The first thing Joanna Rotkin learned in college was that she didn’t have a ballet body. For a young woman who had dedicated her childhood to the delicate and demanding art form, spending years studying with Barbara Demaree in her studio above Tom’s Tavern on Pearl Street, the news was crushing.
“There was so much emphasis on what your body looked like and they didn’t want you to be embarrassed, so they’d get you out of [ballet],” Rotkin says. “They really tried to get me out of being a dancer.”
Instead, Rotkin picked up and moved to New York City to see how the Big Apple welcomed her not-a-ballet body, and it was there she learned there’s just no such thing.
“That’s a very old-school idea; it just blew my mind,” she says. “I finally saw all these bodies doing all this incredibly athletic, graceful, gorgeous, fierce movement.”
And so, unbeknownst to Rotkin, the concept of Dog Dance was born. But it would be years — decades — before she would find the idea buried deep in her subconscious.
It took coming back home.
In 2003, Rotkin made her way back to Boulder and began teaching fairly “structured” dance classes, prompting students to engage in specific movements, coaching them through solo, duet and group pieces. Just a few years later she founded TinHouse Experimental Dance Theatre. She started to do work in “alternative spaces,” like the inside of her Subaru. Once she rolled herself up in a strip of sod and performed with a piece of raw steak. With friend and fellow dancer Laura Ann Samuelson, Rotkin performed another show, Goodnight, Courtney Love, in the North Boulder Recreation Center pool.
“It was really wild and loud and absurd,” Rotkin says of those productions. “We were always looking for alternative ways to present and it was always very theatrical, so there was talking, there was singing, there were piles of dirt, tiny parasols, there was food duct-taped to tables. It was really about getting people’s senses alive. It was very much about illogical things, things that shouldn’t be in the same place being in the same place was what I was really interested in.”
The flood of 2013 helped Rotkin, strangely enough, develop her current dance company, Joanna and the Agitators. While her home in Jamestown survived the crush of water, washed out roads isolated the whole town. Amid the chaos and loss, destroyed homes and torrents running down the mountain sides, Rotkin and her partner took a walk through downtown Jamestown.
“Somebody in town started hanging flower pots around and my partner said, ‘That’s a really nice way to sweetly agitate.’”
Rotkin took the concept of “sweetly” agitating and carried it into her dance work.
By 2015, Rotkin started to notice her teaching was moving in a new direction; she was spending more time letting her students “tune in and feel their breath and body and the space around us.” And then she ran into dancer and visual artist Andrew Marcus.
Rotkin had known Marcus in New York City, but their encounters were fleeting. In Boulder, the two formed a friendship. It was Marcus who gave Rotkin the shovel she needed to unearth the concept of Dog Dance.
“The biggest [help] was [Marcus] gave me permission to follow whatever was unfolding,” Rotkin says, “and then helping me to language and frame it.”
What was unfolding was “an exchange with the audience,” Rotkin says. Something free-flowing but not without form, something emotional. At the root of Dog Dance is essential movement.
“It started because I really wanted to work on a solo where I was finding the most urgent movement, and I feel like animals don’t have time to do extra movement,” Rotkin says. “They’re only doing what’s necessary. They are present every single moment.”
Rotkin says everything she learned about dance is “totally being demolished.” Yet at the same time Dog Dance represents the very essence of dance, kind of the alpha and omega of dance.
“It’s very particular. It’s very quiet. It’s not loud and absurd and illogical like my work before,” she explains. “It’s not funny. I’m not relying on those strategies that I constructed for myself. I kind of smashed them all. It’s just my body in space and my relationship with the audience.”
Once a month, Rotkin performs Dog Dance at Floorspace Studio on Zamia Avenue where she “upends the contract between audience and performer.”
“What happens a lot when you go to see dance or theater, the value is on the person on stage,” Rotkin explains. “With Dog Dance, that’s not the case at all. So their eyes may be on me, but there’s a huge garage door window so they may be focused on what’s happening outside. Or their eyes may be on the audience. [The performance is] part of a larger landscape, so we’re looking at disrupting that contract.”
While the performance is a solo work, Rotkin says she needs other people in the room to “create the loop,” to connect with themselves and each other. The point is to breathe together, to investigate emotions, to explore feelings of unraveling and rebuilding.
Of course, Rotkin says, the quiet, improvised nature of the dance doesn’t work for everyone.
“If [an audience member has] this expectation that ‘I need to be entertained,’ then we’re not going to find that [connection]. It’s just about being in the moment, feeling all of it: boredom, disappointment, calmness, anticipation — all of it’s welcome. We’re not trying to block out certain experiences. It’s an ongoing relationship I’m building with my audience rather than a one-time shazam.”
The performances have led to Dog Dance classes at the Boulder Circus Center, The Anatomy of Improvisation. Much like the performances, the classes build on one another, with students slowly building relationships with each other the same way Rotkin does with her audience each month. Rotkin watches participants learn to explore movement in more subtle ways, to experience the sensation of flying while barely moving. Focus is on the breath, on the way the body feels as it is held by the earth, on the way one movement can lead to another, and on the way that humans become connected, synchronized even, without realizing it. After warm-ups led by Rotkin, students are on their own, at first without music — the way Rotkin performs at Floorspace — and then with music.
As the years have passed, Rotkin now sees students beginning to work with each other during class, building relationships with one another and creating new dances all on their own.
“We all have bodies. That’s the beauty of it,” Rotkin says. “It’s stunning just because it’s honest. It’s not that it’s cool or graceful or clever or strong or athletic, it’s just that they’re being honest in that moment, and so tender.”
As Rotkin says, it’s all about sweetly agitating, persistently upending.
On the Bill: Free Dog Dance classes. 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5 and Thursday, Sept. 7, Boulder Circus Center, upstairs studio, 4747 N. 26th St., Boulder. email@example.com.