An Interview with Penny Saunders

30 January 2018 Published in News and Announcements
On February 8, when performances of the Spring Utah Ballet begin, the Salt Lake City dance community will witness a night of both classic and innovative works. In January, undergraduate student Victoria Holmes sat down with Penny Saunders, resident choreographer of Grand Rapids Ballet, who is creating a new piece for Spring Utah Ballet. Victoria is a performer in her creation, called Bloom. Other works on the program include a premiere by Professor Jay Kim, Val Caniparoli’s She’s So Fine staged by Associate Professor Maggie Wright Tesch, and Act II of Swan Lake reimagined by Jan Fugit.

Victoria Holmes: How would you define the genre in which you choreograph?

Penny Saunders: I think I’m still defining what genre I want to inhabit. I’m hoping I don’t get stuck in any one place any time soon. Every time I start a project I try to nudge towards something else and use all the information that I have in my past, my experiences, people that I admire, or shows that I’ve seen, images, etcetera, so that I don’t get too close to borders too quickly. So I don’t know what my genre is. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about contemporary dance; it kind of encapsulates everything.

VH: So would you say that each piece you create would be a different genre?

PS: Well, I’m forced into some corners by my physicality, what comes out of my body. That’s why I usually try to get people to give me what they do so that I don’t get stuck in my usual rituals. My physicality has a certain flavor for sure. My experience especially at Hubbard Street informs what comes out of my body. And then earlier than that, my ballet training. I like line, I like pretty things, too, so all of that informs what comes out, but I try not to get too stuck in it if possible because beauty can mean a lot of things.

VH: What factors from your education, your upbringing, and your performing career factored into the artist that you are today?

S: I think I’m a total of all those things I experienced. I started out very young, and it was just fun at first. Tap, jazz, acro, everything, and I just loved it. I loved performing. I loved being creative. I loved being spontaneous. I definitely liked the applause and the attention, too. And then it started to be more codified with ballet, and I was a little bunhead for a while. I had a ballet career, which was awesome and I’m so glad that I started out that way for the first six or seven years of my professional career. And then people just kept saying “Have you ever heard of Hubbard Street?” Or “Have you ever seen Nacho Duato’s choreography, or Jiri Kylian’s?” “No, actually, no.” “You should check it out.” “Really? Okay.” So I started watching things and seeing performances and going “holy moly, there’s a whole lot out there besides this one thing that I’ve been focusing on so hard.” And I think because of my background doing competitions with lyrical and jazz numbers, and choreographing when I was young, I was open to the idea of exploring different genres. Eventually, after jumping around with my career a little bit, I ended up at Hubbard Street which was the perfect sort of mixture of things for me – a little bit of everything, depending on who was coming in at the time, so that mixed rep made me very fulfilled in my dancing career. I just spent a good ten years there after jumping around a while, and it just made sense to me. And now it certainly informs what I do.

VH: How did your choreographic process or your approach to your work change when you became a mother, if at all?

PS: Well I certainly don’t have as much time as I used to! I don’t have the luxury of spending a whole lot of time on my own thinking of stuff or to spend in the studio alone. My time has to be with him if it’s not necessary in the process. And that gets a little hard because daydreaming as a choreographer is very important, so we’ve had to find a balance as a family. I just have to carve out some time where I can sit and think, or listen to music, or read a book, or whatever it is that I need, so that information is still going into my soul, allowing something interesting to come out. I think also being a mom helps me realize “okay, it’s not that important. You’re not going to die if this piece sucks.” Although I still get very wrapped up in it. But he just tops it all on the important list, and that’s sobering in a good way. Ultimately, he’s what matters, even if this doesn’t continue or if I feel a little bad about myself as an artist. But so far, we’ve had a nice balance, and having a husband that understands all of that has been really, really helpful. It changes things. It changes everything! But you just keep on keeping on.

VH: How has it been working with dancers in a university program?

PS: It’s fun! I like it because you’re all here to learn, so you feel that when you come in the room. Sometimes in a professional atmosphere, people who have been doing it for a while will get a little cranky sometimes, and you have to prove to them that my time is worthy of their time, and their efforts, and their cartilage. And you guys are so young, and eager, and you want the exposure. So it’s fun for me because I don’t hesitate. I feel like you all are on board and play around. I don’t feel like I have to entertain you because you’re there to learn. That comes across and makes it a lot of fun.

VH: What impressions do you want to leave with the audience of Bloom?

PS: I hope they just enjoy it. I wasn’t trying to change the world or anything. I wanted to get at you a little bit and dig in a little bit and find out what’s happening in your hearts and your heads, which was fun, to have you go through an interview process and listen to your responses. I got to know you a bit better and realize where you are in your careers and your artistic lives. In a lot of ways, it feels so different from where I am. I’ve passed all that, and now it feels like my son’s world more than my world, but it’s still your world, your age group. You’re in this place where you’re not sure if you’re going to give up on this thing that you’ve been dedicating your life to, or if you’re going to go for it and lean into this crazy career and give it all you have. It’s such a neat little tipping point that you are all at. Hopefully they enjoy learning about you as individuals. It’s nice to think about color and life and creativity and the arts and youth; all that you guys have, all the potential.

Spring Utah Ballet runs:
February 8 at 5:30pm
February 9 at 7:30pm
February 10 at 2pm and 7:30pm

Interview by School of Dance: Ballet Program undergraduate student Victoria Holmes