With seven dancers and 14 choreographed dances, “The Garden” promises to be an incredibly poignant and timely dance exhibition created by Katharine Slowburn. “The Garden” is Slowburn’s first original full-length production that promises to teach you to “grow and bloom in a world that doesn’t always nourish its soil.” The group has been rehearsing since early August for their performances in November. We sat down with Slowburn to learn more about “The Garden” and her creative process.

What is the Katharine Slowburn Experience? How did it get started?

The Katharine Slowburn Experience really is me. Katharine Slowburn is my stage name, but I didn’t want to lose myself in the process of creating a stage persona so I kept my first name. Slowburn describes my dancing style which is an overall feeling, whether I’m moving quickly or slowly, I want the audience to be enthralled, to feel something and go along that ride with me. When I started performing group works, the only thing I could think to call it was the Katherine Slowburn Experience because that’s what I was wanting to give people.

Tell me about your creative process — what is “The Garden” about?

I had several different ideas and I wasn’t sure where to go, but there was one dance called “Uprooted Desire” that I had already choreographed, and it was something that had always stuck with me. In the dance there are these trees and plants that find their soil to be an aphrodisiac, and in the end this nourishing soil has allowed them to uproot themselves and go forth. So I thought, why don’t I use this and make part of a show, and then I started to think about their story – how did they get there? So I thought I could have two acts and really look at, how does something get planted and how does it grow, and what happens when that first crop or that first yield doesn’t go quite how one would hope.

You have seven dancers and 14 dances — how long from idea to concept, did this take you?

I think it started in July, that was when the concept came. I already had one of the fourteen choreographed, and then we started rehearsals the first Sunday in August. Everyone has been coming to my basement every Sunday for three hours to rehearse for a few months now. Sometimes we have additional rehearsals.

How did you choose the dancers who are involved?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing dancers since moving back to Knoxville. I’ve been straddling two dance worlds in Knoxville, one with modern dance, so I met several amazing dancers through Circle Modern. The other world is cabaret, where I’ve met burlesque performers and cabaret dancers. It’s really interesting because I’ve always seen myself doing something in the middle. My cast is actually from both of those worlds. It’s been very interesting to see how they interact with each other, and what they learn from each other. I’m always thrilled by how much they support and uplift each other.

So you’ve taken dancers from the modern dance and burlesque worlds, what are the main differences between those two groups?

On one hand you have dancers who very much have a technical background, who are used to sort of more strict production and rehearsal schedules or expectations. For example, when I first started doing cabaret shows, I would show up and say, “Okay, when is our group warm-up? When is our dress rehearsal?” But it’s a different world, you know, they may have the venue for one night so it’s expected that you show up ready to go. I would say the more modern dancers are more ready to do things by the book. Then you have the burlesque performers, and some of them may not have been performing since childhood like many modern dancers, or if they were performing it was in different ways. What I appreciate about them is that there’s a sense of willingness to just throw themselves into anything and to take risks and connect with the audience. They know they’ll only be successful in that art form if they’re able to connect with the audience. I can pretty much as them to try anything and they’re willing to go with it.

How long have you been dancing?

I started when I was four. My sister is two years older and she was a dancer so I wanted to be a dancer too. I moved to California when I was 18, I wanted to be a music video choreographer. I was taking classes in Hollywood and it was a very different world from Knoxville. In some ways I wish I knew then what I know now in that I feel I’d have a very different time. The ego abounds out there, and it’s necessary, but my third year I ended up having several dance-related injuries, family members had a few issues, so I came back and finished my degree here, not only in dance but in Religious Studies. I actually quit dancing for about 3 or 4 years when I moved back here. After I finished by bachelor’s I knew I wanted to go to grad school so I went to University of Missouri for a Master of Arts in Religious Studies. I ended up focusing on dance and religion, which came about accidentally. I had a term paper and needed to pick a topic, so I ended up focusing on a dancer and how her religion influenced her approach to dance. At the same time I was doing a grad minor in Women’s & Gender Studies. At the end of one of the classes I ended up focusing on my life and dance, and created a pedagogy for how I wanted to teach dance. I came out of retirement and started dancing again. As much as I loved research, I really wanted to do more with dance and religion, and my advisor suggested I apply for Harvard Divinity School which had a lot of creatives who were combining creative pursuits with religion. My primary focus was using dance as a means to create a more compassionate body image. I graduated in 2013 and moved back to Knoxville, and started performing again.

You mentioned positive body image. I think when most people think of dance, they think of what a ballerina looks like – maybe tall, size 0. You are a full-figured woman. Do you think that’s made you more approachable in either shows or workshops? There’s an element to all of your performances that are very pro-female, pro-empowerment, very much a celebration of the female body. It’s all in the spirit of anyone can do this.

I certainly had body struggles a lot as a teenage dancer. For me, I want to portray the world as-is, not fantasy, which means having dancers of all sizes and age ranges participate. If I’m trying to say something as an artist, and I have a cookie-cutter looking cast, how’s that supposed to say to the audience, this is for you? But the other piece of that is I’m very interested in how movement can be a means to heal or feel at peace, feel okay in ones body, particularly after trauma. One of the things I talk about a lot is that dance is a way of creating a world. So at first there’s nothing and then I extend my arm and now I’ve created a path, I’ve created a narrative of sorts. I see movement as a means of making worlds, as a means of being an authority on one’s own self. I’m very interested in having people who embody who they are without shame or guilt, because if you can do that in dance, you can do that in the rest of your life. I had a turning point in Massachusetts, I took classes at the Boston Academy of Burlesque Education, and the instructor there said, “Because you’re doing an art form that involves removing your clothes, and showing yourself to the audience, you have a responsibility to not apologize for who you are, to be okay with who you are.” That blew my mind because no dance teacher, no movement teacher had ever said that to me before. I’ve taken that to heart as a dancer, and share that with my dancers. I don’t want anyone to read shame from me, because that says that you too should feel that.

Do you think that sense of authenticity and confidence connects with the audience easier than other art forms where that’s not the explicit message?

Yeah, I have this philosophy that I Have to be willing to be honest, I have to be willing to show some wounds, I have to be willing to stand there in front of the audience and be not okay, and to be honest about that. I try to think less of them-me, and more we’re all in this room together having an experience, and how can I make this a safe space for the audience. I know I can make that a safe space by saying we are feeling something together. I’m not here to try to make you feel this way, I’m here for us to have something collective that happens.

What are you hoping will happen during the performances of “The Garden”?

I think that because it’s the story that it is, there are so many layers. If you’re into sci-fi or fantasy, and you just want to come and see people being plants, fantastic. Be entertained. There’s so many types of movement and music, so people who are coming to be entertained will definitely be entertained. On the other hand there’s another narrative of growth, trauma, and regrowth. Pretty much all of us can relate to something like that unfortunately. For me, there’s that other hope that people can see something that speaks to their own journey, and maybe it’s a journey they’ve already walked so they can see that as a celebration of where they’ve been, or how they’ve arrived to where they are at the moment. Or maybe someone in the midst of that journey who needs to know they’re not alone.

Are you currently working on your next production, or are you waiting to get through this one?

I’m waiting to get through this one. I do have ideas, but nothing specific.

You recently left your day job to pursue things that more strongly feed your soul, can you say more about that? What was the impetus for doing that?

It’s relatively new so I’m still getting used to this, but I think it’s really difficult for a lot of creative people to be in routine, regular jobs where they don’t feel like they get to use their creativity, because then you get bored, you feel underutilized, and it very much becomes soul sucking. I felt like I was losing the best parts of who I was, and it was really interesting that as soon as I resigned, I felt like I was starting to come back to myself. I don’t know what’s next, which is great.

That feeling is very real for a lot of people, it’s almost inescapable, that fear of, I’m just doing this thing and it doesn’t matter to me. So what have you gotten back since you made that decision?

It’s been almost a week, but I think there was a sense that I had been censoring myself quite a bit. I’m kind of weird and creative, and the big recognition was how much I was self-censoring, and then the other thing was energy. When all of your energy is going into suppressing a part of yourself, or just kind of going through the motions, you’re suppressing yourself without being fed.

What would you go back and tell your 18 year old self about?

Don’t be so afraid to fail.

You can catch performances of “The Garden” at Modern Studio on Saturday, November 4 at 9:00 pm, and Sunday, November 5 at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $10 and are available online (https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3086667) or at the door. Modern Studio is located at 109 W. Anderson Avenue, 37917 off of Central Avenue in Happy Holler.