Witches Are Not So Delicate

Witches Are Not So Delicate

Greek mythology's witch-woman-demigoddess, Circe, was shunned by the gods for her affinity to nature and for her autonomy. Madeline Miller's novel, 'Circe', retold her tale from a female perspective and became an international bestseller. Filmmaker, Maximilla Lukacs, speaks to choreographer, Jennifer Rose, and lead dancer, Maija Knapp, about how the book inspired them to travel across the world to a Greek island to create a new dance work, ‘Move My Blood’ with a community of seekers and creators – including Maximilla’s mother who had no dance experience and Violet's Editor-in-Chief Leith Clark, who took on the role of costume designer alongside designer Bora Aksu. Together they created a celebration of Circe and of powerful, complicated womanhood.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 18
Published: 2023/03/31
Updated: 2023/06/01
Todd Weaver
Maximilla Lukacs

Maximilla Lukacs: A year ago today we were all in Kefalonia…

Maija Knapp: Getting stung by hornets.

Jennifer Rose: Oh my god.

Do you guys want to talk about how this whole thing started? This whole amazing project, that brought us all to a small island and to Greece.

Jennifer: I think of this project as so many forces happening in different countries colliding together and meeting. I was living in Mexico at the time. I got an invitation from the Ionian Centre for the Arts and Culture in Kefalonia to come and teach and to make a work. It was very vague and broad.

We had a lot of meetings to discuss what that would be. Originally, the project was of my own making. There wasn't a backstory, there wasn't a direct inspiration. It was more a general interest in learning from Greek stories and mythology, and direct history from the soil, finding a way to make sense of it in a contemporary setting through dance. I was close to flying there and we were setting up a whole programme with classes and places to perform this. And then 2020 happened—and all of that got completely smashed to pieces.

I just left it and said, who knows if this will ever happen. Then, in Los Angeles, Maija and I connected. She was saying, ‘I want to dig into something rich and I want to explore.’ And we kind of connected that way. Maija and I had these beautiful, dance catharsis moments where we were just playing with an idea and then talking about boyfriends and relationships and sex and parents and siblings and families and, you know, what the hell are we doing with our lives?

We were sitting in the rain at a friend's apartment, and we hashed out a lot of things that were really honest and real to us. We had something that we wanted to get off our chest that was connected to a feminine energy, but it was more than that. It felt like… you know when you're on the edge of something and you can't put your finger on exactly what it is? Because you're not planning.

There isn't even an end goal. But you feel like whatever you’re doing is taking you along, as opposed to you driving it. It was kind of like that. It was like we were just going and feeling things out. And then at the end of it all, Maija gave me this book. It was Madeline Miller’s Circe. And that was the beginning of Move My Blood. We filmed a small section, a compilation of what we had choreographed on these dark, rainy nights. We were just pouring, you know, everything about our concerns and lives and hardships into this movement. And then I titled it Move My Blood based on our conversations.

Maija, how did the story enter your life and what compelled you to bring it to Jen?

Maija: A large part of it was those days and nights that we were spending together, digging into all of these different topics. I think one idea with Move My Blood was about the lineage of women behind you; feeling them inside of you, all the trauma that the women on your mother’s side have experienced, all the years of effort and work. I feel like that's a very strong theme in Circe as well. She's an archetype for women that are outcasted should they have a misstep.

My sister gave me the book. It's an incredible story. If you love tales of women and their hardships and how they overcome and transcend, it's perfect. We already had some choreography, for the first Move My Blood, and Circe was this additional expansion on that.

Blood is a big part of Circe’s story. In the book she is a demigod, romanticising being a mortal. The gods all have green blood, and in the book it all starts with this moment where Circe wants to see what her blood looks like. Which is a kind of wanting to know where you come from, what your history is, what are you connected to. There's nothing more visceral than blood. Can you talk about the title, where it came from?

Jennifer: There's so many unknowns about my family history. I'm always feeling like I'm personally trying to learn what my blood is and how it relates to who I am as just a human being in the world, and how I relate to people and what I'm drawn to. I think in this day, in this moment in time, a concept that people talk about a lot is intergenerational trauma—the idea of trauma that is passed down. I question how that trauma is embedded in our blood. Maybe it's not just exclusive to trauma, but also mental health and what are we trying to progress or correct or better from the blood that's been passed down to us, whether we are aware of the stories or not.

When we relate that to Circe, she's questioning her blood because she's not a full goddess. She questions her identity because she doesn't feel connected to [the gods’] instantaneous nature of always getting whatever it is you want using the powers that all her family has, which she lacks. Instead, she exists in a love for work and time. She finds beauty in putting time and patience into something and letting it grow; the gods don't understand that. They don't understand work, and they don't understand love, and they don't understand empathy. But she does. And that's why she's attracted to mortals. She's questioning her blood, her lineage. She slices her hand open to see what the colour of her blood is. And she enjoys the pain in the way that the gods will never understand. To think of it as Move My Blood is like, how do we take the things that are given to us that we've inherited, that are completely out of our control? How do we move through the things that we haven't alchemised, so that we’re healthy for the future? So that we don't end up in the same patterns and traps. I think that's a big question that a lot of people in the world are asking themselves. How do we do that?

Maija: You're reminding me of another reason why this book connected so deeply with me. I read it during quarantine when personally, I was in a major funk. I was depressed, and I think everyone felt like the world was at odds with them. That sense of isolation when Circe is sent off to an island—in quarantine, we were all on our own little island, stuck with who you are and who you want to be. Not to victimise oneself, but it was the right time to see Circe as this woman who was [isolated] and then found a way out.

It wasn't a magical fix either. It wasn't an easy linear path, but over time, she built something inside of herself and grew more ferocious and became this sharply-pointed lion-woman working on her craft every single day. And that was her gateway out. I think that perfectly correlates with us clicking into that same zone of creating this craft to work on every single day, working on the choreography and picking this concept and this book to dive into. Focusing and concentrating so you can transcend.

Circe finds her power through her isolation, because it forces her to have to learn every single plant on the island. She finds her power by integrating with nature. In terms of how we define the word ‘witch’—which has been defined in a lot of different ways throughout history—it’s about knowledge. It's about knowing yourself. Circe is an interesting goddess archetype because her powers come from learning her environment, from learning plants, from learning about nature, which in a way is the most human, mortal thing you could do. It's something that if you're a god, you probably don't have a need to do because you can just manifest anything you want.

So you both read the book and started incorporating the themes of the book into the choreography. What happened next? How did you get all of us to Greece?

Jennifer: The travel bans got lifted in Europe. Suddenly, we were allowed to travel, and we got the go-ahead for the project from the Ionian Centre for the Arts and Culture. The project grew naturally based on conversations with Maija about wanting to travel and wanting to do things in different ways. And so I incorporated Maija, and then I asked you, Maximilla, if you wanted to be part of this project and make a film. I then asked Todd (Weaver) to come and take photographs, and Oliver (Lukacs) to be the cinematographer, and then Leith Clark and Bora Aksu came on board to do the costumes. This whole amazing crew came together to make this visually impeccable and doable. We made it happen.

Can you talk about how Kefalonia connects with Circe and the island where she was exiled?

Jennifer: In mythology, Greece is a huge part of Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey. Kefalonia is an island that's connected to Ithaca, which is where Homer wrote The Illiad and The Odyssey. So there's actually shared soil from history of this mythology on the Kefalonian waters. Once we arrived at the art centre, we learned that there is a history of witchcraft and these esoteric practices on the island. There are few people who still practice witchcraft…

There are seven Circes on the island, according to the guy who happened to drop by the art centre on the first or second night we were there.

Maija: I remember hearing him sing beautiful opera on the balcony. I was like, what is happening? Later that night he was telling us all the stories about these dancing witches.

The seven Circes of the island, of which maybe one or two of them were maybe still alive. He mimicked their choreography for us, and you guys were freaking out because it was exactly what you had already created. I just remember looking at Jen and she was like, that's literally a movement that's already in the piece.

There were many moments throughout the whole project where I felt like there was some other forces conspiring to bring this whole project about.

There was a moment early on, once I agreed to come on board and make the film, where I asked you, Jen, if you had any plans or ideas for the costumes and you basically said no. A few days later I happened to have a conversation with Leith about what I was up to that summer, and I told her about the project. She got excited about being a part of the project and offered to help. Do you have any thoughts, feelings, or stories to share about the costumes? Because I feel that they contributed so much visually.

Jennifer: To me it's important that you're not watching something that's overly designed, that you still get to see the human being inside of the performance inside of the costume. I think they did a great job of allowing the human being to come through, allowing the human being to be seen, but also still having the fabric heighten the visuals…


Because they just showed up with fabric, right? And fitted everyone to their costumes and hand dyed everything on the front porch of our little house with natural dyes. I remember the costumes dripping red dye onto the house we were staying in because we had left them to dry in the sun. It looked like a Fellini movie.

Jennifer: They got the idea too that these costumes are designed to be destroyed. I loved that. They took pleasure in that as well. That made me feel that we're all on the same page. We all agree that this is about the beauty of destruction.

It did feel like the environment was literally shaping the thing. On the island, there was a heat wave. 114 degrees! The wasps! There was no escaping the elements.

Circe turns men into pigs in The Odyssey through her wine, her wine that she mixes with the magical herbs from the island. Can you talk about that?

Maija: Circe is alone on the island, and male pirates come and not only want to steal resources, but also try to take advantage of her. In The Odyssey, it is not painted this way; it’s: she's a witch, these men are the victims, and she is accosting them and abusing them. What I love about this modern take is that we all understand that in a historical context, that is probably not the case. Madeline Miller's version is far more likely. That these men are coming and assaulting this woman who is alone and outcasted on an island, this lone woman with no defense. Of course she's going to spend her time building up defenses.

One of those defenses was that she would offer wine to these drunkard men who are ready to have their night with her. If they were to drink the wine, then they would become pigs. Which is an amazing metaphor. To become the pig that you are, to assume your true form! It's very funny. And that's how she fell in love—Odysseus didn't accept the wine. It feels like a little bit of revenge, you know, a little bit of deserved protection. Sometimes you’ve gotta resort to intense measures to protect yourself.

It's so obvious, but no one's ever written it down and it's never really been uttered. It's like Achilles and Patroclus. If you read it, they're friends, but it's quite clear that they have a gay romance once you look at it through a modern perspective. The narrative is always shaped by the times.

Jennifer: Why has no one said this before? Have they all been too afraid? Is Madeline Miller a lone voice? I think that takes guts. That's the ultimate witch—to tell the truth when no one else is saying the truth and taking the risk of being either outcasted or shamed. She's not afraid to say it.

Why do you think what she's written is resonating with so many people right now?

Maija: I think a big part of what's resonating with people is that Circe was a minor goddess in mythology, but there is something kind of radical about giving this woman a voice, giving her an entire life. It's representative of a long history of women who just weren't interesting enough in the eyes of the author to tell their story. They were not the main, male character going through a journey. I think that's something that's shifting, culturally. We now have so many amazing works that are completely women-led and created. There’s something satisfying about seeing a woman's story being reclaimed. Then within that, Circe represents this fascinating tale of a woman coming into her own strength, in a very patriarchal world and amidst endless obstacles. I think it's also just about the human condition. It's satisfying to know that you can overcome.

Jennifer: The amount of effort that it takes for her to overcome is far beyond any effort that a man needs in order to overcome. One very relatable aspect of Circe is that she's self-educated. Out of personal interest, out of desire, but also at first because of her circumstances. She educates herself, and through understanding the laws of nature, understanding how work and time can equal knowledge and intelligence and therefore power, she outwits all the men that come to her island. Anyone who tries to play a trick on her, she sees beyond them. I think that education for women right now is really empowering, coupled with our innate intelligence. That is somewhat new within our history—to have an education and therefore to have a voice and to exercise our knowledge. We're able to have a voice and exercise reason and logic within our modern society.

"We had something that we wanted to get off our chest that was connected to a feminine energy, but it was more than that. It felt like… you know when you're on the edge of something and you can't put your finger on exactly what it is?" -Jennifer Rose

Can we talk a little bit about just the students and all the other dancers? You guys were the core of the piece, but then you're also dealing with women that came from all over the world. You guys had to translate your vision to the Greek chorus. Can you each talk a little bit about that experience? Because it’s one thing for you guys to make a commitment, but then to translate that to a group…

Maija: I think different people have different boundaries with regards to how far they want to go. But most of those dancers were very ready to just commit. Even if they weren't, you know, wanting to throw themselves on the floor, that would've never been a problem. You just adjust for your body. Jen was always very open about adjusting choreography to different people’s needs and bodies and safety and health. But nonetheless, the dancers were all pretty radical and ready to get into it. I met some amazing people.

Jennifer: I think all the students that came felt connection to the Circe story. They saw themselves in the story. There's a wide age range in the students, from early twenties to 66. We all saw a piece of ourselves in the story of Circe. We all have these powers that we want to tap into, but we don't know how to. We want to be challenged. I think all of us, including myself, seek experiences that can stretch what we are capable of, that empower our personal voice, how we speak, the power of our body, our confidence.

How do you see the role of the chorus in the choreography? You two essentially playing the role of Circe. And then Isaias—is he an amalgamation of all the male characters?

Maija: For me, Isaias’ character was an amalgamation of the different characters. I think he meant different things to different people throughout the piece and represented different men in the story. But that was just my perspective, you know.

Jennifer: I was trying not to have him be an obvious direct representation of [Circe’s lover] Odysseus because there's also the character Helios, who is Circe’s father. Towards the end of the story, Circe reckons with her father and simply says, ‘I don't need you’. There's this small death within her because she decides she's not really connected to that part of her family. It takes hundreds of years for her to have that courage and say, ‘I'm bigger than you, I'm beyond you. I don't need you anymore. You don't need to be part of my life. I don't need to be a slave to your treatment, to your ideals.’

In the choreography there’s a power exchange between the women and Isaias and he kind of ends up being squashed [laughs]. You can see him lose his power because of Circe’s intelligence and her confidence when she decides ‘I am mortal. I take on the values of a mortal. I don't need your everlasting power for me to be happy and survive and feel sovereign.’

Isn't that her ultimate break with her father, making the choice to become mortal? She basically decides to go from being a demigod to being a mortal, which I think is such an interesting choice. I feel like that was one of the most interesting themes of Madeline Miller's book for me—that in the end it becomes a meditation on what it really means to be human. We all think, wouldn’t it be amazing if we were like gods, and had everything we wanted. Every wish just to instantly come true. But she shows us that ultimately the real power is in feeling things, in getting hurt and knowing that things won't be around forever. Humanity’s vulnerability is what Circe covets in the end. It’s interesting that what becomes her ultimate superpower is her mortality, and she's choosing to be mortal.

Do you want to share your most memorable moment from the project?

Jennifer: We had been working these long, like six-to-eight-hour days in the hot sun. We're all physically exhausted, but physically high on the companionship with one another, with the physical dance, the excitement of the film, the excitement of things starting to arrive and click together. And we had been doing all these vocal exercises for about a week, and suddenly, within exhaustion and elation and joy and all of it sort of amalgamating and emulsifying together, we all started screaming and making these wild noises while jumping up and down on top of these rocks. We're on top of these kind of cliff-like rocks that are, you know, thousands of years old from the Mycenaean Age, jumping up and down on top of them screaming and hollering like wolves, cackling like hyenas.

The sounds are, like, echoing and bouncing off these archways and rocks inside of the cemetery. We just looked wild and crazy and making funny and silly and ridiculous faces. It came out of nowhere. I remember feeling this feeling as looking at all these faces that I had somehow cultivated the perfect group of people. They came here because they saw themselves in Circe, had something that they wanted to set free in their personal world. Perhaps they wanted to unlock a side of themselves that is very difficult to unlock, or grow in a particular way that is very difficult to grow in. All of the work, all of the things that we had done leading up to that moment of laughing hysterically, making silly faces, just being raw and pure and honest and open enough to be wild enough in public. It felt like our project had succeeded in that moment, regardless of what would happen in the performance.

Because it was like the release happened.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Do you each have sort of an ultimate vision for the project?

Maija: If it could touch more people that would be fascinating. But if it just lived and just is [what it was in the moment], then I'm honoured to have been a part of it.

Jennifer: It needs to touch more people. I want people to see the story. I want people to be able to visualise it. I want people to empathise with every single one of the characters, and also empathise with Circe’s narrative. A larger vision is to be able to continue shooting it and continuing to develop it in a more narrative sense, so it doesn't rely solely on abstract dance. I'm really interested in finding a way where narrative and movement can meet each other, which is really what story is. I want to see it grow over time and see what we can express.


If each of you could ask Madeline Miller a question, what would it be?

Maija: I would love to know the ways in which she feels like she is Circe and whether she's felt pinned down by men or patriarchy, especially as a woman writer, as an artist. I wonder how much of Circe’s character is pulled from thin air and how much is from her real story. You have to be so close to your character to write like that. I want to know the other things that didn't get into the book.

Jennifer: I think Maija said it. What are you editing out? What's the unedited version? What else do you know? Madeline has done all the research. What are stories that are part of Circe’s story that we don't know about, which were left out of the book? Circe had many men coming in and out of her life. How did Madeline choose what male characters made it into the story?

Maija: It was probably a super conscious decision. So as not to over sexualise her and take away from her journey. People have a hard time with believing a woman can be a sexual creature and a human who overcomes.

Is there anything else that you two would like to share? We haven't talked about the ocean at all, by the way.

I feel like the other main player in this whole project is water and the Mediterranean. There's no way that we could have made this without the time in the ocean. Even just that balance, you know, to go from a dusty cemetery, into that cooling water. We had to go in the ocean every day just to survive the heat.

Jennifer: The original intention of the workshop was to understand how to move within the elements. The studio that we were rehearsing in at the art centre was incredibly difficult on the body, because we were dancing on marble.

Marble with quotes from the Odyssey etched into it. [Laughs.]

Jennifer: So we did some of the classes in the ocean, just at the edge of where the water laps onto the sand. It was so much nicer on our joints, and for the body to understand the quality of floating—that you can be soft on your joints and how to not harden your body through dancing. To see the imprint that your body can make on sand, and to not be afraid of falling because, you know, the ocean is a soft receiver. There's something very beautiful about ocean waves, how they have their own rhythm. Your body must respond to how the ocean is moving, not the other way around.

How do you each feel transformed by this project?

Maija: I mean, in so many ways, many of which are probably undetectable to me; but I would say the strongest that I can discern is in meeting a challenge and just grabbing it and just flying with it. We didn't entirely know what was going to happen most of the time. It's a testament to leaps of faith, courage and navigating difficult situations with grace in the way that you kind of come out a little bit taller. You feel like a stronger human afterwards.

Jennifer: You know when you feel that you have something to say, but you don't know how to say it yet? [With Circe], I'm testing how to tell a story from a novel. I'm testing something in a new environment that's new and it's challenging, it’s scary. I'm working with a different group of people.

I don't know if I'm doing the right thing, if I'm doing the wrong thing, if I'm in the right place, if my risk is too big; did I overstep what I'm capable of doing? Am I creating damage in trying something so big?

I grew a lot. There are all of these themes that are within the book, of empowering a female voice and finding power within the natural elements. What transformed for me was the realisation that I need to keep leaning further in this direction. That these are themes that I want to keep exploring for life. I don't second-guess it now. I have more trust in risk-taking than I did before.

That's beautiful. I love that.

I was thinking about a moment where we are in a cemetery, and it was the dress rehearsal. We were trying to get this one important piece of the film. Oliver [cinematographer Oliver Lukacs] had been asking me so many questions. He was trying to find his way into how to shoot this project. But he was intellectualising it too much. Then there was this moment where he instinctively began to just react and respond and became really one with the two of you.

I was just sitting there with the monitor, and all of a sudden, I just started crying. I was like, ‘It's working’. You know? Just echoing off what you were saying, Jen. Often in life, you feel that you have a vision, but you just have no idea how you're going to get there. Then there's the moment where you kind of realise, it's happening, it's working, we're here. I remember all of us hugging and crying in this dusty ancient cemetery. I just knew in that moment, like, okay, the thing we came here to do is happening. It's in motion. It felt like we all arrived. When the tears come, you know that you've hit some higher cosmic thing.

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