Penelope Freeh


thoughts on dance

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.

On the Carousel

Posted by on Mar 20 2015

Carousel has opened, a “semi-staged” production with Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall..

If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way…

In this case, “semi-staged” means all elements present except for scenery. We are costumed and have props. It’s fully choreographed, and it’ll even be broadcast live tonight, Friday 3/20, at 8pm on 99.5 FM. Yikes!

This is an astounding production, and I am honored to be a part of it. So astounding, in fact, that I am blogging for the first time in many months save for my occasional Walker contributions (new one posted today in fact on the great Tere O’Connor:

For Carousel I choreographed some of the songs and created the 10-minute Ballet in Act II. If those weren’t satisfying enough I also get to play Louise, the 15-year old daughter of the two main characters. What a role: dancing, speaking, portraying a gentle/fierce heart who facilitates her family’s karmic change.

So folks, it’s been over twenty years since I worked with dialogue. This process has been scary and titillating. It’s exciting for me to take all my dramaturgical smarts relative to dance and apply them to speaking. It’s so technical: timing, voice register, blocking, remembering, actually looking at and listening to the folks you’re acting with. Ah, it’s an art and I can recognize it when it works.

I remember seeing the great Dame Judy Dench in Amy’s View on Broadway. There was a scene where she sat at a dressing table way downstage. There was no mirror, the audience was it instead, a brilliant device. She removed her make-up then proceeded to become transparent. I literally saw the top of her head open up, emotion fall in and pour forth as language. She was a vessel.

I’ve thought about that image many times over the years and have striven to translate the concept into my dancing. But now to do it with language, challenging language at that, is another thing entirely. It is threading a needle without cheaters on, without getting to lick the thread first.

My point of entry is to filter my speaking through the lens of physicality. Thankfully the Ballet comes first in my line-up of scenes, so I’ve already set the tone as a 15-year old. But then I have to undergo a huge emotional shift, from humiliated to laughing, within about 2 minutes. Time has passed within the story, but not that much time. It’s still the same day. So then I recall all that I am capable of containing simultaneously or from fleeting moment to fleeting moment in real life. I have a huge capacity and ability to set things aside as I need to in order to get a thing done. I apply that to Louise while trying to remain guileless.

The process of making and performing this show is all about relationships. So many deep and rich connections add daily to my enjoyment, satisfaction and poignant loneliness at the end of a long day on the Carousel ride.

Blue Lake Miss

Posted by on Jul 12 2014

I am home again and miss Blue Lake like a person. I used to say that about New York when I moved here from there 20 years ago. “I miss it like a person.”


Yes it’s the place but really, it’s the people. This summer experience, camp, is one I’ve been having forever. Since the age of thirteen I’ve gone away to summer dance programs, camps essentially, for anywhere from four to nine weeks. That’s a hell of a long time to be away, to hit pause on friendships at home in order to go away and dance. To then bond so completely with new friends that I had to walk through the fire in reverse. The story of my life, and it’s worth it every time.


The amazing thing about Blue Lake is that the Art is really forward. I’ve witnessed collaboration dreams turn into reality and private recitals give birth to lifelong friendships. There have been divorce, children born and lost, relationships entered into and violently ended, and yet all of it has happened in the context of artists doing what they do: their craft and teaching it. Put art nerds and brooding poet types together and it’s bound to get hot and sticky.


I am home again, deep into choreographing my third musical in as many months, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. This work is extraordinary and bless my heart, I learned the show less than a week ago. It has a stunning score and subtle story with a Zen sort of ending, laced throughout with waltzing. Enter me and I am blessed to be a part of it. This production is with the wonderful Mu Performing Arts, an Asian American theater company, and will be performed at Park Square Theater in downtown St. Paul.


But tonight, Saturday night and literally the first moment I’ve truly had to myself since I’ve been home, I am missing my Blue Lake peeps. So I sent a group text, an SOS really, and received an instantaneous and gratifying flurry of replies. I too am missed. Apparently I belong in several places at once. How lovely, how, sort of, Zen.

Blue Lake Magic

Posted by on Jun 25 2014

I am at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Deep in national forest in Twin Lake, MI, this context is perfect for what needs doing now: rest, rejuvenation and mostly, contemplation. I am working of course, but here, somehow, that word feels lighter.


This time around I am teaching Ballet, Pointe and Yoga. Though unofficially trained in the latter, I teach a great rendition based upon my extensive physical learning at Core Power. The class here is comprised mostly of non-dance majors studying orchestra, band, choir, theater or visual art. They are thirsty for a physical and somewhat spiritual practice. It’s my final class of the day, and it is a joy.


Today, however, is the placement audition for our incoming dance majors. We divide them into two groups so as to give them the best possible attention appropriate to their level. We are thoughtful about this, and I know that I benefited from such distinctions at their age. Even if placed in a lower level I would rise to the top out of the sheer necessity to prove myself.


Nic and I are roommates again (year 5) and have our usual love/sibling relationship. It is not always easy, but it is always worth it. We push and support and art make. This morning he brought me coffee and my heart melted. Just now we decided that I will help him work with the students choreographically. Always a good and valuable thing, to audit and contribute to a process.


I need to get my creative house in order. For this reason I think it is good and fitting that this year I am not officially choreographing here. I will help but can reserve my stores for my own doings, Test Pilot specifically. My goal while here is to really get a handle on all the parts, from watching video of what I’ve made so far to creating the final schedule to communicating with Jocelyn and the powers that be at The O’Shaughnessy. This is my biggest undertaking to date, and I want to strike the balance of staying on top of my responsibilities, trusting that others will do the same and then letting go!


Friends are here, old and new. Last night’s bonfire launched this first session appropriately. Intimacies were reinforced with promises to find a time to sleep on the beach, a tradition begun last year. I shared my beer, a quick way to solidify old and make new friends. We caught up, traded gossipy stories and laughed and laughed. The new dining hall is less magical but really, magic is in the people gathered around the fire. Welcome to Brigadoon where time is mysteriously different, newcomers are quickly integrated and trees rustle overhead, blanketing like mist.

Host Committee

Posted by on Jun 19 2014

Dance USA has come to town. It’s been an honor to be on the host committee, planning for more than year. It’s relieving and satisfying to see things now underway.


Last night’s Opening Celebration was festive and fun: Mad King Thomas wore blue, Arwen Wilder sported napkins for sleeves, and Liz Lerman passed on wisdom for the ages: Purpose, Comradeship, Risk. “It’s important to embark on something and not know the outcome.” Oh, thank goodness. Test Pilot is scaring me and, if I understood Liz correctly, that’s good.


I am having a gentle entry into the conference. The shyness in my nature comes out at times like these, and this is no exception. Tonight I perform, which feels more familiar certainly but is so loaded. All I can do is the work, put it forward unflinchingly.


This morning a great surprise came in the form of Michael Mao, my former director when I lived in NYC. I danced for him for two years and met lifelong friends via Michael Mao Dance. He is the same as ever: talkative, anecdotal, funny, charming, AND we went deep. There is so much wisdom there, and lunching with him was like getting a piece of my heart back. It had been twenty years.


So if pieces of my heart are connected to certain individuals, why then do I put off communication with them? Perhaps this medium will help, this blog, this log.

Inaugural Blog: Good Housekeeping

Posted by on Jun 16 2014

When Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show I was skeptical. I knew little about him, had never seen his former late night show, and had only seen him on SNL a handful of times at most. But given that his inaugural show followed the Olympics (a happening with which I am obsessed), I gave it a shot.


He had me at Hello. Well, almost. It was his monologue that did it. He started with some housekeeping: he thanked and introduced his parents who were in the audience; he thanked the powers that be for entrusting him with the job; he said he’ll always start with a monologue, that he grew up on Carson and was allowed to stay up to watch Johnny’s monologue; and he said that he was so humbled to think that kids today might ask to stay up late to watch HIS monologue. And here is where I became a devoted fan: he actually got choked up. He was so real. Subsequent viewings have proven this time and again. His smile is beautiful, endearing and authentic, he is a musical genius, he is fearless, he is humble, he is (hashtag) funny and he sincerely likes people. He is engaged and interested with their lives and doings AND he gets to scratch his own itches re: comedy and music.


Thus I am inspired on many levels. I too will do a little housekeeping here as I launch this new website and blog, a scary and big moment for me.


A little website history: I very half-heartedly launched a website in 2010. It immediately became irrelevant as my story changed along with my priorities and my impetus for dancing and making work. As soon as I posted a bio I felt dated and somehow held down. And to top it off, I did not have the capacity to learn how to interface with it. I could not access and update my own life. I was vanquished.


Cut to three weeks ago. The amazing and whip-smart Tara King (yes, of Mad King Thomas fame/infamy) offered a website building deal to dancers and I bit. I came away from our first meeting actually more excited than terrified. (That she was wearing alphabet pants and a lavender rhinestone choker didn’t hurt.) I couldn’t wait to get home to research websites that interest and inspire me, to give her an idea of my taste and aesthetic. A motivation for me, on par with wanting to put my choreography forward, was launching a new blog. And so here I am. This “theme” is called Pen & Paper (Tara has dubbed it Penny & Paper), which enchants me, plus I like the fonts.


A little blog history: I launched a blog in 2006. Inspired by a performance at Northrop of Shen Wei Dance Arts, I HAD to write. I started a blog the next day, and it was as though a new dimension in my dance artistry unfurled. What began as quasi critique quickly turned into memoir, personal essay and almost-journal. My dancing deepened, and I had evidence that it added up to something. The ephemeral gained a foothold.


And then one day I just stopped. Life needed to be lived and deeply felt and that was good, but then the habit of not writing set in and that was too bad. Oh well, I let it happen. But now I’m ready to return.


How this is going go: I am going to write about a whole bunch of stuff, from Jimmy Fallon to Twin Cities artists, to my past/present/future. I will usually do so through the lens of dance, but possibly not always. I will be honest and sincere. I will thank my parents (mother/step-father, father/step-mother). I will get choked up.


At the top right of this page are links to my Walker Art Center blogs (on their Performing Arts Series dances) and my former blog. I am not going to go back and edit, so there are misspellings and perhaps opinions that have since changed. It’s ok. Have at it.


If you wish to comment on this blog, you can do so through my Contact page. An email will be sent directly to me.


Yay, it’s great to be back. Thanks for reading.