KITT JOHNSON/X-ACT choreography by Johnson, presented by DanceWorks and Harbourfront Centre as part of the SUPERDANISH: Newfangled Danish Culture festival at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). Wednesday (October 27) to October 30 at 8 pm. $24, stu/srs $16. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Copenhagen - I've seen some pretty dramatic-looking audience members in my time, but nothing compares to the creature sitting in the audience of Kitt Johnson's solo show Stigma.
Dressed in a man's black oversized coat, the creature sits hunched and alone, occasionally looking imploringly at the people coming in. Its ashen face appears deformed, scarred. Does it have some disease? Do we dare approach?
Then it gets up, walks around the bare stage, begins moving. Dancer/choreographer Kitt Johnson keeps us transfixed for the next 30 minutes.
Talk about a powerful entrance.
"It's so interesting seeing people's reactions," laughs Johnson a couple of days later in her office in a working-class Copenhagen neighbourhood that appears to be going through trendification.
"Some people want to sit next to me and to try to make contact, while others avoid me like the plague."
Bright-eyed, energetic and charismatic, Johnson looks nothing like her gloomy onstage Stigma persona. She tells me the special effect with the face is created by using two hairnets pulled tightly over her head.
"It takes an hour or so after a performance for the marks to disappear," she adds.
Stigma is one of Johnson's best-known solo works and forms part of a double bill she and her company, X-Act, are bringing to Toronto as part of the SUPERDANISH fest of new Danish culture.
Like much of her solo pieces, she calls Stigma existential.
"Most of my solos deal with life and death and how to exist on this earth. It deals with identity - the self rather than yourself," she says in gently accented English that hints at all the places she's lived and worked.
"I've always been fascinated by people who were able to turn something traumatic in their life - like torture or a big loss - into something constructive. They've taken something that could have brought them down and transformed it."
She recalls a local priest during her childhood, a communist who was imprisoned in German concentration camps during the second world war.
"He was one of the most generous people I'd ever met, so understanding," she says. "Incredibly, he had been able to forgive."
Johnson researched the etymology of the word stigma.
"Originally it meant a spot, with no good or bad value attached to it," she says. "Then the Greeks started to use the word for the burn mark they gave to prostitutes and criminals, people who were outcasts. What's also fascinating is that in scientific terms, stigma means the entrance to the respiratory organs of insects. So in a way it's the entrance for life."
All those things can be seen, or at least felt, in Johnson's performance, a series of incendiary images - performed to a disturbing, scratchy and squeaky soundscape - that suggest disease, illness, insects and rebirth.
Johnson and her muscular, compact body are able to communicate so many varied emotions partly because of her eclectic background. Before entering dance, she spent 12 years of her life as a competitive 800-metre runner. Once she began dance, she was intrigued by German expressionistic theatre, and then began working with seriously butoh-trained dancers, adding contact improvisation and a bit of ballet along the way.
Butoh is obviously a big influence, even though she decided not to study it wholeheartedly.
"I guess I learned by performing," she says. "After a while I realized I couldn't or shouldn't go to Japan, have a master and study. It would be too difficult to break the patterns I had formed. I was already on a track - my own track. I decided to just take information and experience that I could use to develop my own way."
Johnson's companion piece, The Lemonkeepers, is lighter, and it's influenced more by circus arts.
"It's got a totally different tone," explains Johnson, who's been teaching movement to circus troupes for several years. "It's for three performers, two circus artists and an actor. It's not really dance. I'd call it movement with a bit of juggling."
There are, however, more than 200 real lemons used onstage, which creates its own production problems.
"After being used so much, they sort of crash inside their skins and start bleeding internally," she explains.
"It's very sad. They get completely messed up inside."