I love speaking to a kindred soul whose passions are rooted in another field different from mine. It always fascinates me to hear them tell of their pursuit of artistic achievement using a vocabulary so utterly dissimilar from my own while yet describing essentially the same path that I or anyone else chasing the chimera of creativity travels.
I also love speaking with anyone who has a sense of history.
There are many who don’t understand the obsession with history, and this absence robs them of a great compass in life, for the past is the future’s map.
There are many who think history is unimportant, and to a degree I agree with them.
History is less important than your heartbeat, less important than your breath.
So knowing this, you can understand the pleasure I found in my recent conversation with John Pennington, dancer, master teacher, and the founder of the dance company that bears his name, the Pennington Dance Group.
History was an unavoidable topic between us, as on the 26th and 27th of March, the Pennington Dance Group (PDG) will be celebrating its 15th Anniversary with two dance performances at the State Playhouse, situated on the Cal State LA campus.
The evenings will look to the past as well as the future with three premieres; complimenting revivals of works that have contributed to both the Company’s and Pennington’s own histories.
Among the revivals will be The Beloved, a work first performed in 1948 by modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky and Pennington’s mentor.
The inspiration was taken from a news article famed choreographer Lester Horton came across about a devout Christian who beat his wife to death over her imagined unfaithfulness.
As Pennington observes, “It’s timeless in its message and a cautionary reminder about human nature.”
When asked how a kid from Detroit whose father was a mechanic ends up leading his own modern dance company, Pennington quips, “How did this happen? Dodging bullets.” But then is quick to add, “Everyone comes to the table with a different background, different experiences.”
Pennington’s “background” took its first turn when his third grade class was taken to a play based on Thomas Edison’s life.
It was however not the “message” but the “medium” which took possession of the young Pennington, so instead of an engineer and inventor the world got an artist.
Initially he saw himself as an actor, but found himself drawn towards dance, encouraged by Joann Blasé, a high school choreographer with a history – there’s that word again – of Broadway musicals.
Now, in hindsight, he can see the natural momentum that pulled him into the sphere of dance.
With possibly the exception of New Orleans no American city has a more immediate connection to music and dance than Detroit, “Motown where TV programs such as The New Dance Show and The Scene first aired on WGPR-TV 62 to impact the city much the way Soul Train would impact the nation.
Pennington was able to recognize similarities in the two disciplines of acting and dance, “Getting the inward to the outer.”
But he was also capable of appreciating the disparities between them and moreover the advantage that dance possesses, “It says more in less amount of time….you don’t need three acts or 400 pages.”
Dance can achieve a type of brevity that one encounters in Poems of Dickinson but is otherwise rare in the realm of the written word.
And brevity – whether it is found in Haiku, one-liners, political slogans or dance – can convey a tremendous impact.
Dance has been regularly defined as “human movement created and expressed for an aesthetic purpose.” But this is a description of the “effect,” and leaves unaddressed the question of “cause.”
Pennington, perhaps due to his cross-disciplined background understands that all art can be defined by a single word; “Communication.”
“To ask the questions…. To try to put the questions out there.” That Pennington recognizes is the purpose of art, but his response to that purpose is unique.
He sees that one of his goals, both as a company member himself and as a choreographer, is in “Giving people permission to meet dance half way.”
And in putting forth those questions art asks of its audience?
“It doesn’t have to be a complete sentence when you leave,” he states before relating the pleasure he takes in discussing a recital or production afterwards over coffee.
Speaking with Pennington, one is given the sense that his own personal “sentence” is far from complete as well.
For some, the creative impulse allows for no conclusion. Every answer reveals new questions, every arrival new journeys.
After college he came out West to L.A., which is a dream for anyone who has endured a winter in Detroit.
It was also where Bella Lewitzky resided and where her dance company was based.
Pennington would join that company and remain with it for 14 years eventually rising to a master teacher within its ranks, while also participating in Lewitzky’s campaign to establish modern dance in California and making Los Angeles a major dance center.
“L.A. has a huge dance history,” Pennington states. “Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey.”
Pennington’s appreciation for that history is indeed reflected in the program on the 26th and 27th.
The Beloved will feature the original set design by Lewitzky’s husband Newell Taylor Reynolds, and the costumes constructed for the performances by Laurie Donell will be based on the original 1948 designs.
In addition to The Beloved will be another Lewitzky’s piece On the Brink of Time, a rare revival of the work with music by Morton Subotnick in the first commissioned composition to employ synthesized music.
“On the Brink of Time,” explains Pennington, “was Bella’s iconic solo that she danced until her retirement at age 61.”
“Pieces,” Pennington reflects, “have an on-going life…. Dance is passed on from one person to the next, a language that goes on through bodies.”
After his time with Lewitzky, Pennington would go on to assemble a body of dancers around himself and his own vision, the PDG, and so the program he has planned for the two evenings looks to their past and their future.
The evening will include Hearing Change, performed by Danae McWatt, a solo work choreographed by Pennington in 2004, which explores the choices we must make as we stumble, or dance, to our destiny with music by David Karagianis and the San Francisco based experimental quartet Thuja.
Also on the bill will be Ungoverned Spaces Part #1 another piece choreographed by Pennington, with dancers Montay Romero and Annalee Traylor, which explores the potentials and dangers in spaces devoid of authority.
Company of Orbs which Pennington has shown as a work in progress will now receive its official premiere with dancers McWatt, Traylor, Li Chang Rothermich, Edwin A. Sigüenza, Michael Szanyi and Tom Tsai and a number if large, colorful and mysterious “orbs” hanging about the stage.
Skins and Screens will be presented as well, a completely re-imagined and re-choreographed piece based on a 2006 work. “Revisiting this ten year old piece feels appropriate for a milestone performance like this,” Pennington adds.
Pennington, who will be dancing in The Beloved, which is among the pieces Lewitzky passed to his care, reflects on the role of the choreographer, the craft of which he describes in the elegantly succinct phrase, “To steal space.”
Pennington seems to view the two evenings as an expression of gratitude to what was, while on the threshold of what will be.
“Choreographers find their stride between forty and eighty,” he adds.
Whatever the next fifteen years may bring both him and the PDG he is both ready and anxious to discover. He looks forward to passing on to the younger dancers the wealth of his experience (Rule Number #1: “Don’t say no to understudy.”)
When asked what his greatest regret of his time as a dancer in L.A. has been his answer is not so much “regret” as an opportunity missed.
In 1985, plans to provide the city with a Dance Gallery seemed on the verge of becoming a rea1lity, and in speaking of it, the excitement in Pennington’s voice swells noticeably up. “Right next to Angel Flight. A complex and library for contemporary dance, biggest lab outside of New York, six studios….”
But it was not to be.
For a moment our conversation withers.
But only for a moment…
“I am still optimistic about the creativity” Pennington returns, and you can hear the confidence and the smile in his voice.
There’s been occasion when I’ve had put to me the question, “What makes an artist an artist?”
It is one of the unanswerable queries where any attempt to answer it threatens a tumbling into pomposity or glibness.
But here is one observation I’ve gleamed from long years of pondering that very question.
All creativity, all endeavors, all journeys are encumbered not with the possibility but the probability of failure.
That fact alone is enough to condemn the bulk of humanity to their comfortable stagnation.
The brave ones among us, “The artists” they know this to be true as well, but this doesn’t stop them.
Because part of being an artist is to willingly imprison yourself in hope. Just because the “chimera” may be a myth, is not reason enough not to chase it.
That is why the future is always for the brave, the daring, the determined, the stubborn, the risk takers, the artists.
And that is reason enough to believe in the optimism expressed by John Pennington, dancer, choreographer, artist.
♦ ♦ ♦
PENNINGTON DANCE GROUP 15TH ANNIVERSARY CONCERTS
March 25 and March 27
For more information call: 626-204-0331 or click HERE.
(NOTE: Feature image – PDG dancers photo by Denise Leitner)