Jill Johnson and the epistemology of dance

by Alicia Anstead

Earlier this week, Jill Johnson was at the Office for the Arts after a daylong series of meetings in her new role as director of the OFA Dance Program. Johnson has had a powerful solo career (which you can read about here) and is ready to be the face and feet of dance in the Yard. When I asked who influenced her work the most, the list was far-ranging: William Forsythe, Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison, Frank Gehry and many others. But where she showed complete single-mindedness was in her dedication to students -- first when she taught a master class at the Harvard Dance Center during the application process and again the other day when she spoke about her mission as an educator. Johnson's appointment as director of the OFA Dance Program and as senior lecturer in the music department begins July 1.

How was your first day at Harvard?

I'm thrilled and excited to be here.

What draws you to Harvard at this time?

Great possibility and the great support for the arts that Harvard has demonstrated. First and foremost, there are the bright, engaged and talented students. That's what it's about. I see the potential and the ability to open up a conversation about dance studies and to broaden the understanding of what it means to have a dance education and to think of dance as inquiry.

How do you think of dance?

It's not just performance but a means of knowledge. And there is the interdisciplinary aspect: How can we really support not only great thinking in dance but thinking in dance outside of dance itself in architecture, in cognitive neuroscience, in engineering and math -- and to forge collaborative projects whether performance oriented or a research paper? How can we activate the thinking in people who are studying dance in a way that they possess the tools to talk about dance?

What originally drew you to dance?

I had to do it. I had to move and to express. For me, it has always been a vocation, and, as I evolved as an artist, education was a part of that.

Was ballet where your heart lived as a young dancer?

When I was little, I famously gave my mother a schedule of everything I wanted to do including ballet. I was curious about everything. In ballet, I was drawn to the rules and parameters and trying to perfect this unattainable thing -- and the rigor involved also supported innovation. To try to strike that balance all the time was -- and still is -- the challenge. The storytelling aspect was also important -- the idea of technique being a means of self expression.

Ballet formalizes the body in established ways. Does every body break out of that and tell its story in a unique way?

Absolutely. The whole idea of body language: It's an untapped part of storytelling. In Western culture, our expression is only coming from verbal language. The messages that we send and just how we communicate in public spaces and private spaces ... there's a lot to tell from a body. That's something that can't be changed by the digital age. The body is still so very analogue. That's one of the beautiful things about dance, and one of the things we can get better at explaining: the epistemology of dance.

[Caption: Jill Johnson]