A Conversation with Katharine Hawthorne

by Holly Johnston

Photo: Staff

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?”

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Please join the conversation, we welcome your contributions.

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.

Holly Johnston’s original interview with Katharine Hawthorne may be found at hollyjohnston.org.

2017 Scientific Delirium Madness Artists-in-Residence

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