Penelope Freeh


thoughts on dance

Saints and Sinners

Posted by on Feb 10 2016

Many things are afoot. I am teaching a whole bunch and to such a lovely variety of folks. I finally made inroads with my beginning Modern class at the U of MN yesterday, a moment of my bonding with the group as well as their connecting to one another. I see sweet friendships forming there, especially among the four young men, and I am pleased that my class can facilitate that.


Then today in Intermediate Ballet, which I treat as advanced, I found myself saying the words, “I am tracking your talent, and you can do better than this.” It was a good way to say what I meant, that they should to be doing their best in class, even at the ungodly hour of 8:25am. My combinations are doled out based on their highest abilities, which are high. It’s time for them to know that I’m on to them, and yup, they can do better. And they did! They made my heart sing this morning.


Dido and Aeneas came off without a hitch last weekend and was, in fact, great. I loved the intimate context, the sharing of the stage with the instrumentalists and singers. My role, in and out as it was, felt appropriate and even essential. It’s been fun to see the photos that David’s wife Bree took. A former dancer and now photographer, her eye is keen and she captured many good and dramatic moments. The back of the performing space had the option to expose floor to ceiling windows that look out onto the street. David opted for that and to great effect. My favorite photo captures three green-lighted windows from across the street serving as our backdrop, very Edward Hopper. Super cool.


Now my focus turns more heavily upon Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera by Virgil Thomson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. The language is magnificent and impenetrable. I fall in love with this piece now too, with the many musical passages that end far too soon for my taste but are so in keeping with Stein’s work.


This production is with the great Vocal Essence in conjunction with Black Label Movement, Carl Flink’s dance group known for its extremely high level of athleticism. Carl has brought me in to assist choreographically. Also, as it turns out, I will be in it. It’s a lovely thing, to be dancing. Not quite sure how I found myself here, being that Carl and I have never worked together before. The reason is probably my experience working with non-dancing singers in a variety of contexts. No matter, I will stake my claim.


We had a big, messy rehearsal last night, the 30 singers and us eight movers. It was glorious in that the talent in the room just about blew the roof off. But oh, we have miles to go. The score is SO hard for the singers to memorize, it being so nonsensical and a-rhythmic. But it’ll be worth it. I keep trying to articulate what is valuable about this reconstruction. It hasn’t quite hit me yet, but somehow it feels important, an imperative for saints and sinners.


My favorite device is that Saint Teresa is played by two singers. I’m sure this is more a musical practicality in terms of one singer being soprano and the other contralto, but I prefer to think about the psychology behind that choice, that she is a self so enormous that she can only be expressed by two bodies, two souls.


I used this device in 2004 when I made Telephone Joan, about Joan of Arc. Three of us represented her: the maiden, the warrior, and the saint. I was the warrior of course, what with my shorn hair at the time. It felt appropriate; I was disguised already.


In thinking about this now I do still love the gimmick, but I also rail against the notion. Why can’t one person/body contain/portray all their facets? Life is sharp and complicated, and it undermines our capacity as humans to represent as one- dimensional characters. Characters are complex. They are characters. One definition says “strength and originality”. I love that.


So, two bodies for one Saint Teresa. In broad terms they represent the ethereal and the earthy. Again, I regret that both can’t be in the same form because of course, that’s what we are, individuals composed of many parts, contrasting and even opposite, that define us and bring us to where we stand now.

8 Tiny Dances

Posted by on Feb 04 2016

Tonight is dress rehearsal for Dido and Aeneas, co-sponsored by MacPhail Center for Music and the University of Minnesota’s School of Music. This is my pal David’s baby (he has organized it and is conducting), and I am so happy to be a small part of it. I am a sucker for all things baroque, maybe because it’s a word so close to broken.


But really, I like the decorative. I defy the resistance of the decorative in original dance. There is a place for it still, and I’m so tired of resisting. Reminds me of Jocelyn’s gorgeous music. She is unafraid to be unabashedly beautiful, and I find that to be so hopeful. Original art can absolutely show its derivations and wear its heart on its sleeve.


So tonight I perform 8 tiny dances. Some are more like performing tasks, but all aim to be essential to this great chamber opera. There are dance sections written in, thus my involvement, albeit last minute. (The last minute bit agrees with me given my proficiency for cramming and all my recent busyness.)


Despite the timeline, I am happy with what I’ve come up with. I have borrowed from myself for a couple sections and made some new stuff to specifically reflect the opera’s action. I both invade and stay out of the way. I am a witness, a mute narrator, a wisp. But even in rehearsal last night I felt my performing chops take hold. I feel all the upcoming stage time I will have, the most in a several-year span, and I at last recognize the pattern that my life laid out starting from about age thirteen. I am meant to do Dance, in all its facets, and it is not lost on me that I actually get to.

Hometown Love

Posted by on Jan 31 2016

I saw the premiere of my new ballet Native Copper last night. I am in Ohio and the group is Gem City Ballet, a youth company of the most professional order, led by my teacher/idol/mentor growing up, Barbara Pontecorvo.


This is my second ballet for GCB, the first being Zinc in 2014. With both works I engaged in a process that I would’ve had with professionals. I recognize this both as a maker and now, as a viewer. It was so good to see the piece last night! It was like meeting up with an old friend I’d forgotten I liked so much. It’s funny, putting my art out there then letting it go, relinquishing control. Like giving birth, I imagine, these things get born then take on a life and trajectory all their own. I make them, but it’s their interfacing with the world that makes them what they are.


Barbara wants to bring me back next season (GCB’s 25th) to complete this Elements Trilogy. Next will be Cobalt, a pas de deux. I am still ruminating on casting: so many interesting dancers to choose from, all so unique and worthy.


This is a deep thing, being back here at home and doing what I do: making work, teaching, mentoring, connecting with these dancers in ways that I craved and had the benefit of receiving when I was their age, before I was thrown into a tailspin. I want to be there for them, offer advice and warm support, but also somehow convey that though of course it is all so precious, so too it is all so…what?…quotidian? Their struggles and questions are the stuff of life, and the simple act of keeping going is what ultimately makes the difference. Any pathways they take can be made great and true. The negotiating, questing, building capacity for the flow and coming to terms with the dry times keeps happening.


Our existence as dancers is so transitory and yet so indelible. Our bodies contain the DNA of all the ballets we’ve ever encountered, in doing or viewing or being in the room with. I’m starting to identify that I’m engaged in a constant quest for submergence in the fertility of my lizard brain, the good primitive part that just is and accepts many things as valid, without second-guessing. The recent Abu Dhabi process confirmed my, uh, relevance, and is yet another amazing thing born out of my hometown. I crackle with gratefulness.

We Are Family

Posted by on Jan 28 2016


It’s official, my cold has settled in with a vengeance now that I am home from Abu Dhabi. I felt it happen on the plane. It started in my throat and now, three classes, one rehearsal, one meeting, and several phone calls later I have lost my voice. Seems a fitting state of being, the physical manifestation of what my heart is still negotiating re: the wrenching it underwent upon leaving AD. I had wanted to stop the world.


I never did cry until yesterday. I choked up taking the UAE currency out of my wallet, then tears happened when I talked with my pal Matthew about the trip and my doings. His wise words helped, reminding me that I am living life large. It’s true that I wouldn’t want it any other way, but… ouch.


It was only last Friday that our group took the bus back to Abu Dhabi from Dubai. We encountered a super-long line waiting to board. Us females got priority, and being that we were with three men, we said that we were family so as to be able to board all together. It was no stretch to say that, and in fact it’s true. Team Sugar Lump Clump has been my true north these last three plus weeks. We formed an orphan tribe of artists, expressing ourselves in such different and complimentary ways. It felt like a company and, bless me, I didn’t quite know how much I’d been missing that.


And yet when I think about it, many of the various projects I’ve been a part of since leaving James Sewell Ballet have fed me in that “company” kind of way. In some cases, like with Test Pilot, I’ve been partly responsible for creating that feeling. I guess it’s called community building; to me it’s called work, but of the meaningful sort, where I gather with colleagues and pals to do what we do.


I am up at 5am (a very frequent occurrence in AD) having put myself to bed at 5pm yesterday. The cold had its way with me, and I spent the night sweating out the slight fever that had revealed itself. Today is a big one, and then I head to my hometown in Ohio tomorrow to see the premiere of Native Copper, my new piece for Gem City Ballet. I can’t wait to see those two casts of six young dancers kick the shit out of it. I was them at their age, and I love them so much. Yup, family happens anywhere, even with strangers from my hometown.

The View From Down Here

Posted by on Jan 21 2016

My time here in Abu Dhabi is winding down, and my heart breaks a little more with each continuing sleepless night. I’m fighting a cold, no surprise given that I’ve been running on fumes.


We have two more work days left plus today off in Dubai. Some of us are going up the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. So excited to see that view. Apparently you can see the world rounding from up there.


And from down here, I feel it rounding too. I am off-center, tipped, tipsy. Working in this way, with these methodologies, inspires me to carry them home along with the empowerment that I feel creatively and as a dancer. It’s been such a long time since I’ve hooked into my dancing in this way. The balance that I feel in this project is one that I’ve missed, a sense of community and investment, and yet I am ultimately not the one in charge. Though it is not my baby it is very much in my heart, and I will move mountains to be a part of its future.


For now the only thing to do is dive deeper into the work and my relationships with these people. Each is filled with a light that blinds me at times. The talent and generosity in the room overwhelms me with gratitude and a sad-happiness knowing that we will be moving apart soon. We are from: St. Paul, New York City, Hilton Head, Boise, Albuquerque and Austin.


My calendar fills up with meetings and rehearsals. Funny that I haven’t touched that thing much since I’ve been here. A little too bad because I would have liked to see what I did each night. On the other hand it’s been a liberating time. My touchstones have been my laptop and the notebook I’ve dedicated exclusively to this project. What will I do without them: the project, the notebook?


In truth some exciting things await me, most with live or original music that has become such a linchpin of inspiration. I must re-immerse upon my return, but for now I will attempt to saver these last days and these people. Like elastic I expand more into personhood. I am still becoming.

Table Work

Posted by on Jan 06 2016

To whatever circumstances conspired to lead me here, I am so thankful. I sit in my palatial one-bedroom apartment on the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi and take it all in. I am up early due to lagging jet lag, but it doesn’t matter. I am so happy.


My friend Scott brought me here. He has been commissioned by his company, Theater Mitu, to research and workshop a new dance theater work. I am one of four other dancer hybrids he invited, along with his composer brother Todd who is, literally, a rockstar. Perhaps for the first time the company is leaning toward the dance side of the fence, and for some miraculous reason he thought to bring me in.


Now, Scott and I met when I was thirteen. We danced together in the Dayton Ballet II before he joined the main company. By the time I finished high school, he had moved to New York. I followed just a couple years later, but by then he had established a social and professional circle that was eons different from my own. We stayed in touch only slightly.


Over the next two decades there was no contact until Facebook came along. No matter how much I may disparage FB, it is an amazing tool for connecting with long lost friends and colleagues. He commented a few times on my doings and in that way had a tiny view into my artistic world.


So here we are, working together for the first time since I was a teenager, and the thrill I feel in my stomach is real, visceral to myself. It blows my mind that our disparate paths led us here and into conversations about work and art that are challenging, investigatory and inspiring. Add to that the heady nature of being in freakin’ Abu Dhabi, and I am over the moon.


It is a great relief to not be the one in charge. In recent years I have led some big projects to fruition, and while I am so thankful to be at that level, this scenario is perhaps more recognizable to me, working as cohort and contributor. I feel that my voice is fully heard, and we’re still just doing table work!


I am anxious to get on our feet and I am trepidatious. My hope for myself is that I can bring to bear all my dancer smarts and physical capabilities. I don’t want to operate from a place of trying to prove, but one of quiet confidence and patience. I want to remain an open vessel as well as be unafraid to take creative lead and risks when appropriate.


During sleepless moments (and there are many!) the ideas we discuss by day percolate. This is where I feel the most freedom re: not being the one in charge. I can allow thoughts and ruminations to flow freely, even through my half-awake brain. I don’t have to force anything. There is no deadline.


I hear the pre-sunrise call to prayer and nestle further into this down comforter and too fat pillows. It is now that I remember that I am here, in this strange and wonderful place, displaced in almost every way. I lean upon the comforts of my own integrity that earned me my seat at this table.

In Residence: II and III

Posted by on Nov 25 2015

  1. 11/22/15

I am blind in the studio. I find that my body seizes because my brain is full of details that I am terrified are going to slip through the cracks. I think I need the rest of the day to organize my calendar and thus my restless thoughts.


I am still in Cassis, France, such a gift of time and space. Funny how real life still finds a way to intrude. I keep reminding myself that all the things I am engaged in (even if I am slightly over-committed) are such great privileges to be a part of. All of my projects are connected with live music components, and interfacing with material at that level, even if a work is pre-existing like Four Saints in Three Acts, well, it is a privilege as I said.


But I digress. I am here in the studio, continuing to work on my new piece with London-based dance artist Donna Schoenherr. She has come and gone, leaving me with assignments that feel, in terms of efforting on solo like this, like defying gravity. But there are many things that I know, at least in terms of what needs doing. Donna and I have identified twelve sections that form the skeleton for this new work. Twelve because of numbers on a clock and the poetry of how time so fundamentally affected Muybridge’s time-defying photographs. I think that we have done such a good job in terms of hitching our horses to the source material. We keep coming back to reexamine what is in his body of work. Once we are clear, we launch away, far away sometimes, into our interpretive world of dance and image making. So I have a good under-pinning here. I just have to keep my wits AND continue to allow the full range of my imaginings to bubble up.




And today, breakthrough. The day began in a rush, a crush-cram to get to the yoga class that is in the studio where I rehearse. I was grumpy, slightly nervous and trying to rise to the occasion of being inevitably conspicuous. The class was lovely and got me out of my head, a very welcome necessity.


Jack set up his easel nearby and finished a painting when I finished class. We went for my usual vending-machine coffee at the nearby grocery, a discovery three weeks ago that continues to make my day every time I partake. Moccacino Decaffene!


Jack filmed a solo I’ve been maintaining since Donna left, and then I worked hard on another one, toward the end of the piece. I got a pretty good though modest start on it yesterday. The great thing is I have vocabulary from the entire piece to draw from. The hard thing is, well, it’s hard for me to be in the studio alone.


I’m learning that I work well when I keep repeating what I have so far, from the top and with the music. Today I also placed an obstacle in my way; it will eventually be a haystack. That helped. I made geographic decisions and it informed the movement, as did the title of that section, Throwing Self on Heap of Hay, which is so magnificent, taken verbatim from Muybridge himself. So I threw myself around and that felt good and, a little bit, like something I recognized.

In Residence

Posted by on Nov 15 2015

I am in residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France with Donna Schoenherr, my dear friend and colleague from my NYC days over 20 years ago. She was my rehearsal director when I danced for Michael Mao Dance, but by the end of my tenure there we had become friends and even worked together on her choreography. There’s nothing like working in a studio to build intimacy and trust if that is what’s meant to come forward.


In 1994 our lives drove us to wildly separate existences, Europe for her and Minneapolis for me. In 2003 we came together to collaborate on a solo for me, landing/takeoff. This became the impetus for my first full-evening show at The Southern in 2005. (This is the show that composer Jocelyn Hagen saw that obliquely prompted our collaboration, an ongoing joy of my personal and creative life.)


Since then Donna and I have been searching for a way to work together again, and a couple of years ago Donna landed on an idea for a new piece, one that in a split-second ignited my imagination and my heart. This gave us a handle, a touchstone, a literal something to write about as we searched for funding.


Cut to 2014 when I won a McKnight Fellowship for Choreographers. This amazing award came with the additional bonus of a choreographic residency. Thus here I am at Camargo, the perfect fit, mainly because of wanting to re-boot my writing practice and this environment inspires a slowing down, a simultaneous turning inward as well as outward. I want to work on choreography too, but studio access here is tricky. It involves an off-site public space, the use of which requires permission from the Mayor. My “payment” is teaching a class to teenagers as well as a brief choreography that they will use in a performance next July. It is my great pleasure to comply. I love interacting with a culture at the level of what it is that I do: working with dancers, teaching and generating original movement vocabulary.


But before I do all that I am collaborating with Donna who hails from London. Our work here has the added benefit of the both of us being displaced, plunked down in paradise where we can blur the lines between hands-on working, conceiving and catching up. Our new piece, working title Helioscope, will premiere at The Right Here Show in Minneapolis in April. Originally thought to be a solo for me with a group of extras that I will work with at home, we now know that Donna will be in it too, and I am so happy! Not only do we get to share a stage (which we have never done), we get to conceive with an expanded palette. This was among the first surprises of many that have evolved during our short time here.


Helioscope is an investigation through movement, sound and filmic imagery that expounds upon the photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge. A man that changed his name three times, killed his wife’s lover and kept his distance from people to such a degree that there is no evidence of portraiture in his vast photographic repertoire, makes for a tricky proposition in terms of subject matter for a dance. So we are concentrating on his vast oeuvre of photographic output and, specifically, the iconic studies of the human body recorded in his flip book-like series.


Our movement generation sources from this imagery, and we are finally reaching a level of translation that is more embodied than on-the-page. This work is big on concept and yet I think we are keeping a playful eye on it, not getting bogged down in the literal. Our touch aims to be poetic, meditative and whimsical.


Today is Sunday, and we’ve decided to take a physical reprieve. We will continue to conceive, plot, plan and dream, but we will do so through the enjoyments of a civilized lunch out and a boat ride to the Calanques (the Mediterranean version of fjords) that are the main attraction here. Donna extended her stay through Tuesday, so we feel that that this break is doable and in fact necessary.


A word about Paris…

We are here during a tragic moment of current history, the bombings and hostage situation that took place in Paris on Friday night. Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, the French and all those affected (which is all of us really) by this senseless violence. It is strange to be in the south of France where beauty is everywhere. We tried to take the pulse of the people here yesterday as we carried on with our work. Folks were out and about and it was quite populated, it being the weekend. Toddlers stumbled along holding on to their parents’ hands and adolescents played soccer along the port. Couples sat at tables facing the water, nursing aperitifs or nightcaps. In short, life carried on, and it feels appropriate that we do too. We heard from many friends who were worried or simply wanted to check in. A nice feeling, and we got back to all of them. I flew through Paris on Monday after all.


Ours are small concerns. We are so fortunate.


Watching ‘Under the Current’, All Lit Up

Posted by on Aug 07 2015

I saw Under the Current last night, my friend Sharon Picasso’s newest version of her epic piece that I caught as a work-in-progress last year at the Red Eye. It is well on its way to fulfilling its destiny as a deeply satisfying dance-infused theatrical experience.


With illumination created entirely by onstage light sources, the tone is mysterious, like the performers are working at the edge of their psyches. The section I had seen before was the first one, featuring collaborator/performer Jesse Nuemann-Peterson. A compelling tiger-like presence, Jesse commanded the stage with meditative then volatile states of being. His role seemed to initially be about demonstrating work, tasks like winding balls of twine (literally) then building into wild chopping gestures (danced/mimed). Eventually the ‘work’ was absorbed, transformed and abstracted into his body, his very core.


He lit and unlit quadrants of the stage as he went. This came off as both deliberate and random. I simply trusted the internal logic and thoroughly enjoyed the play of light on the action and objects.


This solo drifted away and on came Sharon as performer and light-manipulator. This section was interesting as a transition and stand-alone segment. It managed to be both quotidian and just the right amount of performative, ending as it did with a stunning solo investigating staying in place with tendrilled gestures spilling out of the body.


The third and final section was danced by performer/collaborator Heidi Kalweit. Reminiscent of a futuristic, Blade Runner-like installation, this solo began with Heidi rolling on with yet another light source. She resembled a mannequin, but quickly humanized as gestures of self-discovery began her tour de force solo. Her presence had just the right amount of neutrality coupled with a burning behind the eyes, yet another source of light.


Also about performing tasks, basic things like ambulating from point A to point B, this section brought me in to Heidi’s experience by the sheer act of watching her interact with herself and her surroundings. One of my favorite passages was a repeated diagonal, a ready-set-go hurling and sliding. With each repeat came slight variations. I could have watched this for longer.


And then there was the end, the fiery constellation formed by lassoing a lighted moving dolly. As Heidi whipped it around her body, its wheels grinding on the floor added a satisfying texture to the sound score (compiled and designed by Sharon), another image I could’ve seen for longer.


The upshot is that this piece deserves to be seen and seen again. I sincerely hope there will be another incarnation. Artist’s works are never really ‘done’, but in this case, with such rich material, the investigation is ever-unfolding.

Before I Leave

Posted by on Jul 09 2015

I leave soon for my annual two-week teaching gig at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in beautiful Michigan national forest. I have a heavy roster of teaching, I get to choreograph on the Dance Ensemble for which I’ve arranged live piano accompaniment, I will spend time at Lake Michigan (salt-less but like an ocean just the same), and I will contemplate the three new works I am in the middle of making for my November show. With all this on the docket I will miss both weekends of Momentum, so I was pleased to get permission to see the dress rehearsal last night of the first-weekend line-up at The Southern.


I leave town with inspiration in my suitcase. There’s nothing like seeing brand new work to set me thinking about making dances. Plus there’s something special about dress rehearsals; I wish all shows could feel that fresh and privileged.


First up was the duo Hiponymous (Renee Copeland and Genevieve Muench) with State of the Moon Address. These collaborators are perfectly paired, highly attuned to their own and one another’s dancing. They each bring unique qualities to bear that to see them in tandem is more like seeing them exponentially. They abound with quirky, well-danced intelligence.


This work was fascinating and quite riveting at times. I went with them for the whole ride and particularly loved the very beginning and the very end. Along the way was a bumpy, trippy landscape of jaunty work and serious fun, laced with social commentary that never took over. Their engagement with the world they created was put forward, and that was as it should be.


There were exuberant dance passages that unabashedly brought me into their relationship, both onstage and off. Their comfort with and trust in one another came shining through and allowed for a settling in, even though the work is brand new. There were sloppy times, deliberately so, that usually were about exposition and advancing their scenario. Rearrangements of objects sometimes took precedence over dancerly-ness, while maintaining specific states of being.


The work was thoughtful, utterly original and bore the marks of having been created over a good long time. The sound design by Kalen Keir and Tom Woodling supported the work well.


Next was Luke Olson-Elm’s Broken, a dance for six. I very much enjoyed this work too, with its cool, melancholy tone. Clad in grey and white, the absence of color both reflected the mood and made of a clean palette against which to view the movement.


The vocabulary blended styles: extreme contemporary ballet with hip-hop-like impulses. It was leggy, lowdown and extremely articulate in the spine. One of my favorite passages was when Olson-Elm, alone onstage, traversed the vertical plane via deep plies and spine/pelvis contractions while obscurely gesturing. One by one the other performers entered, all on their own timing but ticking through the same order of events. It was a poignant, sad moment, all those people getting the rug pulled out from under them time and again, without actually falling down.


I very much enjoyed the dancing diversity here. Two Zenon dancers and four independents made for a fascinating display of differing movement motivations and body textures. Olson-Elm projects a fluid, no bones quality that amplifies when coupled with Sarah Steichen’s controlled muscularity. To watch them do the exact same phrase is like eating apples and oranges. They are incomparable and both great on a hot summer day.


I thought the transitions were especially good, the holdover of a dancer while others exited and a new crop entered, creating a new scene. Two lamps hanging upstage, one on each side, were put to good effect. The lighting in general, by Heidi Eckwall, was outstanding. For this work it served as scenery, altering environments and defining spaces.


I appreciated the unabashed sincerity of this work. It goes to show that when a dancemaker digs deep, truth rings out. I want to live up to that and I appreciate the reminder.