In conversation with Zosia Jo

In July I met up with choreographer Zosia Jo to find out about her upcoming show Herstory at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Zosa Jo, Herstory. Photo credit: Frames Photography

Jo is a dance-artist based in Pembrokeshire, Wales. After graduating from Northern School of Dance she sidestepped a traditional career path of working in repertoire companies and with established choreographers, instead valuing the autonomy and freedom of working independently. “I’ve created my own rules and boundaries” says Jo. “Up until I graduated I had been going with other people’s ideas about what success in dance was, or what dance was even. I was trying to fit a mould that didn’t suit me and as I soon as I broke out on my own and started choreographing for myself I was able to reshape that mould into whatever I wanted it to be.”

Since 2008 Jo has worked closely the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven. She set up her own company Joon Dance with the aim of bringing high-quality performance closer to local communities. Jo’s natural inclination is to collaborate, choosing to work closely with her dancers and other professionals to create and present work, but her latest piece Herstory marks a departure from tried and tested methods. “I was at a time in my life when I wanted to create a solo and get back into performing.”

Herstory is a finely woven tapestry of spoken word, music and movement capturing the early promise of a love affair and its painful descent to control and abuse. The narrative is partly based on Jo’s own poetry charting the rise and fall of her romantic relationships. “When I was younger” says Jo “I would throw myself wholeheartedly into a relationship so convinced that this guy was ‘the one’ and I would be horribly disappointed when he wasn’t.” From the outset, Jo didn’t want the piece to be only about her experiences. She invited women to submit their stories – both good and bad – via social media.

But one story radically changed the direction of the piece. A friend and a survivor of domestic violence was willing to share her story. “I wish I had set out to make a piece about domestic violence because now I feel it is so important. It’s this message that has made the piece successful. I would have abandoned long ago but I feel like it is a story that needs telling.” Jo’s narrative is skilfully nuanced. Humour is the golden thread that adds warmth and character. This was important for Jo, “I had to hit the nail on the head without ever ranting. I didn’t want to make it about shitty men abusing women”. “Humour immediately relaxes us and open us” Jo points out “People will take a pill when they’ve laughed.”

Jo toured Herstory in the spring and reaction to the work as been consistently positive. “Words that come up all the time are ‘powerful’ and ‘moving’. People say to me ‘that can’t be your story. You are so strong and independent’. But that’s the point, domestic violence happens to strong and independent women.”

Herstory is also a work which has bought Jo face to face with some of her own  creative demons. “It was really hard to create a movement language for this work.” Jo is used to working collaboratively with her dancers and working on a solo was an entirely different experience. On her own in the studio, Jo would come up with ideas and instantly reject them. “It was a constant battle to feel OK with the movement.” The choreography remains a movable feast. “It changes with each performance as I keep taking stuff out! I much prefer the improvised sections because I can be in the intention and let the movement flow out of it.” With 16 performances at the Fringe, Jo is looking for ways to keep the piece fresh and raw. “I might try to improvise the whole thing at least once in Edinburgh.”

Zosia Jo in rehearsal. Photo credit: Dan Lowenstein
Zosia Jo in rehearsal. Photo credit: Dan Lowenstein

Jo’s solo marks a turning point in her attitude to herself as a performer. Her training left her with residual doubts over her technical ability. Jo recalls performing Herstory in front of the National Dance Company of Wales, terrified at the prospect of  “proper dancers” watching her every move. Their feedback was validating for Jo. “They loved it and thought my movement style was unique.” Coming back to performing has been a gradual process. Jo still views herself primarily as a choreographer, but over time she has, once again, started to perform in her own works. Initially this was because she missed dancing but increasingly it is becoming a creative decision when she feels it is “right for the role”.

Edinburgh Fringe: coming ready or not!

Jo’s first Edinburgh Fringe was in 2009, just a year after graduating. Buoyed by her early success in Pembrokeshire and little bit of funding, Jo rocked up to the festival with a mixed bill of contemporary dance. “That was my first error” recalls Jo. “It was completely mental to take a programme of unrelated works to the festival unless you are a known repertoire company.” Not knowing anything about the Fringe or how to market a show, Jo and her dancers performed in a little-known venue with a split-level stage. Amazingly, they managed to break-even. Jo puts this down to the street shows they put on to promote the show. Against the odds, loud music, silly outfits and crazy stunts pulled in the audiences. But it was a bumpy ride, “one night we were sold out, but on another evening we had to cancel a show because only person turned up.”

“It was bonkers and I did everything wrong” Jo laughs, “but I learnt so much.” Jo promised herself that if she returned to the Fringe she would perform in a venue known for dance, arrive a week early and start promoting her show before the start of the festival. This all sounds like common sense, but it remains incredibly hard to pull off when you are a solo artist on a shoestring budget. However, Jo has been true to her word and this year her Fringe experience looks set to be very different from her first foray into festival when she was fresh from college. “I’m ready now after a few years to sell something I really care about.” Jo will be performing Herstory in a two week run at ZOO – a venue known for dance and physical theatre. It is a demanding solo, both mentally and physically. Jo is ready for this with rigorous plans to prepare herself in the weeks leading up to the Fringe. In the final week before her run, she will be in Edinburgh organising her publicity, networking and taking classes. So much about being a choreographer is like being a business woman muses Jo. The planning, the funding applications and the self-promotion takes up far more time that the creating and performing.

Life after the Fringe

After Edinburgh, Jo is heading Cairo for four months supported by the Artists International Development Fund to train and mentor choreographers and make a dance film exploring modern Egyptian culture. On her return, she hopes to spend six months touring Wales and London with Play the Game; a piece for young audiences Jo created in 2014 with her company Joon Dance. But if Herstory gets attention at the Fringe Jo is open to the possibility of a further tour in 2016. “I’m happy either way” she reflects “I’ve had a great time with Herstory. I’m going to really enjoy showing it in Edinburgh and if it gets picked up I’ll happily jog along and perform. But if it doesn’t I’m ready to move onto something new. I’m quite at peace with that.”

Philippa Newis

Zosia Jo will be performing Herstory at the Edinburgh Festival, ZOO

(Venue 124), 7 – 22 August at 2.25pm

Box Office: 0131 662 6892

To book tickets online, click here

On Twitter

Zosia Jo – @joondance

ZOO Venues – @ZOOvenues

Philippa Newis – @philippanewis

Help and advice on domestic violence is available from Women’s Aid and Refuge

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