The Happy Prince and Other Tales: Q&A with Grand Rapids Ballet Choreographer-in-Residence Penny Saunders

By Elyse Wild

In The Happy Prince and Other Tales, the Grand Rapids Ballet takes on the wit and whimsy of legendary playwright and poet Oscar Wilde. The visually stunning ballet is the first original full-length work by choreographer-in-residence and Princess Grace award-winner Penny Saunders. In a special Q&A, Saunders shares her experience depicting the harsh realities of Wilde’s life through fairy tales and how the support of the team at the Grand Rapids Ballet gave her the confidence to push past the boundaries of storytelling to create a groundbreaking and heartwarming production.

Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: The ballet is based on three fairy tales by Oscar Wilde that are woven into one story depicting his life, correct?

Penny Saunders: Correct, I ended up using Oscar Wilde’s adult life as a trajectory for the whole ballet. I started out with the fairy tale The Happy Prince, then The Selfish Giant and by the second act we are into The Nightengale and the Rose.

WLM: What inspired you to take that approach?

PS: It was out of desperation! I couldn’t figure out a way to tell all of the fairy tales or even one of them in the way that I wanted to present it. I didn’t want to project a lot of words onto the back wall for people to read, and I knew I didn’t want to have people dressed up like birds so literally. That forced me to find the connections between the characters in Oscar’s life and the characters of the story. I thought,”Maybe I can connect the human beings to the spoken words of the stories.” For instance, every time Oscar’s best friend Robert Ross comes onstage, we are hearing about the swallow in The Happy Prince. I started to make those correlations and it fell into place.

I hope that upon seeing the production, people are inspired to read the fairy tales if they haven’t already. Most people don’t realize that Oscar Wilde wrote fairy tales; I certainly didn’t before I started this project.

“There are some heartbreaking and heartwarming moments in the story. Ultimately, my message is that love this love, and art is necessary, and we must hold onto it.”

WLM: For those who haven’t seen the show yet, can you can you describe the choreography and what people can expect to see?

PS: The show has a lot of spoken word over music. With dance, everything isn’t always communicated to the audience unless you are very heavy handed and obvious with pantomime, and that is something I didn’t want to do. As a choreographer, I tried to challenge myself to use the gifts in front of me; the Grand Rapids Ballet is such a talented group.

I played with a lot of humor in the first half, making fun of the prudishness of the society. Oscar Wilde had such a sharp wit, and he was so critical of how ridiculous customs were even though he was ridiculous himself. He had an amazing sense of humor, and I tried to go there as much as possible so that people could just have a good time.

I also put children in the cast because I wanted to portray the overall feeling that as adults, we lose a sense of wonder and joy. I tried to connect the children’s sensibilities with Oscar’s sensibilities because I feel like he was an adult who was very childlike and that is what fueled his art.

There are some heartbreaking and heartwarming moments in the story. Ultimately, my message is that love this love, and art is necessary, and we must hold onto it.

WLM: There are heavy adult themes throughout the story, but it is told from a childlike point of view. Can you elaborate on how you achieve that point of view?

PS: Every time we were confronted with a hard moment to swallow, something that is accurate to Oscar’s life, I tried to put it through the lens of a fairy tale. Fairy tales can be pretty harsh sometimes, but in that is a lesson for the reader, and I really leaned on that perspective. When I read stories to my five-year-old, he will ask me, “Why? Why did that happen? Why is it that way?” and I can then give him a life lesson through the fairy tale we are reading. So I approached the production in a way that is like explaining the world to a five-year-old.

“John Ferraro, the company and facilities manager, made a beautiful scenic element of a gigantic hill covered in grass, which transforms the theatre. ”

WLM: The story features pretty complex emotions like jealousy, love, arrogance and infatuation. As a choreographer, how do you go about helping the dancers express those emotions through movement?
PS: We are always digging for the most human response. Expressing emotion physically is a delicate balance, and we end up spending quite a bit of time on those high moments that last 20 seconds or less in which there is look, a shift of the weight or propelling yourself forward. As humans, most of our communication is done through body language, and that is what we have been trying to tap into with the storytelling.

WLM: Do you have a favorite scene in the ballet?
PS: There is a scene at the end of the first act that is all about partnerships. There is beautiful music and people dancing together: male with male, female with female and heterosexual partners. It’s beautiful, and it leads us into a more intimate duet between two men. To me, choreographically, it’s my most vulnerable moment, and probably the most provocative. It’s interesting because it’s so simple; they are simply near one another and responding to each other in an intimate way that might make some people uncomfortable. That is one of my favorite moments; it’s always nice to do to say something that might open a little window in someone’s mind. I feel like I’m at a tipping point at the end of the first act, which I’ve enjoyed artistically.

WLM: Is there anything else that you’d like to add about your experience on the production?
PS: It’s been amazing and overwhelming. When I was approached by Patricia Barker (Artistic Director of the Grand Rapids Ballet) to make a full-length production, I had the choice of picking a ballet that had already been done before and creating a new interpretation. I was struggling with that because I felt like that was stale. I’m really grateful that she allowed me to do this. I’m so grateful and have learned so much from developing my own story. I didn’t realize how much I was biting off when I set out to do it. I’ve had such great help: The synopsis (available on grballet.com) is beautifully written by Connie Flachs, one of the dancers who plays Oscar Wilde’s mother. She and I sat down a number of times and as the ballet developed, she focused on the things that I needed to ring true to the audience. Costume designer Sadie Rothenburg is a beautiful designer, and she did illustrations for the synopsis depicting Oscar Wilde and the world he lived in.  John Ferraro, the company and facilities manager, made a beautiful scenic element of a gigantic hill covered in grass, which transforms the theatre. He did really beautiful work.

It is heartwarming that they believed in the project. We were all riding on my passion for it, and I don’t know if that could have happened anywhere else. What we have been able to do is very unique.

WLM: It sounds like a very inspiring collaboration.

PS: It was! I haven’t  experienced a single moment where someone on the team hesitated — it was incredible. I made some big bold choices that I myself have doubted, and to have people say, “It’s going to beautiful. Let’s do it!” has been so amazing and helpful.

Showtimes for The Happy Prince and Other tales are Friday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 12 at 2:00 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre. (341 Ellsworth SW)  Click here to read the synopsis and visit grballet.com to purchase your tickets. 

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