Conversations with Sarah East Johnson on A Goddessey
By. Imogen Pickles
Sarah East Johnson is the Artistic Director and Founder of LAVA, a feminist acrobatic dance
company based in Brooklyn, NYC. I had the honor of meeting with Sarah, at LAVA’s studio in
Brooklyn, to discuss the company's latest production A Goddessey, which is touring throughout
Fall and Winter 2017.
The company LAVA identifies as feminist, and the latest work A Goddessey can easily be
described as a feminist journey. This feminist identity is fundamental to LAVA - it is made
clear throughout the work, the methodology and creation of work. The company’s mission
statement is no manifesto, instead a WOMANIFESTO. As such, Sarah please can you tell me
more about what it means to be a feminist company, and one that identifies as Queer?
SEJ: The Company is a feminist. It really is simple - women are of equal value to men, the
balance needs to be restored. Hope and optimism are created when women are in a room
together - there is so much space for imagination. We become a powerful force, we try to
create a safe space, free of judgements, pressure, a space to re-image and kindle change. At
LAVA we manifest such ideas in our physical achievements, with wonder and grace. Feminism
and Queerness are closely tied up with one another; to recognize the systems of power, to see
things from the margins, as ‘other’, and act from such margins, allows one to provoke change.
Queerness is relative, it is not about whom you are sleeping with, right - it is political. Seeing
the uniqueness in the individual and then seeing that individual within a whole community is to
be Queer. We are sex positive, upholding a celebration of sexuality in all forms, and thus
Queerness. This is what makes us all human, and brings us all together. This identity is very
important to LAVA, and keeps us from not only being dance, we can be so much more.
In the age of the digital, with social media, celebrity and consumerist cultures, image is
everywhere. LAVA seems to reject a ‘normative’ body ideal and celebrates all.
As a director of a dance company, how do you navigate the politic of the body? How do you
confront and alleviate pressures, not only in terms of femininity, but also in the image and
expectation of dancers?
SEJ: There is certainly an external pressure to look a certain way, indeed as women and also as
dancers. But I believe dance is not about the body - dance is about the movement. I encourage
the dancers to work and think internally; for starters we have no mirrors in the studio, the
dancers must be hyper aware. Even more so when they are using apparatus or they are in the
air, for example, they must focus on working together and task ahead. The movement creation
and also the training is task oriented, often the intensity of the action helps to shed other
concerns. This movement is extremely physically challenging, the dancers have to work
together to achieve the movement, and so the choreography becomes less about the individual
and more about the whole, an overall collective focus. Women, dancers, performers need to be
strong; there is an unnecessary fear of ‘bulk’ - whatever that means! I want to encourage all to
embrace their strength, to embrace muscularity, as an act of resistance. I want cultivate and
celebrate a sense of uniqueness.
The LAVA Credo: ‘There is no right side up. We are all connected through movement.’
‘An art form about movement, not the body, movement which is not limited to or defined by
gender or expectations.’
When I saw A Goddessey, my first LAVA performance, I was really struck by the open
community feel, a connection that the entire audience and the performers shared.
‘Community performance’ or ‘community engagement’ is something of buzzword in the
industry - aspired for - yet something real, tangible and a core element of the LAVA
experience. How do you create and cultivated this?
SEJ: Thank you so much! I think it comes naturally; we have an amazing, supportive audience -
many who have been a part of the LAVA family for years, or since the very start.
We are locally grounded dance: we embrace Brooklyn; we always have - even before it became
what it is today. We offer classes and host activities in our home studio, we work with local
Brooklyn partners, and we perform locally and to our home audience. The company is here
today because of a genuine community effort. People seem to stick around once they get to
know us...Everyone is welcome to the studio, to our home and to become part of LAVA’s
community. Come to any performance or event and you will see and feel it!
I first saw A Goddessey it was performed in your home studio, and in my review I note how
formal performance boundaries are broken down, the performers interact with the audience
and more...This is a working studio and not a formal theater space, I am really curious to
know how the show will translate to a more formal setting, to different venues, and how
physical spaces might affect the performance?
SEJ: The LAVA experience starts moment the audience enters into the space - whether that is a
community space, theater, or studio. It really starts with the audience, and how they respond
to the work. For this production we work with the audience at the very the start, almost
foreshadowing the work to come. So far in all venues and spaces we have a great response,
what we do seems to be working and people want to connect, and to participate. Space is
opportunity: a point of reference for meaning. Whatever the spatial dimensions or location, as
performers we choose to make meaning and we adapt to so.
There is a great sense of optimism and hope in the work, with ideas such as, if rock
formations can change then so to can social understanding. Rather cynically, I have to ask if
you believe - do you really think that human perception can shift and that there is hope for us
to be better?
SEJ: Absolutely! Nothing stays the same, nothing is constant: we are ever changing, ever
evolving - right? It’s just a system that needs recalibrating. At LAVA we hope to steer direct and
LAVA is a truly unique and inspiring company, Sarah East Johnson at the helm.
SEJ: It’s an exciting time for LAVA, we really are thrilled to be at the Flea Theater and
performing this work, we hope to see you there!
Read the full A Goddessey review here:
https://tilltmagazine.com/acrobatics-in- brooklyn-undo- the-patriarchy- 1
The Flea Theater
November 10th - December 17th 2017
20 Thomas St, New York, NY 10007
Ticket Link: https://ci.ovationtix.com/14/production/981544
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The Lava Studio, 524 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217
Website Link: www.lavabrooklyn.org