The fluidity and solidity of molten rock fascinates Sarah East Johnson. So much so, that she named her Brooklyn-based dance company LAVA. The all-women group celebrates the unique strengths and talents of all of its members, guided by an artistic vision that honors a diverse range of human bodies, voices and experiences. LAVA’s choreography is influenced by both the dance and circus arts.
“A Goddessy,” the latest of LAVA’s choreographed pieces, will be performed Saturday (May 19), 7 p.m., at the Peñasco Theatre, 15046 State Road 75 in Peñasco. Tickets are $15.
The piece is described as a “feminist survival story that journeys through landscapes emotional and geologic carrying a transmuting traveler from a bleak and blurry patriarchal present into a rainbow-colored feminist future with the help of ancestors geologic and otherwise.”
Throughout the course of “A Goddessey,” the audience is introduced to a variety of terrains. Each landscape carries a lesson in movement. For example, a limestone cave teaches the lesson of moving from the inside of one’s body. It also serves as a metaphor for underground social movements.
“We worked a lot with our eyes closed,” East Johnson said, explaining that the cast of dancers explored how they felt while moving, as opposed to how they looked.
“We have another scene called Rocks and Mountains,” East Johnson said. “In that section, we imagine we are made of rock, embodying mountains and rocks, and all our movement is inspired by how igneous and different rocks form.”
“A Goddessey” also travels to a forest, and into outer space.
East Johnson said while creating “A Goddessey” she was thinking about the traditional hero’s journey which is a typically a story about a lone traveler who has battles, trials and tribulations and then comes home.
“I felt one of the lessons of feminism is you’re never alone, there are always people supporting your journey, or helping you along the way,” East Johnson said. “A Goddessey” incorporates this concept into its storyline.
“A Goddessey” was initiated in 2015 and performed as a work-in-progress. It premiered as a finished piece in December 2017, and since then has been performed in Massachusetts, New Orleans, Vermont, and upstate New York.
East Johnson fell in love with dance as a teenager when she studied ballet and modern dance. Despite teachers who told her that she was “too big,” East Johnson said she persevered because she loved to dance. She moved to New York City and began a professional dance career with the Merce Cunningham Studio.
In addition to her love for dance, East Johnson also had an interest in anthropology and geology which she studied at Columbia University and Empire State College. At that time, she began performing with other choreographers including Circus Amok. In the circus arts, East Johnson found that the size and strength of her body were seen as attributes. Later, she deepened her circus training at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts.
Her experience with the circus arts led East Johnson to found LAVA as a dance company that integrated acrobatics. This combination aligned with her political vision for a dance company that was based on feminist principles such as cooperation, support and body positivity.
“In a traditional dance class, you’re all standing facing the mirror and you’re in competition with each other,” East Johnson explained, “whereas in a circus class you’re all working as a team and some people are big and they’re the bases, and some people are smaller and they’re the fliers and some people are funny and they’re the clowns. There’s a lot more room for difference and, also, we’re working as a team.”
“That really attracted me to the circus training. I also really liked that circus was a populist form, and it was really accessible to people,” East Johnson added.
Johnson has received both a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie) and a Village Voice Off-Broadway Theater Award (Obie) for her choreographic work with LAVA. She has been awarded residencies and fellowships from The Jerome Foundation, The Heathcote Foundation, The Bossak-Heilbron Charitable Trust, Meet the Composer, Red Cinder (Hawaii), The Djerassi Resident Artist Program, The Puffin Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts.
East Johnson said she often hears from audience members at LAVA’s shows that they’re impressed with the physical strength of the women performers.
“I think what’s really special is that we use that strength in a caring, supportive way,” East Johnson said. “We use our strength to support each other and to accomplish things that make us feel proud and celebratory. I think that’s something special people see in our work, that they don’t see in other places.”
For more information, visit www.lavabrooklyn.org.