Penelope Freeh

The Virgin in the Garden

Posted by on Mar 24 2018, in Uncategorized

I choreographed my first piece, The Virgin in the Garden, in the summer of 1999. I danced in it with Benjamin Johnson, my dear friend whom I’ve known since I was fifteen. This was helpful, to enter the scary territory of making alongside such a colleague. We bartered, so I danced in his work too, another duet for us with live cello accompaniment. Our respective pieces were blessedly very different. We created and performed them for the Minnesota Fringe Festival at the Music Box Theatre.

Watching this piece again with Helen was terrifying. Witnessing my young choreographic voice in its expression, and myself dance, was kind of a shock. I watched nervously, knowing that new eyes were upon it, in preparation for our work together where she will choreograph a solo for me.

Virgin unfolds in three parts. The first two are duets and the third is a solo that I’ve performed many times on its own. The movement vocabulary is both stilted and soaring, bodies folding up, contorting, navigating a bench, and using it to good effect. It’s very musical, a point of pride for me, which perhaps tethers me to classicism more than anything else. But there you have it, the me of then at least.

It struck me that my storytelling was quite good, though perhaps should be called cloying, or maybe that’s just me getting prickly and embarrassed. But here’s the thing, that little eleven-minute dance made it into a mixed bill for Ballet Builders in New York City and for what it’s worth, earned an amazing review: “Penelope Freeh won the honors for sheer imagination…” – Jennifer Dunning of the NY Times. That one-liner cracked open my thinking, empowered both hemispheres of my brain.

A couple years later James Sewell Ballet produced Virgin locally and on tour. During one rehearsal Martine Van Hamel (a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theater) was passing through town, and we got to dance it for her, a thrill unto itself. So there’s a lot there, a lot of affirmation for a first piece especially, not to mention the fact that I felt my future crack open.

One of the things I love about my art is that it’s ephemeral. There is a sweetness about my tattered memories. Perhaps that’s why it’s so shocking to me to see this work again and myself at work in it. But it’s also true that I do have yens to pin things down, or at least note them, and so it goes that I watch, I write, I relive; I share it with fresh eyes and the knowledge that all of it will get repurposed into something new and shining.

However I feel about it, The Virgin in the Garden is a thing unto itself. I can claim it as mine, but also it doesn’t belong to me. This is the case with all works of art I guess, they have makers and instigators, but they exist on their own terms. I can look upon it as an artifact of my creativity and love it for all that it opened in me, a can of worms.