FRINGE SHORTS: “small aïda” by Penelope Freeh

Critic Lightsey Darst loved noted dancer and choreographer Penny Freeh's (James Sewell Ballet) ambitious rendering of Verdi's classic opera into a wordless narrative told in dance. Read on, and she'll tell you why.

Penny Freeh

Penelope Freeh’s stated intention for her small aïda is to capture the drama of the opera, but in the small: with only two dancers, one hour, and a minimal set. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Freeh’s modern ballet choreography that she succeeds. Grand passions are in this woman’s DNA, maybe; no question they’re in her cheek-and collarbones, her and co-star Stephanie Fellner’s fiery dancing, her sense of space, and her restless mind. The Fringe is full of niche productions and reliable variety shows, but Freeh’s small aïda is a Big Show, sweeping and ambitious.

The opera’s plot is trouble for anyone hoping to turn Aïda into a wordless dance. On her blog, Freeh worried she wouldn’t be able to convey the story; at the start of the show, I was kicking myself for not having looked up a plot outline. We should both have just relaxed. Don’t look up the plot, and if you know it, forget about it. Freeh gives you the basics—love triangle, two women of unequal status, slave and princess, the man a hero and a blank. Beyond that, Freeh doesn’t exactly color inside the lines anyway. Her Amneris (the unloved woman) seems to kill Radames (the beloved) as her final way to keep him, in a scene that’s emotionally true but counter to the opera’s version. Freeh’s version explores the women’s longing, not the story of conquest or honor. Towards the end of small aïda, Aida and Amneris jump, arms outstretched, both desperate for a lover who never really belonged to either. Freeh also adds a frame of reality around the opera, in the form of the real-life, long-time friendship between herself and Fellner, which works to ground their staged emotion. Freeh and Fellner aren’t princesses or slaves, they aren’t mad with love, and yet they can find those emotional states within themselves; they can find an Aïda, a small but no less intense one, curled in their lives. And, watching them, so can the rest of us.

But Freeh does run into some plot trouble. Once the initial love triangle is established, there’s a little dead air, a little emotional stagnation. And I hate to critique the program notes, but I felt misdirected by them; they led me to expect something more explicit than implicit, something more dependent on exterior definition. This Aïda doesn’t need explanation. Freeh’s notes, by pinning it down, hem it in.

Which is more of a shame because, for all the concept, small aïda is a visceral experience. Freeh’s choreography is dense and intense, every muscle in strain. A twitch, a tic, a sudden jerk, a barely kept balance—everything is pushed to its limits, nothing is easy. One motion can serve as example: sitting on the floor, the dancers slip one leg over the other, one foot pointed and the other flexed, forming a lock of contrary intentions. Most choreography creates a symbolic language of movement, but Freeh’s is so sharp, so specific, you sense she could write a dictionary for it. Holding one arm in ballet’s curved fifth position over her head, Freeh painfully lifts the other arm to match. As soon as she reaches fifth, though, her arm drops, and she has to start over. The translation: Amneris wants to triumph (fifth position=triumph), but she can’t forget her pain over Radames’s death. If you see the movement, though, you won’t need the translation: Freeh’s choreography speaks clearly in its own muscular language.

small aïda is showing at the soon-to-be-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune. It’s sad to be in this beautiful space for perhaps the last time, but Freeh’s work does give the theater an appropriate send-off. Her sense of visual drama, enacted in a spare but associatively rich design, echoes the Jeune Lune aesthetic, and her big ambition fills the cavernous theater with breath and desire.

About the writer: Lightsey Darst writes on dance for Mpls/St Paul magazine and is also a poet and editor of’s What Light: This Week’s Poem publication project.

What: small aïda by Penelope Freeh
Where: Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Minneapolis, MN
When: August 4, 7, 9, 10 (click here for specific performance times)
Admission: $12 (plus a $3 Fringe button)

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