Get to Know ‘Movemedia’ Choreographer Penny Saunders
By Adrienne Warber
When Grand Rapids Ballet choreographer-in-residence Penny Saunders won the Princess Grace Award Choreographic Fellowship in 2016, Saunders’ choreography was recognized on an international scale as an emerging talent to watch. Penny Saunders has forged an impressive path in contemporary dance expression. This year, Saunders is one of the featured choreographers in Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Movemedia World Premieres,” which opens next Friday, March 10.
“Movemedia” stands out as a unique opportunity for some of the industry’s most gifted choreographers to try out their contemporary choreography on Grand Rapids Ballet’s professional dancers and experiment with media and movement in creative ways. Get to know “Movemedia” choreographer, Penny Saunders, as she talks about her journey from classical ballet to contemporary dance and award-winning choreography.
About Penny Saunders
Penny Saunders studied dance at The Harid Conservatory in Florida and graduated in 1995. After graduation, she trained with Elisabeth Carroll, and began her professional dance career with The American Repertory Ballet, where she mainly focused on classical ballet. In 1999, Saunders joined Ballet Arizona and had more opportunities to dance both classical and contemporary pieces. After meeting Moses Pendleton, the Artistic Director of MOMIX, known as “the company of dance-illusionists” for its inventive and creative performances, Saunders was invited to perform and tour extensively with MOMIX for two years. She then moved to New York City in 2003 and became a founding member of Cedar Lake Ensemble, a contemporary ballet company. Saunders moved to Chicago in 2004 and joined Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a contemporary dance company, and she danced the works of some of the field’s leading contemporary choreographers, such as Jiří Kylián, Twyla Tharp, Alejandro Cerrudo and Nacho Duato. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago also allowed her to explore her interest in choreography, and she participated in Hubbard’s annual Inside/Out Choreographic Workshop. Saunder’s choreography flourished at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and she won the National Choreographic Competition in 2011, which led to her choreographing works for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. She became a choreographer-in-residence at University of Akron and choreographed pieces for Whim W’Him, Owen/Cox Dance Group, Neos Dance Theater and SFDanceworks during her residency. In 2016, Saunders won the prestigious Princess Grace Choreographic Fellowship. She is currently the choreographer-in-residence at Grand Rapids Ballet, supported by the New York City Ballet Choreographic Commissions Initiative.
Contemporary Dance and Self-Expression
Saunders began her training in classical ballet, but she found her heart in contemporary dance. She loves the freedom to express and create in contemporary dance.
“I kind of switched worlds a long time ago. When I was little, I did some acro-jazz, tap and competition dance, but then I went to Harid. I loved it, and I thought I wanted to a ballerina. I worked with Septime Webre for four years, and he’s pretty contemporary, neoclassical. Working with him put the seeds in the ground because I realized that I was creative, and I liked to make things, and twisting stories was much cooler to me than resetting the classics. I loved building, making, creating,” says Saunders.
She made a decision to focus on contemporary dance. She comments, “For a while, I did both (classical ballet and contemporary). Then, I realized that wasn’t as fulfilling, so I went to MOMIX and that was kind of like being in a circus, and we traveled. It made me look at theatre differently, which was great for me. Somewhere along the way, I found Hubbard Street and figured out who Kylián and Nacho Duato are. I thought, “Why didn’t I learn this in school?” This is amazing. It’s everything – you to have line, you have to have a beautiful whatever, you have to point your feet and relax them too. There are no limitations and choreographically, there are no limitations. Like I can put a person on stage and have someone else just shake their face, or let spit fly in the light, and it’s dance. Then, I can move onto to something more classical like holding an arabesque or a pas de deux. Contemporary is so broad. It makes sense to me and that’s how I like to express myself.”
Saunders’ Choreography Style
Saunders’ choreography is emotional, artistic and inventive. Her work is both award-winning and critically acclaimed. Her years of classical ballet training are evident, but she uses a contemporary approach to make her art.
She chooses challenging themes for her choreographic work. One of her pieces for Whim W’Him, “Soir Bleu” is based on the life and paintings of American artist Edward Hopper, where dancers recreated scenes in paintings. She created “Flight,” for the Neos Dance Theatre and a piece called “Ghost Light” for the Owen/Cox Dance Group that were really stood out for the dancers’ artistic movements and sense of emotion.
Saunders describes her choreography style, “I love line and my ballet background comes through there. I love structure and find harmony in it. I love beautiful connections. However, the emotional connection is more important than the line. I don’t mind sacrificing the pretty for the emotional. I also like to be musical.”
When Saunders choreographs, she generally likes to come prepared with a certain set of ideas, but she is starting to create more in the collaborative process. She talks about her choreography style and what it was like choreographing her 2015 “Movemedia” piece. “I’m letting myself be less and less prepared on purpose because I want to let more information come in and create as I work with the dancers. For “Movemedia,” though, I came in with a clear idea. This time since we had the theatre space available, I wanted to explore something that was usually not possible without this type of access. I decided to play with light. As I work with the dancers, we work on a bunch of ideas, and then we figure out what works, what doesn’t. I record it all, and then when we work on it again, I’ll have it all put together. It’s a puzzle, and it’s often different than what you think when all the pieces come together. It’s an evolving process,” says Saunders.
Saunder’s 2015 ‘Movemedia II’ Choreography
In 2015, Penny Saunder received critical acclaim for her piece, “base ∞” in “Movemedia II,” which focused on the work of female choreographers. Saunders, along with Susan Jaffe, Andrea Schermoly and Yuka Oba choreographed works for the production. Saunders’ piece for “Movemedia II” started with a working title of “Flicker” because the piece was inspired by light and how it flickers, glows and reflects. The final title is “base ∞.” 11 dancers (six men and five women) will perform the piece to a music selection that includes Georg Frederick Handel and David Lang.
“In this piece, I am playing with light and this piece of fabric that I hung. My pieces are generally character driven and picturesque. My last piece was based on the life of Edward Hopper and his paintings. I wanted to do something different. I came up with the play of light and how it interplays with the curtain. The dancers make it come alive,” says Saunders.
The piece has been a collaborative effort between Saunders, Grand Rapids Ballet dancers and Kendall College of Art and Design. Saunders has been hands on from the start. She worked directly with students from the Kendal College of Art and Design, who designed the costumes for “base ∞.”
Saunders discusses working with the Kendall College of Art and Design, “We talked on Skype and also met. They all came up with individual ideas that I gave them. I didn’t want the costumes to overtake the piece. I want the main characters to be the light and the curtain. I want the costumes to be sleek, stark, maybe black, white or silver. I’m playing with it being either lit or dark. Nothing floral. They haven’t designed for dance before, so we have to work out details that work for movement. I need to see the line of the leg. We are thinking of going with pants. I want the option of taking off the pants, so maybe the dancer also has a leotard. We have been playing with the idea of a sliver of silver or skin that would be visible in the costume to catch the light.”
Saunders talks about working with the Grand Rapids Ballet dancers, “I really enjoyed working with them. They are very open, hardworking, and eager, and respond well.”
She was also happy to work with Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director Patricia Barker and Grand Rapids Ballet Creative Director Michael Auer. She comments, “It’s wonderful working with Patricia and Michael. They are very open to ideas. The answer is never “no,” instead, they make a suggestion on a better alternative. The fact that they are not boxing me in is so great for a creative person.”
‘Movemedia’ Ticket Information
Discover the special magic of Penny Saunder’s choreography and see her work at “Movemedia World Premieres.” Grand Rapids Ballet will present “Movemedia World Premieres” in three performances on Friday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 12 at 2:00 p.m. at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre at 341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids. Purchase tickets online at Ticketmaster or by calling the Grand Rapids Ballet Box Office at (616) 457-4771, ext. 10.