Northwest Passage

Emily Johnson has choreographed an unlikely path from the basketball courts of Alaska to the stages of the Twin Cities

Emily Johnson may well be the only modern dancer and choreographer born in Sterling, Alaska, a town of 5,000 located in that state's southwest quarter, but this unique status is no foil to the jokes that Minnesotans dish out when they catch wind of her origin. Yes, she knows about Northern Exposure, and yes, she's an Eskimo, half-Yupik to be exact. But this young artist cannot be reduced to any clichés about her rather unusual origins. Sharing the bill this weekend with fellow University of Minnesota dance-program grads Matt Jenson, Mathew Janczewski, Brad Garner, and Cynthia Gutierrez-Garner at the First Annual Alumni Concert, Johnson is notable for her intelligent and idiosyncratic compositions, and she represents one of several up-and-coming choreographers in the Twin Cities dance scene.

Johnson arrived at the U of M on an academic scholarship, and she laughs at the irony of landing in the lower 48's coldest state, even though she'd intended to study someplace warmer than her home. A high school athlete specializing in basketball and cross-country running, Johnson came to dance by a fluke series of events when a full math class during freshman year led her to enroll in a beginning modern class with faculty member Paula Mann. "I was sick of all the sheer competition in athletics, and dancing seemed much better," Johnson says. "Of course, I came to realize that competition is also a part of dance," she laughs knowingly.

A petite woman with an open face, delicate features, and a friendly demeanor, the 23-year-old Johnson would seem the very embodiment of serenity. But hers is an illusive peace, one that encompasses a variety of complex emotional states, all of which can be found in her small yet highly intelligent body of work. Johnson chooses movements that contradict perceptions about what her compact frame can do. In the trio "Move Through," for example, dancers stamp their way across the floor like Kabuki actors, pausing at times to subtly twitch their hands and bodies.

Freeze frame: Emily Johnson (right) and dancers perform "Move Through"
Freeze frame: Emily Johnson (right) and dancers perform "Move Through"

Johnson doesn't shy away from "pretty dance," but solo efforts like "Many Small Epiphanies" and "I am everywhere doing this," demonstrate her ability to pair graceful and awkward movement. She favors the body's angles over its curves, mapping unseen or unrecognized areas with a fierce concentration. The results are somewhat cubist, reminding the viewer of a Picasso painting. "I never start with pure movement," she explains. "I will never be interested in pure movement. I like to begin with an idea or image, and flesh it out from there. I then look back and see where it's all taken me. At first I'm in control, but halfway through, the dance always seems to take over. You have to keep developing it from there. It's a curled and spiral path, but you have to make sure it doesn't take you over a cliff."

While Johnson is busy making her artistic home in Minnesota, appearing in works by Paula Mann and Morgan Thorson, she is also exploring her Yupik heritage. She acknowledges that many stereotypes about Eskimos continue (e.g., igloos and furs), but she patiently explains the culture, and cuisine like fish-head soup or "agutuk" (a mix of Crisco, sugar, and berries) to curious friends. Despite a close relationship with her Yupik father and grandmother (the last family member to speak the native language), Johnson says she didn't have much exposure to Eskimo life during her childhood, recalling that the town where she grew up didn't have a big native population. "The first time I went to the bush village where my father was born was a big eye-opener," she says.

During her senior year at the U, Johnson published an article on Yupik dance in the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement, and this fall she plans a trip to St. Marys in rural northwest Alaska, where she will attend the Yupiit Yuraryarait, a dance festival that occurs every four years. "During the 1800s the missionaries banned dancing by the Yupik," explains Johnson, "but it never really went dormant. Men and women dance together in lines. The women are on their knees and the men stand behind them. What amazes me is that the movement is centered from the torso and arms. It's very staccato, with huge, sweeping gestures. In one dance about hunting birds, the arms took on winglike qualities. It will have a huge impact on me to be so suddenly enveloped in a heritage that I really want to be a part of."

 
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