Originally from West Palm Beach, Penny graduated from the Harid Conservatory in 1995, and began her professional career with The American Repertory Ballet under the direction of Septime Webre. She went on to dance with Ballet Arizona, MOMIX Dance Theater, Cedar Lake Ensemble and in 2004 she joined Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. In 2011, Saunders won the International Commissioning Project which launched her choreographic career, creating pieces for Hubbard Streets’ main and second company, Whim W’Him, SFDancworks, Neos Dance Theater, Owen Cox Dance Group, and The Nexus Project.
Saunders is the choreographer-in residence at Grand Rapids Ballet and receives support from New York City Ballet Choreographic Commissions Initiative. She was the recipient of the 2016 Princess Grace Foundation Choreographic Fellowship. In the 2018-2019 season, she will collaborate with The Royal New Zealand Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Ballet Idaho, Seattle Dance Collective, The Grand Rapids Ballet, and SALT Contemporary Dance in residency at The University of Utah (see her upcoming works following the interview).
LY: First let’s talk about Testimony. You mentioned this was your first truly political work, why now and what do you hope your audience takes away?
PS: When I was listening to the [Kavanaugh] hearings on the radio, I was immediately thinking, “Wow, this could make an interesting piece.” There were just so many overlapping elements to it. First of all, it seemed like such a show! Everyone involved knew there would be no resolution, no new evidence was coming out even with the additional FBI investigation, and there was missing information–a key person was not coming forward.
There we were though, all of us listening to their every word, watching their every action as they talked about their darkest and most vulnerable moments. I hated myself for listening so intently…it felt like one of those awful reality shows! Then the after discussions began: “Well, I found her to be really believable…” blah, blah, blah. [I thought] there has to be a better way than this! We had already experienced the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas hearings years before. So similar and so heartbreaking. I suppose making a piece about these hearings was my personal way of digesting it all, and ultimately, I am asking the audience to consider the way in which we hear women. Are we really listening well enough?
LY: Any future works you are already choreographing in your head?
PS: I am constantly choreographing in my head. I wish I could get it to stop sometimes! But yes, I usually mull over ideas for future projects for a while and create little choreographic wish lists and playlists of music for each. I like to think of myself as a professional daydreamer.
LY: You said something fascinating when we were talking, that you prefer to find younger dancers who, “Haven’t decided what is beautiful yet,” so essentially, they don’t have a pre-existing notion of how they should look. Can you elaborate a bit more?
PS: Yes, what I find (in the ballet world especially) is that people hold on to their ideas of beauty and what looks good on their body because they have had to for many years. I find it hard to undo those things, those physical habits can be so ingrained, that I often find it easier to work with younger dancers who have had less time in the studio “perfecting” those ingrained physicalities so there is more room for my input.
The relationship a dancer has with the floor is key to the unfolding of their story.-Penny Saunders to Liza Yntema
LY: We also talked about pointe work; you have choreographed for it, although I haven’t seen any of your pieces en pointe. Can you describe why and how you choose to set a work with pointe shoes or not and how that changes technique and what you look for in dancers?
PS: I wouldn’t say it is my preference, but I have become more and more comfortable creating that type of vocabulary with every new commission that calls for that element.
At first, I found it intimidating because the last ten years of my career was spent at Hubbard Street where socks are the most common footwear. With time and some experimenting though, I have found that making work en pointe can be quite fun.
For me now, it becomes another tool in my tool box. For certain characters or certain stories, pointe shoes can make the most sense, and for others it might need to be barefoot, high-heeled, or what-have-you. It is just another option I appreciate having when I am trying to create distinct characters – the relationship a dancer has with the floor is key to the unfolding of their story.
LY: You mentioned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. You came up through this company, with Glenn Edgerton, one of the most forward thinking and inclusive Artistic Directors. How do you think that shaped you as a dancer and choreographer? Have you experienced negative reaction to women taking on leadership positions?
PS: You know, I think that I have been extremely lucky. In my dance career I jumped around a lot – different styles and companies – which gave me a sense of ownership over my own path. I loved experiencing new things and being creative, and the people I worked for loved that too. I had no idea that I would become a choreographer; it still surprises me some times, but I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point. I love it, and it drives me crazy–the perfect combo. I am so grateful that I always felt supported.
LY: I am constantly amazed at just how hard physically and mentally everyone in the dance world works. Not just the dancers, but the choreographers, Artistic Directors, Ballet Masters, etc. How does the difficulty change when you are also mom – I know you and your husband trade off – are you provided tools: child care, places to nurse a baby, or flexible hours?
PS: I think that being a mom adds to the experience in so many ways. Not only do you feel love more intensely, you feel everything more intensely!
Now that my son is a little older, I am able to relax into it a bit more, but at first it was hell! Being a freelance choreographer is a job that takes me many places, where I have to spend quite a lot of time away from home. As a mom, I just can’t do that. I wouldn’t want to. Thank goodness my husband understands so completely the roles that I juggle – he juggles them too. Organizing our calendar is a ridiculous endeavor sometimes, but we love what we do and we whole heartedly understand and appreciate what it means to parent a child. We have had to set boundaries with our time, and we have had to learn to not say yes to everything. Being home, or at least together wherever we are is our biggest goal. Our 5-year-old son has more frequent flyer miles than most adults!
LY: The Big Question – How do you keep ballet relevant, important, and consistent to diverse audiences, or do you feel that’s not really your role? What is the future of ballet given the fact that government funding is dwindling and audiences are aging?
PS: I think that the role of the arts in this world is under-appreciated. It is one of those things that we think that we can live without, therefore we treat it as this extra expense reserved for the elite.
It is our job as artists to continue reengaging the world by making work that has relevance and shares an honest voice that invites the audience to participate and reconnect. There is a special type of magic that happens when a room full of people share an experience together –– by connecting to the art that they are witnessing, they are able to connect with one another.
There is a special type of magic that happens when a room full of people share an experience together –– by connecting to the art that they are witnessing, they are able to connect with one another.-Penny Saunders to Liza Yntema
LY: The Other Big Question – How can DDP best serve you, women like you, and the little girls I saw in pink tutus in the studio with their noses pressed up against the door as Grand Rapids rehearsed?
PS: Exposure is a big issue for me. I often make work on smaller companies, which I love, but very often there are no professional photographers/videographers or critics. This makes it difficult to share my work with the world. If more directors could see my pieces performed live, I think I would have a better chance at getting new commissions in larger companies.
Most companies I work for do not take their shows on the road either, so the one weekend of shows is all I get. If there are no good quality videos or photos to share with other directors or festivals, then my work goes relatively unseen. Emerging from this pattern is what I am working on now…
Upcoming Projects for Penny:
April 11th – 21st : SALT Contemporary Dance in residency at The University of Utah (premiere)
June 6th – 9th : NWA Ballet Theater (remount)
July 12th – 14th : Seattle Dance Collective (remount)
October 18th – 20th : The Grand Rapids Ballet (premiere)
October 11th – 13th : Indiana University (remount)
October 24th – 27th: The Dayton Ballet (remount)
November 1st – 3rd : Ballet Idaho (remount)
February 7th – 9th : Diablo Ballet (remount)
April 2nd – 5th : Dayton Ballet (remount)
April 16th – 19th : Pointe Park University (remount)
April 17th – 19th : Oklahoma City Ballet (premiere)
May 7th – 10th : Tulsa Ballet (premiere)
May 22nd – 24th: Whim W’Him (premiere)
July 8th – 19th : BalletX (premiere)
Saunders’ biographical information was obtained from Grand Rapids Ballet and upcoming projects were provided by Saunders.