"...a fusion of gorgeous dancing, costumes and live music with the spirit, and visual manifestation of the King Salmon. It glitters like the scales of a living fish." - Metro New York
"If you manage to un-guard your heart and pay attention to subtle things--which is what the title, Niicugni, explicitly invites--you will perceive a gracefully-integrated, seductive work of art at the core of which is one rare, exquisite and charming performer, Emily Johnson." - Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Infinite Body
"Before the lanterned darkness empties us back out, let’s take more time to listen to these ingenious muscles, nerves, and bones that channel the migrating fish, the statuesque fox, the eternal swaggering bear." - Siobhan Burke, Performance Club
"Images emerge with the intricacy of dreams. The women hopping and stamping as if the peaty ground has the springiness of a trampoline and vibrating with the thumping, breath-eating joy of their exertions." Debra Cash, The Arts Fuse
"...another of Johnson’s engaging and involving examinations of personal and collective identity and humanity’s responsibility to the planet." - This Week in New York
"[Niicugni] summoned the senses...And Johnson drew upon her deep-felt connections to the natural world to interweave poignant fables, the kind whispered in the middle of the night." - Caroline Palmer, Mpls StarTribune
"Dreamtime is what came to mind. And never left." - Camille LeFebre, MN Artists
About The Thank-you Bar
"..Emily Johnson's "(The) Thank-you Bar" is as disarming as they come." -Gia Kourlas, New York Times
"...a powerful performance that allows you to see the boundaries of your own aesthetic territory." -Culturebot
"...so delightfully fresh and invigorating, so new, that you want to shout about it from the rooftop and out windows so everyone can know about it...dazzlingly original..." -This Week in New York (twi-ny.com)
"a stunning example of an emerging contemporary American aesthetic" - Houston Chronicle
"She becomes each of us for a moment, as we become her. We lose ourselves for a moment. We discover new selves." - Culture Rover
"Emily Johnson scoops you up and plunks you down in the living, breathing lap of displacement..." - Time Out Chicago
"The beauty and simplicity of the song and story together are transportive. We listeners are alternately cast inside a memory of unbearable heartbreak and the sublime." – mnartists.org
"simultaneously vulnerable and commanding, mythical and wry." - Dance Magazine
"the complex wail of our collective past screamed in a back room somewhere" – Daily News
About Emily Johnson/Catalyst
"Emily Johnson, of course, doesn't have to explain what she does. She does most everything with such clear intention that we believe - even during the more absurd moments - that she's making perfect sense." – City Pages
"Spellbinding" – The Gothamist
"Uncompromising intensity" – Gay City News
"Fresh and fierce, evocative and disciplined." – Dance Magazine
"...a sensibility with remarkable depth and clarity." – Star Tribune
Audience Responses to The Thank-you Bar
"I feel disconnected from my culture. This brings me back."
"By the end of the event, you arrive home, and in arriving home, you also learn about what home is: it’s a familiar place rendered strange, a strange place made familiar; it’s a persistent reminder of something you have forgotten but whose impossible recovery is itself inscrutably comforting. It’s a rustle of leaves."
"Stellar production and performance. The synergy of the music, dance, text, lighting, and staging made for a transformative experience. The use of the theater was brilliant, giving a visual dimension that hauntingly underscored the themes of the work. There were many moments when I felt I was inside a dreamscape, such as Emily's entrance on stilts and all three performers sing Patsy Cline's I Fall To Pieces. I loved the questions/struggles around identity and fear and the silencing effect of racism, which felt authentic not didactic or surface. I loved the stories and use of story and will forever have the image of the melting blackfish in my mind. The dance solo by Emily that happened after the audience turned our seats to face the other way, before Sally joined in, was deeply moving. The gesture of hand to heart and then out, repeated with such intensity, did reach my heart. This work reminds me why I love art." -Eleanor Savage
Sixteen years ago, Emily Johnson moved from her home in rural Alaska to Minneapolis intending to become a physical therapist.
Then dance happened.
She had to drop an overbooked class and needed to schedule another in the same time slot. She chose “Beginning Modern Dance,” then took the next level, and then “Discovery of Improvisation.” It was a life-changer for the young Yup’ik woman, who had always loved the outdoors and sports.
“It was the study of improvisation particularly that resonated with me. … I always loved moving,” she said. “I could have this love of movement, but it didn’t have to be related to winning. That just really resonated with me.”
Yet in her ensuing career as a choreographer, performer and director of the performance project company Catalyst, Johnson has been a winner. She has earned a string of awards, the latest being a $20,000 grant from the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation to develop her project with the working title Niicugni—Yup’ik for “Listen.”
Johnson grew up about 130 miles south of Anchorage, in Sterling, Alaska, where she spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and fishing. In Clam Gulch along the Kenai Peninsula coast, the family spent time in her grandmother’s tavern, The Que-Ana Bar, cleaning clams and listening to classic country on the jukebox.
She played on the basketball team and was a long-distance runner, but admits to being anxious before every race. Despite her massive success in dance, she admits she’s still overcoming those pre-show jitters.
“I’ve really had to work on nerves, but somehow with performing, there’s something that you get. You’re building this relationship. I love that so much, it can be worth it.”
Johnson’s “performance installations,” which she has performed before audiences throughout the United States and in Canada and Russia, are energetic and intelligent, combining storytelling, video, movement and music. In The Thank-you Bar, touring this year, performers create a sense of space by seating audiences on stage and performing around them. The program is coupled with an exhibition curated by Johnson and Carolyn Lee Anderson, a Diné visual artist. This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity features written and visual arts by 46 artists from 19 tribal nations.
The Thank-you Bar invokes the longing for home that Johnson finds is universal. Its title refers to a place from her own youth: Her grandmother’s Que-Ana Bar. The Yup’ik word for “thank you” is quyana.
“It was wonderful to premiere that piece in Alaska. It is so much about missing Alaska and missing where I’m from.”
In The Thank-you Bar, Johnson takes the audience through a series of vignettes, stories of displacement and home, often accompanied a duo of musicians-composers, Joel Pickard and her husband, James Everest. She incorporates props into many of the pieces, entering onto the stage on short stilts, echoing wood-on-wood. She ends the piece in a small wading pool filled with leaves, telling a story of the blackfish, a species native to Alaska known for its hardy adaptability.
The piece links past and future. “When you are displaced … by choice or by force, you are put somewhere. You have to build another home. You have to make sense of this place, and you have to live your life fully in this place.”
Art as Johnson practices it is something of a team sport. As a choreographer, director or curator, she taps the talents of others to express a shared vision. She engages the musicians and other performers, negotiating and examining specific choices. “That way of working together is really exciting because everyone I’m working with is so invested in the process.”
The Thank-you Bar will influence Niicugni, her new project. “It’s a little more particularly about where I’m from … about identity, that connection between identity and where we are from and that connection between our bodies and the land. … (When) you’re holding a finger full of soil, you’re also holding the world. There’s this wholeness in that thought. … It’s not only listening as hearing, but also in paying attention.
“I love when somebody after a performance comes and tells me, ‘This made me think of this,’ and then they tell me a story. It somehow then opens up time a little bit, it becomes the past and the future at the same time. It’s the best way to access these deep parts of ourselves.”
Johnson accesses her life with each project. “All of my works are Yup’ik because I am. I think being Yup’ik influences everything I do.”
Perhaps that is why performing The Thank-you Bar before her grandmother was so moving. Even the retelling left her a little misty-eyed. “It was just so big, so big,” Johnson said. “To have her be there, and proud, and my family, too. At the end, we were bowing and my grandmother, both her and my mother, came up and gave me a gift—a Yup’ik language dictionary.”
The dictionary is a practical item for someone who is always asking questions about the language, but it was also a hint from her mother and grandmother that she ought to study it harder. “It was a gift,” she quips, “but also was little kick.”
A gift, then, that reflects well what Johnson most wants to give to her audiences.
mnoriginal.org • mn original show #224
Dancemaker, choreographer, and storyteller Emily Johnson combines personal stories and powerful movement in her latest work The Thank-You Bar, which debuted in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium. Johnson believes that anything can be dance: Our physical responses to the world is where dance begins. Johnson's philosophy about movement can be seen in her previous work Heat and Life, which was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to engage the controversial topic of global warming. Johnson's own intimate style of storytelling can be seen in The Thank-You Bar as she examines her Native American heritage using stories from her childhood in Alaska, original music by Blackfish and dramatic lighting to draw the audience into her world.
this week in new york (twi-ny.com) • november 9, 2011
"I want to make work that looks at identity and cultural responsibility — that is beautiful and powerful — full of myth and truth at the same time," choreographer Emily Johnson explains in her mission statement. "I want to be grounded in my heritage, supported by my community, and giving back — always." Born in Alaska of Yup'ik descent and based in Minneapolis, Johnson has been creating site-specific dance installations in collaboration with visual artists and musicians since 1998, exploring ideas of home, identity, and the natural world through different modes of storytelling. Her latest multimedia performance piece is The Thank-you Bar, running at New York Live Arts from November 9 to 12. A collaboration with musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard of BLACKFISH, who will play a special set on the final night, the performance installation also includes beadwork by Karen Beaver and paper sculptures by Krista Kelley Walsh. The extremely eloquent and thoughtful Johnson carefully considered our questions for our latest twi-ny talk; she will also participate in a preshow chat on November 9 with NYLA artistic director Carla Peterson as well as a discussion on November 11 with dancer-choreographer Reggie Wilson following the 9:30 show.
twi-ny: In her Context Notes about The Thank-you Bar on the New York Live Arts blog, Biba Bell is taken by your voiceover "What is becoming more clear to me is what I'm missing," asking the questions "How many moments are passed, paused or pregnant with the sense of what is missed — something, someone, someplace? What do they sound like, smell like, and how do they feel?" What are some of the things you are missing, and how do they drive your artistic creation?
Emily Johnson: I said that — about the missing — because I am feeling years accumulate. What is absent is becoming an acute pain and it makes me feel old, most simply because of what has already gone by. I have missed my niece and nephew growing up because I was in Minneapolis, making dance, while they were in Alaska. I miss many, many mornings with my grandma — casual mornings of coffee, where we sit around, she doing crosswords until a story comes out. If I'm not around, I simply miss the story and I miss the time. And this creates the yearning — or heightens it, at the very least. I long for these stories. I long for the time with my elders, the time with my niece and nephew and rest of my family. And it points to what might not be: How much longer can I wait to learn the Yup'ik language, helped along by my grandma — the only one in my family who speaks it? How much longer can my body make do without feeling the ground of Alaska beneath my feet on a regular, day in and day out basis? What disservice do I do my life when I let these things pass me by?
Eventually, time runs out. Every summer I go home for the salmon run and I am trying to imprint the process of putting the salmon up (cleaning, smoking, kippuring, freezing . . .) into my brain so that when it comes my time to take charge of making it happen I will be able to do so. These are some of the things I am missing, and the absence and the longing are so real that it creates a new version of life. Biba's questions about sounds, smell, feel — this is exactly what drives me. As I created The Thank-you Bar, a work very much about missing home/land, I thought about how our bodies miss, how our minds remember — not a scientific how, but a how related to our own perceptions of our experiences. When a thread of a Crystal Gayle song comes on, I am brought back to the jukebox at my grandma's bar; when I think about the mountains near my Alaskan home, my chest aches and for some reason it also feels like I am diving into a very cold lake, exhilarating my being. And the thoughts about where and when also make me think of the future.
When I make dances, I try to imagine the future. I get curious about what images, reactions, or stories the audience might remember four days after seeing a performance. This leads me to structure dances with a focused attention on the smallest of details: what the audience might walk on as they enter the space, what they might smell during a particular story. . . . It makes me consider what I can leave out of the equation so as to let conjecture and interpretation have a role in the room.
twi-ny: The Thank-you Bar and its companion exhibit, "This Is Displacement," explore the idea of home. You were born in Alaska, you're based in Minneapolis, and you're now presenting the New York premiere of a work that has previously been performed in Oklahoma, Houston, and other locations. Where is home for you?
Emily Johnson: The most specific, locating answer is that I have two homes: one in Minneapolis, the other in Alaska. I love both places, and the home in Minneapolis is actually more concrete: it has my stuff in it. The home in Alaska feels expansive and like it goes on for thousands of years, probably because it doesn't actually have any walls. I don't have a living space in Alaska, but it's where I come from and where I continually return to.
To be honest, I try to build another home for myself and audiences in The Thank-you Bar. Does this mean I am searching? Does this mean I believe we can adapt to any longing, and dislocation? I build the home by trying to bring attention to the building we are in and the people who are gathered in the room. I try to imagine the walls gone; I try to imagine what was here before the current incarnation. I want the feeling of "home" to lead to a kind of intimacy so that people feel comfortable, responsible even, for it. I think we tend to look at things as static when, in reality, our bodies and places house past, present, and future, at once. It's anything but static and it's kind of exciting to tap into.
twi-ny: You collaborated with James Everest and Joel Pickard of BLACKFISH on The Thank-you Bar, and the duo will be playing a special concert on November 12. What is it about their music that draws you to them and made you want to work with them?
Emily Johnson: BLACKFISH music is dramatically mind altering for me. When James [Everest], Joel [Pickard], and I started work, part of our process was to improvise together in a room, daily. We've continued that process, as much as we can when we tour, and out of it James and Joel created their project, BLACKFISH. As BLACKFISH, they perform improvised concerts in conjunction with our tours. I love their concerts — and I love that they've developed this entire project out of The Thank-you Bar. On the twelfth, they're releasing a gorgeous limited edition, letter-pressed, eight-CD collection of some of the concerts they've recorded over the past two years. John Scott heard their concert in Vermont this summer and has since worked with them for music for his new work. He very endearingly asked my permission first.
In The Thank-you Bar, they don't play as BLACKFISH; they play as James and Joel. What I most appreciate about them is their specificity and dedication to improvisation. The music they composed for The Thank-you Bar is set; it came from improvisations, from bouts of memory and discussions of the jukebox I mentioned (that at my grandma's was filled with classic country). The sound of dislocation and rerouting to find home is what they built for The Thank-you Bar. It makes me want to work with them again and again.
One day, early in the process, I was rehearsing in a separate studio. I came down and they told me to sit on the floor. They proceeded to play music that layered inch by inch and sound by sound, as they appeared and disappeared, until a reverberating chorus echoed off the walls. I remember slapping the floor and exclaiming/laughing at the genius of it. Them: missing. Music: building. We've kept it. They basically choreographed the beginning of the dance.
Anna Marie Shogren, a Brooklyn-based artist and dancer converses with Minneapolis choreographer Emily Johnson about naming, homesickness, and the emotional lives of places. Johnson will perform The Thank-you Bar, named for her grandparents' bar in Alaska, at New York Live Arts this November 9-12.
Anna Marie Shogren: So you've been traveling with this show [The Thank-you Bar] for a few years already?
Emily Johnson: Yes, we premiered in 2009 in Anchorage and then brought it to Homer, Alaska, which is a small town about three, four hours south of Anchorage. We've been to Tulsa and Portland at the TBA Festival; Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Houston, Vermont, Tallahassee, and now we are coming to New York.
Anna: What kind of venues have you been going to? Your website lists some huge theaters, like where they have college graduations? [laughs]
Emily: Yeah, the spaces that we've been in have varied greatly. From Northrop [a performing arts center at the University of Minnesota], which is a huge house, a huge stage. The ceiling was, I don't even know how many feet high it was, but it was just amazing to be on that stage and have our fans on stage with us. And, we had the curtains open so you could the full, empty house. And, then, we've also been in a tiny art gallery in Homer.
Anna: It seems like The Thank-you Bar is a pretty intimate piece with some gathering around with people. I feel like that must of changed significantly then, at places where people don't necessarily have the opportunity to get anywhere near or close to you.
Emily: It is designed for thirty people and if we can fit more people onstage, we do. But it is designed for a very small audience to sit on stage with us. In all cases, whatever size of space or wherever we're performing, the piece is somewhat adapted to that specific location. I don't think the audience experience is that changed whether it's in a huge space or a small space.
Anna: I appreciate shows where there is opportunity for audience participation, but you can still choose to stay on the outside of that and watch the whole thing.
Emily: Yes, people ask about audience participation, but I honestly don't think that's what it is. It's inclusive of the audience in a very particular way, but I think audience participation in quotes is not quite what happens and is not quite what I am after.
Anna: Yeah, I tend to be a shy audience member. Even walking to a different location seems participatory to me.
Emily: Yes. I do call for active engagement. There's a moment where, if you're in the audience, I hand you something. You don't necessarily have to do anything with what I hand you, but that is a very important part of the piece: that I hand every audience member this object. Or, you do have to stand up and turn your chairs around at one moment. It is active; I like that word. You never have to be in the piece…but you're always watching, or listening, or turning your head.
Anna: There is a lot of storytelling in this piece, or more than I have seen you do in the past. Which is exciting. I remember seeing you do an excerpt a few years ago that was storytelling and I remember being kind of knocked out and surprised and captivated. You struck me as a quiet person and, all of a sudden, you were magnetically telling me this fantastic story, where I was like a young child… Was the storytelling element new or specific to this project?
Emily: This work recounts a very personal experience of desperately missing where I'm from and the place that I call home. But [also] realizing that for the last seventeen years I've been building this other home. And, so there is honesty and truth…but in the dance as it is and in the stories, it's not truthful. Or, there's truth but it's mixed with complete fantasy. I don't really enjoy using the word myth, but I haven't found a good replacement yet. But, it is. It's like truth mixed with myth. And, maybe that's why for the shows, when people come up to me, and tell me stories about where they're from or about their home or they say "I've never been anywhere that has ever had snow. I'm from the Mediterranean, but this is my experience." That has been incredible for me to share these stories that came from a very personal experience, but they have a resonance with people. Strangers want to come and tell me their story as well. That's huge.
Anna: I was curious about if people have been sharing their secrets with you! That's a pretty powerful response. [The piece] is called The Thank-you Bar after your grandparents' bar, isn't it? I am curious how exactly it is used as an emotional landscape for the work?
Emily: It's named after, you're right, my grandparents' bar, the Que-Ana Bar. Que-Ana is the Yup'ik [an Alaskan dialect] word for "thank you." There are obvious ways the piece is about the place. The Que-Ana Bar is very large in my upbringing. It wasn't just a bar, my grandma lived there also, so that was her house. It was a meeting place for relatives and big dinners and Sundays and activities and where we did our fish processing after catching salmon in the summer. This piece is so much about place.
It makes me think about naming. In The Thank-you Bar, I am thinking about how we call people or places or things names that aren't necessarily always true or correct. Someone can name themselves, but we don't always pay attention to that. Sometimes, we put a different name on to somebody. We gather or we project these ideas upon people and places and things. With the Que-Ana Bar it comes down to language, too. Yupik language wasn't a written language for a very long time. But, now, "quyana" is spelled 'q-u-y-a-n-a'. But, my grandma, I haven't asked her yet why, but she spells it, "Q-u-e, dash, a-n-a." So, at first look, it's this thing that people could read phonetically. Or, it could be that my grandma doesn't know the other spelling; or, it could be that there are multiple spellings; or, it could just be that her interpretation of what that word would look like in English. There are all these layers of naming and place and language for just this one location. She named her home, and named it in her language, but she was serving people who don't speak her language, and that was sort of a fascinating thing for me to notice.
You're Anna. What if I start calling myself Anna? What is it like to see your name? What is it like to hear your name? And, whether there are three Annas there, or just you, it's your name. Who we are and what are own histories and heritages are; we all have a personal relationship with those histories. And, it would be best if we could all share those relationships with one another. Saying, I am this, or I am of this heritage. That doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. What makes sense to me is how do you relate to that? What is your life like? What is your life like now? What is it like when someone asks you if you've ever lived in an igloo [laughs]? That happens to me. And, it's hilarious. It also makes me really angry.
Anna: There are many collaborators in this piece…[including] James Everest and Joel Pickard. And there's an art exhibition showing along with the work. How much have those collaborations fed in to the content of the work?
Emily: There was this amazing jukebox in the Que-Ana Bar. As kids it was so much fun to feed it quarters and pick your song. Pretty much any classic country song can come on the radio and I can sing along with it, whether or not I consciously know if I know that song or not. This was the soundtrack to growing up and I knew it had to be part of this dance as well. I try to make a "place" for us all—performers and audience for an hour. It comes from the bar, this amazing jukebox and recliners and this feeling that was sparkling. The sound had to be part of this piece but in a way that is not so direct. In a way where you might dance with the classic country song. They are there somehow in my mind, but I can't quite grab them, I can't quite sing the song right now. That's how we decided to think about the music.
I've worked with James Everest for many years and we both worked with Joel Pickard on the 24 Hours project that you were a part of, back in, what was that? 2005. Joel and I always wanted to work together again. He plays pedal steel guitar, which is the sound of those classic country songs, and he was working on the theories of deconstructing classic country songs, which was the perfect timing for both of us. The song was malleable in our minds; sort of a deconstructed and untouchable, yet very resonant. Both James and Joel were in on the process very early as was Heidi Eckwall, who designed the lights. I've worked with her for a long time.
Other people have come in in ways, too. There's this story that we talked about and that's very much this almost tactile story that I tell. I asked my friend Karen Beaver, who's an amazing bead worker and, I said, can you bead this story? And, she beaded on to one of the parts of my costume—actually, the vest from the Que-Ana Bar. So, that story comes across visually.
And the exhibit came about because this piece is very much about finding home, missing home, building another home. Even though it was very personal and I have a strong connection to those ideas and pains, I didn't just want it to be my story. My friend, a visual artist, Carolyn Lee Anderson and I, we curated this exhibit that ended up being an exhibit of forty-six artists from nineteen different tribal nations. And, in the best scenario, the entire exhibit tours with the dance. People start in the exhibit and then are brought on to the stage for the performance. So, suddenly there were many stories, there were many images, there were many different ways of looking at displacement. It was like a universal opening that was incredible to be a part of.
Anna: I can imagine. It's so full of people and layers and mediums. I am curious, though, working with a physical medium, do the ideas feed into each other? Do you feel like there was a different way of dealing with movement?
Emily: Often I will dance and I will try to put my mind somewhere else, and I will try to be back in Alaska. But, that's too broad. I will find a specific place, or a specific time, or a specific visual landscape to do it in. A physical interaction between past and present, that's obviously only actually present. But, somehow, for me at those times, it merges. It becomes where there isn't that much space between past and present and future. I think that is the truth about our physical body, is that we are all those times at once. Maybe physical action is the only true place that you can find that sublime sense of time where it is all at once. I can be standing in Minneapolis but, I can also at the same time, with intention, be at my grandma's house in Alaska or I could be in New York. Maybe talking about it makes it seem like that can't be true, but it really is.
Anna: When you talk about your working installation, I feel like I understand that in terms of an emotional environment developing.
Emily: When you're on an airplane or some busy restaurant and someone brings you a snack and it smells like something and it just puts you in a different place. So, right then, you are in that place. Everyone has felt that. We know that that exists, so for me to actively pursue that on stage in front of people is exciting. It's exciting but it's also something I can't force. That moment has to be truthful in me. Otherwise, it has happened where—well, that's a whole other thing. I was going to talk about when I haven't found that truthful place [laughs].
Anna: What's fantastic about live performance is sometimes it goes very wrong. You're completely accountable for your sincerity. You don't get a five-minute coffee break or anything in the middle of the show.
northrop blog INterview - April 2013
Northrop blog Interview with Emily Johnson about Niicugni
Director / Choreographer Emily Johnson talks about Niicugni (nee-CHOOG-nee), the second part of her trilogy that began with The Thank-you Bar.
Why do you refer to your work as "performance installation", as opposed to "dance"?
The work I do is definitely rooted in the body – in dance. But I have a very broad definition of
what that means: our bodies, even in "stillness," dance. There's the blood moving through us, our
hearts pumping, our cells dividing and growing and dying, the synapses in our brain firing...so
we dance, always. And it isn't performance, but it is (to me), dance. And I think that is a beautiful
thing. However, there's this problem with the word, too... it can direct expectations. I don't
dislike the word, and sometimes I do use it. It is just not inclusive enough.
My hope is that "performance installation" is inclusive: of dance, of many methods of
communication (visual, aural, architectural, historical, implied), of all forms of performance and
specifically of the performances I make. Installation is really about how I try to immerse a place
and audiences within the context of a particular show. I want to engage many senses: have sound
come from all over, offer something you might hold or take care of, something you might smell -
it's all to encourage a broad way of paying attention to the place we are in and the people we are
How did you decide to create a trilogy?
I am making this series of works because as I make each one, the next one begins. I say right
now that it's a trilogy, but maybe it will continue... I started The Thank-you Bar as I desperately
missed home, I was rooted in memory. It led me to consider how 'home' becomes where we are –
it becomes what we make, who we commune with, how we relate to what and who is around us.
Niicugni was made with a connection to place and to people and as I made it I questioned the
ways we do and do not pay attention to these connections. Making Niicugni led me to think,
quite literally, about the ground beneath our feet and beneath our buildings. It made me think of
the connection between our bodies and that ground, to everything around us and to the
disconnections, too. As we worked in the studio I also worked with volunteers to make the fishskin
lanterns that comprise the set. This taught me so much! I was floored that people would
volunteer to work on creating these objects with me; get their hands messy, build something they
were donating to a performance project. Our work together (the fish-skin lanterns) remains with Niicugni and it is leading me to develop my next work, SHORE. SHORE is all about
possibility... SHORE will be a work that includes research into how performance can be a vital
part of our lives. It will include feasting, volunteerism, story, and performance. There is of
course, a framing to a series of works. Some insight of which might come when the series is
coming near an end, rather than from the middle. But I do see a trajectory – one that spirals from
the personal outward and one that circles from the past, to the present, to the future; from
memory to possibility.
Where does the word Niicugni come from?
Niicugni is a word that means 'pay attention' or 'listen.' It is a Yup'ik word. It comes from Alaska.
With the title, The Thank-you Bar, I was playing with language: there is an actual bar in Alaska
called the Que-Ana Bar. My grandmother owned it. She and my papa lived there, in an apartment
in the back. It was grandma's house, where we had special family events and where we processed
our fish, but it was also this lively place full of customers (on a good day). Que-Ana means
"thank-you" in Yup'ik and it is the first Yup'ik word I learned. However, "Que-Ana" is not how it
is spelled. Yup'ik language wasn't written for a long time, but now it is and this word is spelled:
quyana (though I have seen other variations, too). My grandma speaks Yup'ik but doesn't write it.
She named her bar in her language but I don't know if she spelled it the way she did because that
was the accepted way to spell it at the time, or if that was the way she thought it should be
spelled, or if she just wanted a phonetic spelling so that her language would be correctly
pronounced by her customers. Via my grandma, I have a strong and complicated relationship to
Yup'ik language, though I don't speak it. In thinking about this new piece I choose to work with a
Yup'ik word because it seemed right. As I work with Yup'ik words I get to know them better.
Niicugni - the word - had led me to many conversations with family and friends and friends of
friends on its meaning. Niicugni is now a word that is vital to my life. I am also continuing to
look at the relationship between Yup'ik language and English language in my family and in this
country - it's a difficult one, with many layers.
Where did Niicugni the dance come from? Niicugni the dance comes from me and from my collaborators. It comes from fish – salmon
mostly. It comes from Alaska, too. It comes from a map that my dad placed on the kitchen
counter. It comes from colonization. It comes from family history and from a radically made-up
and partly true history of everything that has ever been here: the dances that were here, on this
ground before we of the present time were; the trees that were here before the highway was put
in; the stories that permeated the air before we began telling our own stories. I am not nostalgic
for the past – but I do honor it and I do see the relationship between past, present, and future. To
me, they are simultaneous and accessible. I created Niicugni with my collaborators and as we
perform we mingle with past, present, and future. There is a moment when Aretha and I very
literally acknowledge the past - we mention and demonstrate a "completely different dance" that
used to be "here". We are, in that moment, verbally referencing the Indigenous dances that have
always happened "here" - wherever we are. But we are, at the same time, physically referencing
a different dance that was previously done on the particular stage we're performing on. We learn
bits of movement from each theater's archived video and piece it together, blending it with
movement we've already learned from previous stages/venues – so it's a constantly evolving
section of the dance – acquiring new layers in each city we tour to. It's a short moment that
means more than one thing and acknowledges many layers of "past" time.
While it's clear to me that Niicugni exists in the world of contemporary performance, I
can't help but notice a larger, almost ceremonial, arc that feels like perhaps a more
traditional sensibility - how did that take shape?
It is hard for me to talk about words like 'traditional' and 'contemporary' and 'ceremonial'. Similar
to the word 'dance' – these words hold connotations and expectations that may not be intended by
the speaker or by the work the words refer to. My friend and collaborator Judy Dow and I once
gave a presentation on our work and the words 'traditional' and 'contemporary.' They are the
same thing. It is the context that changes and therefore the understanding of the thing or event
being described as 'traditional', 'contemporary', or 'ceremonial.' However, my yoga teacher says
that it is ok to do hard things, so I will try to talk about these words and my work...
I have a strong belief in dance and performance. I do believe it can effect people's lives. I do
believe it can make the world better. I don't think every dance has to do this and I don't think a
dance has to try to in order to be good. Quite the opposite. I believe in the potential. I believe in
the risk. Dance and performance have altered my life to the point of saving it – I don't feel a debt
to the form, but it does make it personal....it does mean that I think dance and performance can
be cellular-level-powerful. I think this is why I find permission in Niicugni – permission to
gather groups of people for example - mostly non-performers to join us on stage at six different
moments; people who get up from the audience, come onto the stage, perform a small, simple
gesture and depart. These volunteers pass through Niicugni – the audience doesn't get to know
them, they are not characters. They are quite simply, people, who for a moment are on stage,
serving as a reflection of the local audience back to itself. Imbedding each community inside the
work, albeit briefly. If I were in the audience this would make me turn my head and notice who
was sitting next to me, maybe wonder if they too, were going to get up and join in the
performance. It's a crazy thing! To gather up to forty people in each community we tour to! To
rehearse with them and find the right gesture and moment for each group to enter. To make sure
the volunteers feel comfortable on stage even though most of them have never performed. To
expect that the audience will care about these seemingly interruptive, unconnected entrances by
strangers! But that's just it – it IS an opportunity to care. Toward the end of Niicugni, all of the
volunteer performers get up onto stage together. They shut their eyes, they try to feel their feet on
the ground below the theater building, and they imagine their favorite place. One of them counts
silently to 30. They all walk off. It is a beautiful moment that roots Niicugni to the place we are
in and also to the whole world. Most of the audience doesn't specifically know that this exact
thing is happening and it does not matter to me – what matters is the act. The BELIEVING, the
IMAGINGING. We sense that there is a concentrated activity happening on stage. We sense the
concentration. Something permeates outward. Maybe there is no word for it.
I counted 4 very different types of masks used in the piece - can you talk about the use of
masks in Niicugni and their role in Yup'ik culture?
I can't talk about masks in Yup'ik culture without making you think I am an expert on the subject,
which I am not. I can even say: "I am not an expert on the subject of masked dancing in Yup'ik
culture" and still, someone will read that and assume that I know something about it, that I am
borrowing or referencing Yup'ik dancing when we don paper masks with color copied photos of
our faces on them. Yes. There are masks in Yup'ik culture. Powerful masks. Beautiful masks.
There are masks for faces and hands. There are masked dances. The dances in my Yup'ik culture
are strong and I connect to them because they connect to me. The Yup'ik dances I have seen are
story, they are community, they are history, they are present at once. The "Invitational" dance
that happens during a night of dancing – is that a 'traditional' or a 'contemporary' dance? Either
way, it means that when invited, anyone can come up onto 'stage' – whether that be a stage or a
gym floor or a place on the ground – and you can dance with the dancers. It is an open space for
community, for sharing in the act of dancing. There are many, many places and people you can
learn about Yup'ik dances and masks from. I do wish I knew more. I only know my experience.
When I see a mask (one my aunt made, or one my friend's dad made, or one made for me, or one
in a museum) I think of the dances that mask may have seen and been part of or might be part of
yet. Masks in Yup'ik culture are absolutely important – I don't want my ignorance to disregard
that fact. When I see masks I think about who made them, I think about their service to cultural
ceremony, to healing, to telling story, to connecting with parts of the world and universe that we
don't have access to on a regular basis.
The masks in Niicugni serve many purposes, perhaps the most obvious being the reference to
skin, the temporal forms we all take – whether made of scales, flesh, fur. They are also a vehicle
of transformation. They are a peeling of skin. They are a layer we are always underneath, again
and again. They show us reality and at the same time, they make reality larger than normal. You
mention four masks, but there are actually seven: there are the masks Aretha and I don at the
beginning. They are just slightly larger than our faces but they are colored photo copies of our
faces and we wear them on the front and back of our heads. There's the mask that Aretha creates
out of fragments of the first masks – a refracted composite of both our faces on her own. There are
the sheets of paper we hold up that hold the projected image of our faces again, this time much
larger and the faces are switched: I hold Aretha's, she holds mine. They are also crumpled off,
stripped away. There are the owl masks. There are the blank paper masks at the end. There are
Heidi's constantly changing faces on her T-shirt. There is also a moment when Aretha and I don
monsters. This mask isn't one we put on – we let our actual faces distort in the actual experience
of sadness and then of anger. We let ourselves feel sad. We let ourselves feel angry. We let you
see it. Sadness and anger are part of our world. I don't think it would be responsible to make a
work about 'paying attention' and not pay attention to the sadness and anger in our world. Aretha
and I think about it. We see it. We let it in. And then, we transform it. We let it grow. Sometimes
we let it overtake us. Sometimes it is too difficult. We let it make us sad. We let it make us angry.
But because we are transforming it, we are in conversation with it. We notice how it (what we are
feeling) affects our breathing, how it affects our muscles, how it affects our presence in the room.
We try to stay with the changes as we transform them further. We begin to move from something
real to something projected, something named, something 'fake' and in its 'fakeness', something
we can all recognize and chuckle or laugh at. We transform our faces into what we call 'fake
monster.' It's the picture of fake. It's the picture of fake sadness and fake anger and in its
fakeness, it is something we all recognize. Usually people laugh with us...and we continue to
transform this non-masked masked dance. We make the faces toward each other, at each other.
We push one another into a short game and we take the game into a short game of chase, and into
true laughter as we think about the faces we just shared with you – the ugliness we conjured and
revealed, then made-up and let go. It is through this process that we offer a way to deal with the
sadness and the anger: acknowledge it/feel it and then present it in a fashion that eases the actual
pain so we – as a community – can talk about it. Can change it.
This is why masks are important. They offer the possibility - of transformation, of
communication, of evolution.
The word "monster" is one of the first we hear in Niicugni, and the first story-driven image
- is there a connection to the traditional use of "monsters" in Yup'ik dances or storytelling?
In stories throughout the world - written, spoken, and passed on there are often "monsters" -
people or entities who disrespect rules, the environment, the lives of animals or people.
Obviously, the monsters in stories serve a role: they display the wrong actions so that we might
learn the right ones. My stories in Niicugni are not different. There are stories in Niicugni that
pay attention to and then transform the actions of monsters.
"Monster" in Niicugni is real and also made up. "Monsters" exist in the world – and similar to
the process I explained above, Niicugni accepts monsters as part of the world so that we can deal
with them and get over their terrific power, but also see that there is something underneath. Niicugni as a performance does not call out any particular monster, but it does reference
monsters who take advantage of people's bodies, of the lives of animals, of the land. As a
performance the 'monster' remains an image, a metaphor – one that I do hope lets us start talking
about the many monsters in our world that need transformation. I do think that listening, paying
attention, and creating/cultivating relationships with the land and with each other is a way to this.
There are five distinct groups of people from each local community that participate in each
performance - what is their role in the work?
The people who join us on stage root Niicugni to the place we are in. They make us pay attention
to each other just a tiny bit more. They are normal. They are people. They are just standing there,
imagining their favorite place, or doing what they normally do in the slightly odd setting of a
stage: they are opening a bee hive, chasing their children, stitching a wound or a fish-skin
lantern, planting corn, riding a skateboard, looking for a photograph to take, noticing the
architecture of the room. It seems simple: for people to come on stage and pretend to do
something they are really used to doing. And it is. It is simple. But it is also the most complicated
thing: us as humans, doing what we do. It is beautiful to take a moment and pay attention to that.
To realize that the actions of all of us make up the actions of the world. We are all a part of the
Storytelling was such an important part of The Thank-you Bar, and you've continued to
expand your use and approach of storytelling in Niicugni - how are these stories different?
The stories in The Thank-you Bar were concerned with the physical world: where we are, the
building, the tree, the people sitting near to you. They were about creating and accessing
memory, some were based in reality so that we could be presented with possibility. Largely they
were rooted in the past – in history, memory.
The stories in Niicugni are more concerned with the non-physical world, and with the present:
our relationships between past, present, future, with each other, with our ancestors, with other
beings. They try to acknowledge that which we tend to not acknowledge or actively try to ignore:
the rape of people and land, the destruction of our world, our refusal to communicate with other
species, death. They exist to transform communication; to move from human brain to animal
brain; to acknowledge our ancestors and everything that was here before our time. They exist as
an alternative way of viewing the world.
We also wanted to continue to experiment with different ways of telling stories – a monster story
in the dark, a story told in unison, stories by other cast members – it's part of an arc that will
continue with SHORE – moving from the personal to the public in terms of whose stories we're
Another theme I notice in the piece is one of gratitude - one phrase that jumps out is from
the story about your eyes - "thank you, King Salmon" - what is gratitude's role in this
I think you are right - gratitude is important in Niicugni. The part where the local volunteers
come onto the stage, stand together, shut their eyes and imagine their favorite place is one of my
favorite moments in the piece. It's not an actual "thank you", but the action is one that is full of
gratitude. I think that is the role of gratitude in the piece – it is an undercurrent, it is present, and
our actions are in response to thankfulness. Gratitude is a natural result of listening, of
recognizing all the life and effort around us.
You used paper sculptures in The Thank-you Bar, and have continued to use paper in Niicugni - what is the significance of paper?
Ha! It is freezer paper – well, in Niicugni it is freezer paper. The lanterns are made of fish-skin -
salmon skin and in my Alaska household, we keep our frozen fish (and frozen moose and frozen
shrimp, etc.) wrapped in freezer paper. I made an artwork for THIS IS DISPLACEMENT (an
exhibit that toured with The Thank-you Bar) on freezer paper and I wrote the following for the
accompanying exhibit catalogue. I think it applies to Niicugni as well:
"I use freezer paper because this is what we freeze our salmon and moose meat with. We write
the date and the contents on the paper and in this way we preserve food, location, tradition.
When we open the package to eat, a little bit of blood remains on the paper, mingled with our
writing, with our efforts of hunting/fishing, and with our hunger. I see this as beautiful. My
actual CIB (Certificate of Indian Blood) does not have a blood smear on it, though it could. But
whose blood would it be? Mine? My ancestor's? My would-be- conqueror's? I place blood on
these works as a symbolic link to the animals we depend on, to the land we live on, and to the
rough mixture of blood used to define us."
There are so many transformations in Niicugni - humans become trees, bears, foxes, fish,
owls - colors change - what is the role of transformation in Niicugni?
It is our only hope, Obi Wan.
See if you can you snare a ticket to tonight's concluding presentation of Niicugni--an interdisciplinary, movement-based work by Minneapolis-based Emily Johnson/Catalyst.
Presented at Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of PS 122's COIL fest, the 70-minute work offers rich storytelling through poetic words, movement, soundscape and scenic design--all reflecting the values inherent to Johnson's Central Alaskan Yup'ik heritage. It demonstrates and encourages empathy with all life--most memorably, those little red foxes imagined by Johnson and Aretha Aoki, on their nimble run through a forest and a batch of just-folks who periodically emerge from the audience to exalt in being part of the fabric of life.
If you manage to un-guard your heart and pay attention to subtle things--which is what the title, Niicugni, explicitly invites--you will perceive a gracefully-integrated, seductive work of art at the core of which is one rare, exquisite and charming performer, Emily Johnson. Oh, how I long to see more of her work!
So much has happened between then and now. The usher told Baryshnikov (oh look, it’s Baryshnikov) how much she loves “the space.” The critics clustered on the sidewalk, debating what they liked. (For me it was “the dancing.”) Walking, waiting, talking; waiting, parting, walking. The theater of the to-and-from. The spectacle of everything that, officially, is not one.
It had been one of those days of trudging around the Internet—physically stationed in front of the screen, cognitively roving. Everywhere you went, people were trashing the narcissistic writer—the comment threads ablaze—and influenza viruses were making the front page. One of those days where you felt like, thank goodness for 7:30; for this other person’s curiosity; for delicate hand-made materials; for presence in the space; for respiration, circulation; bones sliding into sockets, muscles hugging the bones; protective constellations of membranes, follicles, pores. For this other person asking nothing more than show up, pay attention, listen.
I sat down. Here, up above us, were the fish-skin lanterns, more ordinary than I’d pictured, but still, each one a rough-hewn work of art, sewn by hands in five United States. A wooden box made its way through the rows, passing between the pairs of hands in this room. When it reached mine, I clasped the firm sides and peered through the thin slits into the yellow glow. I stroked the patch of soft white fur on top. I tried to pry it open, and failing, passed it to the right.
The canopy of lights, all 47 of them, dimmed. Two undulating bodies, lying on their sides, came into view, somehow locomoting from far away to closer. Swift, efficient undulations—like fish, we can be sure of that. Sockeye salmon, halibut. Each dancer, disguised as herself, tore off her paper mask, the first of many sheddings. Later, one of them would piece hers back together rather tragically, slow-dancing with the other. Were they one, or two—or neither?
“Do you remember that story I told you about the tree? I’ll tell it again,” said Emily Johnson, who lives in Minneapolis but grew up in Alaska, who’s been making work inspired by her Yup’ik ancestry, her line of “warriors, fishers, weavers, drunks,” (or by ancestors, more generally), and who called this one Niicugni, which means “listen.” The tree has ears, a belly, knees, a mother to stitch it up when “the monster” leaves. The monster who “funneled my blood into a jar and counted every drop,” who relentlessly fails to understand that the land is the people and the people are the land.
Land evolves, and so do dances: cultivated, stripped away, continuously morphing. (Even this building, she later intones, sprang up on top of buried bones.) “There used to be a completely different dance here. It was like—” then she rattles off the shimmies, high-kicks, squats, in her electric earthy way: is this ironic? Or just meant to expose what comes and goes on the way to a “finished product”?
It’s hard to tell what’s real and what is not here, what’s sincere. “Don’t ask me if this story is real. It is real,” she (or maybe that’s Aretha Aoki, her wily almost-twin) contends, around the time she recollects the interloping backyard bear, who stole the plums and berries, who (her father said) predated her and would outlive her too—so let him be. (She found that “kind of cheesy.” Should we?) Which came after the tall tale of the swooping hawk and the wayward duck—now wrapped in a sweater backstage—on the roof of the Baryshnikov Arts Center earlier that day. Which, it turned out, “was not the story I meant to tell you.”
Within our present circumstances, interlopers take the form of people from the audience who come onstage and leave again—some with sloping shoulders and a murky sense of purpose that reminds you how much training it can take to simply stand. There’s the woman with the violin, the man with the guitar; the mothers with their toddlers, and the sudden band of skateboarders with jeans and lowered eyes.
I can appreciate the sentiment (communities, generations). The thing is, they keep pulling you away from these two characters, these women, ghosts, or animals. Ecstatic, breathless dances say a lot, and say enough—the vector of an arabesque, the wildly sculpting fingers, or the bounding, shimmering run. Before the lanterned darkness empties us back out, let’s take more time to listen to these ingenious muscles, nerves, and bones that channel the migrating fish, the statuesque fox, the eternal swaggering bear.
As far as immersive installation performances go, Emily Johnson's "Thank-you Bar" is as disarming as they come. Much of that is due to the light touch of its creator, who has lived in Minneapolis for 17 years but was born in Alaska of Yu'pik descent. Everything about her exudes charisma.
In this work, which started its run at New York Live Arts on Wednesday, Ms. Johnson layers memories and movement to explore ideas about displacement and identity. The title is derived from her grandmother's bar, Que-Ana Bar — the word is Yup'ik for "thank you" — which, for Ms. Johnson, evokes home.
Matthew Murphy for The New York Times
The audience is led down a stairway and through a hall to the theater's stage, which is enclosed by black curtains to create an anonymous space for dreams. On the way, we pass signs: "The sky is blue" and "This is a river." Seating is arranged in a semicircle of cushions and chairs; in darkness, we watch as the musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard, of the duo Blackfish, take turns generating sound for a looping score that uses guitar, hauntingly held notes and muffled questions. "Do you have a story to tell?"
Ms. Johnson introduces herself using our names — somehow memorized beforehand — and creates a feeling of displacement for the audience too: suddenly, we are as much a part of her as she is of us. She wheels in a dolly of light boxes, which, another sign indicates, form an igloo, and then she dismantles it, handing each audience member a glowing block.
From this point, the setting becomes something of a vigil. It's also a game of reversals: The musicians become dancers, performing a triplet step in which one foot hooks behind the other. There's a primitive formalism to Ms. Johnson's movement that steers it away from being dully playful; it's never as casual as it seems.
Still, the piece doesn't end with dancing. Seated in an inflatable pool and covered with dead leaves, Ms. Johnson quietly and confidingly draws us into the world of the pungent, oily and tenacious Alaska blackfish. As we surround her with our light boxes — a campfire in reverse — she enthralls us with another tale of survival until, finally, she slides underneath the leaves. She's just as slippery as a blackfish.
"When I was growing up, it was grandma's house. There just also happened to be these strangers getting drinks at the bar. And we could also sit up there and get Shirley Temples," Emily Johnson said with a laugh. "It is probably still the coolest place."
This was mid last week, and I was sitting in the lobby of New York Live Arts with Johnson and her musical collaborator James Everest, who were finally opening up mid-way through our conversation, having began a bit blurry-eyed due to the fact they'd just finished loading-in the set for The Thank-you Bar (Nov. 9-12; tickets $16 advance/$20 DOS) after a three-day drive from Minneapolis.
"She also had a craft shop as part of it, too," Everest commented.
"Well that came later, a little gift shop," Johnson said, before continuing to reminisce. "There was the bar, and the drinks. My papa was a jokester, so he'd always bring out these jokes. Our favorite one was this doll where you pulled the tie on the doll and it would spit in your face and laugh maniacally. So we'd always [beg], 'Bring the doll! Bring the doll!' And he'd do it to customers. And there was a jukebox, and we just kept it supplied with quarters and kept it going all the time. And there was the pool table, there was a dance floor, there was a fireplace, there were recliners. There was always a scrabble game or two going on. There were plants everything. So it was very homey, but also a bar. There was always a Western going on on the tv in the corner. And then my grandma would bring out some snacks. 'Here, have some dried fish we have here!' 'Here, have some herring we've got!' 'Here, have some cookies!'"
"I think the beer was usually served in cans," Everest added.
They were telling me about the work's namesake, The Que-ana Bar outside the small town of Clam Gulch, Alaska, "Que-ana" (or, I was told, "quyana" in the more accepted transliteration, though the bar used the former spelling) meaning "thank you" in the Yup'ik language of Johnson's heritage. The bar, as mentioned, was both a roadside bar in a small community on the Kenai Peninsula, near where Johnson grew up in the town of Sterling, as well as her grandmother's house (which was an attached apartment), and a centerpiece of Johnson's childhood.
"This was the place where the whole extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles would all go," Everest said, "for, well, holidays at grandma's house–Thanksgiving and that sort of thing. But also for the different kind of more traditional Alaskan festivals of processing fish after the salmon run, everyone going to do their jobs, cutting them into strips, hanging them in the smokehouse, putting them in the brine. Or moose. Or clam digging. April is shrimp, June is silver salmon, July is red salmon. September is moose. November is caribou. And clam digging is at certain tide differentials."
The Alaska-born Johnson moved to Minneapolis in the 1990s to attend college, initially intending to study physical therapy following a career as a high school athlete, before switching to dance part way through her freshman year. After college, she continued living and working in Minneapolis, founding her own company Catalyst, and coming up through the same vibrant scene that's produced artists and companies like Hijack Dance and Morgan Thorson. Everest, a guitarist and composer who comes from more indie rock-oriented background, met Johnson in 2001 and began collaborating with her in 2002. He's been the musical director, involved in virtually every Catalyst project, since.
The genesis of The Thank-you Bar, a dance/music/installation work by Johnson, Everest, and composer/lap-steel guitarist Joel Pickard, was several years ago when Johnson, discovering she was becoming more and more homesick for her native Alaska, began writing stories.
"It's been, what, 17 years or something since I've lived in Minneapolis," she told me, "and it's in a way getting harder and harder, just in the sense that I really, really miss Alaska, and really miss where I'm from. My family's all there, so of course I miss them, but I also just miss the land. So that was really coming to a head a couple years ago when I started this piece, so The Thank-you Bar is very much about missing home."
The work ultimately began with a short story, "Blackfish."
"I wrote this story about blackfish. And blackfish are real, though they're quite embellished in this story. Then I started this [the dance] piece, the physical images, everything else, came somewhat from that impetus," Johnson explained. "Because once I wrote that story, I knew I needed to tell that story within the piece. And it was difficult to figure out how to tell those stories onstage. I had not done a whole lot of speaking onstage. All of my works have had stories, text, language, song. But I personally had not done it. I'd always found ways to move around it–like tape recording my voice on a tape recorder, having it over loud speakers. So I studied with a storyteller, down in Tallahassee, and found the right way to approach it."
Before admitting I didn't actually know what a blackfish was, I asked if, in fact, there would be fish within the performance, as I'd seen in the images for it (as above). "Fish don't actually appear other than as an image," she replied, grinning, to my disappointment.
"They're fantastic to me!" she explained of the blackfish, known as an almost mythologically durable fish, capable of surviving when its watery home freezes by burrowing into the beds of lakes and rivers. "The first time I ate them was in 1999, I was at a Yup'ik dance festive in St. Mary's, Alaska. Another cousin–my grandma and I were staying–another cousin, he brought out some blackfish and we were eating it and then he was telling a story about when he was little and he did a science fair project on blackfish, trying to see through what conditions these things could actually live. Like freezing them–how long can they be frozen? He said he won the science fair. And this started this story about the blackfish."
Ultimately, Johnson settled on four stories and began developing the work from there. In addition to training in storytelling–conducted with an experienced Native American elder from the Creek tribe in Florida–the work developed as a musical piece, as well. Portland, Oregon-based musician Pickard had worked with them in the past, and the new work offered an opportunity to collaborate again.
"We wanted to work with Joel," Everest explained. "[And] because there was a jukebox at the Que-ana Bar that had classic country, that was the soundtrack to Emily's childhood growing up, going to grandma's house, which happened to be this bar at grandma's house. And so musically that was an element we wanted to have. So having wanted to work with Joel in general, and knowing he had this instrument, we kind of went about deconstructing country classics, country standards, it was a perfect moment to bring that together."
Over time, Everest and Pickard's collaboration developed its own life along with the piece, which has now been performed more than 70 times around the country. After one residency a couple years ago, the two proposed doing a musical performance on its own within the space the performance takes place in. The audience is non-traditionally arranged on the stage space for the performance, creating numerous opportunities for movement and sonic exploration. The two, working under the name Blackfish, present their own installation/musical performance at each run of the show (in New York, it takes place at 9 pm Saturday, either included with the 7:30 pm ticket or $10 on its own). The duo have recorded a half dozen of their semi-improvisational performance which are now available as a CD. A final component of the work is an art installation, represented in New York via slideshow due to space issues, called "This Is Displacement," featuring the work of 46 artists from 19 tribal nations that explores displacement as experienced by Native American groups.
But at its heart, The Thank-you Bar is about more than just Johnson's evocation of her childhood and longing for her home–it's a work that invites the audience to consider issues of home, comfort, displacement, and what it takes to make a place your own.
"For me, [home is] Alaska," Johnson told me, "but in a broader sense, it's about somebody missing home, and also then it's about building a home where you find yourself. Because we always, we all do that many times in our lives. Either by–and I've said this many times–either by force, someone forces us to move, or by choice. And then we're always dealing with the ramifications of that. Sometimes it's joyful, and sometimes it's awful. Trying to find a way to continue life. How you build community, how you build your home, where you find the resources to do that. What do you actually call a home? Is it a physical space, or the people around? In the piece, we try to build a home onstage for all of us, for the people in the audience. The audience sits onstage with us. It's our little home, for an hour."
Halfway through the video by Emily Johnson that documents her process and concerns while making the multi-media performance piece The Thank-you Bar, the pace of its narration rapidly shifts. It transitions from a discussion of displacement to her interests in storytelling, specifically oral traditions as they enable a sense of belonging. This shift is abruptly demonstrated through an edit in the video, a sharp pause between images. After a moment her contemplative voice enters and says, "What is becoming more clear to me is what I'm missing."
Something about this utterance struck me, be it the rhythm of its delivery, the disembodied quality of the voiceover, or the quiet observing of an empty space within one's creative process. How many moments are passed, paused or pregnant with the sense of what is missed—something, someone, someplace? What do they sound like, smell like, and how do they feel? Then, from within this pause, there is the impulse to locate, and the creative engine begins its acceleration.
Johnson, an Alaskan native of Yup'ik descent, makes work that engages the geographic with a personal topography that weaves together cultural, affective and historical impulses. Architecture and landscape enacts sites of remembrance, where sensorial engagement can bring the traces of practices ingrained in these sites into an embodied and communal context. Performance provides a space to enact investigations in real time, bringing the audience into a fluid space of action, empathy and participation.
Johnson struggles with displacement as a primary force driving her work: Alaska to Minneapolis, rural to urban, past to present. Could displacement be thought a primary condition of our contemporary world? Be it actual or virtual, issues of home(less)ness articulate a politics of the proper as it relates to the body, place, identity, community. In this sense, the ontological question of being-there is deferred… or multiplied into a situation of here, there and every/elsewhere. Displacement entails a perceptual split—bifocal, mutlivocal—juxtaposing spaces, times, stories or perspectives by asking them to relate and mingle despite threats of impasse. It implies a site of loss, while activating movements toward remembrance, retrieval, recognition.
Johnson's process articulates a movement towards negotiating what is missing, the homesickness that afflicts us when the spaces of our past, familial, ancestral, cultural and mythical have been razed, renovated, gentrified or (re)developed. But she also proposes an intervention into these challenging spaces of alterity so that they can be transformed into sites of familiarity, intimacy and home. Johnson's process implies a loosening of these spaces. Allowing for embodied memory to emerge; it's an act of communion. Walking through the homes of past lives, past selves, like Michel de Certeau's pedestrian speech-act, stories are performed as a simple act of translation.
At one point in this same video, Johnson interviews a professor of biological science during her residency at Florida State University. Describing the process of adaptation that animals in the wild undergo with respect environmental changes, urbanization or the human population he notes that within the novelty of transitioned space these animals will continue to do what they know how to do. A hawk for instance: "Instead of nesting in cliffs or in trees, they'll make their nest in skyscrapers and in gargoyles on rooftops." Forces of adaptation set these spaces in motion. What appears counter, incompatible or even impossible collides. The hawk swoops, glides, perches and sees its landscape through. This dwelling narrates continuity by enunciating a certain past-ness so that the present can be had. Such storytelling intervenes within these breaks, it does not reconcile but creates bridges. It attends to the cut of dislocation.
Somewhere toward the end of the 20th century, many young American choreographers became tired of cool abstraction. Their strategies changed, and they engaged audiences through emotional themes and narratives without abandoning form. Minnesota-based choreographer Emily Johnson is one such choreographer, and her highly personal The Thank You Bar is a stunning example of an emerging contemporary American aesthetic.
The Houston premiere at DiverseWorks on Thursday exceeded the scope of what one normally thinks of as "a show." Rather, this was a kind of temporary landscape to inhabit for a while and then to leave, feeling refreshed. Viewers entered the performance space through the gallery, which holds This Is Displacement, a comprehensive exhibit of 43 American Indian artists from 19 tribal nations. The work varies from quilting and sculpture to painting and poetry, some of it confrontational and shocking, some of it pastoral and dreamlike. The nine panels of Emily Johnson's 2009 CIB, made with actual Yup'ik blood on freezer paper along with sand from northern areas, for example, is somewhere in between these realms.
The performance is limited to 30 people, and it is a deeply intimate experience. Composers and musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard begin with a ritual of establishing looped musical phrases, each coming and going on his own, until a dense layer of sound swathes the audience. Everest used a violin bow on an acoustic guitar, Pickard held a walkie-talkie to the strings of a pedal steel guitar, and both sang briefly. The harmonies and melodies recall the country jukebox atmosphere of a bar Johnson's grandmother opened in the 1970s in Alaska. There is a strange comfort in the sonorities.
The methods of The Thank You Bar are mostly subtle, but early it becomes evident that the viewers themselves have been incorporated into Johnson's ritual. Your name appears in her storytelling and on props, she gives you a block from her electric Igloo to hold in your lap, and she whispers to you, looking directly into your eyes. The music and dancing move around the audience, and it seems that the space begins to shift. Nothing is stable at The Thank You Bar. "This is the deep end," says a sign posted at one end of the room.
Then the players exchange roles: The musicians dance a waltz, and the dancers sing, until the performance reaches a climax with the steady pounding of a drum. At first, Johnson's vigorous choreography is idiosyncratic, seemingly arbitrary. Once she amplifies the movement through unison phrasing, however, the extreme discipline of it becomes quite clear.
What is most stunning is the skillful integration of so many elements: film, movement, lighting design, music, storytelling and sculpture emerge and fade in a most elegant organization. Johnson finishes the evening in an inflatable kiddie pool filled with dry leaves, encouraging the audience to gather around. As she recounts an odd tale about the Alaskan blackfish, she begins to feel like a little sister to everyone present. She sings a soft lullaby to herself, disappears under the pile of leaves, an unmistakably charismatic and mysterious figure.
west coast live (KALW) • april 9, 2011
Radio Interview with Emily, James, & Joel talking about The Thank-you Bar w/ short live BLACKFISH performance at ODC, San Francisco.
city pages: artists of the year • december 22, 2010
The November performance of The Thank-You Bar, created by Minneapolis dance maker Emily Johnson with musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard of Blackfish, didn't begin inside a theater. Instead, audience members entered a gallery space in the Northrop Auditorium building. The exhibition on view, curated by Johnson with Carolyn Lee Anderson and titled "This Is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity," set the tone for a deeply personal examination of the constants and changes that shape an individual's relationship to home.
The next phase of the work took place on the Northrop stage, the site of so many transformative moments throughout the evening. Johnson wove together stories from her childhood in Alaska with connections to her Yup'ik identity and broader metaphorical observations about geographic dislocation. Along the way the choreographer even changed the way we looked at the theater itself as she shone a light into the rafters or danced in and out of the shadows. Throughout, Everest and Pickard supplied a texturally rich, live soundtrack, at times evoking mournful shouts from a distant past or a sense of rhythmic chaos appropriate for a restless, but not rootless, soul.
The Thank-You Bar showcased once again the eloquent, witty, smart, and singular perspective Johnson has shared so generously with the local dance community over the past decade. The performance's movement, music, storytelling, and video generated an entirely new sense of place that anyone would want to visit again and again.
It's not every day that a fine artist of Alec Soth's caliber deems fit to grace the cover of a local alternative weekly. But that's just what happened with this week's City Pages.
For the cover of our annual Artists of the Year issue, Soth--himself one of the honorees--agreed to shoot Emily Johnson, a choreographer whose arresting dance is featured on the Northrup stage.
How did this happen? And who decided to bring the fish?
Back in January 2008, City Pages featured one of Soth's photos on the cover to illustrate a profile of Alec Soth written by Jeff Severns Guntzel. The story chronicled Soth's unlikely ascension from shy Chanhassen kid to overnight star of the New York photography world.
From all those miles up and down the river emerged a collection of photographs called "Sleeping by the Mississippi." The work won him his first major award: the 2003 Santa FeWhitney Museum in New York City were flying in to meet Soth. "I think they took pity on me," Soth says, only half-joking. By 2004, prints from his Mississippi project were hanging at the Whitney Biennial in New York City.
"As custom dictates," New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in his review of the exhibit, there were "a few good discoveries (Alec Soth, a photographer)."
The tossed-off reference was enough to turn Soth into an overnight star. "It was just those four words, and it hasn't stopped since," says [Martin] Weinstein, who now represents Soth.
Since then, Soth's prints have hung in prestigious galleries and museums all over the world: Paris, Berlin, Beijing, and Sao Paulo. He's taken assignments from Esquire, W, Newsweek, GQ, and the New York Times. These days his large prints sell for as much as $20,000.
This year, Soth was selected as one of our annual Artists of the Year--the creative figures both local and national who made our lives just a little bit more interesting in 2010. As Marlon James (winner of the 2010 Minnesota Book Award for "The Book of Night Women") writes of Soth's particular artistic genius:
The thing about photographers, particularly brilliant ones like Alec Soth, is that they have a gift for capturing people in the increasingly rare act of being people. I'm not sure how he does it, especially in this age in which reality itself is up for grabs and everybody is a performer. Maybe he starts shooting at the point where most photographers stop. There is a casual intelligence here, the honesty of outtakes even though there was probably nothing casual in the process of taking them.
But even as we were preparing that text, we had no idea Soth would end up shooting the cover of the issue itself.
For answers to how that came about, I had to turn to City Pages Art Director Mike Kooiman.
How did you end up commissioning Soth to do this week's City Pages cover?
Traditionally, the cover of Artists of the Year features a work from a painter, or similar kind of visual artist. This year we weren't featuring any of those, so when we looked down the list, we sought an alternate visual solution. Alec Soth is famous for a certain style of portraiture, so we thought he might be perfect for capturing the eccentricities of the work of someone like Emily Johnson (whose concepts and choreography reach beyond traditional boundaries). Luckily, both artists were on-hand and excited to participate.
What was the process like in terms of working with Soth to get the right image?
The process was pretty hands-off, aside from facilitating communication between photographer and subject. Alec preferred to talk with Emily personally in order to come up with a setting that suited both his own style and her work. The photo shoot was surprisingly varied, and many different kinds of shots from different environments were submitted. It's a challenge to choose the best shot for a cover like this. One one hand, our publication like all others has to sing from the stands. On the other, we want to be true to the style and spirit of the creators
Did they expense the fish?
I have not received any expense reports or receipts from the fishmonger.
But one question still remained: Why? The only one who could answer was Soth himself.
An artist of your stature doesn't ordinarily take time out to shoot the cover for a local alt weekly. What attracted you to this assignment?
The first freelance I ever did was for City Pages. It was a story about a dying mall. I remember being so incredibly proud to have my picture published. So I guess some of that has stayed with me. And I've always been a fan of the Artist of the Year issue. It is something I look forward to seeing each year. And lastly, I was thrilled to photograph a young, energetic talent like Emily Johnson.
What was the photo shoot like? It seems a bit chilly, and working with that fish couldn't have been easy.
I'm such a sucker for fresh snow. Given the opportunity, I'll always use it. I ended up shooting right outside of Emily's apartment. That way we could go and fetch her various props. Emily showed me this incredible fish skin she was sewing to make a lantern. It was so beautiful. But in the picture it just looked like a shirt. So we fetched some fresh fish from Coastal Seafood and I went a little crazy. In my head, the artist of the year might be the fish. Or maybe the whole thing was just a dream.
As for the fish: After its star turn on the cover of City Pages, it was eaten for dinner.
Yup'ik choreographer, director, and curator Emily Johnson came to Minnesota 16 years ago from Sterling, Alaska. She now considers both places her home, often feeling pulled between them. Her connection to place is a large part of her work, which ranges from dance pieces to installations, often using the environment and senses to engage audiences. When Johnson found out that she was going to be photographed by Alec Soth, she was excited because she recognized that connection to place in his work as well. The following is an interview with Johnson about her experience working with Soth, and their snowy photo shoot.
What were you expecting when you found out you were going to be photographed by Alec Soth?
I've done lots of photo shoots before for different dances and for my company. We had a phone conversation. He asked, "What kinds of things do you like to do?" I made a list of ideas--that's how I approach photo shoots--I don't like dance movement type photos. Usually I like to do use location and think of activities and objects relevant to the piece I am working on. We had this amazing snowfall, and he was interested in working outside. We decided to meet at my place so we could look at props and costumes.
Expectation-wise, I love his work, so I was starstruck in that way. I was excited.
What was your reaction when you first saw his exhibition at the Walker?
I love his subjects in relation to place, like somebody looking through a window. Place seems so important--I work with location in my dances often, whether it's a site-specific piece or a building's history in relation to a community. I was drawn to the people in his pictures--not only to their faces and their look, but also in relation to where they were.
Do you have a favorite of his photographs?
I cut out one from one of the Walker brochures, it was one of my favorites. It's called Misty. It's of a woman in a blue swim cap.
What did you like about that piece?
I liked her expression, and the simplicity of it. The depth of her face. It's so oddly glamorous. Glamorous and dirty at the same time.
So what happened when he came over?
We looked at some of my props and costumes. I have worked a lot with fish in past photo shoots. That day I had been literally sewing a fish skin lantern. I told him, "No, I'm not done with the fish." I showed him the fish skin baskets and lanterns. We dug into old props from a piece of mine--from Thank You Bar--and we had some tea.
What were the props from Thank You Bar?
Some signs--very simple signs made on poster board. I make signs based on truth or something made up based on the theater we're in to draw people's attention to the space. There are 30 of them, anything from "this is a river" to "this is a graveyard" to "this is an emergency exit sign."
So then what happened?
We headed out. We found a location with lots of snow and icicles. We worked outside for rest of day.
Where was this?
In Minneapolis, outdoors in the snow. We worked in some alleyways, and on some snowdrifts. I liked that he was so directorial. I can direct photo shoots pretty well, but it was nice that he took the lead. He would pick a spot and we'd try a few things in that location. He'd get a sense of what he wanted me to try.
Did you have a jacket? Weren't you freezing?
We did a variety of shots, some with a blanket so I could stay warm, but some shots were with bare shoulders. It got pretty chilly.
How was it different from other photo shoots you've done?
I was a little star struck. I always get nervous for photo shoots. But in this case, I was especially nervous.
Did you build a rapport with him as the day went on?
It was comfortable as soon as he arrived. He was very nice. We got along well.
What's it like to be on the other side, being the subject of art as opposed to the creator?
It was two things happening at once. I liked being told what to do, but at the same time I wish I had a strong idea I could tell him--it was a little hard for me to give up that artistic control.
What is it about place that is important to you?
It's a pretty simple idea. We can't ignore the places that we're in, the places we work. Well, we do ignore that and then end up depleting world resources because we don't put as much thought or care into places as we should.
ONE OF OUR FIRST GLIMPSES OF EMILY JOHNSON, choreographer and co-creator of the luminous new performance piece, The Thank-You Bar, is on video. She's lovely and engaging, even if the words of the story she's telling come not out of her mouth, but from the remove of pre-recorded narration (emanating from a tape recorder tucked in her shirt), and through her facial expressions. Johnson light-heartedly recounts the long and winding tale of a tree, a house, Northrop, and a door in the hallway leading to the Northrop stage that was posted with a handmade sign that reads: "This is a very heavy tree."
Her beguiling story, about an object historically and culturally displaced in time and space -- told by a disembodied storyteller -- is captivating. It also sets the stage (so to speak) for a collaborative journey. A charming shaman with an unusual and alluring collection of aesthetic strategies both high-tech and DIY, Johnson graciously invites each individual in the audience to join her, and each other, in exploring a state of mind best called gratitude, or Que-Ana (the Yup'ik word for "thank you").
The place is the Northrop stage, literally; the 40 or so audience members for this night's show sit (initially, anyway) to one side of the vast proscenium space, in a semi-circle on stage, facing James Everest and Joel Pickard's instruments. As The Thank-You Bar unfolds, the boundaries between audience and performers shift and blur. Individual audience members become a community of participant observers, engaged in metaphysical musings on the kinetic and aural imprints we leave behind, the loss of and yearning for place, and a life composed of rich, if sometimes contradictory, impulses.
The piece, actually, begins with a journey. We gather in the Gold Room at Northrop for the pre-performance art exhibition -- This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity, curated by Johnson (who is from Alaska, and one-eighth Yup'ik) and Carolyn Lee Anderson (Dine). A quilt, videos, photos, songs, poetry, and paintings all reveal stories about native peoples' historical, spiritual and physical displacement. The work is by turns illuminating and haunting, didactic and confrontational. Johnson's own installation, CIB, 2009, is no exception.
Inside the wood-framed shadow boxes of CIB, 2009 are pieces of freezer paper (the kind in which you wrap and store the deer you shot and butchered, or the fish you caught), smeared with Johnson's blood. At the bottom of each box are mounds of sand from Mini sota (Dakota) and Alaxsaxaq (Aleut). None of this visceral rawness exists in The Thank-You Bar, however. Rather, Johnson gently lures us with her compelling attentiveness, sweetly hooking our imaginations before subtly reeling us into her world of memory, story, and movement.
She accomplishes this, in part, by deploying a variety of strategies used by site-specific choreographers, including: decentralized points of attention, moving audience members through the building, and engaging their participation. After leaving the Gold Room, walking down stairs and past dressing rooms, while noting handmade signs above a water fountain ("This is delicious") or a water pipe ("This is a river"), the audience sits in darkness as Everest and Pickard quietly turn on an electronic instrument, create a sound, then leave -- only to, by turns, repeat the process. Gradually, sonic layers of sound and text gather force. Then Johnson appears.
She's on video. She's on stilts, loudly cracking open one of the auditorium doors and tumbling back and forth down the aisle. She's on stage, in front of us, describing all of her names, which, it turns out, are our names. Dressed in a tiny sparkly dress, with blue rivulets painted down her legs, she dances and gestures with a grace underpinned by ferocity -- one of her choreographic trademarks. She turns lights on and off; she holds lights in her hands and tells stories.
One of those tales is about seals diving, then resurfacing, in the sea near the beach; after her narration, Johnson, Pickard, and Everest sing softly, ever so softly, Patsy Cline's classic, "I Fall to Pieces." The beauty and simplicity of the song and story together are transportive. We listeners are alternately cast inside a memory of unbearable heartbreak and the sublime. Another story recounts her outing as an Indian in elementary school. For just a moment, her disappointment in herself, her disbelief at her classmate, her realization of difference -- all coalesces in a moment of silent, anguished tremors.
Then Johnson wheels out an igloo made of paper light boxes. She gives each of us in the audience a light box to hold, then asks us to look up at the ceiling; there's another sign: "Bats hang on this." She directs us to turn our chairs in the opposite direction. She walks around with heavy, rhythmic steps. Pickard and Everest perform a series of pedestrian movements accompanied by sounds emanating from devices strapped to their chests.
From there, Johnson dives into strong, lean choreography with a restless flow. She appears to be fighting her way through this mash-up of wonky ballet positions, Native dance movements, and everyday gestures, smiling then grimacing, as a drum beats behind the curtains. She stands on top of a pedestal, joyfully slapping nametags (our names) onto her chest. "Sally," reads one of those tags, and Sally Rousse (dancer and cofounder of James Sewell Ballet) emerges from the audience to join Johnson in the nametag game, both of them smiling with enthusiasm. Their ensuing dance duet is a study in contrasting styles: Johnson fluid and fierce, Rousse jagged and taut.
Afterward, Johnson has one more story to tell, about the blackfish. Sitting in a kiddie pool filled with leaves, she asks us to gather closely 'round. In this story, the blackfish is a mystery, a slippery trickster that bides its time silently, on its belly, on the river bottoms, or in a fisherman's bucket before being eaten head first. As the tale progresses, there are too many blackfish, a disassembling goo, a merging of human and fish flesh -- it's her most visceral story, and her most captivating.
And then it's over; the journey has taken us across the Northrop stage, to Alaska and back to Minneapolis, into cold river water until -- like the blackfish -- we've reached a state of grateful quietude. Through our own movement about the stage, we in the audience have embodied the relentless tug and sense of dislocation Johnson describes feeling, as she shuttles between homes in Minnesota and Alaska, between her Eskimo and European heritage, between the artistic disciplines she appears to navigate so easily. There is blackfish in all of us, Johnson might be saying, and darkness through we can find grace and sustenance.
Dancer Emily Johnson ponders questions of home, heritage and identity in a poetic performance.
"The Thank-You Bar" is designed for an audience of just 50 people and yet it unfolds on the vast Northrop Auditorium stage. Despite the dramatic difference in scale, this project created by choreographer Emily Johnson with James Everest and Joel Pickard of music duo Blackfish delivers a thoroughly intimate and quietly rewarding interactive performance experience.
Johnson has lived in Minneapolis for many years but she grew up in Alaska. The work celebrates her Yup'ik heritage and family life (the title refers to her grandmother's roadside tavern) but its vision transcends nostalgia. Home is actually a fluid concept, especially when considered in the context of cultural displacement. A person may be physically located one place but spiritually connected to another. Sometimes this separation occurs without choice. "The Thank-You Bar" imaginatively explores the emotional tension underlying this dual state of being.
The work begins in a gallery on the third floor of Northrop displaying works from Native artists representing 19 tribal nations, assembled by Johnson and Carolyn Lee Anderson. Audience members then walk from there to the theater. Once seated onstage, we have already made a journey and the destination is somewhere familiar that now seems ripe with fresh possibility.
Everest and Pickard set the tone throughout, using a virtual symphony of layered, dreamlike sounds, generating an impressionistic environment evocative of a Jim Jarmusch film. Johnson enters the back of the hall on stilts. En route to the stage, she tumbles in the theater aisle but she quickly abandons spectacle to develop a tight bond with the audience.
She assumes different names, dissembles the "igloo-myth" by distributing illuminated paper "bricks" to everyone, engages Sally Rousse of James Sewell Ballet in a hypnotic duet, and reveals the painful childhood moment when she hesitated to claim her indigenous identity.
Johnson's choreography is driven, strong, and delightfully idiosyncratic but her poetic sensibility is equally compelling. By the end she's sitting in a leaf-filled wading pool, explaining the blackfish's ability to lie patiently on its belly while waiting out adversity. "When the blackfish enters your dreams," she states, "listen to what it says. It will tell you how to survive this world." One way is to invent a time and space, however fleeting, in which to tell your story.
There is dislocation in Emily Johnson’s dance performance The Thank-you Bar, but there is no disarray; there is displacement, but there is no rupture. Things are fragmented, but thereby, miraculously, they emerge in a greater whole. The world is broken open, but precisely to understand that it is not broken. History accumulates, but you become distinctly aware that you are experiencing something new.
By the end of the event, you arrive home, and in arriving home, you also learn about what home is: it’s a familiar place rendered strange, a strange place made familiar; it’s a persistent reminder of something you have forgotten but whose impossible recovery is itself inscrutably comforting. It’s a rustle of leaves.
Johnson achieves a mood of anti-melancholic nostalgia. The Thank-you Bar is inspired by her own meditations on her efforts to feel at home in the world, to measure the connectedness between her childhood roots in rural Alaska, her current home in Minneapolis, and her traveling life as a touring artist. It is dedicated to registering the impossibility of ever completing this connection. The Thank-you Bar aches with longing. But it also offers a discovery: that it is precisely in incompleteness, in the impossibility of unifying the experience of movement, that home can be felt most potently.
The displacements are many in The Thank-you Bar. One enters the performance space to discover that the audience has been moved from the traditional seats in the house to the stage itself. There we sit arranged in a semi-circle around a set of amplifiers, microphones, pedals, instruments, and other musical equipment.
The musicians begin the performance. They walk in, play a fragment of the composition, then walk off stage. Yet they remain, relocated to repeating digital loops of the sounds they have made. The loops grow with each trip they make to their gear until a thick texture of ambient noise develops. A scratched acoustic guitar, a celestial falsetto hum, a jolt of electrified static, a scrap of country-music pedal steel guitar. They linger, slowly gathering steam and dust.
A video appears. On the screen, we are taken outside the theater, onto the street. Johnson drags in an imaginary tree, one that was cut down to make the building that is now the Columbia College Dance Center, which was itself once the Paramount Pictures Film Exchange warehouse. Layers upon layers begin to accumulate. Invisible sediment. Old facts yield new insights. We are among reassembled dislocations.
A voice in the video begins to tell us this story, but it is not Emily Johnson’s voice in the video. It is Emily Johnson’s voice on a tape recorder taped to her chest in the video, which has itself taken us from the theater’s actual stage to the screen above us.
Suddenly, from behind the audience, in from the door to the lobby, Johnson steps forward. The screen is gone. She walks on heavy stilts (once trees themselves). Flashlights are taped on to the bottom of each stilt to light her path. The footlights are headlights.
Johnson steps down from the stilts, rolls forward, rolls back, rolls forward, rolls back—displacement, replacement, sameness, change, repetition, alteration, recovery, discovery. We begin to follow her on a treadmill of movement: things and gestures that are here, now gone, now here again, half-forgotten, then suddenly present, remembered. “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” she sings in the dark, lying on the ground behind us.
Before us, musicians and Johnson then create community, which displaces this loneliness. She welcomes us to “The Thank You Bar,” which is the English translation of Que-Ana Bar, Yup’ik for thank you. This was the name of Johnson’s grandmother’s house and bar in rural Alaska, where she grew up. It’s a real place.
But it’s also a place now dislocated by other contacts, newfound connections, future histories. Johnson wheels out an imaginary igloo. She offers each audience member a paper box illuminated by a small light. We share in what Johnson calls an “igloo myth.” For though there were no igloos in her childhood, she is always asked whether there were. So fake igloos are also part of the real past of the Que-Ana Bar. Paper igloos cubes filled with light. The dislocating point of sharing.
Johnson talks to us through a distorted walkie-talkie; she tells a childhood story of being called an Indian and dances the act of not knowing how to respond, her breath itself swallowed up in memory. She turns us around on our chairs to the other side of the dance floor — “This is the deep end” a sign reads. She shines flashlights of all sizes and shapes into the dark air, searchlights, beams that become bridges across the dark, dissipating into the ether yet casting lines into unknown spaces.
Johnson shines a light upward. We follow it. “Pigeons live in this vent” a sign explains.
Johnson stands on a pedestal. She slaps name tags in rapid succession on her heart—the names of each audience member in attendance. She becomes each of us for a moment, as we become her. We lose ourselves for a moment. We discover new selves. Hello my name is….
Suddenly, a technician has become a dancer, in duet with Johnson. Suddenly, Johnson sings in quiet three-part harmony with the musicians. Suddenly, the musicians become the dancers. They spin in circles, hanging on to each other and Johnson with the tips of their fingers. They slip under each other’s arms, making a home of the dance floor by spinning off it.
Johnson gathers us around a small inflatable pool, fills it with dried leaves, climbs in with a flashlight, sinks in to her shoulders as she tells the story of a boy who tried to dissect a blackfish. He couldn’t. Its insides turned to thick black goop when he cut it open. He ate five in frustration, trying to get inside them by getting them inside him. He vomited the goop back out. Johnson’s flashlight crinkled in the leaves, shone out into the darkness.
You can’t get to the bottom of things, I think, when those are the things that are at the bottom of things.
IN 2002, YOU COULD HAVE SEEN EMILY JOHNSON's Plain Old Andrea, with a Gun at the Southern Theater as part of the Momentum series. In 2004, you could have seen her Heat and Life at the Soap Factory, presented by the Walker. But since then, you'd have to be either lucky or savvy to catch Johnson -- she's performed primarily at various small venues (the BLB, the Rogue Buddha Gallery) or in site-specific explorations (Landmark at the Stone Arch Bridge). Recently, she's been even more elusive: the last chances Twin Cities audiences have had at Johnson's work have been work-in-progress or excerpt showings of her new work, The Thank-You Bar -- one at Franconia Sculpture Park in September 2009, one in Sally Rousse's backyard in October 2008. The casual local dance viewer would be justified in saying, "Oh yeah, Emily Johnson -- whatever happened to her?"
What happened is she shot through the stratosphere. Where can you find Johnson now? Oh, completing a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, enjoying funding from the National Dance Project, premiering choreography at PS 122 last month. Johnson's not the only Minneapolis choreographer garnering national recognition, but at thirty-three she's the youngest, and her caffeinated career is one to watch.
Let's examine that career a little more closely. Johnson rose rapidly to local prominence following her graduation from the University of Minnesota in 1998. The 2004 premiere of Heat and Life, her evening-length global warming drama, capped that rise. Johnson's success wasn't undeserved, but how did she soar so rapidly while other talented choreographers of her generation (think of Vanessa Voskuil or Suzanne Wiltgen) struggled to gain recognition? Can I, without casting aspersions on Johnson herself, say that her rise was assisted by the echo chamber of the reviewing-funding-presenting system? Reviewers are more inclined to look at and credit what other reviewers praise; funding follows positive reviews; a presenter picks up on the praise of reviewers and funders; other presenters look in the same direction; everyone, once invested, has an interest in being right, in passing the work along to a higher level.
But then some delight in puncturing careers they see as prematurely puffed -- The New York Times critics, for example. Jennifer Dunning slashed and burned her way through Johnson's 2006 New York premiere of Heat and Life, going so far as to call its conclusion "merciful".
Was she hurt by the NYT review? Personally, she says yes; professionally, she says she doesn't know. Certainly it hasn't prevented Johnson from performing around the country or receiving funding. But then an NYT rave might have opened the door to another level.
In 2007, after touring Heat and Life to fifteen states, Johnson dissolved her company, Catalyst. Not formally -- she still uses the Catalyst name -- but she's no longer working in a company form. Why? According to Johnson, she knew from the start the company was temporary, even though she loved it: "A company is not a viable lifelong structure. A dance company changes." Why did she cut the company loose after Heat and Life? "After that, I needed to find something that I was in again," she says. There was "no decision -- just a different impulse."
Post Heat and Life, 2007 to mid-2008, Johnson returned to her busy life of performances here and there and continued her dance service projects, most of which she initiated in 2005: producing others' work (along with her own) in her Windfarm (live performance) and Capture! (dance film) series; curating Choreographers' Eve; writing for the now-defunct online magazine Mental Contagion.
And now? Johnson has spent the last year and a half on two projects: an evening-length work, The Thank-You Bar, which premiered in October in Alaska, and a collaboration with Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour (Pearl D'Amour), Terrible Things, which opened late last month at PS 122 in New York. Will one of these take Johnson to the next level of her career?
LET ME SAY AT THE OUTSET that, though I'm curious about the path of this determined artist, I've got no desire to affect her career one way or another. Frankly, Johnson's out of my league (and out of the league of any provincial critic) -- I couldn't boost or bother her if I wanted to. But, more than that, gate-keeping doesn't interest me. So I'd like to position this article on the sidelines of her career -- off the record, if you will.
Johnson calls Terrible Things "two shows happening at once," and it feels that way. Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour's endearing apologia about why one does terrible things (because one can't help it? because one is scarred from childhood? because everything possible is happening all the time, and we just happen to be in the world in which Pearl loves 'em and leaves 'em?) flirts in front of Johnson's intense, confrontational dance show, in which Johnson's basilisk smile seems to dare the audience to judge her. "So what if I am terrible?" Johnson might be asking. "Who are you to judge?"
It's not the first time Johnson's played the black hole in a collaboration. In 2008, she worked with Hannah Kramer and Jessica Cressey on the melodramatically moody, kitsch-laden Pamela. Pamela vamped and moped through hilarious and creepy interludes until the final dance -- a tantrum of a solo for Johnson. For my money, Pamela's Weimar boredom was a better match for Johnson's infinite density than the bubblicious wit and sweetness of Pearl D'Amour's Terrible Things. Seeing the show, you might giggle at Katie Pearl's wide-eyed atrocities all night, then have nightmares about Johnson's fire-cold involutions.
When I got back to Minneapolis, everyone asked me about Terrible Things. Was it good? Well, yes. You can trust Johnson (to say nothing of her dancers here, Karen Sherman and Morgan Thorson) to put on a good show.
Moving people on and off-stage, duos, trios, a brilliant blue-lit duo in a back corner, like an internal transaction, liver vs. lungs -- you can't argue over whether any dance of Johnson's is well-done. Instead, for better or worse, watching Johnson's dance is like reading Jorie Graham's poetry: it's all personal.
Personally, then, I often get uncomfortable watching Johnson's work. I can't tell whether it's because Johnson is profoundly like me or the opposite, but I suspect it's the underlying similarity, spun perhaps the opposite direction, that makes me want to get a mile further from her work. Not to be out of sight of it, let me be clear -- more watching through a telescope.
In person, off stage, Johnson presents a smooth surface -- even a smoothed surface. Studied languor permeates her gestures, the hang of her hair, the even and gradual turning of her neck. She doesn't speak quickly, doesn't get excited.
But on stage, what I get from Johnson is purpose and anger. Her dance has a missionary zeal, a pioneering spirit. For the record, Johnson doesn't approve of "missionary" or "pioneering" -- she calls them "hateful, domineering, colonizing words" -- but I've ransacked the thesaurus and can't find anything else that expresses the conviction and the desire to reach others that I see in her dance. She works the raw, edgy charisma of a Joan of Arc. I'd compare her to a whirling dervish, reaching ecstasy through the flesh, except that a dervish takes a smooth path to a transparent release.
A berserker, an oracle might be better comparisons. Johnson takes a tortuous, almost torturous, path to -- well, I don't know where. I've never seen her arrive. Instead, she almost seems to refuse arrival -- choosing instead to hang on the edge of breaking through and not do it.
Let me say more about those underlying similarities. To begin with, Johnson has a need to do something. Talking about artistic process, Johnson mentions that not knowing what you're doing is "hard to justify to some people, in the larger realm of society. [Art-making] seems like a luxurious act."
"I always hope it connects," she adds, gesturing outward. But "sometimes it doesn't feel like that's enough. Sometimes I want to do something tangible, physical" -- but she adds, "I think I'll stay dancing."
Does her dance make the world better? Of course, Johnson's been asked this question before. She's ready with an answer: "I don't really think it does that -- really. But," she adds, "It exists -- and I think there is a power to it and a connection -- and I think that's important."
So... it does make the world better, then? Sincerity is always embarrassing. How much better to be cool and unconcerned, making little amusements for yourself, indifferent to their value in the world. I feel for her: for Johnson, things have to matter, to connect -- it's not enough for anything just to be. Paradoxically, her desire to connect only makes her work more unmistakably hers, just as her pioneer spirit remains an unshakable bedrock.
Come with me out onto a ledge. I'm reminded of a line from T. S. Eliot: "Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." Eliot's thought is characteristic of a certain set of people, people who are always in search of change but who remain fundamentally unable to imagine it. The problem is we can't change because we believe we are right. You see, although I'd rather not be, I'm in this group. And sympathy tells me Johnson is, too.
But let's get to the point, the reason for all the hubbub: Johnson's dance. It's that forceful, purposeful, propulsive dance I recognize from Heat and Life and everything else she does, limbs lashing a white space that becomes charged, through the violence of the dance, with opponents. Johnson's movement has evolved a bit, though -- I see more bodily rootedness, every move charged from the crotch, more of the curvilinear geometry of an adult female body -- but still aggressive, still punishing the air.
Though she can do duos, male bodies (in Terrible Things, jujitsu wrestlers) -- even a tumbling threesome that reminds me of nothing so much as the flag of the Isle of Man -- the female solo is Johnson's base. A woman alone, in space, struggling but defiant.
Or, take the pose I think of as Johnson's first position: facing the audience, legs apart and parallel, which with Johnson's slightly bow-legged stance means that the knees wing out, heightening the wide stability of the female pelvis. The arms hang loosely at the sides, the shoulder blades down in back and the shoulders taut. Her head might loll a bit to one side, her lips curl in an un-smile. She looks ready to shoot from the hip, to mow you down if you stand in her way.
Should we chalk this fundamental aloneness up to the displacement she often references -- her distance from her native Alaska? Or, to the internal dislocation of being part indigenous (she's part Yup'ik)? Or, to the permanent edge of being a modern woman in America?
Sure, maybe -- but with Johnson the politics often feel like labels for something that runs much deeper. The personal is the political; indeed, but for Johnson that split seems beside the point: the political is the personal, everything is personal.
I HAVE TO ADMIT, I'm having a hard time writing this piece. I keep running aground. I think Johnson's ambitious, but she won't cop to plans for world domination; all she'll say is "I don't have a grand plan, except to continue doing work and engaging with communities and collaborating with other artists and working hard to make the connections needed, so I can continue to do this work and present it in as many and as varied places as I can." I think reviews are crucial to Johnson's story, but Johnson says, "Other people's words should not really have a direct effect on what I as an artist make or feel about my work." I see anger, but the most Johnson will agree to is "intensity". More and more, I get the sense I'm just writing about myself.
Who knows? Maybe Johnson's doing it intentionally -- performance as Rorschach blot. No, not blot, nothing that passive -- Johnson's performance confronts, provokes, demands reaction. In fact, reaction is very important to her. She likes to have talkback sessions after shows (which some artists abhor); she encourages feedback -- heck, she loves to tour because "I like connecting with communities." Your response is part of her art -- not just, not even primarily, your experience or your dream wandering, but your kickback, your recoil, your realization, your whatever.
Perhaps that's why she refuses to arrive: that's your job. Catharsis is for sissies. Real people work for their breakthroughs.
Johnson promises The Thank-You Bar will come to Minneapolis sometime in 2010 -- where, she doesn't know; but if I were you, I'd keep an eye on small venues and untraditional spaces.
Then what? "I want to learn fish-skin sewing," she murmurs, and work on "movement as contradiction and possibility at the same time" -- a typical Johnson tension. What she'll do with it, and how it'll make you feel, we can only wait to find out.
Last thought: despite all her skill, I'm not sure it's Johnson's choreography that has everyone looking in her direction. It's still less her content, which (to my eye) is mostly a door into her work -- a label, a handle. Instead, it's something in her flesh: a rapturous undoing that never undoes, like the flicker of a flame -- as if she were an animal in a human body, the strangeness burning under her skin.
the thank-you bar interview
An Interview with Choreographer Emily Johnson, about THE THANK-YOU BAR
by James Everest
Emily Johnson was born in Soldotna and grew up in Sterling. She is of Yup’ik descent on her father’s side, from the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta—Bethel and Akiak specifically. She has family in Anchorage, Fairbanks, on the Kenai, in Bethel, and every two weeks, in Prudhoe Bay. She has lived for fifteen years in Minneapolis and is trying to learn the Yup’ik language. Her personal experiences and questions regarding home/displacement/origin/identity led her to an intensive study of storytelling, writing, and the Yup’ik language during the creation of THE THANK-YOU BAR. She received guidance on storytelling from Kate Taluga, an Apalachicola Creek storyteller in Tallahassee, Florida, and elder Sakim, a linguist who taught her about language histories in relation to displacement histories. She also received mentorship on her writing from Gwen Westerman Griffin, a writer who is Dakota, through the Native Inroads Program at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
Where does the name “The Thank-you Bar” come from?
My grandma owned The Que-Ana Bar, down in Clam Gulch for many, many years. Quyana means thank-you and is the first Yup’ik word I consciously remember learning. Because my grandma and papa also lived there, the Que-Ana is where we went for Sunday sourdoughs and Thanksgiving dinner... it also served as our fishing and hunting headquarters - I have probably spent a million hours tying fish strips and cleaning clams there at grandmas! The bar had a jukebox filled with TRUE country music—my brothers and I kept it well supplied with quarters—and this music serves as the soundscape to my memories of family and food rituals. Making a dance about home and displacement, it seemed necessary to name it after this place. I also feel like the name ties to language—Que-Ana, Quyana—Thank-you.
When did you begin working on this new piece? How did the process begin in its earliest stages?
I wrote a short story about Blackfish in November, 2007 and it ended up being the beginning of this dance. I told the story in a few theater settings—while text and stories have been part of my work with my dance company for a long time, I personally never spoke much on stage—so I had to get used to the idea and find the right way to do it. I respect the art and traditions of telling stories and I needed to find a way that made sense to me, in a contemporary art world setting. It took a lot of time. I was very scared. It is something I still work on.
I also rehearsed a lot outdoors at first, trying to dance in the ‘natural parts’ of the city. And, I spent a summer building a beaver lodge (that no beaver would see ft to live in!). I had a residency at the Blacklock Nature Sanctuary in Moose Lake, MN a while ago and an important part of my time there was watching the beavers—I guess they had an impact on me. In fact, a long time ago, there were beavers living across the highway from the Que-Ana Bar. We’d go over and watch them all the time. I did a science fair project on them in the 2nd grade... I guess beavers are part of my upbringing too and I’m fascinated by the architecture of their lodges.
Also, this past winter my collaborators and I had a three week fellowship at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and the concentrated time we had to collaborate there was vital.
Where did the ideas & themes for THE THANK-YOU BAR come from?
I grew up near The Que-Ana Bar, but have lived for the past fifteen years in Minneapolis. While there are things I love about urban living, I understand that as I work as an artist in a city far from home, I lose time to learn from my family and the elders of my ancestral community. It is a trade off. I choose to live where I do, but feel displaced and miss where I am from.
Also—living outside—I get asked about igloos a lot. Sometimes this happens when people learn I am from Alaska, but especially it happens when people learn I am Native. This fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. This preconceived notion of a place and of Alaska’s indigenous people is so prevalent—even in the 21st century! My
fascination with this igloo-myth perception inspired me to work with actual and metaphorical architectures of natural and urban home structures—hence the beaver lodge that used to be part of this piece.
How is this work different from your previous dances?
I think language is the biggest difference—I am trying to learn Yup’ik, my grandma is helping me and I have some tapes and books, and as I gain a little familiarity with Yup’ik word construction and meaning (though I have only just begun!) I begin to have a new way of understanding. Now, I don’t speak Yup’ik in this piece, nor do I dance traditionally. But in my dances, I try to make personal response and experience one of the essential weight bearing structures of composition so, as I learn more about Yup’ik worldview through language, then themes of displacement, particularly of language in relation to displacement, come out—albeit in an abstracted way—in THE THANK-YOU BAR. I am trying to starkly question miscommunication, preconceived notions, and the effects of a dominant language on a land with multiple indigenous language realities. And, because these issues are often subtly present in our lives, I am trying to do it in a subtle way in this piece. I think THE THANK-YOU BAR is the beginning of a new artistic process for me—a more integrated process. And I think it is the first in a series of works.
How did you choose your collaborators for THE THANK-YOU BAR?
This project exists because of the amazing artists I get to collaborate with!
James Everest—who is also my husband—has been musical director for Catalyst since 2003 so we’ve collaborated on many projects. He composed the score and played live for my dance, HEAT AND LIFE. We toured that piece to fourteen states (including AK) over three years. Joel Pickard and I are part of a multidisciplinary team of artists who make art for public spaces. We once did a 24 hour art event on and around the Stone Arch bridge in Minneapolis. When I was writing my Blackfish story Joel was working on deconstructing country music standards, and the two efforts seemed intertwined. My work with James and Joel has surrounded the tradition of country music and the interplay between western expansion ideas and guitar—between silence and apathy. They are amazing musicians and we have really worked together to create this piece.
I first saw Karen Beaver’s work at Ancient Traders Gallery in Minneapolis and then as part of CHANGING HANDS: ART WITHOUT RESERVATION, a touring exhibit of the Museum of Arts & Design. I saw these Yup’ik style masks with intricate beading and a different kind of color palate than I was used to. I looked at her bio and sure enough,
she was from Bethel. Our conversations have centered on story and image, based on things we remember being taught and things we remember seeing. We talk a lot about Alaska and about missing it. Karen lives in South Dakota and so we share an ancestral home and the experience of displacement. Karen is doing a storied beadwork on my costume.
Kari Multz is from Homer. She owns a boutique there that sells locally designed clothes. James and I were there
this summer and I saw a shirt that immediately made me think of THE THANK-YOU BAR—it was like beautiful fish scales and country music rolled into one. We’ve had a great time sending ideas and measurements back and forth. Kari is making James and Joel’s shirts.
Carolyn Anderson and I both work at an amazing independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books. Carolyn is a painter who works closely with landscape and the often forced intersection between land and “development.”
We are a really good team.
I have worked closely with both costumer Angie Vo and lighting designer Heidi Eckwall for almost ten years, and with such an intensely personal piece, I wanted to work with people who know me, my process, and my work.
anchorage daily news • october 4, 2009
Of bars and blackfish : After gaining national notice, choreographer Emily Johnson returns home to debut her newest work
by Mike Dunham
Growing up Emily Johnson looked forward to spending Sundays at Grandma's. It wasn't just the family, the sourdough pancakes, the country music. It was the ambiance.
"It was a very social place," she said. "It was a bar."
Grandma owned the Que-Ana Bar in Clam Gulch, which doubled as her home. It also was where Emily and her relatives congregated for Thanksgiving, moose hunting expeditions and putting up salmon.
The name of the saloon is a play on "quyana," the Yup'ik Eskimo word for "Thank you." Johnson's latest piece of performance art, premiering at Out North on Thursday, is "The Thank-You Bar."
Part dance, part storytelling, part art installation, "The Thank-You Bar" is not easy to categorize. None of Johnson's works are, but they've garnered attention in the Lower 48.
Johnson, of Yup'ik descent on her father's side, was born in Soldotna in 1976, raised in Sterling and went to college in Minnesota. Originally she planned to become a physical therapist but, in her first year, she took a class in modern dance and was hooked.
She graduated ("summa cum laude," she stresses) from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance and started her own company, Catalyst. With two other women she created a trio piece and took it to a festival in Toronto, then returned to Minneapolis and produced her own show. Awards and fellowships soon came her way and critics took notice.
"Johnson, whose choreography can be as fierce as she is sweet, is one of the most entrepreneurial dance artists in town," wrote Minneapolis Star Tribune dance critic Camille LeFevre. LeFevre also praised her "clean, strong physicality... as well as her readiness to take on pertinent issues," including relationships, feminism and the environment.
The themes of "The Thank-You Bar" are not easy to pinpoint. It sprang, she said, with her memory of a story told to her by a cousin in St. Mary's. The story is about the slippery, elusive, eelish, carnivorous, tenacious blackfish.
"But it's not narrative," she said, opening her hands like a book.
Johnson uses her hands constantly and with great precision when talking. When describing a piece with "dramatic lighting," she turned her wrists toward the reporter and spread out her fingers in front of her eyes in imitation of spotlights.
The hands almost hint at Yup'ik dance, which uses only the upper part of the body. But none of her work is in any way "traditional." It's all cutting-edge, abstract, contemporary performance art; LeFevre calls some of it "post-post-modern."
Johnson herself has called her pieces "dance experiments."
She admitted, however, that she is increasingly interested in finding out more about her Alaska Native heritage. She had her grandmother record Yup'ik phrases to help her become more familiar with the language. "I have sticky notes around the house with the names of things in Yup'ik," she said.
When she attended a performer's showcase in New Orleans, she told the audience of art presenters more about her plans, concluding, "If anyone knows a Yup'ik artist who'd like to work with me, let me know."
In that audience sat Mike Huelsman, the executive director of Anchorage's Out North and a former resident of the Yup'ik village of New Stuyahok.
"I said to myself, 'This is my chance!' " he recalled. He caught up with her and introduced himself by saying "Hello" in Yup'ik. Out North wound up co-commissioning "The Thank-You Bar" along with the Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota.
Johnson often performs in unexpected places like sculpture parks, street corners, art galleries -- and bars. In 2004 she performed in a store front in Homer.
"I like to do that because it has a different sense than you get in a place where you might usually expect to see a performance," she said.
For the Out North performance, the bleacher seating is out. The audience will instead sit in three concentric rows with the performers in the center. And the audience will be limited to 30 people for each show.
"My work is always very personal," Johnson said. "I want this to be very intimate, to perform for a nice, small group. I try to create a place in the theater that can be our home for the hour."
Some Catalyst performances include several dancers, but "The Thank-You Bar" as we see it will use only three performers: Johnson herself and musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard.
The performers have been connected for some time, she said. Everest was a fan of Catalyst and Johnson was looking for ways to work live music into the pieces when an artist friend introduced the two.
Pickard came up with the idea of exploring implications in classic country music, which made Johnson recall the juke box at the Que-Ana Bar. The three pulled their lines of thought together and worked out "The Thank-You Bar" last winter during a three-week fellowship at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography in Florida.
Everest and Pickard, who use electronic music loops in conjunction with guitars (sometimes bowed) and pedal steel, call their duo "Blackfish" in honor of the animal's role in "The Thank-You Bar," Everest said. They'll be presenting improvised concerts in conjunction with the show as it's presented in Anchorage, then in Homer, and plan to record them, he said.
The performance also coincides with an art show at Out North featuring work by Native Americans, titled "This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity."
The art in the show reflects some of the thematic material in "The Thank-You Bar." On some level, it's about home and displacement, Johnson said.
"I still consider myself an Alaskan," Johnson said, "but in a way, I'm displaced. I've been away from home for 15 years and have this feeling that I need to come back."
She'll have to talk over any move with her husband, Everest. Their artistic collaboration morphed into matrimony in 2005.
The wedding reception took place -- where else? -- at the Que-Ana Bar.
anchorage press • october 1, 2009
Out of Place
by Christina Ashby
To build a house, you have cut down a tree, leaving any creatures that used to call that tree home shelterless. The house itself becomes home to generations who live in it, love in it and leave it to find a new place to call home. Each being moves on and adapts. But the memory of where they began sticks with them. A sense of longing overtakes them. They feel displaced.
The idea of displacement drives The Thank-You Bar, a performance art piece created by choreographer Emily Johnson with composers/musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard. The piece combines dance, live music, storytelling and visual imagery to create connections between ideas of displacement and longing.
Originally from Alaska and now based out of Minneapolis, Johnson knows firsthand the unrest of being physically in one place and emotionally in another. She believes this feeling ties everyone together.
Displacement is something that all creatures know something about, Johnson says in the development video of The Thank-You Bar that is featured on her website.
Johnson, who is of Yup’ik descent, grew up in South central Alaska. She moved to Minneapolis at the age of 18 where she became a choreographer and performer. Her company, Catalyst, has been performing since 1998, including works commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, and Macalester College as well as Out North Contemporary Art House here in Anchorage.
Johnson’s performances and teachings have brought her to all parts of the globe, including Montreal, St. Petersburg and Amsterdam, but she still feels emotionally drawn to her home state, even though she has adapted to 14 years of life outside Alaska.
The Thank-You Bar will bring Johnson back to Alaska where she will perform in Anchorage and in Homer. This piece commissioned by Out North and Minneapolis’ Franconia Sculpture Park is a collaborative effort between multiple artists to create a complete emotional experience.
“I know there is no one picture of displacement, no one story that matters most,” Johnson says in a press release.
“I want to offer audiences a wide spectrum of images to contemplate.”
Johnson developed The Thank-You Bar with James Everest and Joel Pickard of Blackfish at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography. Johnson performs alongside Everest and Pickard, who provide live music in The Thank-You Bar—Everest on nylon and steel string acoustic guitars, Pickard on pedal steel guitar. These instruments are played through effects and looping pedals to create sounds that are both jarring and beautiful. The piece is designed to limit audience seating to 30, allowing the audience to sit in three semi-circles on the stage. In the intimate studio setting of Out North, Johnson will give the audience a place to call home for an hour.
Acting as a companion piece, the art exhibit This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity, will appear alongside The Thank-You Bar. The exhibit features original pieces by emerging indigenous artists that include Carolyn L. Anderson and Johnson, as well as Jim Denomie, Star Wallowing Bull, and Andrew Okpeaha Maclean.
Co-curated by Johnson and Anderson, the exhibit further stresses the idea of displacement and asks the question: What is a true home?
Anderson also understands the effects that displacement can have.
“I was born and raised in Minnesota, but my maternal heritage is Diné,” Anderson says in a press release.
“It’s as if half of my heart is here in Minnesota and the other half is in Dinetah.”
homer news • october 15, 2009
Emily Johnson and The Thank-You Bar: Much More than Dance.
by Christina Whiting
What do Clam Gulch, blackfish and experimental dance have in common? How about the latest performance piece, The Thank-You Bar, by choreographer Emily Johnson? Born in Soldotna and raised in Sterling, Johnson spent much of her childhood visiting her Yup'ik grandmother at the bar she owned in Clam Gulch, the Que'Ana Bar. The bar was a hub of activity, including family gatherings, friends, strangers and music. Johnson's memories are filled with the faces and stories of the people who frequented her grandmother's bar.
Johnson moved from Alaska to Minneapolis to study physical therapy, but shifted her focus after taking a modern dance class. She graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance and started her own dance company, Catalyst, which has been performing since 1998.
Johnson is now a nationally recognized choreographer who refers to her pieces as dance experiments. She explores current issues, including socialism, the environment, relationships and displacement. Her dance pieces are intended to be thought-provoking and entertaining, and include dance, music and visual art.
Johnson's resume is extensive and continues to grow. From commissions to presentations to performance projects to dance films to teaching in the United States and abroad, Johnson has received numerous art grants, residencies and fellowships. She also writes about dance and performance in the online magazine, Mental Contagion.
Johnson hopes that The Thank-You Bar will have a touring life. After the debut in Anchorage and Homer, Johnson will present the piece at a Living Arts Festival in Tulsa, Okla., and in Minneapolis in the fall.
"I would like to think that my dances are for everybody and that maybe they even enlighten small aspects of our existence," she says in her Web site bio.
A collaboration of Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer and Out North Theatre Company in Anchorage, The Thank-You Bar was commissioned by Out North and the National Performance Network.
"We are so fortunate to have access to cutting-edge artists out in the thick of things" said Adele Groning, Bunnell Street Arts Center's executive assistant. "Emily is pushing the boundary of what is performance and what is installation."
Johnson creates performance pieces that include themes that range from climate change and the environment to home and relationships to memory, regret and hope. For the past 11 years, Johnson's creativity has come from a place of social consciousness and passionate perspectives.
"I've always had a political sense and a passion for the environment," she says.
Johnson's personal experiences regarding identity tie into her Yup'ik heritage. Living away from Alaska and her family, she knows what it is to feel displaced.
"When I'm away from Alaska I remember the land and the light and the ocean. Memories of the land have influenced me and still do," she says.
Trying to learn the Yup'ik language so far from home, Johnson writes on her Web site: "As I gain familiarity with the Yup'ik language and meaning, I begin to have a new way of understanding. As I learn more about Yup'ik worldview through language, the theme of displacement comes out.
"The Thank-You Bar is my way of questioning miscommunication, preconceived notions and the effects a dominant language has on a land with multiple indigenous realities."
"The purpose of this performance is for people to think about where they live in a different way, in a way that they perhaps haven't done so before," she writer.
Johnson designed The Thank-You Bar for a smaller, more intimate audience so that she can connect with her audience, making the Bunnell Street Arts Center the perfect venue.
Johnson is the director, choreographer and curator of The Thank-You Bar, but the piece is very much a collaborative effort and includes musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard, who call themselves Blackfish.
Pickard plays pedal steel guitar and Everest plays nylon and steel string acoustic guitars. Along with Johnson, Everest and Picard, The Thank-You Bar also includes visual art by other artists, including Homer's Kari Multz.
homer tribune • october 2009
'Thank You Dance' Comes to Homer
by Naomi Kouda
On the Sterling Highway, near Clam Gulch, an old-fashioned bar made of logs carries a Yup’ik name that’s spelled wrong; mostly to help people pronounce it correctly: Que’Ana Bar.
It means “thank you,” and is the place resting fitfully in the memory of a young woman who visited her grandparents there for many years.
As Emily Johnson grew up, she attended Thanksgivings and Sunday dinners there, and helped process salmon from the family’s nearby setnetting site. In these activities, Johnson was influenced by her Yup’ik grandmother, Hanna Laraux Stormo, who was born in the Kuskokwim region.
“Going to Grandma’s house was going to the Que’Ana Bar,” Johnson said. “It holds so many of my memories. It had one of those big, old jukeboxes that had all this country music. That is the soundtrack to my memories. In a dream, you get pieces and parts and feelings that are larger than life.”
Johnson, now 33, lives in Minneapolis and runs a dance theatre called Catalyst. She has produced a theatre piece called, “The Thank You Bar,” which explores layers of memory and themes of displacement. She is traveling to Homer to perform it Oct. 16-17. This week, the show – as well as the exhibit, “This is Displacement” – are at Out North Theatre in Anchorage.
Being far from home, away from her family and not able to pursue her Native customs gave Johnson plenty of fodder for thoughts about being displaced.
“There are emotional repercussions in displacement, whether it’s from the self or imposed by an outside force,” Johnson said Thursday.
“I think of it as something that every creature knows something about. When we build something or walk somewhere else, we are always creating displacement.”
Though Johnson loves to come home and spends twice yearly visits with her family, Minneapolis is where she can do her performance work.
And, she enjoys the urban setting.
“It’s a strongly supportive city for contemporary dance and experimental theatre,” she explained. “And my husband is a musician.”
Johnson said she may be able to move back to Alaska if she can find a way to continue her work here, adding that she misses her family, “ … and the land itself.”
Johnson’s parents and two brothers live with their families in Sterling, Soldotna and Kenai. Sometimes she brings her entire dance company home with her.
“I have a very supportive family,” Johnson said. “In 2004, we came here and rehearsed in my parents’ yard. We sort of made up this residency program, and my family was cooking dinners while we rehearsed.”
According to Johnson, her Grandma Hanna will be at her opening night in Anchorage. It will be the first time she has seen the show.
“The Thank You Bar” is a piece designed for a small, intimate audience, which is why Bunnell provides such a “great venue.”
Johnson resists describing the narrative, saying she wants people to experience it fresh.
“The dancing happens all around you – the dancing encompasses the architecture of the building,” she explained. “We’re used to looking at these places we build as if it is an end to our vision. We stop thinking of what used to be here, what was here before we came and what will it be like in the future. We get stuck in our architecture as being a solid thing.”
Johnson performs in the context of four separate stories about growing up at the Que’Ana Bar. She said the purpose of the performance is to – for one hour – “think about where they live in a different way perhaps; a way they haven’t thought of before.”
Her costume includes a beaded headpiece created by another displaced Yup’ik woman, Karen Beaver of Bethel. Beaver now lives in North Dakota, but is coming home for the show.
“I just love it that we are creating these expanding circles of people,” Johnson said.
While there are some opportunities to learn the Yup’ik language far from home, Johnson said it is not easy to do it that way. She made tapes of her grandmother’s talk and uses books, foreshadowing a possible theme of language in the displacement process as her next focus.
“As I learn more about the Yup’ik world view through language, themes of displacement come out – albeit in an abstracted way – in The Thank You Bar,” she said.
anchorage press • october 21, 2009
by Dawnell Smith
October smells bittersweet. The month of frost and chills mingles with the sweet aroma of decay and ghostly awakenings.
Fittingly, Out North hosts two art exhibits that cross paths this last week of October, each of them speaking to lost and found souls, to darkness and hope, in its own way. “This is Displacement,” a reflection on the relationship between land and identity by Native artists, closes on Sunday to make room for “Dia de Muertos,” with opens next Friday and runs through November 15.
“Displacement” includes poetry and painting, ink-work and sculpture, through materials as traditional as beads and fiber, and as fundamental as blood.
Emily Johnson, a co-curator of the show, used Yup’ik blood—her blood—smeared or dappled on new and recycled freezer paper. Eight of these blood stained canvases sit in frames filled slightly with sand from Mini sota (the Dakota word for Minnesota) and Alaxsxaq (the Aleut word that led to the Russian word for Alaska).
In some, the paper that looks worn and wrinkled with smudges of blood; in others, a smooth canvas holds a single, thick drop.
Here, she speaks to the distance and connection between where she lives and where she comes from.
Co-curator Carolyn Anderson painted a self-portrait with a woman in the Buddha pose with her body as the central image and a tree and its roots spreading down her torso and toward the bottom of the canvas. Around her, a traditional dwelling, skyscrapers, a road, a river, an oilrig or two.
Here, the conceits of development look small against the ancestry of a single human being. The piece has almost an eastern sensibility, the figure appearing almost godlike while the human creations look fickle and inconsequential.
On another wall, poetry by Jay Thomas Bad Heart Bull takes a much more personal approach to displacement. His handwriting falls down long, scroll-like spans of paper in narratives of loss and pride.
When he writes of where he’s from, he does not allude to a single place or even a memory, but rather to a sense of the way things should be. “It’s the soft graze of horsehair and wool blankets on your skin in the winter.”
A drawing by Star Wallowing Bull takes an entirely different approach by engaging and confusing the eye through a colored ink visage of “Modern Day Indian” in an industrial environment. The piece looks beautiful and skillfully drawn, yet disjointed from assumptions about indigenous culture as existing only in the past.
The show only has ten pieces, making it thin in volume despite the variety of media and themes. Seeing more work by each artist would certainly add to it. Also, one of the drawbacks to seeing an art show this late in its run is that sometimes things get ratty in the gallery. Last week, I couldn’t get the video piece to work, but there’s usually someone on hand to help out.
In about a week, altars celebrating the Day of the Dead will go up in the same space. “Dia de Muertos” involves a handful of artists and groups, including the always reliable Mariano Gonzales, Indra Arriaga and Angela Ramirez, along with Hospice of Anchorage, students from West High School and the Rodriguez-Zinn family.
The altars welcome the dead with food, colorful objects and fetishes from the realm of the living. There might be paintings and sweet breads, candles and skulls—definitely skulls, sometimes in bonnets and often surrounded photos, flowers and crosses.
The main event takes place starting at 3 p.m. Sunday, November 1, with dance, music and food starting at 5 p.m., but the show opens the previous Friday, October 30, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.
On Halloween, storytellers from Anchorage will scare teens and adults with stories of doom at 6 p.m. (Leave little ones at home.)
But festivity, not fright, is the main reason for celebrating this Mexican holiday. Whether contemporary or traditional, the elaborate altars of “Dia de Muertos” will certainly remember ancestors or honor the life of someone important.
gothamist • december 6, 2009
Opinionist: Terrible Things
by John Del Signore
Those Tibetan Buddhists who spend their days toiling over sand mandalas are going about it all wrong—they'd have a lot more fun making marshmallow mandalas instead. Lovers of those gelatinous white sugar puffs will be alternately tantalized and tortured by Terrible Things, a new theatrical dance piece that just opened at Performance Space 122. Upon entering the theater, an army of 1,000 marshmallows are found arrayed on stage in orderly rows. It's a simple pattern, but a hypnotic one, and as the performance unfolds, three female dancers meticulously herd the marshmallows into ever-evolving patterns. Only two are eaten, and none are offered to the audience.
Why marshmallows? Well, that's not exactly clear, but when it comes to work by Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour, "why," is typically eclipsed by "wow." In 2007, their site-specific show Bird Eye Blue Print turned an abandoned downtown office space at the World Financial Center into a portal to another universe, unleashing a swirl of idiosyncratic dance, oblique poetry, and absurd humor. Though not as immersive as that production, Terrible Things still sneakily transports the audience into a surreal, temporary astonishment zone.
The marshmallows are really just one small part of it. The text, written by longtime collaborators Pearl and D'Amour, is spoken entirely by Pearl, who directly addresses the audience for much of the show, while the dancers hustle around rearranging marshmallows and intertwining. The choreography by Emily Johnson (who also performs in the piece) is an imaginative mix of angular obsessiveness, lunging, tangling, and indescribable contortions. Center stage, Pearl unspools eccentric stories about all her turbulent romantic relationships, which eventually expand to include everyone who just bought a ticket—at least until they're dumped with the line, "Did you notice that I just broke up with all of you?"
It's all very amusing and fascinating, but after a while I began to wish for just a bit more friction. Then [SPOILER!] two college wrestlers (NYU and Hunter) ambled in wearing singlets and took turns wrestling spunky little Katie Pearl, whose diminutive height is a recurring theme in Terrible Things. It wasn't quite a "wow!" moment, but it was hilariously "WTF?!" After pinning her, the two lumbering jocks incongruously joined the dancers/marshmallow herders for the duration of the performance. Why not? As Pearl herself put it, "Anything is possible and everything is happening."
village voice• december 15, 2009
Quarky, Quirky Terrible Things and Crime or Emergency
by Alexis Soloski
According to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, in the course of any event in which multiple outcomes are possible, every outcome occurs—one in this world, others in an array of parallel worlds. So in one world, I might write that I despise Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour's Terrible Things and Sibyl Kempson and Mike Iveson Jr.'s Crime or Emergency, both at P.S.122. In another, I might champion one show at the other's expense. In a third, I might never pen a word, as a racetrack win enables me to abandon my career and light out for regions rum-soaked and tropical. But in this world, I will celebrate both shows as appealing and eclectic (and perhaps heave a quick sigh for daiquiris unsipped).
Terrible Things takes the idea of parallel universes as its central premise. In a long monologue scripted by Pearl and D'Amour, the former offers a précis of her life in which she explores alternate choices and circumstances. If she had kept growing, she might have become a ballerina. If she had stayed in college, she might never have embraced Downtown theater. If she had not subjected "a long line of lovers to terrible breakups followed immediately by dating their best friend," she wouldn't have so much amusing material to draw upon.
As Pearl summarizes her 39 years, in a process her own father describes as "trying to pawn off your self-absorption as some metaphysical experiment," three dancers and two jujitsu wrestlers swirl and stumble around her. Sometimes they mirror her gestures, sometimes she mimics theirs—seemingly an attempt to explore the physics premise, well, physically. Pearl engages and her stories entertain; the choreography and the varieties of lighting, sound, and setting components can sometimes seem surplus to requirements. Yet, as in their previous collaborations, Pearl and D'Amour prod the boundaries of theater and performance art, working to transform straightforward narrative into something richer, stranger, and ineluctably feminine. Perhaps Terrible Things does not require a floor grid composed of 600 marshmallows (courtesy Anna Kiraly), but their presence makes the play that much sweeter.
In Crime or Emergency, Kempson conducts a quantum mechanics experiment on her own body. While barely altering her posture or voice, she splits herself into nearly a dozen characters, who form a soap-opera-like story centered on ideas about violence. One of those characters muses, "How often do we discover a new part of ourselves?" In Kempson's case: constantly. While Kempson flings herself from one personality to the next, Iveson provides underscoring and contents himself with a mere two roles—Figgie, an accompanist, and Mary, a journalist. (At two performances, titled Emergency or Crime, the actors will switch. Kempson will play Figgie and Mary; Iveson will attempt the other parts.)
The script itself appears both over- and underwritten, a piece of hysterical realism that plays out in a doctor's office, in a parking garage, at a rodeo, on a boat, etc. As both actor and playwright, Kempson has a gift for rendering the fairly normal as intensely weird. She's never better than when portraying Milcha, the cabaret artiste who dons a sequined vest and speak-sings her way through Bruce Springsteen's early singles. There's a "Darkness on the Edge of Town," and a zany, glittery lightness at the center of the show.
the L magazine• december 17, 2009
by Alexis Clements
"Let's say anything is possible and everything is happening." This is a line from the newest play by Katie Pearl and Lisa D'Amour, a pair that has been creating performances together for 14 years now. This new work, Terrible Things, follows a largely autobiographical story about Katie Pearl's life, with a particular focus on the thwarting of her childhood dream of being a ballerina, along with a history of her lovers. The metaphor that binds the anecdotes in the show, as well as the idea that the play explores in general, is possibility. Specifically, the notion, borrowed from quantum physics, that because we cannot presently measure the location of a single electron at a given time, that electron can be described as being in all of its possible locations at any specific time. In other words, it's everywhere that it can be simultaneously. This theory is related to theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle.
A lot of artists, particularly performance artists, have delved into the Uncertainty Principle and its implications in their work—most famously in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen. The principle not only evokes the realm of possibility, it also touches on the completeness of human ignorance, it gives rise to metaphysical questions in many people, and it also taps into what I think is a basic human fascination with really smart people and the theories of theirs that we would like to feel we can understand. And science is sexy. Its popular appeal waxes and wanes, but people who can figure things out have long been way hotter than blonds blinking through tired sex tapes.
In this play, Pearl and D'Amour, along with their collaborator Emily Johnson, who provides the choreography, seem to want us to embrace the possibilities that our imagination offers us—possibilities that may or may not come true in life. For instance, at one point in the play Pearl describes an argument with her father in which he feels theater does not constitute the real world and Pearl responds by asking him if he could imagine his librarian wife becoming not only a celebrity of sorts, but also a librarian action figure, which, if you listen to a lot of NPR, you'll know actually happened in the "real world." They want us to "what if" a bit, not only about Pearl's life, but also about our own role as audience members—what if we got up on stage and made the show our own, about where we are in the universe—what if the theater took off into space, and about the choices we've made in our own lives.
This kind of engagement of the audience in the ideas of the play is characteristic of pretty much all of Pearl and D'Amour's work, much of which has taken place outside of traditional theater spaces and often involves site-specific texts. It's one of the enduring successes of most of their work as well—this ability to literally and figuratively take their audiences along with them. In fact, there's a moment towards the end of the show when Pearl is off-stage, continuing to speak, and describes retrieving a ladder to place in the center of the stage so that we, the audience, might climb it and join her on the roof of PS122. As she spoke, there entered a very palpable expectation in the audience that this might actually happen, and I gather, from the expressions on people's faces that for many of us, despite the cold, it seemed like an interesting thing to do. (After all, what is up there on the roof of PS122, it's been surrounded by scaffolding for so long? And who doesn't like being on any roof in New York?) This last 30 minutes or so of the show gave me a feeling similar to being in an IMAX theater or on one of those space rides at science museums where 10 or 20 people huddle into a machine that rocks and jumps as you view images of hurtling through galaxies. In other words, I felt briefly transported. And that seems to be the intention of the work entirely—to take note of those moments where we feel separated from ourselves, to entertain a reality we weren't entirely sure we would ever entertain.
Terrible Things achieves this transportive effect, in part, because it has one of the strongest and clearest aesthetics of any play I've seen at PS122. I could easily imagine the design (both set and costume) on the slick stages of BAM, where visual impact in a production is often paramount. It has a surprisingly mid-century feel, something like the illustrations of Charley Harper—all black, white, grays and primary colors. It evokes all those heavily designed and simplified images of science that have been in vogue for some time now in the crafty set and in design work in general. Wrestlers dressed in bright blue singlets orbit the stage, grappling with one another, while a grid of marshmallows morphs into wide curving illustrations. Dancers is gray and red move deliberately through the space while Pearl, often literally lifted onto blocks or plastic heels, speaks. To the eye it reads like a stark version of Disney's 1959 classic Donald In Mathmagic Land, which just seems extremely appropriate for this performance.
Happily, just as Terrible Things asks us to wonder freely, it resists whimsy. The story is based on reality, and like the electron's bounded atomic reality, the subject of the work is bounded by Pearl's own experience. She is everywhere simultaneously that she can be, but where she can be is within her own life or her own head. This grounding in fact seems to keep the show from losing track of itself, but also makes it hard to watch the show and not wonder what possibility means outside the circumscribed world of an atom or Pearl's life.
I ran into someone I know leaving the theater after the show, and after our conversation I couldn't help but think that it's generally people who have achieved certain dreams of theirs, who have lived lives of possibility, so to speak, that can really say something like "Let’s say anything is possible and everything is happening." It's an optimist's outlook, which I don't mean as a slight, though I know some might interpret it that way. It makes me think a little bit of the speakers at a recent event I attended related to the TED Conference, where speakers who have attained a certain amount of success in their fields share stories of achieving unlikely outcomes. All of it is very exciting and hopeful, and imagination is, I believe, the key to solving any problem, but it's also one of the things that I think contemporary society has the hardest time cultivating in children, despite so much lip-service being paid to improving education. After listening to Pearl and the speakers at the TED event, I can't help wonder about those people whose possibilities are dramatically limited, or who believe that they are for any number of reasons.
This, of course, is a larger question that grew out of seeing Terrible Things and is not meant as a critique of the show. I point it out to express the fact that ideas grow out of good works of art. It's the way in which I think art and science relate the most—they create more questions than they answer. And what's crucial about the idea of an electron obtaining multiple outcomes is that those outcomes are in fact dramatically limited, bounded by the space of an atom. The electron cannot be everywhere in the universe doing all things, only those things that an electron does within its atom. And that's a provocative paradox, I think, when you consider artists' attraction to the Uncertainty Principle's promise of possibility.
infinite body• december 11, 2009
D'Amour and Pearl bring us 'Terrible Things'
by Eva Yaa Asantewaa
A bunch of bright lights worked on Terrible Things, which you can enjoy at Performance Space 122, now through December 20. Written by longtime partners-in-crime-and-OBIE, Lisa D'Amour and Katie Pearl, choreographed by Emily Johnson, the piece is wonderfully performed by Pearl, Johnson, Morgan Thorson, Karen Sherman and a couple of amiable wrestlers (Rudy De La Cruz and Adrian Czmielewski).
If you're typically overwhelmed at this time of year--by the bigness, the brashness, the commercial-ness of it all--you might appreciate the compact intimacy of Terrible Things. Compact, yes, but big in personality. Just like Pearl, its undisputed star.
Everything/everyone here seems to be located somewhere in Pearl's busy cranium, a place bustling with memories, like the legion of plump marshmallows aligned with impeccable, subatomic regularity across the theater's floor. In the opening, dancers carefully, efficiently move through this strange, snowy field, delicately scooping aside some marshmallows with their elongated, velvety arms and making shapes of small quantities of the sweets. This sets the stage for the space to open up and light up with room to move freely, the vividness of primary colors, Pearl's non-stop, embodied storytelling, and the mystery of parallel--but not perfectly sync-ed--worlds in the time-space continuum.
Terrible Things is a modest delight, a fine corrective for the excesses of the season.
austin 360 • may 18, 2007
Catalyst Nominated for an Austin Critics Table Award by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Yes, it looks a little different. This year's list of Austin Critics Table Awards has been slenderized from 51 categories to 37.
So why are there fewer awards if Austin's arts scene has continued to expand?
Because the scene is shifting, not just growing. Creative production across the disciplines — visual arts, theater, classic music and dance — has filled out more equally. The roster of indie galleries and visual art happenings — along with activities at museums — has exploded in the past few years. And local dance producers surprise with ever new ways to intrigue audiences while the classical music scene proceeds at a steady clip.
How we wrap our minds around culture shifts, too. Fifteen years ago, the original Critics' Table Awards were roughly modeled after the Tony Awards, down to the gender distinctions between actor and actress. Perhaps that made sense when the Tonys started in 1947 as a means to celebrate Broadway. But does the gender divide make sense in 2007 in Austin when recognizing multiple arts disciplines?
The Austin Critics' Table thought not. Hence, our informal and independent group of staff and freelance critics from the Austin American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle refashioned the way we recognize annual achievement in the arts.
Join us at the free, casual awards ceremony at 7 p.m. Monday, June 4, at Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research Boulevard. We'll celebrate this year's inductees to the Austin Arts Hall of Fame and announce Critics' Table Award winners.
Touring Show, Dance
'Heat and Life,' Catalyst, Dance Umbrella
'Fetish and Other Dances,' Hijack, Fuse Box Festival
Hubbard Street Dance Company, UT Performing Arts Center
'Noche Flamenca,' One World Theatre
'The Bends of Life,' Wideman/Davis Dance, Dance Umbrella
gothamist • may 20, 2007
Opinionist: Bird Eye Blue Print
by Lisa D'Amour
On Saturday I found myself cycling through the drizzling rain to The World Financial Center, an office building on the western edge of the former World Trade Center site. The occasion was Lisa D’Amour and Katie Pearl’s astonishing site-specific performance piece, Bird Eye Blue Print, presented in several rooms in an abandoned office for small audiences of 22 at a time. Upon receiving my ticket in the building’s lobby, I was asked to jot down my “point of origin” on a scrap of paper and wait.
In due time I was approached by an eager woman in a red dress and escorted with a few others down a hallway to a small “orientation room” where a hand-drawn map of the city had been illustrated with multi-colored lines charting each spectator’s path to the performance. It was a fitting reminder of our little temporary community’s interconnectedness. Mention was made of “The Raw Space” that we would sadly not be permitted to enter, and we were then led to a main office space, where the rest of the audience sat on the floor before the mysterious “Blue Dress Lady” (Lisa D’Amour). There was the sound of exotic birds punctuated by an occasional lion’s roar. Seven other “Red Dress Girls” drifted through the space, offering saltines or lounging on window sills.
Before leading us on an ethereal and wildly imaginative tour through her home – the suite of offices – The Blue Dress Lady told us a little about her life; the way her sister used to dress her up like a tree and her contemplative lifestyle in the office, which used to have a glacier passing through it. With a spellbinding fusion of choreography by Emily Johnson, exquisite sound design by Jimmy Garver and visual design by Krista Kelley Walsh, the performers transformed the office rooms into a mystically-charged alternate reality, where a hallway could be an optical illusion, and a room covered with lists and hanging light bulbs could approach the sublime. There were far too many intimate moments, funny utterances and inspired details in this extraordinary performance to enumerate here; and unfortunately I cannot encourage you to see it for yourself – it ended yesterday after an all-too-brief four day run. (Don’t say we didn’t warn you!)
But next time D’Amour and Pearl bring their enchanting work to town be sure to take it in; Bird Eye Blue Print sent me off into the rain with that sensation I’m always seeking in art, that sense of being ever so slightly more connected to myself and others. When the “tour” ended, each visitor was invited to reach into The Blue Dress Lady’s storage closet, which opened up into the forbidden Raw Space, and select one card from a little pile. Mine, now set in front of my computer monitor, bears hand-written text that reads: “and you are so close you could almost touch it.”
austin 360 • january 30, 2007
Finding Their Way in a Changing World
by Clare Croft
In a world framed by imminent danger and constant environmental loss, how do people continue to live? Emily Johnson and her Minneapolis-based dance company Catalyst make a complicated stab at creating and populating that kind of anxious world in their evening-length work "Heat and Life," performed Thursday at Gallery Lombardi. With wit, off-kilter, yet aggressive movement, and small moments of simple beauty, the group confronted and nearly overwhelmed its audience.
Constantly recostuming themselves, the six women in the cast appeared to represent characters ranging from a hazmat team in traffic-cone orange to camouflaged nature warriors whose boots and cargo pants matched the color of sod spread through the gallery. Always moving with absolute commitment and focus (which is what made me so willing to trust the dancers even when the work seemed most abstract), the cast ran back and forth, shouting each others' names into walkie-talkies.
Frightened chaos gave way to beauty and humor at times. A projected film slowly lapsed from lush green fields to mountainous glacier walls with clips of oil refineries and other environmental hazards interspersed. Once two dancers lolled on their backs atop the sod as a voiceover remembered the pleasures of childhood-romps through grass. Near the work's end one dancer gave another quick instructions about how to move, creating a fast-paced, hilarious "Simon Says."
All these vignettes occurred amid red, blinking lights and haunting live music by J.G. Everest, a constant reminder that breakdown, be it natural or human, always lingers.
dance magazine - on the rise • november, 2006
Emily Johnson, Making Movement with a Message
by Camille LeFevre
Emily Johnson doesn’t consider her work “activist art.” Though the endangered natural environment has been her theme in several works, the soft-spoken, slender choreographer and dancer says she owes her vision as much to the exploratory vocabulary of contact improvisation as the natural world of her Alaskan childhood.
Praised by Minneapolis critics for the clean, strong physicality of her movement as well as her readiness to take on pertinent issues, Johnson is winning grants and attracting national recognition. Performing on the spit/sluice we are outlaws this past June in a tiny theater adjacent to a bowling alley in Minneapolis, Johnson emanated a ferocity-laced sweetness in a duet, performed with dancer Susan Scalf, that she originally choreographed on a spit of land in her native Alaska. Johnson’s sharp, truncated movements contrasted with Scalf’s more robust presence and whipping limbs, with both styles interspersed with the occasional spoken word or shout. The props included a blue tarp, representing the Mississippi River, in which Johnson rolled herself. At one point, dancers threw glasses of water on windows, then quickly tried to staunch the downward flow with their fingers.
In her freshman year as a scholarship student studying physical therapy at the University of Minnesota, Johnson took a dance class - and changed her major. She studied ballet and modern dance, but her biggest influence at the university was contact improvisation guru Chris Aiken. “Dance improvisation has been a huge force in my training ever since,” she says. “I feel that’s where my base is.” (She has also studied improvisation with Julyen Hamilton, Jennifer Monson, and Nancy Stark Smith.)
Johnson, 30, who is on-eighth Yup’ik Eskimo, acquired her environmental sensitivity while growing up on the Kenai Peninsula, where she relished her family’s hunting, camping, and fishing trips. Her mother worked as a special-education teacher’s aide; her father was an electrician. Johnson played varsity basketball and ran cross-country in high school. As a child, her only dance training was a “tap and tumble” class, she recalls.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1998, Johnson turned out a prolific body of lean, rigorous, abstract choreography performed by Catalyst, her company of powerful young women. Spoken text, sports metaphors, children’s games, and props entered into the work, while Johnson fused humor, drama, and movement into riveting minimalist pieces both thought-provoking and entertaining.”
Works like Power Play (2001) examined competitive sports via Johnson’s muscular modern dance idiom. Never Meant to Hurt (2003) realized a beautiful text on love and loneliness through an unsentimental choreography of tension and release, grasping and flinging away, long open moves, and angled limbs - all of which enhanced the work’s mystery.
In 2004, the Walker Art Center commissioned and produced Johnson’s most ambitious word to date, Heat and Life. Performed in an old soap factory near downtown Minneapolis, it was accompanied by an electronic ambient soundscape created by Lateduster, a group led by Johnson’s husband, JG Everest. The dances performed the stripped-sown choreography with single-minded purpose. They walked, ran, and reconfigured themselves like a SWAT team, representing her vision of a world already reeling from the effects of global warming. But Johnson’s use of the site and space, and music and movement were a flashback to the performances of dance makers in the 1960’s and ‘70s. it was the piece that Johnson brought this summer to New York’s Dance Theater Workshop and that she intends to perform in all 50 states. She’s crossed Alaska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York off the list; this fall Catalyst performs the work in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa, and in March 2007 it will be at Links Hall in Chicago. After each show, the audience participates in a question-and-answer session with a local environmental organization.
"I don't feel this piece will change the world," Johnson says. "But the feedback I get from the organizations I collaborate with is they feel it creates a vital intersection of art and science. They can talk facts and figures, but they can’t talk about the heart or emotion of the situation. they can’t paint a dire picture, which is where the performance comes in. that’s the role of art."
the village voice • june 28 - july24,2006
The Village Voice Shortlist
Emily Johnson, a native Alaskan now resident of Minneapolis, brings her all-woman contemporary troupe to New York in Heat and Life, which explores issues surrounding global warming. Multi-instrumentalist JG Everest performs his original score. Johnson and her collaborators have worked all over the west and north, as far as St. Petersburg, Russia; here they make their New York debut. A discussion will follow each performance. Through Sat at 7:30, Dance Theater Workshop, 219 W. 19th
the star ledger • july 23, 2006
Northern Exposure, Global Warming in Alaska Inspires Choreographer
by Robert Johnson
New York - As a child growing up in Alaska, choreographer Emily Johnson lived close to nature. She was surrounded by spruce trees and streams, and she became acquainted with Alaska's massive Ice Age glaciers. That experience informs "Heat and Life," a dance about the threat of global warming that Johnson's Catalyst Dance company brings to Dance Theater Workshop next week.
"In elementary school we would go on field trips, every year, to Exit Glacier," says Johnson, who is 30 and lives in Minneapolis. "Now they have ropes at the edge, but back then, in the '80's we could crawl on it, peering down into the crevices and walking on the ice."
That was an innocent time. Awareness of global warming and the thought that Earth's rising temperature could destroy age-old, natural beauty and endanger human life had not crept into the public consciousness.
Yet the spruce bark beetle already had begun migrating northward. Advancing as the cold barrier retreats, these insects are swarming into Alaska and killing the trees. One day, Johnson heard the beetles had arrived in her family's backyard in Sterling.
"You can look out and see where there used to be a mountain of live trees; they're all gray and dead," she says. Tropical diseases are also moving north.
The ironically named Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, where Johnson played as a child, has shrunk radically in just a few years, exposing a fresh moraine of broken rock. The choreographer, who conducts most of her rehearsals outdoors, took her company to the glacier to work on "Heat and Life" in 2004.
"I hadn't been back in maybe six years, and I couldn't believe how different it was," she says, "I was shocked."
"Heat and Life," which incorporates video footage of Exit Glacier, along with images of the smoking factories whose carbon emissions are partly to blame for global warming, received its premiere in Minneapolis in 2004. Johnson says she hopes to perform it all over the United States. Her experiences have been personal, but the effects of global warming will not remain confined to Alaska.
"It's an issue for everybody in the world," says Johnson, noting that global warming experts will be on hand to take questions from the audience after the show.
Bleak in tone, "Heat and Life" is set in a future world badly damaged by climate change. The piece is about adaptation. The dancers, communicating via walkie-talkies, "have to fight for their survival," Johnson says. Her choreographic process involved creating movement phrases, then challenging her dancers to perform them in an unstable environment where the space is shrinking. Parts of the dancer were created outdoors, working in strong wind or on a sloping riverbank.
The audience, too, may experience temperature contrasts during "Heat and Life."
Johnson's goal is to share her direct encounters with nature and her fears for the earth's safety. "We want to bring the outside in," she says.
gay city news • june, 2006
The Intense Environmental Awareness of "Catalyst"
By Linda Shapiro
Emily Johnson grew up in the wild open spaces of Alaska. While her U.S. contemporarieswere hanging out at the mall, Johnson was hiking and mountain biking on the KenaiPeninsula. Part Yup’ic Eskimo, she and her family fished from remote beaches,picked cranberries from the local bogs, even hunted moose.
“Since all my dances deal with something personal, environmental concernswere bound to come up sooner or later,” said Johnson, 30, who began makingdances in the 1990s as a student at the University of Minnesota. “The ExxonValdez oil spill emotionally affected me and many Alaskans. When you are involvedin nature, when you live inside its cycles and currents, you actually feel itwhen nature is adversely affected.”
Johnson certainly knows about living inside of a community powerfully linkedto nature and its processes. “We relied on a week of fishing to supplythe entire extended family for the winter,” said the soft-spoken Johnson. “Wealso relied on it to bring all the family from different parts of Alaska together.The process of the fishing itself—catching, scaling, gutting, brining,smoking, canning—would take the whole family into the wee hours of themorning. And we had to wait for Grandma’s okay for each phase.”Communal process has been central to the creation of “Heat and Life,” whichdeals with the affects of global warming. In 2003, Johnson took her company Catalyst,seven powerhouse female performers who have worked with Johnson for several years,to develop the work in the great outdoors. As they staggered up Wisconsin hillsand slogged through Alaskan cranberry bogs, the choreography developed the kindof muscular grit that characterizes Johnson’s movement vocabulary.
As the company worked, Johnson made room in the rehearsal process for peopleto drop by and ask questions. “People were curious, and we had many conversations,pro and con, about their views on global warming,” said Johnson. Now everyperformance is followed by a discussion of global warming, often with guest expertsand activists such as Emmett Pepper of Citizens Campaign for the Environment,who will join Johnson for post-show discussions at DTW.
The work, which was co-commissioned and presented by the Walker Art Center inMinneapolis, premiered in 2004 at an industrial warehouse on the MississippiRiver. The audience stood around as performers wearing bright orange jumpsuits,goggles, and masks squawked out desperate messages on walkie-talkies—“We’remissing a dancer. Please stand by. Everybody get out of here.” To an ominoussound score played by composer JG Everest on a variety of instruments and enhancedby electronic looping and shrill-to-excruciating industrial noises, the dancerscreated a post-apocalyptic world. Illuminated by industrial flashlights, dancersmoved at maximum voltage, flailing around the dusty space as if jolted by aliencurrents. They erupted in spasmodic moves, or huddled furtively in corners.
At the first performance fire alarms were inadvertently triggered, and fire trucksraced to the scene with sirens blaring and lights flashing. “People thoughtit was just part of the event,” laughed Philip Bither, performing artscurator at Walker Art Center, who has long admired Johnson’s confidenceand fierceness. “She has a clear vision of where she wants to go, and uncompromisingintensity,” he added. “She’s saying something new through apowerful movement vocabulary relevant to her generation.” The intensity of the work, which will have its first performance in a traditionaltheater at DTW, is somewhat alleviated by moments of sharp wit. At a recent rehearsalin Minneapolis, one dancer ordered the others to “Take 19 steps towardthe Hudson River. Take cover. Stand up. Fall down. Find a power source. Coveryour mouth. Lift your left shoulder.” The rapid-fire directives read likea sinister childhood game. That fits with Johnson’s penchant for game structures,which evolved from her experiences as a serious teenage athlete.“As in basketball, I set plays within which we improvise,” said thepetite and deceptively fragile looking Johnson. “These dancers know mywork intimately. They know how a piece is supposed to build, expand, come down,explode.”
While improvisation figures into the process, Johnson’s movement vocabularyis rigorously specific. “I like to create strict boundaries around my movement.” Andindeed, there is no release here—only energized, high-powered dancing.When the performers rest, it’s with exhausted wariness, as if they arepriming themselves for the next disaster. Johnson suggests the idea of land spacediminishing as sea levels rise—an effect of global warming—througha claustrophobic sense of dancers having their physical space constantly encroachedupon. Videotaped sequences of rural and urban landscapes enhance the sense ofloss and disorientation.
city pages - best public art • april 26, 2006
Best Public Art. Landmark: 24 Hours @ The Stone Arch Bridge
by Camille LeFevre
Given the clear skies and balmy breezes last August 27, the Stone Arch Bridge would’ve been packed to the viewfinders even without Landmark - exactly as Local Strategy intended. The interdisciplinary art ensemble’s six members designed their 24-hour celebration of our loveliest pedestrian thoroughfare to enhance its setting, rather than to overwhelm it. They succeeded in every respect, including audience composition. Sure, lots of people turned out specifically for the event’s music, dance, performance art, props, installations, and sundry other free attractions. But art lovers tended to blend into the usual throng of bikers, joggers, and strollers, just as the latter joined the former once they figured out they were in the midst of something extraordinary. Distinguishing between the marathon’s countless micro-happenings and everyday life above and around the river was all but impossible, too. Was the kid doing skateboard tricks at noon part of the show? What about the pair of young women in vintage prom dresses, running along the railing at 2:00 am? Might instigators Lisa D’Amour, Eleanor Savage, Katie Pearl, Emily Johnson, Krista Walsh, and Jowl Pickard have conned the bunnies that frolicked brazenly at the bridge’s east entrance into joining their battalion of volunteers? Who cares? That the group blurred the boundary between life and art so completely was the payoff. Nobody who hung out, even for just a while, will ever forget that Landmark’s grandest components - the downtown skyline, Hennepin Bluffs Park, the Mississippi, the bridge itself - are all here for us to enjoy every day of the year.
star tribune • sunday, march 26, 2006
by Camille LeFevre
This may be the first time wind farms and post-modern dance have appeared in he same story. But choreographer Emily Johnson, 29, finds her inspiration in places where humans, machines and nature intersect. Johnson also likes to self-produce her dance pieces on street corners, in sculpture parks, and in art galleries. So it’s no surprise the “Windfarm” addresses her concerns about environmental degradation.
“Right now, wind farms, for me, inspire a great deal of hope,” Johnson explained. “they’re a technology that really collaborated with nature. They’re huge and mechanical, with the wind turbines arranged in inspiring patterns. And they produce this thing we humans eat up like crazy: power.”
The first “Windfarm” segment, inspired in part by land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that is threatened by oil drilling, was performed by members of her dance company (Catalyst, dances by Emily Johnson). While the work was often obscure, it included illuminating moments: delicately cupped hands that cradled an invisible bird, scraping movements that recalled the hoof pawing of caribou, dynamic industrial dancing performed in rubber boots.
The second installment, “Mass,” takes place Wednesday evening and includes 20-plus dancers and non-dancers (this writer included) whom Johnson invited to participate “because they’ve inspired or been part of or been related to the dance work I’ve done.” The group will perform simple walking patterns and gestures as the audience listens to music on Walkmans. (Bring headphones.)
As with wind farms, Johnson says, this segment “has something to do with creating power from huge masses of people. It’ll be kind of like at the State Fair when you’re watching crowds of people and random interactions.” The last segment, “one. for resolve,” on April 19, is Johnson’s first solo since 2001.
Eventually, these three segments will be incorporated into a larger work, said Johnson, who has earned a Bush Fellowship as well as several fellowships from the Jerome Foundation. But don’t call it activist dance.
“I call them dance experiments,” she says of the series. “And because my primary concerns outside of dance are environmental ones, I can’t help but investigate environmental problems and solutions through art.”
Johnson, a native of Alaska whose choreography can be as fierce as she is sweet, is one of the most entrepreneurial dance artists in town. She curates the Capture! dance-on film series at the Bryant Lake Bowl. Her feminist-cowgirl parable “Plain Old Andrea, with a Gun,” rigorously minimalist “Wingspan 5’2’’,” and post-post modern “Heat and Life” are available on DVD. She collaborates with musicians in her performances, particularly JG Everest (now her husband) and his ambient -electronica group, Lateduster.
The Walker Art Center, Southern Theater and Red Eye have all presented Johnson. In June, her company performs “Heat and Life” at the prestigious Dance Theater Workshop in New York City. But she’s determined to continue self-producing in nontheatrical venues.
“The way I present my dances is as much my work as the actual dance I make,” she explains, “Bringing elements of these places into the dance is an important part of the work I do. And I’m just determined to make this my livelihood, which takes both that independent spirit as well as the stubbornness I have.”
mpls.st.paul magazine • october, 2004
By Colin Rusch
Emily Johnson is the most exciting young choreographer in the Twin Cities. Since graduating from the University of Minnesota Dance Department in the early 1990's, Johnson, a native Alaskan, has pushed her dance practice into the outer reaches of the form, while maintaining a high standard of artistry. This month she premieres Heat and Life, her newest work of movement, video, and sounds, ant No Name Exhibitions @ The Soap Factory. It will challenge, if not completely transform, your understanding of dance as an art form.
Heat and Life, which is part dance concert, part installation, is set to take place in a big warehouse space - sans seating - and filled with a case of powerful women, portable heaters, walkie-talkies, tape recorders, and the sublime electronic sounds of musician James Everest. The show addresses global warming and how we feed and respond to the problem. Rather than belaboring the issue's politics or science, the performance points to our interconnectedness as people inhabiting the same place.
The power of Johnson's work isn't just the precision of the movement, the obvious talent of her dancers, or her clever sense of fashion. It's also her innate, genuine curiosity. She's hungry to understand the world she lives in and share her knowledge in the most appropriate form. The result is thoroughly researched movement-based art that exudes a completeness rare in most dance work. She asks, "Why is dance a relevant art form in today's world?" and consistently presents audiences with compelling answers. Make time for Heat and Life.
dance magazine • october 28-30, 2004
Catalyst, dances by Emily Johnson • The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN
by Camille LeFevre
Shortly after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1998, Emily Johnson became a presence in the Twin Cities for her rigorous, abstract dance works performed by Catalyst, her company of lithe, tough women. Her choreography was fresh and fierce, evocative and disciplined, her use of staging, costumes, and live music surprisingly mature. Critics hailed the young choreographer as a fresh talent with tremendous potential.
In her much-anticipated new work, Heat and Life, Johnson displays a more experimental bent. Although the work's theme is the future perils of global warming, Johnson's use of site and space, costuming and props, music and movement conjures flashbacks to the performances of dancemakers in the 1960s.
Heat and Life takes place inside (and at times outside) the cavernous rooms of a former soap factory. The seven dancers eschew "dancerly" costumes for pants, boots, blaze-orange vests or ponchos, goggles, and face masks. In the stripped-down choreography, they walk, run, and assemble, dissemble, and reassemble with the orderly purpose of a SWAT team.
Everyday items like industrial electrical cords, blocks of ice melting in red plastic bags, and the walkie-talkies the dancers use to shout out each other's movements add a touch of realism. As if intending to subvert our notions of performance, the dancers yell to each other using their real names, sell dust masks before the show, and order the audience to another part of the factory at the end of the performance.
Throughout the 80-minute piece, the aura of hazard rarely lets up. The dancers negotiate squares of green turf (vibrant pieces of nature in an otherwise barren world) on the concrete floor like dangerous terrain. Standing on tiptoe, they stumble or collapse, legs crumbling beneath them. They crab walk, hum like bees, stand at attention with their hands clasped behind their heads.One woman gets left behind, twisting in place before pulling her shirt over her head and rocking herself. Another woman tears apart a square of turf with a garden shears. Like giant birds, the dancers slowly bow their heads, raise and lower their arms-or are they signaling through the flames? Repetitiveness, multiple endings, and a lack of focus marred an otherwise ardent venture.
st. paul pioneer press • april 25th, 2003
Happily Ever After
by Matt Peiken
When modern dance wed rock band, nobody expected it to last. But the fine romance between Catalyst and Lateduster proves opposites do, indeed, attract.Couples often form through common friends. Catalyst and Lateduster - a modern dance troupe and ethereal rock band - met through a common fan.
After a whirlwind courtship and quiet elopement, the artists from different corners of the twin Cities arts community are publicly airing their romance.
"Fierce:Whole," this weekend at the Red Eye, is an evening of dance and lice music Catalyst and Lateduster created with, for and through one another. The artists are using the performances to release a DVD with all the trappings of a video wedding album - threaded with interviews, glimpses into their collaborative process and artful footage of their shared performance.
"We both wanted to push ourselves in new directions, but neither of us thought of this direction until we were introduced," says Lateduster guitarist JG Everest. "This was just laid in our laps."
Artists have collaborated across disciplines for decades, but successes are rare. Inevitably, they differ in vision and direction; one artist makes sacrifices for the sake of forward movement, and the process often leads to resentment rather than fulfillment.
Lateduster and Catalyst clicked, as it often happens in romance, when neither party was necessarily in the matchmaking market.
Lateduster, a trio without a vocalist, has made two full-length records and earned a modest following on the Twin Cities club circuit. Emily Johnson, the 27-year-old founding director of Catalyst, is among the young darlings of local dance. The Jerome Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board and Walker Art Center have supported her early work.
Both groups already had experimented outside the bounds of traditional dance and band life. Lateduster, whose three members use digital samplers in addition to drums, hand percussion and guitars, has performed live to a German silent film during the annual Sound Unseen Film and Music Festival. Johnson choreographed a piece about women's competitiveness to ta taped play-by-play radio broadcast of a high school girls' basketball game.
ARTIST IS MATCHMAKER
A visual artist familiar with both groups recommended they meet. Johnson caught a Lateduster show at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. The members of Lateduster sat in the audience for a Catalyst show at the Barbara Barker Center at the University of Minnesota, where Johnson had studied.
"I had no idea how to watch or understand dance. It's like listening to jazz for the first time," Everest says. "But it was obvious (Catalyst was) dealing with very real emotions, and they were communicating so clearly to me with their body language."
In Lateduster, Johnson heard "an intellectual reasoning with sound. It was smart music."
Dance doesn't mix easily with live music. Choreographers generally map steps - and dancers rehearse them - to recorded music. Dancers' pacing and timing rely on consistency, and live music in anything but consistent. Even slight changes in dynamics and tempo, let alone blatant mistakes, can throw off a choreographed dance.
From Johnson's perspective, the Catalyst- Lateduster collaboration started from a point of great risk. Johnson asked the group to make music for a piece she had already choreographed without music.
"Plain Old Andrea With a Gun," the subject of the DVD and a cornerstone of "Fierce:Whole," is Johnson's take on violence and women with literal and figurative grips on power.
"The pieces are so intimate, and I had to impart to these musicians that's going on inside me," Johnson says. "It's letting them in on my vulnerability, and that's something a lot of choreographers don't even give to their own dancers. But if I couldn't be honest with these guys, how could I be honest with my audience?"
Despite the inherent challenges for a dance company working with live musicians, the collaboration had a greater impact on Latedusters'' process. The band attended rehearsals for inspiration, them composed music on their own. Lateduster rejoined Catalyst in the dance studio with instruments in hand, playing music through their headphones to see what worked.
"Sometimes we're rehearsing , and we'll ask for some kind of abrupt change or transition, " Johnson says. "We pushed them to collapse their structured thinking and just do something now."
"They had all these ideas they'd been working on for six months, and I was terrified we'd come up with something that wasn't appropriate, " Everest says. "But it was thrilling too, because it gave us a new purpose. Instead of just the music, it was music for this greater cause."
Catalyst and Lateduster debuted "Plain Old Andrea With a Gun" last summer through Walker Art Center's "Momentum" dance series. Both groups felt the one-weekend showcase did only surface justice to the collaboration, chiefly because the series trains audiences to focus on dance.
"This was so special, and it was here and gone in three days. We just felt it wasn't done," Everest says. "Plus, there's definitely a difference between dance audiences and music audiences, and most of our people didn't really catch onto this the first time. But people who want something smart and challenging are the same."
"Plain goLd Andrea With a Gun" meshes Old West and film noir kitsch, to the eye and ear. The action on the floor at times seems impervious to the music. In one moment, dancers are lunging, stomping, thrusting, and grunting against plaintive, atmospheric tones without tempo. Once the music gains a pulse, three dancers move against the beat while two others roll on the floor in lost, naive serenity.
"Fierce:Whole" is a second phase of evolution in the groups' shared venture. Along with the evening's centerpiece, the program features pieces Johnson choreographed to three existing Lateduster songs, and Johnson and the band worked together from scratch on solo danceworks for Johnson.
Lateduster and Catalyst continue working separately, but Johnson has asked the band to take part in her next project, and both groups see their futures entwined. For his part, Everest sees Lateduster's relationship with Catalyst not as two separate groups but rather as nine creative friends working together.
"Not to say we won't keep playing the (7th Street) Entry and the 400 Bar, butyou get tired of having your success dictated by how many are getting wasted," Everestsays. "Once you've expanded your horizons and see the possibilities you wantto keep on exploring."
city pages • may 1, 2002
Best Dance Performance of the Past 12 Months (local)
by Caroline Palmer
Catalyst Dances by Emily Johnson There's something to be said for a performerwho can put on a pair of pants five sizes too big and dance around to Dolly Partonwith a serious look on her face - and, in the the process, thoroughly convinceus that she has a very bright future. Emily Johnson, of course, doesn't haveto explain what she does. She does most everything with such clear intentionthat we believe - even during the more absurd moments - that she's making perfectsense. Appearing with her company a the Best Feet Forward series in January,Johnson presented a program of considerable maturity for an artist still in hermid-20's. "If I Shut My Eyes, you Can't See Me," set among a forest of hanginglamps, showcased a canny knack for gesture. And "Everywhere Doing This" gavethe tenacious Vanessa Voskuil the opportunity to transform a set of repetitivemovements and tasks into a punk-rock-cum- minimalist romp. After exploring suchdynamic tension, Johnson, a former basketball player in her native Alaska, letdown her postmodern guard with "Power Play," a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into teamsports. Suddenly boxing gloves, coaches, and bags of lime acquired new significance. "Defense!Defense!" the dancers shouted as they clambered over one another. Johnson, wesuspect, won't have to put up such a fight to reach the top of the dance scene.