Kitt Johnson on her fascination with existentialist themes and the baser elements of performance.

by Kitt Johnson & J.Scott Stratton

Kitt Johnson press photo from the performance 'Post no Bills'

Kitt: I guess I am a loner who enjoys her own company. I feel very comfortable in the solo format-with Sture Ericson coming and going in the process of making. But with this said, I also profoundly value what I learn from doing ensemble works. It is such an expansion of my choreographic thinking and brings lots of inspiration. Press photo from Kitt Johnson’s ‘Post No Bills’ performance by photographer Per Morten Abrahamsen

If you have ever been interested in, or amongst, the Danish choreographic community, then Kitt Johnson is a name you might recognise. Her esteemed career spans back over 30 years. And with an oeuvre of solo, group, and site-specific performances, one cannot ignore her choreographic influence on the Danish scene.

Without getting overly political, one could say that Kitt Johnson is a woman that has spent her time well. Over the last three decades, she has broken through the gender imbalance within the industry. Time and time again she has produced noteworthy choreographic works through her dance company X-act.

Arguably, she is of the generation that paved the way for many other female Danish choreographers. Tina Tarpgaard, Tora Balslev and Ingrid Tranum Velasquez have all taken a page from Kitt Johnson’s book. Each has risen to fame then establish a solid foundation in the Danish scene with their own dance companies.

Kitt Johnson press photo. Standing in a dance pose up against a wall with heavy shadows

Kitt: I guess I am a loner who enjoys her own company. I feel very comfortable in the solo format-with Sture Ericson coming and going in the process of making. But with this said, I also profoundly value what I learn from doing ensemble works. It is such an expansion of my choreographic thinking and brings lots of inspiration. Press photo from Kitt Johnson’s ‘Post No Bills’ performance by photographer Per Morten Abrahamsen

Her Choreographic Style

Stylistically, critics have praised Kitt Johnson’s works for their use of space, sound, and light, and how they interact and combine with her choreographic movement.

Kitt works a lot with combining expressive movement with expertly-timed minimalist or micro-expressions. Her extreme body control and use of stage effects to accentuate her movement can drive a piece without additional performers. Examples of this are found in her award-winning 2015 solo performance ‘Post No Bills.’

All of these factors play into the way Johnson uses her disciplines, her training, her experience and her research to explore a variety of existential questions that she has about the nature of being. She often intentionally explores concepts through how they affect the “individual”. Aiming a question internally, to then express an answer outwardly through movement.

For her forthcoming artist talk for the ongoing Choreography in Action series, I reached out to Kitt. I wanted to understand her work and her process, better-prior to the event.

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INTERVIEW with Kitt johnson

You’ve had a rather esteemed career as a performing artist, which makes it challenging to select a starting point of inquiry. So, let’s begin close to the beginning. What led you to form your dance company Xact?

Kitt: On a plane returning from a gig in Portugal with Anita Saij’s company Dancelab, August 1992, the musician Sture Ericson tapped my shoulder proposing that we would start a collaboration.

At that point, I was not doing independent work yet. I knew Stures’ work from the collaboration between Dancelab and the Swedish band Position Alpha. However, I didn’t feel confident that I would be strong enough. But Sture insisted, and we started a path that led to the formation of X-act. Since then, we’ve created 32 works and collaborations so far!

Through your career, you’ve worked mostly within the framework of solo pieces. Tell me how this influences your approach to choreography?

Kitt: I guess I am a loner who enjoys her own company. I feel very comfortable in the solo format-with Sture Ericson coming and going in the process of making. But with this said, I also profoundly value what I learn from doing ensemble works. It is such an expansion of my choreographic thinking and brings lots of inspiration.

When I worked in the frame of MELLEMRUM, the site-specific concept, I enjoyed acting more like a facilitator with groups of independent artists and local citizens. Creating the frameworks and serving as a mediator is excellent fun, bringing a lot of surprises and attaching you directly to “real, out of the box, life.”

Looking back on your work, can you tell me about the themes that run throughout them?

Kitt: I guess it’s the universal existential themes that keep knocking on my door. For example: What is Crisis? How can we access its transformative powers? What about the concept of Stigma? Or Heritage? What do these themes do to us? How do they drive the work – in the individual as well as in the collective?

These existential questions have occupied human culture across time. I explore them in my work-often in the company of a great deal of darkness which needs to be transformed and exposed into humor to be accessible.

Kitt Johnson press photo taken by photographer Per Morten Abrahamsen

Kitt: Art trends or movements come and go. Yes, art is deeply related to society in that art is a reaction to human and social conditions, so of course art has a role to play in society. Thus there is this movement at this time in particular, when many artists are engaging and reacting as human beings first and as artists secondly, I feel. It is an act of empowerment.Press photo by photographer Per Morten Abrahamsen

As a performing artist, you have collected a somewhat eclectic collection of performing disciplines – butoh, martial arts, German expressionist theatre, to name a few. Tell me how you began exploring these methods?

Kitt: I was relatively old when I started dancing, 24. To create the kind performance I was interested in, I was intuitively aware that I needed a lot of very different technical–as well as mental/philosophical–information. So, I just went on this excellent outing through all of these different techniques and styles. While slowly finding my path.

I can imagine it will be challenging to distil 30 years of experience into the framework of one guest lecture. Can you give me an idea of the subject matter that you’re going to be speaking about for the Choreography in Action talk?

Kitt: I will try to start a conversation on some of the essential elements often regarded as subordinate to dance. For example, I want to speak about space and site, light and darkness, sound and silence, the somatic versus the mental.

Based on my personal artistic experience, I will try to spark thoughts and questions within those fields. Claiming that an expanded awareness into these matters will turn them into real partners in their own right.

As you have notably garnered a lot of admiration and respect from younger generations of choreographers and performers, what advice would you give them for navigating their own artistic careers?

Kitt: Trust your intuition – keep doing your work despite any resistance – stay true to yourself. Dance matters – dance makes a difference – it crosses borders – it goes where language fails – go for it!

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