How PENNYWILD Uses Choreography to Compose Electronic Dance Music

March 24, 2021

Most people wouldn’t expect Martha Graham and electronic dance music to go hand in hand. But Penny Wildman isn’t most people.

For Wildman, dance performance and dance music are two sides of the same coin. The multihyphenate—she dances, choreographs, directs and produces music under the moniker PENNYWILD—takes inspiration from movement in every element of her creative expression. Her debut EP, MIDI In Motion, is a testament to this.

Each of the five songs featured on MIDI In Motion pays homage to a specific genre of dance.

The intro track, “A Dancer’s World,” features a snippet of Martha Graham’s famous “You give all your life to doing this one thing” quote. The echoes of Wildman’s tap shoes can be heard in “Shirley Temple,” while sound bites captured from swing-dance instructional videos appear in “Do It To Music.”

“I really wanted to explore the fact that dance is communication and is a form of music in itself,” Wildman says.

The entire EP was composed with this idea at the forefront, using Wildman’s own invention that she created with the help of Los Angeles–based music producer Coby Ashpis: a variation on a MIDI controller she’s dubbed the “Penny Pad.” A MIDI controller is a tool used by music producers that is typically controlled with the hands. Wildman’s controller—which resembles a Dance Dance Revolution gamepad—converts the input from her footwork into sound signals that she can then incorporate into her music.

“I just thought that it would be really cool to have a live element onstage, where people could watch me making music, but instead of doing it with my hands, I could just do what I know how to do, which is choreograph,” she says.

Wildman has performed several such live sets—in one instance giving concertgoers an opportunity to try the Penny Pad themselves—at festivals like BUKU Music and Art Project in New Orleans and Broke LA Music and Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

Choreographing has fascinated Wildman since her early days as a young dancer. After studying dance in New Jersey through Howell High School’s intensive FPAC magnet program, where she participated in biyearly musicals, she booked her first professional job as a member of the touring cast of West Side Story during her freshman year at Boston Conservatory. Wildman found herself increasingly drawn to choreography while on tour, taking notes while observing the choreographers and pondering how she might do things differently should she be in charge. “I was kind of seeing my touring experience through the lens of an aspiring choreographer,” she remembers.

She served as associate choreographer for the 2018 performance of Annie at the Hollywood Bowl, helmed by Tony-nominated director Michael Arden. But she’s also moved beyond her musical-theater roots to assemble an enviable roster of clients and projects. Thus far, she’s choreographed for music superstars like Zedd and Enrique Iglesias, in addition to taking on the dual role of director/choreographer for RL Grime’s “UCLA” official dance video.

Wildman credits her seamless shift to the music realm, in part, to her early dance training. “I don’t even know where I would have started if I didn’t have training as a dancer, choreographer and director,” she says. “I don’t think I would have had grace for myself and my creative process if I hadn’t started choreographing when I was 12.”

Wildman has shifted her focus away from dance performance for now, simply because, as she puts it, “there is not enough time in the day.” While acknowledging it as a crucial part of her artistry, she says letting go of pursuing it as her primary career has allowed her to actualize her deep desire to create her own art.

“Instead of just highlighting and amplifying the artist, I wanted to be the artist,” she says. “It feels sort of like unlocking the next step.”