continuing to work with both companies to produce work safely.
“Covid presents opportunities for arts organizations to reimagine the ways in which they fulfill their missions and engage audiences,” she adds. “For an emerging company like Quasimondo, this is an opportunity for us to evolve and showcase what we’ve always done—present original work that speaks to contemporary issues.”