Joanna Kotze in conversation with Jesse Zaritt


Dancer/choreographer/educator Jesse Zaritt talks with dancer/choreographer Joanna Kotze about her creative practices and choreographic investigations, the role that New York has played in her development as an artist, her trajectory as an architect-turned-dance student, and the notions of perception and audience experience.  Her newest work it happened it had happened it is happening it will happen will be shown at Danspace Project, May 30-June 1, 2013.

Interview Date: May 12, 2013

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Jesse Zaritt: I wanted to start by asking you what brought you to New York, and what keeps you in New York?

Joanna Kotze: I have always enjoyed the energy of New York. I was studying architecture in Ohio and after graduating from architecture school, and I decided to come to New York and dance. That’s when I arrived, in 1998. The reason I decided to do that is the challenge of it, which was front and center for me. I was trained as a ballet dancer and when I went to university I started modern dance; my first modern dance class was at eighteen. Although I really enjoyed studying architecture, and it was a wonderful program, when I started doing modern dance there was just something in what that gave me that made me know I had to find out more.

After graduating I came to New York and decided to hit the streets and took class everyday at every studio with every teacher and was determined to find my way here. Luckily I have, I feel like I’ve really connected to the city and also eventually found my way within the dance world. It took me a little while, but I was lucky to get jobs within the first year that I was in New York. Which I think is important to keeping you in the city; it gives you the confidence to try and do what we do.

Then it was in 2000 when I joined Wally Cardona’s company that I knew something was shifting and I was going to be here for a while. I guess maybe that’s why I came--to find out if this was really what I wanted to do, and if I could do it. I’ve always been about challenges. Dancing has always been a passion but I knew I would never be a principle ballerina, so that was not going to happen. Once I found this other thing, there was a chance that I could keep doing it for a long time. I loved moving and performing. There was nothing else like it.

As far as what keeps me here, I guess it’s the challenges.

JZ: It never stops.

JK: It never stops, and part of it is that I married a visual artist and he’s doing the same thing and we feel very bound to this city in a good way. We’ve both been here fifteen or so years and our careers are embedded here. We actually have careers here, which feels really good. Although we enjoy getting out of the city, we feel really connected to this place and the rigor of the city and what we have as goals in our lives. I find that the work that is made here is a world that I want to be a part of.

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Joanna Kotze and Francis Stansky in "Between You and Me" photo by Ian Douglas

JZ: I want to understand the trajectory of your life in New York. You were working primarily as a dancer, so when did you start making your own work? And why?

JK: I started making work when I was in college. Then I didn’t really have any interest in making work for quite a while. I started being invited back to my university, Miami University in Ohio, to create work on the company that I was a part of there. That started things percolating, but I was still just interested in learning, and I wasn’t ready to show work in New York. I had no interest in putting myself in that place at that moment in my life. I felt like I still had a lot to learn as a mover and performer. So that’s what I did. I just kept learning from all the people I was dancing with throughout the years.

I started making work on these college students in 2004 and it wasn’t until 2009 that I showed my first work in New York. That was at Movement Research at the Judson Church, which is so great, and it was a real opening for me, a time where I said, “Well, maybe I want to do this”.   I still wasn’t sure yet, but it started the wheels turning and I think by that point I was in a place where I felt like I had come into my own as a performer and a mover, and that’s where I wanted to get to before I made work.   I really feel lucky to have waited as long as I did. Everything that I experienced before putting something out there in a choreographic way has really helped to inform who I am as a person and what I’m interested in or what I want to discover.

JZ: I share that with you, that transition from being primarily a performer to now beginning to make work, or making work, putting work out there. It helps me to hear that there is a moment where there is a feeling of arrival, not completion, but a critical mass of information gained as a performer, and as someone who has been in someone else’s work.   It’s like, “Oh, now this other thing turns on, this other space opens”.

JK: I think also, in that sense, knowing other people I wanted to work with, who I found inspiring, who I was feeding off of, who I could learn from as dancers, and they could learn from me, having a real dialogue was possible at that time because I had built relationships. I was ready to take on the leadership role and figure out what kind of voice was mine, what I wanted to put out there. That was a really tricky part of starting to make work later--because I had worked so long with Wally, and with many other choreographers--figuring out “What is my voice? What do I want to put out there?” All these big questions: “What if that isn’t me?”   As soon as I let that go it got a lot easier, just to see, “Okay, whatever I put out there is me. Whatever my history is, is me.” That history became my work.

JZ: When you look at what you’ve made and what you’re making, what do you identify as elements of your voice?

JK: It’s changing and growing all the time. I don’t have a huge repertoire at the moment, and so each piece is a huge step for me. It really goes to a different level, or goes deeper, or to a different place that I wasn’t expecting. Movement is at the forefront for me: rigorous investigation of movement, looking at habitual things; the space is huge for me, too. Not only how the space is designed or defined, but how we decide to use it, how we decide to have it be seen, the architecture of the space, of the body, the potential of the body, how the body is articulated, and how all of those things are shaped in different ways depending on how I’m working and what I’m discovering.

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Lu Magnus gallery; Joanna Kotze with Jonathan Allen in "what will we be like when we get there" photo by Lauren Scott Miller

JZ: I really want to talk about movement. It’s hard because in this format I want whoever is reading this to be able to imagine or see you as a mover and the kind of movement that you create with your body, and also in your work for other bodies, because it is so incredibly detailed, so articulated, so dimensional and crystalline. When I see you dance and I see your work, I am thinking, “Oh, I’ve never seen this, this is exciting because there is a capacity of articulation that I’m experiencing for the first time.”   I am thinking about space and architecture and… right now I’m dancing [laughing]   I’m thinking of vectors of energy and how these beams of energy extend or radiate out from the body. I know you primarily as a dancer because of the work that we’ve done together, so I want you to talk about movement. What is it that draws you to movement, that keeps you rigorously investigating the making of movement?

JK: At first it was, “Well, what can my body do?” I think each body is so unique and has its own potential, that I first (over the years I’ve had help) starting discovering the potential of my body and I still continue to figure that out: the uniqueness of a body, how we use our body parts, but also the space and the floor and things from the outside that come in to shape what we are doing with the body. I’ve always liked to move, but I think definitely working with Wally and studying Klein Technique with Barbara Mahler has given me an understanding of my body that I definitely didn’t have before working with them. It has given me the ability to take that information and go wherever I want to go with it either in a new or deeper way.

I remember first working with Wally the week I auditioned in 2000 and just looking at his body, and not understanding how it was possible what was happening. I wanted to know how to get there. How do you get to those places that are unknowable? That’s really my challenge. The very first piece I made, the one after Judson, was a solo and that was really how I went into it. I said, “Okay, I’m going to start with something” and every step I took after that was, “What’s not the easiest way out of this?” And I built it from there. In some ways I still work like that, but I think it’s grown, and I come at movement from a variety of directions. Should I go into that specifically?

JZ: Before we talk about that, I’m really just fascinated about this idea of the unknowable. I’m wondering what that is. Is it, “I don’t know how he did that,” or is it, “I don’t know what that means”, or is it “I don’t know where those forces come from.” Is it a kind of unknowing that you then want to figure out? Like, “This is where my bones need to be in order to make that happen”? I guess I’m interested in the known versus the unknown inside the practice of building these movements.

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Soho20 gallery with Francis Stansky, walls by Asuka Goto - "A Malleable Space", photo by Adam Golfer

JK: I would say meaning doesn’t really come into play for me until much later. It’s a technical question, how you literally do something. How do you push into the floor in a particular way so that your body moves in that direction, or in that way, or with that amount of force? So it’s really only about shape or about form--how do the forces transfer through your body in order to make something happen? Which creates movement in a different way than when you only focus on how it feels. It usually comes from a very physical place for me, and then it may attach to some feeling or meaning at some point. If I feel that I’m doing something only one way for a long time, I try to do it a different way, or initiate from something else.

JZ: I’m also remembering you in the studio as a scientist, really investigating. I’m curious for you to talk about the way you build movement. Do you start with a problem? How do you go on from there? Improvisation feels like this whole other world that is different...

JK: That’s where the growth comes in. Each piece is a slightly different process. One thing is that movement and performance, the performance of the movement, are intertwined in a way that interests me very much at the moment. They feed off each other. The movement itself is connected to the way that it is performed; it can change it, it can influence it. So in terms of creating movement there, if I am starting something from scratch, like the very beginning stages of making something, I tend to spend time on my own. I generally have a daily practice or time where I just see what comes up. I might have a task or a score for myself or something that I attach to it as I go, but physically I see what comes up and what’s repeating itself, or coming up for me repeatedly, rather.

JZ: And that’s an improvisation?

JK: Yes. From there I might go in different directions, at times I take a specific movement and just start building on that movement so I might end up with a phrase or a sequence of movements. Or I continue with a score or a time frame, like five minutes, and I do another five minutes and I see what comes up. Whatever is repeatedly showing itself, I say, “Okay, well something is happening here.” I try not to judge anything at that stage in the process, or look for a meaning in it. Especially if I am working with other bodies, I tend to set up scores and see what comes out of their bodies. Which is a whole other angle to the subject. It is this play between this kind of scientific articulation and an unknown.

I’m interested in it always being unknown in some way. Even the scientific articulation, how are you trying it new each time, or what questions does it bring up for the next time, the next movement that you do? I hope to always surprise myself in at least one new way in my body. There is that unknown factor. I think bringing that in too, I tend toward order. I tend toward wanting to know, wanting to define, wanting to figure it out. That’s something I definitely learned early on working with Wally. It’s never about getting it right--it shouldn’t be about getting it right. That’s almost inconsequential. It was a hard lesson for me to learn at twenty three.

JZ: So it’s not about getting it right, but it’s about understanding.

JK: Right, it’s about understanding it in a way that allows it to keep growing.

JZ: And that’s order for you, the kind of knowledge that allows for growth.

JK: That’s the order and also the design--my background in design is part of the order. It’s creating something that isn’t only unknown, or only in disarray. For me there is more tension in having both.

So discovering more of the unknown, and the chaotic side, has been fun for me, but I definitely do enjoy the intersection, and how that works.

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Lu Magnus gallery with Jonathan Allen - "what will we be like when we get there", photo by Lauren Scott Miller

JZ: Say you’ve been doing this improvisation and something arises, you take that movement and you begin to develop it, and that development--where you are looking for the most (as you articulated earlier) improbable next thing--would you take me through that process? Is that accurate?

JK: Again it’s different depending on what I’m interested in making at the time. Often I’ll find myself in a place and think, “Oh, well, if I step this way that would make sense. So why don’t I not do that?” Why don’t I entertain other options? I just want to say that it doesn’t always have to be difficult or hard or rough or rigorous, or constantly moving; that’s not what I mean. It’s more of a challenge physically, but also habitually.

JZ: So what you’re saying is that your process really allows something to arise. You don’t come into the studio with, “I really need to make a work about my grandmother and my history”. It’s more like, “With this work, I have no idea”. Or, “I’m just going to start moving and see what comes up”.

JK: Exactly.

JZ: And I’m going to see who these people are, in the room with me, and what arises. And then only after something has arisen can you begin to name it.

JK: Yes, which is scary.   I often have no idea when it’s going to show it’s face. I have learned to trust the process.

JZ: Do you ever feel you get to a point where it thunks and you suddenly say, “Oh, this piece is about this”? Is there a point when you know?

JK: It’s funny when you say “thunk”, I think there is a thunk but I wouldn’t articulate it as, “Oh, now I know what the piece is about”. But it goes thunk, like, “Oh, that’s what’s happening!” Not in a complete way, but as a realization that everything is feeding off of everything else, because you are working at a certain period of time in your life--your physical life, your emotional life--with certain people, in a certain space.   It’s always connected somehow. Of course there are also often small kernels of ideas because you have to write about things as you are making work. What I read comes into play; talking to people comes into play.

JZ: So there is a moment where a kind of logic, sort of, blossoms? I can’t think of a better word.

JK: Yes.   There are a couple of things from Georges Perec, from his Species of Spaces, that I was reading while I was making this current piece that I am showing. He’s a wonderful writer and he says, “What came to the surface was the nature of the fuzzy, the uncertain, the fugitive.” I love that phrase, “the nature of the fuzzy” because I think before this piece I really didn’t allow myself to go to that “nature of the fuzzy” so much, maybe in performance, but not as a choreographer. That was just happening in rehearsals, and then I read this, and I was thought, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.” I need to get rid of this order somehow, and then find new order in that. The title came out of this part of the book where he says,

“It happened one day and I knew it, I’d like to be able to say I knew it at once, but that wouldn’t be true, the tense doesn’t exist in which to say when it was. It happened, it had happened, it is happening, it will happen. You knew it already, you know it. Something is simply opened and is opening.”

And when I read that I was like, “Oh my gosh”. That was kind of my “thunk” moment. I didn’t read it and then go and make the piece. I read it after the piece had emerged. Having that articulation around it, because I often don’t think I’m very good at articulating my work, was the “thunk” moment. Just thinking: it’s happening. There is no tense to this right now. It’s in our history, in our future and we are doing it now. It kind of encapsulates my process in a way, or what I try to have in my process.

JZ: I really like that.

JK: I think we strive for that as performers all the time, but I think as a choreographer to take that on is hard too.

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Joanna Kotze in "ONE/4", photo by Ian Douglas

JZ: So maybe we can finish with one more question--what is your perception of the audience’s perception of that experience?

JK: I knew that you were going to bring that up.

JZ: I couldn’t resist. That’s what you are experiencing as a maker, and I think the performers as well, it’s in our history, we are doing it, it’s in our future. What’s your perception of how the viewer takes that in?

JK: I think it’s tricky. Obviously I’ll never know how to tame the viewer’s mind, and I wouldn’t want to.

JZ: What’s your hope? What do you hope they are perceiving?

JK: One of my goals in making work is to have the viewer involved.   Not as audience participation, but in terms of them being part of the experience, whatever that means for them. For me, that’s about where they are sitting, how we set the space up, how we perform, how we present ourselves in the space, how we shape their view as an audience member. My hope for the viewer is that they are able to come away with an interest in what has been happening, but feel like they were present with us in the experience, not only watching us have an experience. Someone might be watching and might not understand our history, or if there is an overall theme or something like that, but they connect to the relationships that we are presenting between us and them, between ourselves, between us and the space; that they find the movement interesting, they somehow feel a part of what is happening in the space, and they are involved, rather than being an outsider or feeling like something is happening without them.

JZ: You are trying to create an environment where their attention is less the attention of the spectator and more the attention of a participant.

JK: Ideally, yes. Knowing that they aren’t getting up and dancing with us but that there is still an attention to their presence in the space.

JZ: It sounds like you are crafting that mostly through the way you are attending to performance, and shaping the attention of the performers. To what extent do you think that comes from the movement itself? Or from the way you are using space and the tools of performance? To what extent is movement a part of that?

JK: Movement defines everything. The movement defines the performance, defines the space. Whether it’s how you choose to stand still in your movement or articulate a certain phrase, for me, it all comes from there. I’m not talking to the viewer, it’s all coming from my body, which is all the movement. The more investigative and invested someone is in their movement, the more invested I am in watching them. If they have really gone through a practice of understanding their body and the movement and how they want to present that movement, then I feel the audience has a greater insight into what the mover and the choreographer is trying to relay.

JZ: That’s very clear to me: that sense of it all emerging from the movement. The relationship to the space, the relationship to the performative choices--the source is the movement. Those things aren’t layered on, but they actually emerge from this central vehicle, which I think is really exciting.

JK: Thank you.

JZ: Thanks for talking.

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creative process, Danspace Project, New York City, perception, Wally Cardona

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Joanna Kotze

Joanna Kotze received the 2013 “Bessie” Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. Her choreography has been presented at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Wexner Center for the Arts, Baryshnikov...
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Jesse Zaritt

is a Brooklyn, NY based dance artist. He is the inaugural 2014-2016 Research Fellow in the School of Dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. He has been working collaboratively with c...
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