Penelope Freeh


thoughts on dance

The Virgin in the Garden

Posted by on Mar 24 2018

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.

Resurrection Resolution

Posted by on Mar 13 2018

It’s been quite awhile since my last post, so this will serve as a resolution of sorts, a way to shepherd in 2018: I will be blogging more. I received a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to excavate my body of work, blog about each piece, and create a new solo based upon my archives.

The solo, Tuxedo, will be part of a full evening of new works to be presented the first weekend in November at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater in Minneapolis. There are some fun surprises planned for this show. May I just say, clowns!

Tuxedo will, I imagine, be both a tying up and a setting free. Re-contextualizing my preexisting work will be a way to make amends of sorts. I want to do the work of this, the painful facing of my old selves as I retrace the genesis of each piece and tell its process story. These movements and moments have lived in me, even if I ultimately was not the performer. They are in me just the same, and I get to reclaim them now. A new narrative will undoubtedly emerge, one about tuxedos, nostalgia, façades and the desire to break them down. It will be about formality, animality, deconstruction, and possibly resurrection. But with a twist: I am commissioning contemporary ballet choreographer Helen Hatch to create this new solo for me.

Today I met with Helen. It was our second gathering to review my choreographic archive. This is sort of an oblique way to go about having a retrospective moment, but I am not interested in remounting a bunch of old work. Rather, I want to force myself to look at it, talk it over with Helen, write about it, then reconstitute it all into a new thing, something she will make and I will dance.

We are watching my works in order, generally speaking. I tell her the circumstances of their making, the genesis stories. She asks me questions. We take notes as we watch, and it’s quite sweet. I am so happy to have her alongside me for this part of the project and process. It is so helpful to talk things out, even if the talking’s backwards. She asks great questions and really gets at the heart of things.

For lack of any graceful way to do this, I will launch right in, piece-by-piece. I will blog about each work separately, so as to track it for myself, and in order. The blog titles will be that of the pieces. I’m sure that cross-references will be made. Helen and I are already doing that, just with the five works we’ve watched since last week. This is what is starting to excite me now: this making of connections and somehow, though we can’t see it yet, a new something is forming, ethereal and hovering.

The Deep End

Posted by on May 05 2016

Helioscope has come and gone, and I await the next incarnation with great hope. There is much to say re: this but I will leave it at that. It was a deep and rich experience, and I am still processing.


Many new things are in the works including being a dancer for my friend Nic Lincoln’s new show, The Hardest Word. This will be an hour-long duet for the two of us, something started at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp two summers ago. We subsequently performed an incarnation at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater, but now we are going whole hog. One hour. Just us. Memorial Weekend. Bryant Lake Bowl once again. Yes!


So we are working hard. Next week we are pulling five-hour days together, blessedly in the actual space which is 9×22. Yes, 9×22. Feet. Deep and Wide. In other words, tiny, small, microscopic in terms of traditional dance venues, but then, we are not out for traditional in any way. It pleases me to no end to place our balletically derivative work on that stage, where the audience eats and drinks in candlelight, and where I could spill their beer with my foot if I wanted to.


Today we worked on learning and reassembling new phrases and also a pointe section that we think will be the finale. Everything is hard. Everything is brainy. My brain explodes with almost every rehearsal. I am tired, I am (mostly) in shape and right now, and I am glad to be in the deep end of the pool.


Tomorrow is my last day at the U of MN for the summer. That’s good. I need the break and the distance, though I will miss many aspects: the regular schedule, the great students, the many ways in which I connect with them. There are some real gems.


But when one door closes another opens, or at least a window does. Windows are underrated. My tiny NYC apartment (smaller than the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater dimensions!) had a huge window that led onto the fire escape, my balcony. Bliss.


So what will the window be now? Many things will fill the void I am sure, not the least of which is my now being available to actually take class myself. Oh, I hope I go! It is always such a treat. Yes, Monday I will take with Ben, my pal since I was fifteen.


And so much more is underway: a quick-and-dirty project with the Minneapolis Music Company, another with Consortium Carassimi, and Nice Work if You Can Get It at Lyric Arts. Sweet gigs with live music and a semblance of autonomy. I am reaping what I have sewn, and that is very sweet.


Life continues to scallop, to deepen, to layer. My days are alternately clear and hazy. I certainly am living, going deep, deep enough to hope.


Posted by on Mar 30 2016

It’s a rainy midnight and I am still up. I’ve had way too long of a day, but on the other hand it was all good and fun stuff, all work-related, and it’s true that I love what I do.


Donna and I premiere Helioscope on Friday, and it is both coming together and revealing what it needs. For the most part we are exactly where we should be with it, still in the question-asking phase. I love this phase, and I refuse to get negative about it, or frustrated at lack of enough time, or rather lack of enough time w/ the extras. They are great and are rising to the occasion. I am blessed to have such dedicated current and former students. Tonight Donna rehearsed them solo, and I am so happy they had a chance to experience her, expert that she is, in rehearsal, cleaning them. That is how I met her, and my heart swells in recollection. Now we are colleagues, collaborators, dear friends.


Helioscope is growing very close to my heart. It’s been happening since our rehearsal with David yesterday. His singing a cappella gave us goose-bumps; it was so sweet and plaintive. How amazing that we thought up the idea of him at our kitchen table in Cassis, France in November and now, late March, the idea is made manifest. Such a satisfying, gratifying feeling.


The rain is heavy, and I love that I can hear it so well. Soon it will lull me to sleep, but not before turning inward like this, taking note of this little thing: the making of a new work, this giving birth yet again, and this feeling, yet again, that I will keep doing it.

Looking Back, Backstage

Posted by on Mar 19 2016

I am compiling 2015 receipts. Always a funny thing to look back upon my year, going through the calendar day-by-day and compiling mileage, parking expenses, jogging from memory the many deductibles I can legitimately claim as an independent artist.


Speaking of which, Four Saints opens tonight (and closes tomorrow). Impossible to fathom that so much work produces so little return, but I suppose it’s what we identify as “return” that counts. For instance, it’s been a great joy to be in the theater all week. As someone who is mostly used to the one-night-stand model in terms of performance, this has been a luxury to me. My favorite place of all time is backstage, and that itch has been scratched this week. There’s nothing like a deadline to congeal a pudding, and this one has come together quite nicely.


My duet with Carl Flink thrills me to no end. Last night the grips were perfect, and I am reminded how much I love partnering, being lifted, pouring my weight, falling with abandon and ultimately giving it up, succumbing. Ours is not a long dance, but it’s a bold statement, framed and tempered (and perhaps even upstaged) by an enormous lollipop that turns into a sun. From the ridiculous to the sublime, perfectly in keeping with Gertrude Stein’s language and Virgil Thompson’s music.


Back to taxes and my 2015 reality. It’s important to review in order to move forward. Back and forth, ebb and flow, like the tides with the moon pulling.

Ordinary Trees (a line from Four Saints in Three Acts)

Posted by on Mar 17 2016

Two more nights of dress rehearsal then two precious performances of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. It is a bright and shiny show, with amazing sets by Paul Herwig. Bright and shiny too because of the amazing vocal performances of the 30 Vocal Essence singers who grace the stage. And bright and shiny finally because of “the movers”, the tremendous and smart dancers of Black Label Movement with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work since November.


The poetry of this show shatters me sometimes. It must be read (I have a score) but not necessarily. It must be heard, yes, for sure that. The language inspires me to let go, to forgive imperfection and embrace abbreviated pith, to dare to be brief, to explode and elaborate an idea until it is nonsensical. Fun to consider the dance equivalent and just in time…


Tomorrow, before Four Saints rehearsal, I begin work with eight current and former students from the U of MN. They are the “cloud corps” and extras in my new collaboration Helisocope with Donna Schoenherr (for The Right Here Show, April 1 – 3 at The Illusion Theater). This is the project that began in Cassis, France in November and has been a long time coming to fruition if you count the twelve years since Donna and I last collaborated. We’d been searching for a way to work together again when both The Right Here Show and the Cassis residency took hold.


Donna arrives Monday and so we begin our reconstruction process. Meanwhile I will have created the cloud section with our corps (Cloud Formations), accompanied by the brilliant and brand new piano composition by Joe Strachan. This music thrills and inspires me. I am so lucky to have made such friendships wherein I can make collaborations like this one happen practically spur-of-the-moment. The students will be so thrilled tomorrow.


It is late. I am tired yet wired. Haven’t felt like this since Abu Dhabi, creatively speaking. I fear, I thrill. I want to mentor the students as well as shepherd the best possible piece to the stage. I think both can happen; they are not mutually exclusive.


Tonight I go to sleep feeling a little restless and more than a little thankful, my usual state these days. Life is bigger than I think, I think. It can be shiny like operas, nonsensical and unspeakably, painfully, ordinary and beautiful.

Made from Scratch

Posted by on Mar 13 2016

My newest work Moontides premiered this weekend, and I am SO happy with it! Today in particular it hung together in a way that had my heart beating out of my chest. It was the Sunday matinee, and relaxed and tired dancers did what they do: threaded the needle of technique and artistry.


I decided not to title the sections after all. The title of the piece itself said all I needed it to say. Too much information can be a burden. Better sometimes the quick statement, like a great necklace.


But really, the eight dancers of Alternative Motion Project (AMP) danced with abandon, fluidity and largesse (yes! large generosity). I think they delighted in the piece, which delights me. It’s good that I am still dancing, that I read what they are going through. Again I have the feeling, I am them.


It’s quite something to put a piece out into the world. It’s made from scratch and until I get a video, I don’t get to see or experience it again. It’s a little painful and a lot amazing. There’s a special kind of nervous that happens sitting in the audience and watching a piece go down. There’s not a thing I can do about it. I cannot rescue it if it falters nor scream aloud, proud. But I can sway and swoon and clap my hands red. I “Wooed!” once. Yes, Moontides wooed me.


I will miss it and I am on to the next outpouring. Four Saints in Three Acts has been a long time coming (table work since October), and next weekend it goes up. I am excited to dance in it a little and to have my hand in it a fair amount choreographically. It is certainly not my baby, but I do love it and expect to fall for it even more this week as we inhabit the theater.


I want to approach my busy week as openheartedly as what I saw onstage today. Open. Fall. Falter. Open. Fall. Repeat

Lunar Musings

Posted by on Feb 28 2016

Today I hope finish Moontides, my new work for Alternative Motion Project. It’s been a long time coming, and I look forward to closing the gap. The piece is in three sections (I’m trying to decide if I want to title them; I think yes) with the second being the unfinished bit.


I am working with a great group of eight dancers. So great in fact that I double cast the central duet. That’s what I will finish today and unbelievably, it’s to the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. I mean, in real life, I would almost never choreograph to a vintage rock song. But in this case it just felt right. The stars aligned.


Originally I wanted to play with the song in rehearsal to help generate movement. All along the duet was to be inspired be the idea of Eclipse, so of course that song came to mind, as a playful way to bring in the word. But then somehow it stuck. For one thing using it ignited the dancers, sort of set them on fire, and the dancer in me recognizes that phenomenon as one that only happens in response to certain music. I could not take that away from them, nor from myself. For good or ill, this song now lives in my dead-serious piece about the moon, tides and gravitational pulling.


I just decided, the sections will be called:

I. Water

II. Eclipse

III. Umbra


There was a major eclipse this fall. I was in To Kill a Mockingbird at The Guthrie at the time so, great access to balconies. I watched for a good while the reddish-black dark spot making its slow progress with the Mississippi just below, aglow with ambient light from the iconic Stone Arch Bridge. My city, well used. (Well, Minneapolis to be exact, a hop, skip and a jump from St. Paul.)


For several days afterward folks asked one another where they had been. Inhabitants of houses on whole blocks set up lawn chairs in the streets and took it in, an almost once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. My friends kept their two-year old up. I love that. These things are important, to mark, to take note of, to acknowledge, to witness, to say you were there when…


I don’t know what all this means in relation to my piece and my progress with it other than to acknowledge the journey and the process. I started Moontides on Sundays in the fall, and I am finishing it on Sundays in winter. It will premiere just before the official start of spring. I guess the connection is about marking time, taking a moment to record the progress of something. Usually I operate with head down, busy, busy. It’s good and important work to come up once in awhile, to reach higher, breathe in the thin air.

Other People’s Words

Posted by on Feb 24 2016

Yesterday I worked from home, tying up loose email ends and attempting to catch up on admin stuff. I keep reminding myself that it is my privilege to be an artist in this world and that all the stuff that surrounds my art (grants, final reports, budgets, fundraising efforts, letters of thanks, etc.) IS also part of it. It is part of the deal that I signed up for, and I must take responsibility for all aspects. I do not need to know how to do every single thing, but it’s up to me to get the help or skills that I need. All this admin means that I get to keep making and doing the work. I can’t have one without the other. This is a hard truth that I continue to make friends with.


So while working yesterday I came across some words that I copied into a journal two summers ago during my McKnight Fellowship retreat at Tofte Lake Center just north of Ely, MN. They come from a book of blessings that Mary Ellen Childs brought along to share. Now, normally I kinda cringe at the word “blessing”, but in this case…


May the Angel of Imagination enable you

To stand on the true thresholds,

At ease with your ambivalence

And drawn in new directions

Through the glow of your contradictions


Holy cow do I ever love that! It’s like a blessing antidote. I mean, “ambivalence”, “contradictions”, these are my kissing cousins. To know that at least one other (anonymous) person gets this gives me such hope.


These days I am on rocky terrain (in fact, the surface of the moon, what with my new piece for Alternative Motion Project, but more on that later) with lots of overlapping projects and irons in the fire. I asked for this and I’ll say it again, it is my privilege. I am accessing my wild and domesticated sides, which leads me to another writing, this one by John O’Donohue from “For the Artist at the Start of the Day”…


May your imagination know

The grace of perfect danger,


To reach beyond imitation,

And the wheel of repetition,


Deep into the call of all

The unfinished and unsolved


Until the veil of the unknown yields

And something original begins

To stir toward your senses

And grow stronger in your heart


In order to come to birth

In a clean line of form,

That claims from time

A rhythm not yet heard,

That calls space to

A different shape.


Again I say, holy cow. I read (and type) these words again now and now I imprint them even more deeply into my psyche. They apply to so many things in my work and life, which is, in fact, my work. I’ve sometimes held my work at arm’s length because of other life struggles, but now I am ready to put it back on the front burner. Now that I choreograph, now that I teach, my work can happen even as my body continues to age and change. But really, while I still got it, I just want to dance.


So these words that are not mine, that do not belong to me in any way save that I stumbled upon them, help.




Posted by on Feb 14 2016

In my last entry I wrote about Cobalt and that it is glass. Not! And I knew that. Duh. However, I’m letting it stand and writing this instead because I think my mistake is interesting.


The reason I’m attracted to Cobalt is because it reminds me of my mom. She used to be a glass blower and sometimes, she would get cobalt glass instead of clear. It fascinated me that glass came in only two colors. Otherwise canes of colored glass or powered color were applied to the molten piece being worked on.


My mistake speaks to where my brain goes when working on a work. I research something to a point then let it go. What lingers, what captivates my imagination, gets priority and sometimes, facts get lost. I’m ok with this. As a dancemaker my imperative is to communicate poetry of the body, not to deliver factoids or accurate histories. I get to rearrange, poeticize, and embolden the little-known.


My Cobalt, though unmade, now contains this mistake made in haste yesterday when I was all into the metaphors re: earth, metal and glass, meaning that I will let properties of glass enter into the movement language.


In actuality (don’t quote me on this), Cobalt is a transition metal. It magnetically adheres to other metals to form alloys, and when it contacts glass it transforms from silver to blue. I love that, that in the connecting it achieves its signature color.


For my piece I think about cobalt glass spheres and cobalt smoke, perhaps a bottle. I don’t want to get all prop-heavy, but these things are compelling. In the context of a duet in particular they would read as other characters.


It is too soon to know what any of this means, but I love that I’m thinking about it and casting some inspiration into my future. This duet awaits, and it feels important.