Jo Fong is a dance artist, choreographer and director living and working in Cardiff. Throughout her career, she has maintained a resolutely multi-disciplinary practice, working in dance, film, theatre, opera and the visual arts. Fostering an extraordinary atmosphere of creativity, openness and inclusivity, Jo’s multifaceted work is a profound and complex exploration of belonging, community and collaboration, and reflects people’s need to come together, share experiences and build meaning.
Jo welcomed us at her home in Roath on a recent rainy morning and, in a gentle, peaceable and impassioned voice, talked to us about the landscape she functions in as an artist and shared with us her current making processes and creative strategies. And, at the end of our encounter, there was Jo’s dance, her unrestricted movements and expansive physical language ‒ a beautiful dissipation of the self in the act of being together that made us think that the ground we walk and exist upon, even though atomised, tentative and transitory, can be transformed through dance into an open and frictionless territory where togetherness can become tangible.
Jo, thank you for agreeing to meet with us. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your journey into the field of dance?
Spoken language wasn’t how it was. My dad was learning English my mum was teaching him, a simple English. Physical language was how we communicated, faces, dances, swimming, climbing, cartwheeling, clown, music, gesture. I started learning to move and dance and read bodies from before I can remember, I learned to speak out loud much later in life.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Playing at the back of my grandad’s chinese restaurant, growing vats of bean sprouts in the back room, folding napkins, eating all the time and having lots of room.
What about your first memory of dance?
I have lots of memories of dancing as a child, free styling in front of top of the pops, first ballet classes in pink, disco silver wigs and badly fitting leotards. The first time I saw ballet was at the Gaumont in Doncaster, I was maybe 9 and I watched The Nutcracker and I probably didn’t say it, but I thought it was a bit shit.
What is your definition of dance and what makes it an art form?
For me, yes, strictly is dance, so is my nana hokey cokey-ing, I see dance everywhere. The dance of getting to know someone, of learning a physical task or in the choice of proximity, how we are together. The body is endlessly fascinating, it’s blown me away in all its capacity to heal or how it cultivates power, positive power, or how it is constantly changing. I don’t want to define it, it’s not just something we see on stages, it’s not always young and “dynamic”, it has to do with the body but has also an innate ability to communicate. Something very difficult to describe in words.
Belonging, community and collaboration seem to be key concepts at the core of your multifaceted work. Have there been any personal experiences that led you to integrate these concepts in your artistic practice?
I’ve lived in Cardiff for just over 10 years. I always had a good feeling about Wales, it was instant; even on my first visits while teaching, it felt very different from the the daily battle I was having with London.
I’ve been working on making friends, connecting with neighbours, building creative friendships and learning how to broaden the kinds of people I interact with. Not too weirdly I hope, but just being aware that if I flex my ability to be with people who have different backgrounds to me or differing modes of communication, it tends to become normal. Primarily, the idea that having folk in my life is going to be a good thing. Thinking about community both in life and in the work felt important. I’m lucky I have a long term partner, we’re very happy together but also realising we’re going to need more. I’ve met a lot of incredible people over the last six years, but only through opening up my world a bit more, being a bit brave.
Belonging is just powerful stuff, the idea of everyone having a sense of belonging is phenomenally powerful. I was driven by noticing that I had only ever felt like I belonged twice in my 47 years, or my dad, who has lived in the UK for 50 years, he’s fine yet he still doesn’t feel like he belongs. Loneliness is a thing, fear of people is a thing, all my life I’ve been practising being with people, I can say I’ve improved.
Throughout your career, you have maintained a resolutely multi-disciplinary practice, working in dance, film, theatre, opera and the visual arts. Is there any connecting thread or underlying ethos that ties together your work?
I like working with people, I like learning, and newness or a creative challenge seems to be a good motivator. It’s all linked, and it’s about how or what we see, or how or what we experience.
Commissioned by Cardiff Dance Festival and Chapter, Ways of Being Together has been described as a choreography for many people or a moving gathering. Could you give us some insight into the narrative or inspiration behind this performance?
Ways of Being Together has become a bit like a tool to get to know people better, to take time, spend time, quality time… Even though we used Facebook to arrange rehearsals and remind people about physical scores or costumes or footwear, it’s the opposite of Facebook. It’s about the value of face to face encounters.
What I noticed in the performance was a trust and an ability to fly, notice, change it and where necessary adapt. Like a public practising all of our facility to take risks together and enjoy or work out this current moment. There was care without all the performance of care, like an informed ease which means we can still push our limitations and fail together, but also build. It was made up of self-generating scores, simple yet highly complex tasks that give multiple outcomes and through this folk had no time to “perform”, they were just in it, dealing with it, dealing with us.
Witness is a film installation exploring the representation of women in art and in particular dance. What are your thoughts on the trend or the necessity for shows created and performed exclusively by women artists?
I think in Witness this issue is ambiguous, the female performers and I were doing our very best to know what it is we’re dealing with and how women are seen in art; to understand where have we ‒ the women ‒ have got it wrong, how can we shake our own deep training of the male gaze, or how are we seen ‒ as dancers or simply as women? My upbringing as a dancer was one of being the clay for another and in my youth adhering to the pretty, attractive or quiet, or more worryingly as the possession of another. Even in my lifetime, I was matched with a Chinese male whose family would buy me. That didn’t happen.
I’m loving this fresh generation of female artists that are not carrying the baggage of those before them. They’re informed, articulate and inspirational. There is still work to be done.
You are also a workshop leader, teacher and mentor. What motivated you to become an educator and what do you aim to equip your students with?
In a world where most of us are chair shaped, faced with a screen and a keyboard, it’s wildly important to move. Bodies are capable of so much and somewhere in this moving makes us all more capable of being more alive. I used to teach dancers to be the best dancers they could be. Now I teach anyone who’s interested in the possibility of the body, at whatever age, remembering or regaining the body, acknowledging we have a body, appreciating it. I’m privileged to work in dance or movement ‒ I get to think about stuff that isn’t about thinking.
Throughout the years you have developed close ties with the artistic community in South Wales and beyond. Can you tell us about the biggest challenges faced by the local art scene? What is it like to be an artist in Wales from a choreographer’s perspective?
This year I felt it, I felt the whole of the UK breathe in and is now waiting to exhale. Uncertainty is everywhere. Having said this, the people around me, the people who programme, the supporters, the colleagues, the artists, the producers don’t seem like they’re going to give up. It feels like most are prepared to just work harder, make it happen somehow, make it more necessary and where possible make sure that with the financial “pinch”/“lop” we are going through doesn’t interrupt the momentum of making, sharing and showing art.
Can you tell us about your involvement with Rubicon Dance in Cardiff? What would you say is the organisation’s guiding ethos?
I’m on the board of directors of Rubicon Dance. People and dancing are at the heart of what they do. I love them.
Out of all the art projects that you’ve directed or performed, what have been the most successful or rewarding for you and why?
I couldn’t possibly say. One thing seems to lead on to another game or puzzle or life changing revelation. At the moment I’m working out how not to stop dancing ‒ how to become a different kind of dancer, a middle aged / menopausal dancer. What would that be like? It’s not the first thing you think of. It’s not sad, comedic or sorry for this person, in my head it’s quite brilliant.
What would your advice be for someone wishing to pursue a career in dance?
When we love something, we enjoy it, maybe we practice it without the notion of work... often we can get very good at the things we do a lot. Oh, and better to go with your own idea of what good dancing is, not someone else’s.
What is inspiring you right now, and how do you emulate it through your current work?
I’m inspired by people, kindness, honesty, openness, willingness, ability, intelligence… need, suffering, poverty, racism, Nazism, sexism, addiction, despair… Emulated by doing my best.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future and how do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
To be able to keep working. I can’t predict the future.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What goes on in tunnels?
Finally, can you recommend us:
A book: Summer, by Tove Jansson.
A song: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, by Nina Simone, live at Montreux.
A dance performance: My partner Colin dancing in the kitchen.
Thank you, Jo for your time and wonderful company.