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Holly Johnston

Posed and Answered with Holly Johnston

Holly Johnston was born in South Korea and has lived in the United States since her adoption at the age of four. Spending most of her life preoccupied with physical play, she is now the artistic director of Holly Johnston | LEDGES AND BONES [LAB]. Johnston was selected by Dance Magazine as one of their ” 25 to Watch” in 2007 for her “fearless and fluid” (Dance Magazine) approach to choreography. She is a performer, choreographer and movement educator holding a BA in Dance from Loyola Marymount University and an MFA from Jacksonville University.  Her choreography has been presented in New York, Arizona and extensively throughout her home turf of Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Earlier in her career she was a founding member of Tongue Contemporary Dance (AD: Stephanie Gilliland) and worked as a principle dancer, master teacher, and the company’s rehearsal director from 1997-2005. She has received five Lester Horton Award nominations, for Outstanding Ensemble Performance and Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design. Johnston also works with private clients in her physical training business as the founder/creator of Integrated Human Action.

Interview by Katharine Hawthorne


How do you start your day?

I am a very early riser, usually around 4am, sometimes earlier.  Morning was a quiet time for my mom and I, I have wonderful emotional recollections of morning times with her. In elementary school, I used to get a wee bit impatient with everyone in the house being slow, so I would walk myself to school.  I would arrive early and see the janitor start opening up the classrooms before administrators or other students came.

I love this story of you walking yourself to Elementary school.  You have a voracious appetite to learn.  Where did that comes from, have you always been like that?

I started out as an observer.  I had to assimilate to a new culture and language as a young person, when I was adopted at four and a half years old.  I wasn’t always natural at learning how to read, write, to do anything academic or really cognitive and logical.  I had to use all my senses, everything I had, in order to take in information in the way it’s delivered in the American education system.  I recruited my whole body to learn in ways that I don’t think my peers and my classmates did or needed to, or knew was available to them.  Now as an adult, that’s just my body’s response.  I’m also kind of a hedonist – It’s a pleasurable body experience for me to learn.  To me it seems like an intelligent response.

As an adult how has learning evolved for you, and what are the different opportunities that you seek out to immerse yourself in new information?

As an adult I’m much more able to take in that learning is everywhere.  It isn’t just from somebody who you think knows better, who’s older than you or who has a role as a teacher.  Information/learning – it comes from the wind blowing, from walking out into the world and noticing.  I’ve become less specific in terms of what learning is or isn’t.  And so as an adult, I feel like a kid again.  It’s even more a passionate experience as an adult to learn because I feel like it restores wonder.

You’ve been involved in dance education for the past 20 years.  What are some of the changes and trends you’ve observed both in terms of the appetites and aptitudes of students?  And how do you try to subvert the American education system, by offering experiences to your students that start to break open the way that they learn?

Millennial learners have access to everything.  The instantaneous speed at which they can get what they want has changed the pace at which 18-35 year old learners ‘take in’ information.  I see a paradox in that at the same time they have a growing capacity to take in information, we ask them to restrict how they output the information to either a test mode or a grade.  We’re telling them, sit down, be still in your body.  You may only write it or you may circle it.  With this there’s a stunting and congestion inside of them that confuses them, because they feel so capable, yet they can’t output with creativity.

So as we open up all these opportunities for learning, we’re shutting down how we’re evaluating them.

Absolutely – we restrict the creativity of the individual learner.  Isn’t that one of the things that we’re assessing?  That America has fallen behind because we don’t innovate.  Well, no duh.  We are given literally two options to output which reside in a certain part of the brain and limited body.  To activate innovation, you activate all regions of the brain, you mobilize the body.  You can see how unexpressed a person’s brain and emotional system and body are, how under-resourced, undervalued, under-exercised.  When you aren’t willing to ignite the emotional system towards courage, you really can’t take any risk.  Without risk, there’s nothing new.  I spend a lot of time with millennial learners to help them feel courageous, to embrace their desire to be something other, something different, something great.  A lot of what I do is to affect the emotional systems so they will actually passionately learn, not always just rationally take in information.  I want them to feel the sensation of that kind of excitement towards possibility.  Right now we need individuals who can say I am brave enough to go forward and say “I am different, and I want the world to change.”

Another thing that is unique about the way you work not only in the classroom, but also in rehearsal, is structuring community and your attentiveness to social dynamics in addition to deeply valuing individuals.  Why is this important for your work?

My body knows this as a truth:  when you feel safe, when you feel there is no harm or injury to your body, you get brave, you get real.  It’s ok to be honest, it’s ok to be discontent, it’s ok to just be who you are.  That sense of safety is missing in society and in a big part of our world.  This is what I wish people could really experience about dance: not one thing is asked of you, everything is asked of you.  It is a raw and vulnerable space for a human being.  And if it’s not safe and we cannot bring all of who we are, we have to guard the sacred part of who we are, and if we’re doing that, where does the art come from?  The art comes from the sacred place of who we are, and if that is guarded every time we come together then I get confused  what we are doing and what are we making.

What is your favorite secret place in Los Angeles?

The huge bed where I sleep at night with my husband Peter…and yes, our son Skyler can be regularly found sandwiched between us. It is my favorite place to be.

What are some of your current choreographic fascinations?  Any topics you are currently obsessed with or movement investigations you are digging into?

I’m kind of always ‘movement drunk’ and full of lust for wild dance that takes me to the edge of my own capacities, the sensation of force, freedom, forming and un-forming as my body strikes or slithers through space…it’s  just addictive.  Right now and always, I’m interested in pushing limits and breaking boundaries… to explore exhaustion, speed, intimacy, partnership, to interrogate my own intentions as a human being, choreographer, educator, parent, woman, female dancer, public artist and member of an ever expanding universe. Sensation, sensation, sensation… to feel life coursing through my body as it entangles space and creates time… to experience an ongoing living choreography through movement research and creative processes with collaborators who also share this love of the sensorial body. I bring to our attention ‘equal labor distribution in choreography’ and this means that if there is lifting to be done, we all do it, if there is flight to be taken, we all jump… if there is a fall to be caught, we all respond equally… Don’t care if you have a penis or a vagina, if there is work to be done, we all work.

If you could have a superpower what would it be?

To heal bodies with Love, it sounds dorkishly altruistic but it’s actually true.  I would in an instant want the ability to heal bodies, not really for the sake of prolonging life or to deny death, but to heal pain or injury that prevents us from being empowered physically and politically. I would heal the pain of ignorance, repair the injuries of racism and mend the broken bones that come from the abuse of power.

…and if I could have two superpowers I would definitely want to fly without the necessity of a cape or unitard.  Just want to feel my own ability to defy gravity and to avoid LA traffic.

In addition to being a performer, choreographer and educator (and mother!), you also work one-on-one with clients ranging from dancers and athletes to working professionals, focusing on somatics and functional body motion.  How did this practice start, and how has it influenced your work more broadly?

I have always been fascinated by why and how humans do what they do.  I have been observing this since I was first adopted in 1979.  Because I did not have verbal language to communicate and did not understand English, I first learned to ‘read’ bodies before I learned to read words.  Bodily behavior, qualitative movement characteristics and energy dynamics allowed me assess a person’s intentionality, whether they were ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous.’  I was forced to sense the world through my body, not through instructive language. I could smell rage, I could feel with my skin someone’s honesty, I could see the flinch of anger being suppressed, I could taste the foulness of arrogance, and I could hear the promises of love that came from the kind-hearted. What this taught me was that my body is knowledge, it is intelligence

My bodywork practice grew as a rational strategy of how to have a job after college that was still connected to dance and embodied practice.  I worked under skilled acupuncturists and chiropractors and became interested in the science of the body.  In my twenties I did a lot of high impact dancing (with Stephanie Gilliland’s TONGUE), and I didn’t question my body’s response and my sensations, which allowed a lot of instincts to show up.  Later I got into Rolfing and structural re-integration of connective tissue.  From there I just wanted to share this knowledge and experience of body.

I work deeper and more directly than many other practitioners and use directional force that understands movement.  I also work in human dynamics and understand the emotional layers within bodies.  I work to trigger a body sensation, which sometimes may show up as pain, as this requires the neurological system to trigger the intensity of fight or flight.  My work is a confirmation of the body’s capacity – yes you can, because you just did.  Every body is hard-wired for survival, our bodies fight for life, and there is something incredibly intelligent about this capacity. Often our conditioned ideas about our bodies confuse our ability to trust this intelligence. I seek to restore this trust.

If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be?  What would that collaboration look like?

Auguste Rodin. I have been obsessed with his work for a long time now.  I fell deeply in love with him when I traveled to Paris just after I finished my BA at Loyola Marymount University in 1996.  His ability to understand and accurately express the emotional body as well as the physical body inspires me. His ability to capture an epic story in a single frame of movement is simply brilliant. I would want Rodin to be my biographer. I would desire for him to ‘frame’ both my personal life and my artistic work as a choreographer.  How might he ‘crystalize’ the emotional intention and situational context for my work? How might he see me as a person? How might he shape, form, re-form and un-shape who I am in the sculptures he creates? For me Rodin would replace ‘dance photography’…and instead of two-dimensional images, he might create multi-dimensional sculptures that do not arrest the dancing image, but set it free.

What’s next for you?  What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?

I am heading full force into unknowing what I think I already know about myself.  I do not want to make ‘dances’ anymore.  I want to create work, to generate thinking, to wonder constantly, to ask, to be receptive, to question, to examine and experiment, to move through my body towards a state of dance that leads me closer to everyone, everything and into an acceptance of nowhere and nothingness.

I have just launched a new website,, which I hope will become an interactive forum for dialogue in-of-with-within the dance community.  Looking forward to causing good trouble on the campuses of CalArts and Chapman University this Fall, and at San Jose State in early 2016. I will be performing a solo for The Commuter Festival at CalArts at the beginning of October, which will be a works in progress showing of a new collaboration with lighting designer John Garofalo. I am curating-facilitating Emerging Above Ground which is a site-space for emerging choreographers to be supported through a creative research phase with selected mentors over a 5-6 month period. This process culminates in a presentation of their work-in-process in June 2016 at The Diavolo Space in Downtown LA.  Emerging Above Ground occurs during the second week of SummerLAB, my two week intensive program on contemporary dance practices for choreographers, performers, dancers, teachers and students, I am already making plans for both programs….I am very excited about about both of these endeavors.

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Post by Kenna Tuski

Kenna Tuski, a Portland Maine native, graduated from SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance with honors in the spring of 2013. Kenna was given the opportunity to study abroad at Taipei National University of the Arts in Taiwan in her Junior year at Purchase. In 2013–2014 Kenna worked with pop singer Betty Who as her personal assistant and tour manager. Kenna danced with Nimbus Dance Works and was assistant coordinator of their 2013 Nutcracker Production. She has toured nationally and internationally with Shen Wei Dance Arts and in 2014 became a performer in Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More.

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