Penny Saunders has not let the COVID-19 pandemic stall her artistry. In fact, she has continued to choreograph non-stop since the world shut down in March, discovering the efficiency of creating over Zoom - a method which Penny believes will allow her to expand her work range, while spending less time away from her son at home. “I like to say yes to everything,” Penny shares. “Now I know you can make a whole thing just via Zoom. It’s not ideal, you miss being in the studio, but it works.”
Although she didn’t know it at the time, Penny started choreographing at a very early age with friends for fun in her spare time. Growing up, she explored a variety of dance which helped lay the foundation for her interest in a diverse range of movement styles. "The trajectory of my career has taken a large curve on a roller coaster ride. Tap, jazz and acrobatics, to hard core ballet, and then to this land of contemporary dance...It helps that I can speak pointe shoe language and partnering, and also speak barefoot and run-over-there/stand-on-your-head language, and everything in between."
Penny's career as a dancer ended twice, but led to her definitive path as a choreographer. While dancing professionally she had a handful of commissions and had just started to dip her toe in the choreographic realm. "I retired after my son was born, and by then I had choreographed nothing I liked."
With her son and husband, dance educator and stager Pablo Piantino, Penny moved to Seattle as a stay-at-home mom, but soon realized she wasn’t done dancing. After getting back in shape, she returned to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to dance and choreograph for another year and a half until her second retirement from the stage. It was at that time that Penny fully embraced her identity as a choreographer.
"There was this pressure to be halfway decent at it, if you're going to throw your hat in the ring,” Penny remarked. "I always loved it, but was too terrified to claim it.” At some point along the way, she had enough choreographic gigs to say, “Oh, I guess I'm a choreographer!”. The work for her has snowballed ever since.
Looking into the future, Penny dreams of putting all her favorite collaborators in one room to make something spectacular. "Dancers from all over - all different types of dance - plus actors, composers, lighting designers. It would be fun to build that way, with a bunch of eager minds. That would be the dream."
Penny says inspiration pops up all over the place. "I feel like there's a physical language that doesn't necessarily provide answers but at least provides another perspective and helps me kind of work through a lot of the anxiety, anger, frustration and delight that I find in the world."
The weirdest thing about creating during a global pandemic? "The not touching part,” says Penny. “I’ve worked with roommates or lovers that can touch, so those moments within the piece become even more special and highlighted. I’ve tried to build that way; emphasizing the distance when it has to be there and emphasizing the intimacy when it can be. I think that’s something you take for granted when you’re making normally."
Whether it means making dances or not, Penny hopes to always remain creative. "I don’t take this for granted. There are so many people that have so many talents out there." She says it doesn't make her sad to think about not choreographing forever, but instead inspires her to make as much as she can now. So where will Penny be in 20 years? She says, "Hopefully I will be hiking in nature, creating in studios, & inspiring people and myself in some way."
Penny reunited with the SDC team this month to create a new solo work featuring Noelani Pantastico. Alice is a co-production with Pacific Northwest Ballet and set for digital release in early November.