Last January, Britt Karhoff used her creative residency at Cornish Playhouse to experiment with a different kind of solo practice—one that involved six artists making something together. Or at least making something in parallel.
Karhoff has been working in solo mode for the past five years and was looking for a new structure to make alone time in the studio a little less lonely. In an attempt to bring community, and other voices, into her solo practice, Karhoff’s residency became Trove, a format where invited artists shared the space, but not at the same time. They collaborated and communicated through the creative materials left behind—writing, drawings, videos, and photos—each solo practice in response to the residue of the previous artists.
“I packed up my whole workshop and brought it in. It filled my whole car. Painting supplies, all different kinds of tape, and string, and origami paper, and pens and stencils, I brought tempra paint that we could paint right onto the floor,” remembers Karhoff.
A big motivator for creating Trove was finding a way to bring ease into her practice. To eliminate the anxiety of an empty studio. “My hope was that people would walk into the space and be like oooh! A thing to play with. Almost like walking into preschool. You could walk in and be like Oooh blocks, what can I do with these blocks? Just feeling like it’s okay to just play and see what happens out of that.”
Like many dance artists, creativity for Karhoff doesn’t start and stop with the body. She’s an avid visual artist too, and that’s a big part of her process of creation. When inviting the other artists to be part of Trove, potential for cross-discipline pollination was a factor. “I was really interested in bringing people together who I knew worked in other mediums as well.” One Trove participant, Celeste Cooning, is a visual artist who has previously collaborated with Zoe | Juniper and Kinesis Dance Project. The other four, Jenny Peterson, Alyza Delpan-Monley, Kim Lusk, and Rosa Vissers, are dancers, but many also work in visual arts.
Each artist left their mark in different ways, and Karhoff, who was in the space the most, got to experience what the collective project felt like as it kept growing. Karhoff reflects on one example:
“I came into the space after one of the artists had been there and they left such small, almost secret marks on the space that took me a while to discover…just really simple messages, or just a little Post-It that was like, this is where I had a snack and this is where I sat and thought for a while. We always walk into these spaces where people have rehearsals or things going on before us and it was really nice to walk in and have it pointed out where these different events had happened before I was there. And then in my time I recreated what I imagine that person did and then traced it on the space or amplified it through painting myself in that space on the floor or tracing something that I thought maybe they did. That was something I really enjoyed about the process.”
Prior to the residency, the six artists met to come up with some thematic jumping off points. One that resonated with the group was the idea of complexity, which had been a major aspect of Karhoff’s 2018 work Still Wonder Full. “Major experiences in our life are more than the simple flattened out tag lines that we think of them as,” says Karhoff, “So if you’re celebrating a big success, that that celebration can carry uncertainty or loss or judgment. And when you have a painful experience, either a death or a loss or some heavy experience…that can hold inside of it more complex feelings. It can bring people together or spark joy or have a lot of laughter.”
Karhoff’s work tends to be autobiographical, with the raw material of her pieces pulled from her own experiences. She finds that opening up this early development process with other people creates new access points for concepts she’s chewing on. To address complexity, she brought several topical library books into the space. “One of the other artists started pulling out pieces out of one of these books, pulling out quotes and stories and then [my work] took this direction I don’t think I would have discovered at all,” Karhoff recalls. “And I also think the more people I bring in and the more voices weighing in on a topic…whatever I make out of that is going to speak to more people, which is my hope. By making work about myself, my hope is that other people see something of themselves in it.”
Karhoff is currently in process at another residency—the Flight Deck residency at Open Flight Studio. While she’d love to do another Trove-style process some day, Karhoff is taking this one to reconnect with her dancing body after giving birth to her second child four months ago. “This residency I see as a way to rediscover this most recent transformative life experience, which is pregnancy and labor and birth…I have all these new relationships to my body and what it does. It literally has expanded and shrunk and gotten pulled and changed and I have new quirks to explore and play with and I’m curious about stepping into a studio in a really different kind of body than I had a year and half ago or two years ago or five years ago. What new things is my body going to reveal for me?”
Karhoff rejects the narrative so often espoused in the dominant culture, where new moms feel pressure to get their pre-baby body back. “This body and this experience is not something that dancers that have not had kids [have had]. That’s a unique experience….Yeah, it’s a loss of this other version, and I think that all ties into this complexity thing that I’m super interested in.” Karhoff acknowledges that right now she may not have the super-facile body she used to, but now she knows the extremes her body is capable of. “The process of labor and birth is really crazy no matter what kind of birth experience you have,” says Karhoff. She believes that deserves just as much attention and honor.
For now, Karhoff is entering back into the studio with trust in herself and an open mind. “I think I’ve gotten more comfortable with that weird alone space in the studio and knowing that even if it’s not virtuosic, impressive dance moves that come out of me, I feel like if I can be present with my body…just inhabiting my body is inherently an interesting thing. If I watch performers that just inhabit their body, whatever their experience or capabilities are, I feel like I’m interested and drawn in. Whatever they’re doing, if they’re present in their bodies I’m all for it. I’m there.”
To see what Karhoff has been working on, Flight Deck Residency showings are Saturday, August 17 at 6:30pm at Open Flight Studio.