Penny Campbell '70

Image of Penny Campbell

Penny Campbell ’70 is best known for her work in improvisation as a performing art. A performer and teacher with interests in contemporary approaches to composition, movement invention, creative process across the arts, and Pan-American dance history and culture, Campbell has made improvisational performance her professional specialty. She joined the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Middlebury College in 1985.

Over the years, Campbell has developed and articulated training practices that have contributed to raising the level of dance improvisation on stage and in the classroom. In 1995, she co-founded Work in the Performance of Improvisation (WIPI), a weeklong intensive for professional and pre-professional dancers at Bennington College with colleagues Peter Schmitz, Susan Sgorbati, Terry Creach, musician Michael Chorney, and sculptor Sue Rees.

Performance Improvisation, the improvisational style that Campbell named and practices, springs from the music/dance collaborations of Judith Dunn and Bill Dixon during the late 1960s to early 1970s in New York City and at Bennington College, where both taught. Dunn was a member of Merce Cunningham’s company and a prime mover in the breakthrough Judson Dance Theatre phenomenon from 1962 to 1965. Dixon was similarly involved transformations in music; he organized the October Revolution in Jazz in New York in 1964. At Dixon’s urging, Dunn began applying improvisational techniques used in avant-garde Black music to her choreographic process. Eventually, Dixon and Dunn initiated a course in improvisation at Bennington that led to performances and the creation of a professional ensemble of musicians and dancers working exclusively in improvisation. After graduating from Bennington, and two years of living and performing in Tokyo, Japan, Campbell became a member of that ensemble. Many years later, Performance Improvisation blends a variety of training techniques with aesthetic and human values: individuality and personal artistry, technical and compositional proficiency, commitment to innovation and exploration, and willingness to initiate and collaborate boldly and sensitively.