Kathy Westwater: Finding Artistry While Breaking Away From The Norm

By Amanda Calvin, Snug Harbor Arts Intern (Spring 2021)   

“ At an early age, my body was finding the dance within it.”

Photo by Jae Lee, An image of the artist seated in front of a white brick wall. We see her from the torso up, wearing a dark sweater, gazing back at the viewer.

Kathy Westwater, choreographer, director and recent PASS (Performing Arts Salon Saturdays) artist in residence at Snug Harbor, discovered her passion for dance upon realizing her ability to express herself through the art form. Trained initially in ballet when she was young, Westwater has now become an award-winning experimental dance artist.

“It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I felt this very strong desire to dance and to make it something that was a regular part of my life,” said Westwater who attended the College of William and Mary studying history, economics and politics before deciding to dance professionally and later pursuing an MFA in dance at Sarah Lawrence College.

“After having immersed myself in other disciplines, it was clear to me that dance was really the thing that I knew and the thing that I felt I could speak most directly through about my experience as a person in this world.”

Westwater, however, didn’t abandon her other interests, but rather used them as inspiration in her art. “I have really strong political interests,” she said. “I always wanted to find a way to express that through my art form.”

“I sought out working with dance artists who were taking up political issues; I wanted to work with people who shared that interest.”

After working for about a decade in New York as a dancer, Westwater began pursuing choreography. “I felt I had something more to do and say as a dance artist,” she explained. “There was something more within my body; I take cues for what I do as an artist from having an internal dialogue with my physical self. There was a particular dance that had yet to manifest.”

As she began choreographing, Westwater often found herself using pain as a lens and inspiration for her work. She was drawn to using somatically-based improvisation, an approach which was a result of her own experience with pain. “I was experiencing forms of distress physically as a dancer — it’s kind of an age-old iconographic identifier of dance that there is some sort of suffering and pain in the body.” Attempting to deal with her own pain, Westwater found somewhat of an alleviation through these somatically-based techniques, as well as an uncovering of artistic content relevant to her own practice.

Photo by Ian Douglas, Foregrounded and in profile, the long hair of a dancer whose eyes are closed is suspended above her head. Other dancers behind her are doing individuated movement, seemingly striking or grasping the air.

“I realized even the sensation of pain itself could be artistic content,” she said. 

In Westwater’s recent project Rambler, Worlds Worlds A Part, she asked collaborating artists to explore their own experiences with pain. “It was about exploring our own pain as well as the pain of others.”

Often, the dancers in Westwater’s works are choreographers themselves, which is something she takes into consideration when developing a piece. “I usually develop the choreography in the body of the dancer, including my own,” she said. “It’s rare that I’ll make something on my own body and say ‘here, I want to teach you this.’ I usually share the choreography credit with dancers in the work; the people in the work are contributing the movements.”

“It’s a way of creating a very complete experience for the artist and the audience as well.”

Rather than a personal “style,” Westwater considers her process and work to be created within a “choreographic approach” inspired by a “choreographic vision.” “Those things can become a basis for style over time,” she explained.

“I have been working with a concept and a practice for a very long time that I describe as the disorganized body,” she said. “There are ways in which we are trained (as dancers) where we seek to ‘optimize’ our physicality, technique and style… we are trying to achieve some sense of perfection. I just realized at a certain point that I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

Taking disorganization and disorder, the things she felt the training was moving her away from, and exploring them through doing the opposite of what she was trained to do helped Westwater discover different types of physical movement and unlearn the confines of “traditional” dance using an “organized body.”

“I don’t feel organized—what if I just say I’m not organized? What if I make something from where I am right now?”

Westwater brings to her Snug Harbor residency the launch of the second phase of one of her major projects, PARK, based on the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Initiated in 2008, PARK quickly became her largest project to date.

“I was taking myself outside of typical dance environments and exploring a site that didn’t have a dance studio or theatre; I had no idea where it was going to go when I started,” she said. 

Tying in her interests in politics, history, economics and the environment, Westwater deepened and extended the integration of these different elements as well as aesthetics throughout her research. “Art is a form of making, and the landfill is a repository of the different forms of making.”

“When I started the current cycle, I felt that it would be very important to involve an organization here in Staten Island,” said Westwater, explaining why Snug Harbor was an ideal residency location. As Fresh Kills doesn’t have an infrastructure that would properly support her range of activity as a dance artist, Westwater needed a home base that could provide her space to create as well as a foundation to engage with the community that has been directly affected by the landfill site.

“Snug Harbor really wanted to support both of these goals and give a home to them; I was very fortunate to have them take this project up,” she said. “It’s already having a big impact; my first week here, I already created 50 minutes of a solo which will premiere here in August.”

Also coming soon to the Newhouse Center is a visual art exhibition showcasing ephemera from the first PARK cycle. The exhibit, PARK Ephemera, is scheduled to open in the autumn of 2022.

“Part of my response to the site was to take up more multidisciplinary practices. I was working with dance, but I had a lot of collaborators coming from other disciplines. The site itself is also an object made up of objects; it was such a massive subject matter and as a result there were objects that were created in the choreographic process.”

As for the community response to her work, Westwater doesn’t want to control the experiences of her audiences. “I try to give myself as much freedom as possible as an artist and in the studio, it’s only fair to give an audience as much freedom as possible in terms of experiencing the work—their response is their own.”

She does, however, aim to continue to raise environmental awareness and address key issues with her work. “I think dance can take up some of the most challenging issues in our world and even contribute to problem-solving,” she said. 

“It’s not merely a way of representing them or communicating about them, but dance can innovate and affect our understanding and can generate solutions.”

To learn more about Kathy’s work, visit https://www.kathywestwater.org/.

Join us for the PASS premiere of Westwater’s Untitled Solo PARK Cycle 2 on Saturday, August 7 at 4pm. Get your tickets here.

Photo: (clockwise from top right): Ian Douglas, dancer Stacy Lynn Smith; Marina Zamalin, dancer Belinda He; Marina Zamalin, performers and audience participants; Jae Lee, performers and audience participants; Marina Zamalin, performers and audience participants.
Choreography: PARK by Kathy Westwater

For more information about visiting Snug Harbor, visit https://snug-harbor.org/visit/directions/