Penda N’Diaye is a Denver native and dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. We chatted with her about her training, career, and A Letter to My Nephew, which the company will perform at the Ent Center. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Artist Series: Hometown?
AS: Home now?
Penda: New York.
AS: How long have you been dancing?
Penda: I started really young, around age four. I went to Denver School of the Arts for middle and high school and that’s when I started getting more serious. When I was 15 or 16 I was doing a lot of summer intensive training, and that’s when I first came to New York. After I left, I thought “I know I’m going to be in this city.”
When I finished high school, I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After I graduated, I was working, freelancing, teaching, just trying to make it all work until I got into a company.
AS: You’ve been with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company since 2017—what has that been like?
Penda: We were on tour earlier this year, and now we’re back in New York starting a new project that's going to premiere in the next year or so. It's exciting because for me this will be the first time that I'm getting to be a part of building everything from scratch, from the beginning.
My first performance with the company was A Letter to My Nephew at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). I joined the group right in the heat of the moment, right before a performance. I had to just jump in and learn someone else's role.
It's special that I'm performing the first piece that I ever performed with the company in my home state. The piece has evolved and I feel like my relationship to it has evolved. I’m much more comfortable with who I am in the work, and I don't feel that I have to just imitate the person I replaced. I feel like it's become more of my own character. Even up until last Friday, we're still working on the piece. The works are always evolving and growing.
AS: There are elements of “A Letter to My Nephew” that are tailored to each performance location, correct?
Penda: Yes, Janet Wong (Associate Artistic Director) does a lot of work with projections and text that is catered to the location where we’re performing. The choreography will stay the same, but a lot of the text and dialogue for the dancers will change. There is a lot of projection of text in this piece onto this huge wall prop. No city or country is the same. Janet does a lot of research on the location and tries to define text that is believable to the audience.
AS: Is the whole company involved in creating the work? What is the creative process like?
Penda: I think Bill really values all of us as collaborators and contributors. A lot of people in the company have so many talents beyond dancing. We have some incredible singers, and all of us do a lot of text work, which for myself has been incredibly challenging, but also rewarding. Before this company, I had never had to speak or sing on stage, which is a whole other beast to conquer. Dancers are used to using our bodies to communicate, but now I’m kind of an actor as well. I’ve really valued one-on-one time with Bill working on my text and acting work, and getting coaching over my script.
The process involves a lot of critical thinking and questions: what are we trying to convey and how can we get there? There is definitely a lot of involvement with everyone's ideas and I think Bill really values that. Collaboration is definitely a big part of the process.
You're not just a machine, being told “do this” and “this is how you should feel.” I think it is super special to have that individuality. None of us look alike and the company is super eclectic. I’m 5’10” and I partner with a girl who’s about 5’1”. The company definitely has a range of bodies and faces and voices, and I think that is reflected in the work.
AS: What was your audition process like?
Penda: I auditioned for the company three times. It's kind of a funny story. The second time I auditioned, I made it to the end. It was down to myself and Christina Robson. She ended up getting hired, and we kind of have a special relationship now because we went through that process together.
About a year after that, I moved to Los Angeles. I was looking for a really big change, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue dancing. Then one of the dancers in this company decided to leave, and I just had a feeling that it was my time. I called up Janet, who is Associate Artistic Director, and I said, “I know this is crazy. I know I'm in Los Angeles, but if you think this is the right time I really feel like I should be there.” She talked to Bill, and then she called me the next day and said, “Okay, we're ready for you, when are you moving back?”
That was a pretty great and chaotic time in my life. This company has always been one of my top dream companies to work with, so when the opportunity opened up I just felt like it was now or never. It's been wonderful. I feel like this has been the pinnacle of my career essentially. I think I can officially say I’ve made it (whatever that means).
AS: It feels like a culmination of all of those years of hard work and training.
Penda: Yes, it totally has been a culmination of my training and my interest. When I was in high school and looking for dance programs, I saw that Bill T. Jones had choreographed a piece for NYU, and I thought, “I have to go to NYU because I want to dance with Bill T. Jones one day.” It does feel like a full circle moment.
AS: Favorite place you’ve been on tour?
Penda: We were on tour in Italy in June/July. That was my first international tour. It was really just such an incredible experience. We were there for two weeks, but we were in five different cities, so it was kind of a whirlwind. Most of the places we went had bike rentals, so a lot of times the first thing I would do once we checked in was rent a bike and just explore each city.
There is this little city, Bolzano, in northern Italy, where they speak both German and Italian and it is very hilly and mountainous. It was our last stop on the tour, and by that time I was just tired of eating pizza and pasta. I was happy to have bratwurst and a beer garden. Our last night there, I ordered this platter that was literally just called "the meats," and there were so many meats. All of us were just so excited to chow down—it was my favorite city.
AS: Side projects when you’re not busy dancing?
Penda: I am actually the editor at large of this new magazine called The Press. It is a monthly magazine that is curated by all creatives of color. We aim to bring news in a way that caters to a millennial audience and is founded on people of color and smaller communities. We print about 20,000 copies a month, and it feels really special because it’s so rare for a print magazine to exist these days.
Sometimes I ask myself, “How am I doing all of this?” I’m bringing my laptop to rehearsal and emailing things out when we have breaks. It is really rewarding because I get to creative direct photo shoots, I write a column in the magazine, and I also help to curate all of the information that goes in each month. We just got into newsstands last week, so it's really growing and building which is super exciting.
AS: You spoke earlier about how being in the company has exposed you to working with text in a way that you hadn’t in the past. Does that process feed into the rest of your creative life?
Penda: I don't know if you've ever heard Bill's voice, but he has the most beautiful, deep resounding voice. When I’m writing, sometimes I think about the way he speaks and how that can translate into my writing and the performance on stage. Bill himself is such an inspiration because he’s so much more than a dancer. He does so many creative things: panels, TED talks, acting. We have a fight scene in A Letter to My Nephew and in our rehearsal on Friday he kind of turned into a stage combat coach, helping us make it look more realistic. I think It's natural that the collaborators in the room always have their wheels turning; I ask myself how I can apply this art or my expression into other mediums. It’s not Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company – the word dance doesn’t exist in the name. I think that says a lot – it's much more than that. My work in the company has definitely tied into my other creative process and writing.
Check out the trailer for A Letter to My Nephew and Bill T. Jones' TED Talk below. Don't miss this amazing company—click here for tickets.