Myron Johnson is living a lie. Well, not a lie so much, really, as a slight misdirection. As the Ballet of the Dolls artistic director leans back into the easy chair in his Loring Park office, his unnervingly bright eyes flash from under an omnipresent cap. "I'm not really a choreographer," he declares. It's a startling statement from a person who has spent the past 14 years leading a dance company, but then Johnson never seems to stick to the expected path, be it onstage or off. "It's never crossed my mind to come up with something not done before," he elaborates. "I use a lot of the same physical vocabulary to say different things."
One could also argue that Johnson has developed a complete aesthetic built on a sequined foundation of bohemian fantasy, outrageous camp, slinky sexuality, gender-bending, pop culture, queer politics, and a quaint form of dance worship. At the same time, this combination does not mean that anything goes: This artist is protective, sometimes fiercely so, when it comes to his vision. "I can push buttons," he states unapologetically, his soft voice acquiring an edge. "I have no concerns about admitting to anything. I'll admit to my own misogyny."
Uh-oh. In a medium largely dominated by women artists and women viewers, this line prompts a measure of discomfort. Sexual politics remain unsettled territory in ballet--what with its tradition of tragic and long-suffering stage heroines. Johnson refers here to a recent conflict with the University of Minnesota dance program over a work he created for a student concert. The subject was 1950s-era perceptions of female images: Johnson wanted the women dancers to wear slips and heels to further the theme. A discussion ensued over whether to cancel the piece, or to allow Johnson to follow through on his idea, even if some disagreed with his method of presentation--specifically its use of stereotyped icons of the Eisenhower and Leave It to Beaver era.
"There was a big to-do, and I couldn't be happier, because there is still controversy [in art]," Johnson says, expressing his disappointment with those who he believes have become numb to the confrontational potential of dance. "Do we have to like everything? Does art have to be right or wrong?" he continues, adding pointedly: "I'm just thankful for a reaction."
A few days later, and a world away in the Loring Playhouse, Johnson is making a new piece, yet another opportunity to stir the hoped-for "reaction." Robert Skafte stands barefoot in an oversized sandbox, twitching his upper lip. "Can you see my mustache?" he asks. He's wearing a black suit and he leans forward in his red chair, awaiting an answer from the darkness beyond the lights. "Can you see it move?" he inquires again, staring cross-eyed at the upturned mustache tips that are nothing if not Daliesque. After receiving an affirmative on both counts, he returns to muttering his lines in a vaguely European accent, a hint of vintage Vincent Price thrown in for effect.
Alyce Finwall complains softly as she wipes away yet another thin coating of sand from her limbs. "In my ears, it's always in my ears," she groans. Maryann Smith-Johnson (no relation to Myron Johnson) makes a sand angel. Skafte, undisturbed by his colleague's time-killing tactics during this evening's technical rehearsal for the upcoming Hello Dali, continues to perfect his maniacal look. He is, after all, portraying the crazed genius Salvador Dali, chief guru of surrealism and proud owner of a "permanent intellectual excuse." There's simply no excuse for holding back in this role.
Johnson sits calmly in the front row, observing the scene unfolding before him. "Where did you get that dress?" he asks Stephanie Fellner as she floats through the sandbox (a witty set reflecting Dali's most famous paintings) in a red gown. "It's so weird."
Johnson turns occasionally to instruct lighting designer (and company member) Michael de Leon through a variety of cues, jumping up at times to suggest potential spots for improvement. His figure is slight yet fit, and he appears well in control of the goings-on. At age 45, with a long list of theatrical and dance productions on his résumé, Johnson is probably most at home in this sort of situation. Opening night may be only days away, but there's no reason for panic. He jokes with Smith-Johnson and Zhauna Franks about the proliferation of mommies in the company. "You can be sure none of the men here are the fathers!" he cackles knowingly.
"It all happens when Myron lets us off for shore leave," Franks wisecracks in return.
The banter continues. "You guys hardly need me anymore," laughs Johnson after discovering that a movement correction meant for Colleen Tague had already been noted by another dancer.
"Now that you don't see so good," taunts Smith-Johnson, sending the others into peals of laughter.
"But sometimes I see so well," retorts Johnson.
"Yeah, sometimes you see through walls!" comes a reply, and Johnson has to admit the truth of that observation. After nearly a lifetime spent onstage, there is little he hasn't seen or can't imagine.
If Myron Johnson's company is today a pillar in the Minneapolis performance scene, it seems somehow appropriate that he got his artistic start as nothing less than a tree. Johnson entered the arts by way of an old firehouse-turned-playhouse in his northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. A set of bright-green dinosaur footprints painted on the sidewalk led to a door where a sign announced "tryouts."