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It was a quiet, late-August Sunday afternoon, the perfect time to sit under a ballet barre in a cool, bright-white dance studio at the Cowles Center and watch two artists engage in a conversation with one another.
Penelope Freeh and Jocelyn Hagen will perform Slippery Fish and other works Sept. 28–30 at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.343.3390. $15–$25 (pay-as-able Saturday at 5 p.m). Slippery Fish only with post-show discussion Sunday at 2 p.m.
One let her flowing body do the talking while the other played out an equally fluid response on the piano, her gentle voice drifting over the musical notes, her foot tapping out a pulse. Back and forth the duo of choreographer Penelope Freeh and composer Jocelyn Hagen communicated wordlessly with each other as they worked together to create Prelude, the opening piece in their first joint program to be performed at the Southern Theater in late September.
Later Freeh and Hagen did resort to the ordinariness of words as they talked over the feeling of the music — the rise and fall of the rhythmic structure, the number of its counts, and the overall relationship to the movement. So much of what defines this budding artistic partnership, and their plans for the upcoming concert, has to do with the exploration that comes from sharing a creative space with someone who speaks the same language, even if it's through a different medium.
Although Freeh has been choreographing for herself and others since 1999, this is the first time she has worked with a composer on her own. And Hagen, who has received over 40 commissions, has never composed for the stage before. "It's such an obvious landing point for me since I have such a close connection to music as a dancer," said Freeh after rehearsal. "The beautiful thing about collaborating is I didn't know what to expect, and it's been very intuitive between us."
Hagen has found her own rewards. "It's really fun to think about music in this whole other way," she said. "The first time she danced I cried, it was just so beautiful. It was fun to have that element mixed in with what I was doing."
Both women have reached significant transition points in their careers and are actively seeking out new ways to stretch their capabilities. Freeh, an Ohio native, moved to the Twin Cities in 1994 to join James Sewell Ballet. She just wrapped up a successful 17-year career with the troupe in 2011 and has since recovered from foot surgery, stepped up her teaching, and sought out choreographic projects.
Hagen, who was born in Minneapolis but grew up in North Dakota, used to perform with the Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists, but she missed playing the piano, "her true instrument," and wanted to get back to it. Now she has found herself in a new and unfamiliar role when she is sometimes performing on her own. "It's very different going from a choir where I never did solos to just me on my own. It's a big step."
The pair had discussed teaming up in the past, but it was the recent receipt of a Live Music for Dance grant from the American Composers Forum, plus McKnight Fellowships for each artist, that sealed the opportunity. When Freeh was invited into the residency program at the Maggie Allessee National Center for Choreography (at Florida State University in Tallahassee), she and Hagen, along with local soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw and New York-based Bessie Award-winning dancer Patrick Corbin (formerly of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, now artistic director of CorbinDances), enjoyed the rare luxury of two weeks dedicated solely to the making of Slippery Fish. It will premiere at the Southern, where they will be joined by Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman.
The work draws on the varied sensory experiences that can be found in the natural world — the clinginess of moss, the elegance of birds, the crystalline cool of flowing water. It does come with a few surprises: Singer Shaw, for example, does a lot of moving and even lifts Corbin. "She does it really gracefully," said Hagen. "We are just so fortunate to have such great collaborators in the musicians who are up for anything." This adventurousness includes embracing a tricky score. "I'm composing in a completely different way than I usually do," Hagen continued. "The music for Slippery Fish is aleatoric. It's really a set of instructions that the performers get to choose. It's an interesting way to create music. It's not the same every time." Said Freeh, "It's stunning music. I really couldn't have asked for anything more."
The program will also feature several "miniatures," a series of concise dances generated in response to brief pieces of music. "It really lines up with something I've been thinking about with small spaces and short statements," said Freeh, considering the challenge that comes with conveying something meaningful in a limited time, sort of like choreographic haiku. Hagen will unveil a new song cycle about the Lost Boys of Sudan, ...and then we were left, featuring baritone Tadd Sipes with video by Justin Schell. It's another first for Hagen; she has never integrated visual elements into her composition work. Sipes, who lives in Virginia, commissioned the piece in response to the experiences of his niece in the war-torn country.
Rounding out the evening is Paper Nautilus, a solo Freeh choreographed earlier this year for Nic Lincoln, a fellow Sewell dancer. "He said, 'I want to be a sailor, and I have an image of getting a tattoo onstage.' So we got to talking about sailors, and I was in the middle of choreographing On the Town, which is about three sailors on shore leave in New York," Freeh explained, filling in the back story for a piece that has a retro World War II-era feel reminiscent of Jerome Robbins's famed 1944 ballet Fancy Free, yet with a distinct contemporary edginess.
"I have a total love affair with movie musicals," Freeh added. "I think it has something to do with the extreme heartfelt naiveté that is so hard to do anymore but you can if you are doing a period piece. I'm riffing a bit on tap dancing, and in Slippery Fish there's distorted tap dancing [too]."
As Freeh and Hagen wrapped up the interview by making plans for their next rehearsals and running through a laundry list of the usual administrative chores that rule independent artists' lives outside the studio, it seemed appropriate to reflect back on a moment earlier in the afternoon when both women stood in the middle of the studio, running through the opening minutes of Prelude. Each flexed her hands and fingers as if playing invisible piano keys. Hagen vocalized the notes. Her arms rose and fell with the ease of a dancer. Freeh did the same but also listened intently with the ear of a musician.
They were in sync with one another, never missing a beat.