Interview with Holly Johnston by K. Altmann

Interview with Holly Sun Joo Johnston

Interviewer: Katelyn A. Altmann, University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, 

Undergraduate Research Project

Interview conducted via email 11.28.18


It's Katelyn. I was a performer in your work titled, worker [2017], a year and a half ago at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.


I am reaching out to you in hope to gain insight toward my final project within my Pedagogical class: Teaching within the Community here at University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. I’m interested in analyzing the different pedagogical practices with at least three different movement educators. All of which I’ve had the pleasure of participating and appreciating their practices within the contemporary dance class setting. You have probably caught on to the part where you are one of the three educators that I have chosen and am excited to learn more about. With the questions that I supply below, I’m interested in your personal outlook and response in relation to your pedagogical practice that you’ve developed over the years.


I’m looking to obtain this information through email or even a phone interview, if interested, on or before December 9th. You can answer these questions in a couple sentences to a paragraph or two.



1. Describe your current mission or approach to teaching in a couple sentences? (or you could attach your philosophy) 

“my current 'mission' is to use dance and dancing as a deployment system for information that supports human beings cultivation of bodily knowledge and sense of embodied knowing into a means and mode for expressing life. An integrated artful education is one that teaches an individual to harness and give direction to that which is potentiated by being alive. Artful learning and learning to be artful with life can foreground creative-critical thinking in ways that help us to examine the human consequences and outcomes our actions. It is a methodology for knowledge acquisition and dissemination. It is not merely reduced to objects or artifacts. Dancing and movement are evidence of being and thinking. Being educated through integrative embodied arts learning is to materialize the enactments of creativity and performativity of humanness.”


2. Where do you stand in relation to recognizing body politics or a somatic influence within a class? 

“I recognize body politics all the time. I never without a relation to it. I am a female, woman of color, an immigrant, adopted, daugther of a single mother and a mother of a bi-racial/multi-ethic child. I am hyperaware of the structures of power that exist that are designed to suppress my enfranchisement into the system. I address identity, intersectionality, ancestry, politics, history, sociology, cultural conditoning and current events into my teaching because we must address context for what is happening now. In order for us to properly identify 'who' is in the room we must acknowledge the lived experiences of their bodies. We are living organisms and we develop in relation to our enviornment. If the climate that surrounds us is harsh and neglects to nourish us we are at risk of dying or failing to thrive. The circumstances that surround the individual from birth to the present are holistically integrated into my 'recognition' of who they are. The context for their existence is to be fully acknowledged. I believe that it is our birth rite to live freely, openly and with dignity. Dancing is my embodied resistence to the insanity of ignorance.”


“Dancing cannot be anything other than 'somatic'. Both the transmitter (performer) and receiver (witness) must be bodied. Everything we perceive is somatic. It is not just dancing that is located in 'soma' or body, it is our perception of life itself. Body influences everything. Body is everything. Body defines what it is to be human. When we dance together our bodies express and explore the foundations for what it means to be human. You can not enter any space without your body, this is always with you.”


How do you approach language when speaking to the students?

“Mindfully, with care. Language shapes perception. Words help us to translate wordless sensational kinesthetic events into a culturally understandable 'thing'. Its a system of efficency, a way we can mutually agree to describing 'what is happening'. I am interested in speaking the language of body, movement as the mother tongue of body. The langague of body is not culturally specific, even though the words I use from my english language are, I hope what I am describing are the blueprinted intelliegences that are inherent to body and not to culture. The language provokes and highlights sensation, reflexes, instincts, impulses, emotions, feelings, energy states, action modes,  orientations to space, temporal organization, social nervous system, phisiology of transformations. I avoid culturally defined notions of beauty or aesthetics, I do not force the form of bodies to fit into normative cultural configurations for discriminatory preferences for white eurocentric thin bodies. I speak about bodies as potentiaed space. Describing body as potentiated space materialized into being and develop through-with-by its relation to other bodies and their environments is quite different than describing body as an object to be gazed upon by the predatorial lust of its heterosexist 'overculture'. We can see here that language is influential in how we percieve what we think we see. Language can be used as poetic catharthis, it can be used to transmit scripture and sacred texts, it can also be used as propaganda. I do not use language as propaganda or politics, I use it as poetry and as philosophical inquiry. It is a tool to liberate our thinking never to confine or control human and bodily rights.”


3. What are some difficult situations or even failures that you’ve experienced within a class? Successful Situations? Why?

“I do not percieve time as linear, so many times an event from the past emerges into the foreground of my 'now' and what was then is different, transformed, that was the origin point for the shift into where I am located here, it is hard to say when the challenge point was actually the birth place of my bliss. Plus, let's be real...there are so many mistakes my brain goes numb trying to select a single event.”


“I used to spend a lot of energy on trying to be all things to all people all the time. it was exhausting. Inevitablely I failed. I have learned that this is not actually my goal. The validity of my teaching is not confirmed by my ability to never 'fail' and to somehow always know what to do for every individual student. I started to accept that every single teaching experience is made up of the rise and fall of understanding. Learning is dynamic...its biologically dynamic...its metabolic.  The rate, speed, saturation, processing methods, digestion and development of skill-based learning is specific to the individual and to the context of the moment. I can say every student, in every class experiences a sense of failure and success. So does every teacher. I have had many moments when I can see that I am not able to effect/affect a shift in perception or action, these are the times when I will suggest that 'we let body show up for that and that we stop fixating on fixing it, perhaps body has a wisdom we could follow for awhile'.  Sometimes someone will ask me a question that I don't know the answer to, particularly in my early years, when this would happen rather than pretending I knew the answer I would just say "that's an awesome question I actually don't know the answer. You've made me curious I will do some research and get back to you." Of course sometimes I am not so graceful and there is a student that is a friction point because they are actively resistent to what you are offering. At these times I measure what is more valuable, stopping the class and addressing proper citizenship or bringing myself nearer to the individual and giving them more somatosensory feedback. Sometimes I have to hold space for that person to be who they are and to know that I am not the teacher they seek or need. That too is okay. In this moment they are my teacher, I am learning humility.”


4. How do you believe your geography impacts your pedagogical practice? Guest teaching at different institutions?

“I think my location here in SoCal, partuclarly whle I was developing as a dance educator was really significant. In LA there was an era of artists driven to be sort of a counterculture to 'formalism' and established performance ettiquettes. We explored physicality and not codefied techniques. We used what we had in our bodies to access physical risk and to push the boundaries of our bodily capacities. What we generated came from within and was not about adherence to movement codes. This meant that this was the content and context for my teaching. I was already identifed as a part of this counterculture movement. My teaching methods were different, but that was embraced because I was teaching to a different value system for bodies.  Because LA and the West Coast does not house a multitude of 'legacy' artists like New York or the East Coast, there was more space for 'unknown' artists to be invited into academic institutions and public attention was given to local artists. I was given the chance to teach and to develop my teaching early in my career because I was not rejected or excluded for my lack of an MFA or 'celebrity noteriety'. “


“Teaching is specific to the context and framework for why you are there. Guest teaching is certainly different than sustained teaching. The metabolic rate for creative work during guest teaching is hyperactive. Every situation and circumstance is unique and as an artist working with and through this uniqueness I am working to generate an experience of transformation through movement as body animates its intelligence as dance and dancing. 

Sometimes I make dances, sometimes we dance together, sometimes I steward us through discourse spaces but always I am there because our dancing brings us together.”


5. What do you want your students to take away?

“I want for them to want to dance, in their own way, every day. I want for their families to dance openly and freely. I want their dancing to become a powerful force for social change. May their bodies charge forward into life with the courage to muscularly flex against human ignorance and the wisdom to know when to yield to body's inherent intelligence. May their bodies always have a limitless capacity to respond to-with-through the animating forces of life itself.” 


A conversation with Katharine Hawthorne

A conversation with Katharine Hawthorne about her newest work "Between the Wish and the Thing", premiering at ODC Theater, San Francisco, November 14-16 2017.

There's a lot of talking going on these days. Everyone wants their voice to be heard. We talk over each other, at one another and chatter endlessly on our devices. But who is really listening? Who actually hears us? Katharine Hawthorne is listening...and she cares about what you have to say, particularly about the future.  She is an artist creating a dance that listens to whispers of unspoken hope -through movement- by transacting these exchanges through worded and wordless encounters. In the wordless articulation of her work she is not silent nor will she be silenced. She communicates clearly through her choreography. She is talking with you, but not the kind of talking that desires to confirm that she can hear herself, rather it is an empathic exchange that listens as much as it speaks. She is inviting you to be in Between the Wish and the Thing. 

Interview exchange between Holly Johnston and Katharine Hawthorne:

Why do you dance?

I dance to feel more strongly and perceive more vividly. 

What are the binding forces between your experiences as a Stanford graduate with a degree in physics, musician, writer, sound designer/composer and movement artist?

Our culture tells us we need to be one thing.  In addition to the identities and experiences you list above, I am also a caretaker, a gardener, a bibliophile...  I am trying to live into the multiplicity of things I can be.  This is possible due to my privileged upbringing, which allowed me to pursue the arts, languages, and academics simultaneously.  I am a curious person, and my curiosity has been rewarded.

What interests you as a choreographer?

I want to connect with people.  When I create a new dance production, I consider how the audience enters the space, the information they receive in the program, from which vantage points they are able to see the work, and how sound and light shape their experience.  I communicate primarily through the moving body, which is why my medium is dance.  However, my work encompasses many considerations beyond the design of the movement phrases performed by the dancers onstage.

What is the wish?  What is the thing?  What does it mean to be 'between'?

"Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting," is from Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.  The larger context of the quote is quite dark:  "In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments.  The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not.  Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting."  This makes the world out to be a predator, like a large feral cat lying in wait for its prey.

There is an auto service station in the Tenderloin in San Francisco that often has a quote on its message board.  A few years ago, on a particularly shitty day, I looked up from the street at the intersection of Turk and Larkin and saw the McCarthy quote.  It isn't inherently optimistic - you might not make it from the wish to the thing, from hoping to instantiating, but the gap between what we dream and what we make is undeniably rich with potentiality.  The dance I am making activates this space and wakes up myself and my audience to imagine a world that is different than the one we live in today.  Being "between" requires being in disequilibrium.  It is not a comfortable state.  Let's hold onto each other so we can be brave enough to exist there.

In the context of my dance production, the "wish" is a wish for the future.  It can be for yourself, or for another person, or even for society.  It is refreshing when people wish for something concrete for their own lives or other's lives, for example, "I wish for my friend to receive a lot of money - enough to be able to rest and enjoy her remaining years," or even "I'd like a cactus garden in LA."

You are deeply invested with your creative collaborators throughout the process of evolving the work, but in the performances of Between the Wish and the Thing you invite the audience members to be 'of the moment contributors' to the event, what has it been like to collaborate with individuals you have never met and who know nothing about what you're doing?

I performed an installation version of this piece this summer while at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.  I filled the Old Barn on the Djerassi property with criss-crossing cellophane, creating a maze which I invited the audience to explore.  I asked visitors to write a wish for the future, and then I created dances on the spot for individuals in response to their wishes, while they were free to roam the installation.  I was active in the space for two hours.  It was exhausting and exhilarating to open myself up to people's desires and embody their hopes and dreams  Towards the end of the performance the wishes became darker.  I received some dystopic wishes as well as wishes for the cessation of serious diseases and personal hardships.  These wishes demanded something different from me -  the wish for a cure for cancer comes from a different body than the hope for world peace or a someone's desire to find a soul mate.

This "live" element of the performance brings the audience into the moment of creation and helps them feel their own power to shape the course of future events.  

What do you think dance is offering to the world?

Dance is a mode of listening and receiving as well as taking action.  We need this in our lives.  

In a culture that is in moral conflict with itself, what do you hope for dance? what do you hope for humanity?

In my life, I am seeking greater capacity to hold complexity and find equanimity with paradox.  Our world is quite rigid with categories and divisions right now.  Can dance help us become more comfortable with uncertainty?

I asked Katharine if there was a question she wished I would have asked but didn't and would she like to add anything to our conversation. This was her response:

"If you have a minute or two, I invite you to do an experiment with me.  Wherever you are, notice your body.  Do you feel tired or energized, happy or sad?  When you think about the future, what part of your body feels the most alive?"

Please join the conversation, we welcome your contributions. Feel free to write your comments and responses in the comment section of this page. 

It has been a pleasure to engage this conversation with Katharine. She pulses with passion and thoughtful purpose. What I admire and find refreshing is her impulse to ask questions, the kind of questions that lead us back into ourselves as an invitation to experience our own sensations, so we may feel the force of life inside our bodies. Her curiosity guides us as a compass through the wilderness of our own dreams.

Katharine Hawthorne is a fierce warrior who listens to the whispers inside our hallowed bodies.

Written by: Holly Johnston on 9/20/2017