In My ROOM WITH JOANA
Emerging from Germany's vibrant independent performing arts scene, Joana melds her roles as a choreographer and theatre director with an enviable finesse. Her productions, often rich with complex themes of identity and race, are rooted in a dance and theatre background, culminating in a master's in choreography. Joana's transformation from a dancer in community centres to NFL cheerleader and now a renowned artist reflects not only in her provocative productions but also in her personal spaces.
Her home, much like her performances, tells a story. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Joana's knack for spotting beauty in simplicity has its roots in her childhood. Drawing from a life where stability was a luxury, her living spaces are crafted with a combination of pragmatism and aesthetic charm. Whether it's the orange sofa sourced from eBay or navigating the complexities of shared space with her designer boyfriend, Joana's home mirrors her life — a blend of moments, memories, and aspirations.
Navigating the fluid dance between the public domain of performance and the private realm of home, Joana continues to challenge, inspire, and redefine spaces, both onstage and off.
RF: So tell me about yourself?
J: I mostly work as a choreographer and theatre director. So I work mainly in the German independent performing art scene, but occasionally I am being asked by city or state funded theatres to do production.
RF: Wow, that's amazing. What is the scale of your productions and how many people does it take to bring an idea to life?
J: I have a team of five people that I constantly collaborate with. But the scale of production really depends. I just did a really big production last year with 10 people on stage, and another 15 behind the stage. But I also made a solo in 2019 where there was just one person on stage and then six to eight people behind. It always depends on how much money you can get for funding. So if I get a lot of money, I can make a big production and if I only get a small amount then the production has to be smaller.
RF: What are the stories you tell through your productions?
J: I have to say that I do not work with text because my background is in dance. So I studied dance with theatre and then I did a master in choreography. So I really come from a performing background where I was not used to working with text. We really make up the pieces so it's more like performances where there's also not always like a congruent narrative but it’s about creating an atmosphere or a series of moving images. In terms of stories, I recently made a solo piece for a white for white dancer because I was interested in the whole discourse around white fragility, and how whiteness was suddenly named, addressed and felt very much attacked.
RF: Fascinating, tell me more.
J: There was a poem by the writer Greg Tate about hip hop. It's called ‘what is hip hop?’ And he has this line where he says, “pink people want to know, if pink people like hip hop, is it still hip hop? That's like asking if black people like Dirty Harry, is he still Clint Eastwood.” So he was using the term pink people to refer to white people and that was really interesting to me because if Clint Clint Eastwood plays a character called Dirty Harry, do they become the same person? Where's the performance aspect of acting and how does it change the real person? So I was interested in the performativity of race and then I started researching all things pink, masculinity, and the figure of the gangster rapper. So in the performance I have this dancer who appropriated this pink outfit that was worn by the rapper Camron and he's constantly really sad and suffering from his position of whiteness.
RF: That’s so interesting, I would have loved to see it. Tell me about the origins of your relationship with dance.
J: From a young age I was really into music and dance so I took classes from the age of seven years old at the local community centre in my neighbourhood. It wasn’t anything fancy or private because we didn't have much money growing up and for a long time dancing was my hobby because I never dared to make it my profession. So I danced in different contexts like at one point I was a cheerleader when the NFL had their games in Europe.
RF: That’s so funny, I love an origin story.
J: American Football used to be quite big in Germany, they even had their own European League and I was a dancer for one of the German teams. At that time, I was working in retail as an assistant manager but I dropped it to move to Coventry to study dance and theatre. I studied dance at 26, which for a dancer is really old. Then I came back to Germany to do a Masters in choreography because at this point I was thinking ‘Oh, wow, I think this is what I really want to do’. I wanted to create performances for a living and work with other people to crystallise and bring their ideas to life. I was very lucky because my final Masters project was quite successful and it got invited to a lot of festivals and it toured internationally. That was really my big moment of ‘Oh, wow, this actually works.’
RF: It's amazing you found your calling.
J: Yes but when I was younger for years I didn't know this could be my job. Like I didn’t know how you can actually do it, there was no clear path for me. It’s been very bumpy with lots of twists and turns along the way.
RF: What was your final masters piece about?
J: In Germany there was this kid children's TV show which is called ‘Mini playback show’ where children from the age of five perform as their favourite pop star. So you could watch a five year old boy performing as Michael Jackson or a girl performing Madonna. These children would lip sync and perform as their favourite stars, and then the most convincing performance would get a prize. We kind of took this concept of lip syncing also from drag shows and we made a one hour soundscape and we lip sync everything that's being said and that is being performed. We were three performers and we would change characters all the time. So I am, for example, Michael Jackson but I'm also David Letterman or a German rapper or Mariah Carey.
So we are becoming all these different characters and it really is a commentary on identity politics and this question of ‘who can play who?’ You know, is it okay if I play Mariah Carey? Or is it okay if I play an old white man? Can I actually embody that person, you know? There's this scene where one of the actors plays Oprah from a real TV interview where she constantly asks Mariah Carey, ‘what are you? What are you?’ Because, you know, Mariah, Mariah Carey's race was always debated in the media. So that's what it's about, a really fun discourse around race, identity and performance but touches on very serious issues.
RF: I love how provocative it is yet at the same time fun and serious. I’ve noticed the pieces you’ve mentioned are centred around race and identity. Is this a common theme as a black artist living in Germany navigating white spaces?
J: It's not always the main subject. But as a black person living in a majority white country, you can't escape this discourse, you're always confronted with it. My work is about many things but of course, race is a lot of the time an issue that I'm interested in. A question I am interested in exploring is, what does it mean to be a Black German artist working in Germany? And who are the black artists that came before me? What kind of work did they do? What was possible and what was not possible for them?
RF: Fascinating. What are your hopes and dreams as an artist in this space at this moment in time we are living in?
J: We have right wing politics taking over so that means that arts and culture has kind of steered in a different direction and there's people trying to dictate what is considered important art or important history. This often pushes the history of marginalised people and communities aside. I hope that I can continue doing this work because it’s never guaranteed in a world of funding in the independent scene. It’s scary. I dream of being able to employ people in a way that I can secure work for them long term like a five year project instead of a year long project. To be able to really work from a place of more security in terms of funding and structure that's what I'm working towards. My dream would be to have my own production company or theatre company and having the people I work with now being able to say: ‘hey, I got you.’
RF: That’s beautiful. I’d like to switch the conversation to your home a little bit. I'm curious to understand what your relationship to space is, as a performer in the theatre but also as a person in your home.
J: I'm very much a sucker for details. I'm a perfectionist when it comes to stage design and costumes. So it doesn't always need to be all fancy and big. I grew up with not a lot of money so I'm very good at making the best of limited resources and funds. I was always a flea market person and I never had this idea: ‘okay to have a nice home, you need to have a lot of money.’ I think also in relation to my work, I can work with limitations well because that's also part of artistic work, you know, you only have a certain budget and there's no one you can go to and be like, ‘hey, maybe can we have some more?’ That's just not gonna happen, you know? But in terms of the apartment we live in now we are very much still in the process of building it because my boyfriend and I are very different. We have totally different aesthetics. So it's a constant fight [laughs].
RF: How does that play out when it comes to building a home together?
J: I’m the type of person for example, if I need a chest of drawers but I don't really have a lot of money so I'm just gonna get one secondhand, which I don't love but for me it does the job. And he's like, ‘no, it needs to be the perfect chest of drawers, I want to have it for the rest of my life, and it needs to be the one that I always wanted.’ He’s a designer so he likes to have everything perfect in our home.
RF: Are there any items or pieces of furniture that are sentimental to you?
J: I'm not so attached to objects like that because when you grow up with little money you’re used to living in situations of change. But now I think it's starting to change. I’m going to turn 40 this year so I feel I do have a bit more attachment to things. Like this big orange sofa, I found it on eBay for 100 euros and it was really hard to pick it up at the time, because my apartment was way too small in Frankfurt to put it in. But my thinking at the time was that I'm not going to live in this small apartment for the rest of my life and when I have a really big apartment it’s going to be in there.The other day I was talking to my boyfriend about turning 40 this year because I want to have a big party. And he was like, ‘yeah, who are you going to invite?’ And I'm just like, ‘I'm just going to invite everybody, you know. I realised that going to weddings is always a reflection of that moment in time in terms of the people there, and that's also how I think about my apartment. It's like a snapshot of a moment in time. But things can change at any minute. And that's how I have lived my life a lot of the time because if you grow up in unstable situations, I think that becomes like a survival strategy to not become too attached to things.
RF: Thank you so much for sharing your story with me today, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today Joana.