finding a movement vocabulary – a conversation with performance maker* Katharina Joy Book
(* and double Capricorn INTJ)
“My practice moves from being academic to being about liveness, energy, and movement… about the fact of having a body, and ways of thinking through the body. That combination - of something both intellectualised and physically energized – is often very new to people.”
You switch languages partway through Katharina Joy Book’s name - from German to English – which feels somehow appropriate to an artist whose practice is so much about exploring language. Katharina works with performance and extended choreography, having recently graduated from CSM. While many of us see dance as a way of speaking, few associate choreography of the body with organisations of words and letters. For that reason, we begin at a place I feel she often begins; her practice, and how she came upon it:
KJ: I come from a background in devised theatre, which I started when I was fourteen or so, and found really fun. Then I realised that drama could be so much more – straight up drama became devised drama. And then, I did the same with dance, which became a kind of movement research. I returned to choreography after my first year at CSM; and during my time at Siobhan Davies Dance, I started to really get into the choreographic quality of words.
Siobhan Davies Dance had an immersive exhibition at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery earlier this year, which The Guardian called an exploration of ‘the intelligent body.’ Thinking about dance as intellectual and conceptual, Katharina notes, isn’t ‘something people spend much of their time doing.” Or maybe they just don’t realise they’re doing it.
KJ: On the one hand, people see dance as something that’s not serious. It can seem frivolous. And then, on the other hand, there are people who see dance as incredibly serious. There are so many tropes around going to the theatre, or certain cultural spaces that have become ‘for certain people’. Seeing ballet, going to shows, you know. Dance, in some senses, has an ingrained elitist element.
Those ideas can make dance and performance seem abstract and inaccessible. But no, I do think dance is serious - in a very human, accessible way. Dance has a lot of potential to be very deep.
Katharina isn’t one of those people who danced since she was old enough to stand – rather, she’s always been driven by the idea of performing, (“that’s probably why I was an altargirl”), and questioning what performing can mean.
KR: The inherent dynamics of output/reception can make a lot of performers appear as extroverted – would you say you are?
KJ: Well, a single personality contains multitudes. I’m quite closed, in general. I would not say I’m extroverted - but, I’ve used extroverted… techniques, to make certain situations easier. But I’m more comfortable as an introvert.
KR: OK what’s your Myerrs-Briggs? If you don’t know it, I’ll make this interview into a Myerrs-Briggs test.
KJ: My what? [*update – she’s INTJ.] I don’t know about that, but I have been getting into astrology lately. The astrologist Chani Nicholas is fantastic. Oh my God, she knows things. I came upon her through this interview she did in Lenny Letter, about how she made astrology her job.
What struck me about her is that she really emphasises about the importance of healing, and how overlooked it is.
KR: What kinds of healing?
KJ: Emotional healing, in particular. The constant need to heal from something – external influences and unrest. We forget the importance of it, or construe it as a luxury, when it's a necessity. Capitalism really builds on and exploits your self-care, turns it into a market. They have it down in the USA; everyone is banking on someone’s self-improvement. Treating yourself well has become a pursuit of commodities, and healing becomes a capitalist project.
Katharina grew up in Germany, but spent a lot of time in the US. Her Dad’s from Baltimore, and she’ll make the visit to family out there around once a year.
KJ: I feel like paying attention to zodiac signs, and to the patterns of the moon, is a feminine thing in the best way. I recently rediscovered these books and pamphlets I’d picked up at the Anarchist Book Fair two years ago, from the Radical Anthropology group. One of them was Decoding Fairytales. The other: The Moon and Menstruation, by Robert Briffault.
KJ: Briffault’s Moon and Menstruation claims that the first taboo, first idea of prohibition in human society, was this idea that you are not allowed to touch a woman’s body while she is on her period. And from that, we get so many other taboos and norms– sacred days, calendar days, working days.
On top of that, women used to be secluded from society during their period. At first I thought that was so patriarchal - but then I read that the women chose to have it that way. That’s such an expression of female power. Today, we’re kind of out of touch with the female power that used to be ascribed to menstruation. After all, the fact we menstruate is because we are able to give life.
The name ‘Katharina’ stems from the Greek ‘purity’; put together her name runs something like ‘Pure joy of books’.
KR: You’ve used Finnegans Wake and Ulysses in your performances before. What draws you to James Joyce’s work?
KJ: So, I began reading Ulysses about 5 years ago, got about ten pages in, and immediately started telling everyone it was my favourite book. With texts others consider difficult, I often see a treasure trove - because I’m not thinking about how to unlock or understand the book; I’m just asking what it generates in my mind.
It’s not always about the story, but what the text gives the reader, and how it encourages you to think about things differently. I like questioning the notion that you have to read a page from top to bottom, or that you have to finish a book. I still haven’t finished that book today… I guess I admire some authors for their attitudes, more than their texts.
I especially love the first two of Jonathan Safran Foer’s books. I love the way he he’ll relay a situation between two people that sums up their relationship in such a poetic way. He details exchanges and actions they’ll perform for each other; and, as a result, he doesn’t have to spell out that ‘this person loves this person.’ The situations are always kind of surreal, and he gets to a very real truth through them.
KJ: I also adore Brandon Brown. He’ll translate ancient Greek and Latin, but he’ll include his experience of translating. He’ll derail the poem brilliantly; writing in what he ate that day.
At this point, a passing man asks if either of us know the Italian for “thank you” - “Grazie mille?” - “Thanks” and he’s gone, presumably conducting his own in-field exploration of translation and vocabulary.
KJ: We load words with so much – so many meanings and associations. I’m interested in exploring that through ideas of choreography.
KR: Remember when you first start to speculate as a child, or maybe in a science class in school: what if not everyone sees the world the same way? It sounds like you take that fascination with subjectivity further than we’re usually allowed to.
KJ: Yeah, and the ideal attitude for viewing my work is to understand that you’re not being presented with something finished. It’s not about authority, but about continuation, processes and subjectivity. I’m very much in favour of open structures, and thinking about how we might construct them.
KR: Does that way of working sometimes lead to surprises?
KJ: [pauses] … a lot, actually, with colour. . Like, we’ll use colours, and two people will choose colours that randomly match, and have no idea. I’m obsessive with colour, so that’s always really exciting.
Katharina’s fascination with colour extends to the sartorial [writer discreetly notes that the flashes of purple in her trainers match her jumper].
KJ: I find it so funny how often people think clothes are trivial, but clothes are a part of identity construction every single day – you can read outfits as text. Surfaces are never just surfaces, and fabric is so interesting in its own right. A lot of people, and performers, are very object-driven. Their performance might revolve around a certain object physically, or symbolically. I’m not that into objects. Textures, however… I’ll collect fabrics, colours and papers. And that’s really related to the way I think about words as texture, colour and a palette of things you can recombine.
Unfolding and liberating the meanings of words, surfaces, and intangible entities we don’t usually reconsider, sounds like a form of catharsis that might align with the kind of healing Katharina earlier discussed.
KJ: I find it amazing that we can consider things so differently, but also that we can consider the experience of considering. I love combining things from different sources and seeing what happens. Saying ‘here’s something I found out’, taking it further and bringing other people into that process - not just relying on my own evil brain.