As told to Heather Youkhana

Penny Saunders

“The idea for my new piece originated with a Picasso sculpture at the Art Institute that made me think, OK, I’d love to be able to do that with human beings. It’s of a man, who’s slightly askew, and a woman: He’s able to lean off balance because she’s holding him steady. In my mind, the sculpture had a slow-motion quality that would lend itself to a circus act, like a strongman duet.

“I started thinking about how I could relate acrobatics to dance. I researched tent and variety shows in America in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. These weren’t quite circuses—more like one or two families who would pack up their trucks and their costumes and go from town to town performing, sometimes for a week and sometimes just a night. They had limited light sources, so there was a certain look: the performers in front of the curtain, footlights in their eyes.

“From what I know about show business, there’s some loneliness to it. So I decided to go a little vaudeville. I’m hoping to show that backstage quality, that real-person quality, you don’t usually get when you go to a show.”

GO Dance Evolve: New Works Festival runs Jan. 19 to 22 and 26 to 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art; for info,


Photograph: Tom Maday