"I went in, which was pretty ballsy at age seven," Johnson recalls. "No one showed up for the auditions, so the people there asked me if I'd like to be in a play. They asked me to be a weeping willow." He soon graduated from horticultural roles to more substantial parts in the Moppet Players, now known as Children's Theater Company (CTC).
But even as a kid Johnson wasn't content to do just one thing well. He began taking classes at Minnesota Dance Theatre, which was under founder Loyce Houlton's direction at the time. "There was a real pull between theater and dance," says Johnson. "You had to do one or the other. I wouldn't tell Loyce I was in a play and I wouldn't tell [CTC] I was in a dance. So I was always in trouble. I would get put in the back row or eliminated altogether from my dance roles when I spent too much time in my theater tech rehearsals." He soon gave up on MDT and continued to study movement at CTC as he pursued stage training.
Around age 16, however, Johnson developed what he calls a "strange fascination" with the French master mime Marcel Marceau. "I heard he was going to be in Fargo, so I went and literally pushed my way backstage. He told me he had a school in Paris and that I should go." And so the Midwestern boy soon found himself in the city of lights at the impressionable age of 17. After six hours a day training with Marceau, Johnson would head for class at the Paris Opera, home of one of the world's oldest and most influential dance troupes. It was here he first met the grand divas who had danced with the eminently chic company Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo earlier in the century.
"It was really glamorous," remembers Johnson excitedly. "In the United States only hippies were doing dance. In Paris, if you were a dancer you were really fashionable and very respected. I got caught up in it. People were very colorful, dramatic. They wore gold unitards and gold pointe shoes. The teachers wore furs and carried their poodles into class."
Johnson's brush with the beautiful people of dance made a lasting impact, one that continues to influence his work today. Few companies have as much genuine fashion sense as the Dolls, and even fewer have the audacity to tip the sacred cows of ballet with earnest/parodic takes on Swan Lake or Carmen. "I like to retain the heart of the story, but I also like to poke fun at things," Johnson explains. "It would be constricting if I said, 'I'm going to do the ultimate deconstruction of Giselle.'" It's not for nothing that his office is crowded with photos of classical dance juxtaposed with kitsch and clutter. "It's a lesson in how you manifest yourself in show biz. If you say 'fuck you' right off the bat, the audience won't listen. You have to build in a comfort level, familiarity." And then, if you're Johnson, add the Macarena, snippets of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Barbie as The Nutcracker star.
After two years of study in Paris, Johnson returned home to Minneapolis. He lost his mother soon after, and he kept pining for his European dream life, but instead a directing job at CTC beckoned. He stayed on for eight years while taking up dancemaking on the side, creating cabaret evenings with his friends. After a child sex-abuse scandal rocked CTC's upper management, he decided to try his luck in New York City. The experience proved a bitter disappointment, however, and Johnson quickly gave up scrounging for performance opportunities in favor of returning to the revitalized CTC. After reuniting with de Leon, Franks, and Smith-Johnson, Johnson formed the Dolls in 1986.
"When I decided to move back to Minneapolis, I noticed there wasn't much of a dance audience," says Johnson. "Things were coming to town but no one would go. I couldn't figure out why dance was on such a different schedule than theater. I thought, 'What would happen if you created a dance company that performed all the time, even for just two or three people, just to get people in the habit of going?'"
With this initiative in mind, he turned his downtown Minneapolis loft into a performance space, charged membership fees instead of admission to avoid running afoul of zoning laws, gave away all the strawberries, Brie, and Champagne his audiences could consume, and saw the events evolve into a salon scene akin to what one would find in Paris. "We did over 200 performances in one year," recounts Johnson. "We just volunteered our time."
Both de Leon and Smith-Johnson recall company potluck dinners that turned into ten-hour discussions about the esoterica of art and life. "All this soul-baring would go on," de Leon chuckles at the memory of youthful exploration. "When we started out, we were underground. It was an Our Gang kind of thing."
The Dolls continued to attract members, and they branched out to perform at the now-defunct Ruby's Cabaret, developing their rep as what Johnson calls a "funky, far-out, hip, downtown" kind of act. In the meantime, he also began exploring how to make bigger statements with his work. "I choreographed Hope to Mozart's Requiem," Johnson recalls. "It was a piece about AIDS, and it didn't fit in at a cabaret where people came to drink and have fun. It was the best piece I'd ever done.