Kitt Johnson on choreography in action

Preceding her guest artist talk for the Choreography in Action series, Danish choreographer Kitt Johnson takes a moment to speak about her career, her fascination with existentialist themes, and the subordinate elements of performance.

Published: May 22, 2018Words: Kitt Johnson & J.Scott StrattonArtist Link: Details: Dansehallerne

Within and amongst the Danish choreographic community – and one could even say the global choreographic community – Kitt Johnson is a bit of an icon. With an esteemed career spanning back over 30 years, and with an oeuvre of solo, group, and site-specific performances, she’s not a choreographer that can be ignored – nor would you want to.

Without getting overly political, it could be said that Kitt Johnson is a woman that has spent her time well, over the last three decades, breaking through the gender imbalance within the industry. Time and time again she has produced noteworthy choreographic works through her dance company X-act, which have solidified her presence as a choreographer and an artist not to be ignored, nor reckoned with.

While Johnson has produce group works, such as her most recent piece from 2017 ‘Stafet,’ to a great extent she is most known for her solo performances. This is widely attributed to her extreme body control and use of stage effects to accentuate her movement. Johnson works a lot with combining expressive movement with minimalist or micro-expressions that are expertly timed. An example of this can be seen in the excepts film from her award-winning 2015 solo performance ‘Post No Bills.’ (shown below)

Choreographically, Johnson’s works have also been praised for their use of space, sound, and light and how these external stimuli interact and combine with her own choreographic movement.

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. It becomes apparent when you look back across the three decades of her work that primarily a solo artist, she explores concepts through how they affect the “individual”. Aiming a question internally, to then express an answer outwardly through movement, so to speak.

For her forthcoming artist talk for the Choreography in Action series, I reached out to Kitt Johnson to get a better understanding of her work, her process, and her plans for what she plans on speaking about during the event. As I am not a choreographer, nor a dancer, myself, I wanted to be prepared for the evening, so as to actively participate in the discussion.

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

On the airplane returning from a gig in Portugal withAnita 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 and respected it very much. 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. Have you found this allows you to explore concepts on a more personal level, rather than within a “collective” dance company framework?

I guess I am a loner who enjoys her own company very much! So 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 great fun, bringing a lot of surprises and attaching you directly to “real, out of the box, life.”

Looking back on your work, would you say that there is a general theme that runs throughout your them, or do they each stand alone?

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 Stigma? What about the inflicted, the chosen, the innate. What about Heritage? What do these themes do to us? How do they drive the work – in the individual as well as in the collective?

These kinds of existential themes, that occupy human beings of all times and cultures, they keep popping up in my work. Often in the company of a great deal of darkness and heavy stuff that needs to be transformed and exposed to humor in order to be accessible.

As a performing artist, you have collected a somewhat eclectic collection of performing disciplines – butoh, martial arts, German expressionist theatre, to name a few. Did the research into these disciplines come from research into specific concepts or more as a means of expanding your training?

I was relatively old when I started dancing – 24 – and I was intuitively aware that I needed a lot of very different technical, as well as mental/philosophical, information to create the kind performance I was interested in. 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 difficult to distill 30 years of choreographic and performative 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?

I will try to start a conversation on some of the essential elements that are sometimes regarded as subordinated or just an accompaniment to the dance. Such as space and site, light and darkness, time, sound and silence, the somatic versus the mental.

Based on my personal artistic experience I will try to spark a sharing of experience, thoughts, and questions within those fields. Claiming that an expanded awareness into these matters will turn them into true 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 in Denmark’s current cultural climate?

Trust your intuition – keep doing your work in spite of any resistence – stay true to yourself. Dance matters – dance makes a difference – it crosses borders – it goes where language fails – go for it!

You can find out more about the specific event here: