Performer and teacher likes making people see things differently
By Mark Collins
Joanna Rotkin has been dancing her whole life. She danced as a kid growing up in Boulder, in college, and when she moved to Jamestown a little more than a decade ago.
All along the way, however, Rotkin thought she would one day become a nurse. Or maybe a gym teacher. Or an outdoor educator. Finally, a few years ago, the 45-year-old came to a realization: She’s just a dancer. And that’s a good thing.
“It’s kind of the one thing that makes sense to me,” Rotkin says, nestling into a chair outside a north Boulder coffeehouse in October. “I actually resisted being a dancer because it’s so hard. It’s not secure; you’re not going to make money. It’s been the past couple years where I’ve accepted that this is who I am and this is what I do. And resisting it makes it way harder. Once I’ve let go, I’m enjoying it so much.”
Others have been enjoying Rotkin’s work as a performer and dance teacher for several years now. She teaches popular adult dance classes at the Boulder Circus Center. And Rotkin and her various collaborators have been known to stage performances on, in and around unusual stages, like a swimming pool or an old Subaru.
Rotkin likes to break the rules of traditional narrative, and is fond of using nontraditional performers, too. She and collaborator Laura Ann Samuelson’s dance piece “Let Them Eat Cake” earned an Encore Award during the 2012 Boulder International Fringe Festival. It featured four performers with generational symmetry: Samuelson, 22, Rotkin, then 42, Margaret Harris, 62, and Johannah Franke, 82. “We all brought our own histories, backgrounds and experiences to the work, which is what created the magic in it,” Rotkin says.
The piece began with a simple set—a sofa, chair and table. It ended with a big mess. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in Boulder,” says Emily K. Harrison, artistic director for Boulder’s square product theatre. “They were eating cake without utensils, and there was dirt. By the end of that show the stage was a disaster. It was great. It was visually really interesting, and it was metaphorically compelling, as well.”
To Harrison, the piece had its own logic. “It’s not the traditional linear logic we’re all taught is the right way to make art,” she says. “It’s more circuitous and referential. It makes you think of things differently.”
Making people think of things differently is one of Rotkin’s favorite pursuits. It’s about “how you shift things,” she says. “It’s about perspective.”
Her company’s name is Joanna and the Agitators. The name, in part, came about after her experience in the 2013 flood that washed through much of Boulder County, including Jamestown, where Rotkin lives with her partner, Glen Kalen. While the couple’s home was spared, they, like many of their neighbors, were cut off from others when roads were washed away.
“The town was devastated,” Rotkin recalls. “It was like an earthquake. But we took a walk through town and someone had put up little boxes of flowers all along the street. And that was sweet agitation.”
In 2006, when she was with TinHouse Experimental Dance Theatre—the company she founded before Joanna and the Agitators—Rotkin didn’t have money for rehearsal space, so she and Breanna Rogers created a piece performed in her Subaru; they premiered it at that year’s Boulder International Fringe Festival. In her 2014 solo piece “The Great Green,” with direction from Laura Ann Samuelson, Rotkin rolled herself up in a small stretch of green sod while performing with a piece of raw steak. (Rotkin dreamed of meditating on a piece of steak one night, woke up the next morning and began working on the performance.) In 2016, she and Samuelson will premiere their show titled “Goodnight, Courtney Love” in the North Boulder Recreation Center swimming pool.
Rotkin has come to realize she’s working all the time. “It’s not so much spending time in the studio anymore,” she says. “For me, it’s seeing these moments and jotting them down, and then that will become a moment in a piece.”
And as Rotkin heads into a new year, she says she has let go of some old fears about living the life of a creative person.
“I feel like I’m giving myself permission to do what works for me and not try and fit into a mold of what a dancer should be,” she says. “That’s opened up a lot of freedom that’s coming out in my classes and my performances.”
Mark Collins is an actor, writer and house painter—not necessarily in that order—who lives in Denver.