Plays with Dolls

Since age seven, Ballet of the Dolls founder Myron Johnson has followed his passion for performance to ridiculous--and rewarding--extremes

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.

Teddy Maki

"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."

"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.

"We left Ruby's and came [to the Loring Playhouse] and started doing serious avant-garde dance. It was not likable work and nobody came to see it. Now I've found the balance between art and entertainment."

 

In his latest creation, Hello Dali, Johnson has tried to craft a completely abstract piece that toys with reality in much the same way Dali approached his surrealist work. The dancers move through the sandbox as if they were emissaries from a dreamlike world. Although they move with high seriousness, their feet can't help but kick up the grains of this literal and metaphorical sandbox.

"As a kid, I saw Dali as a flamboyant character who really attracted me," Johnson starts, "but I was also afraid of him." Overcoming his initial intimidation, Johnson began to research the artist, uncovering many an unusual tidbit, including Dali's fixation on Jesus Christ Superstar. This despite the fact that his wife had an affair with the Broadway musical's lead ("She had to have Jesus," Johnson snickers). Johnson plays upon this piece of trivia by combining the Superstar score with some thoroughly dissonant 1930s avant-garde music and, of course, Barbra Streisand's full-throttle belting from Hello, Dolly! "It's a mind-reeling juxtaposition," confesses Johnson.

The Dolls are used to such seemingly nonsensical situations, and Johnson rewards their faith in his process by providing opportunities for individualism. "I used to power-trip, but now I give power to them. I say, 'This is the task, here are the steps that make up the framework, the rest has to come from you.'" Smith-Johnson echoes this experience with an observation on Johnson's evolving character. "He really has become very thoughtful. He motivates and he works so fast, like he has pictures in his mind."

"Life is short and so is your dance career," Johnson concludes, smoothing his Janet Jackson T-shirt. "I'd hate to be 45 and feel like something hadn't been fed [in my art]. That would be painful. It's simply not enough to do as you're told."

Of course, fights erupt and attitudes clash from time to time among the Dolls, as in any close-knit family, but Johnson sees these incidents as the logical outcome of a creative chemistry. He looks to inspiration from the spirits of dancers past, namely his icons Nijinsky, Pavlova, Duncan, and the great impresario Diaghilev. "They have something that connects right with me, the complete and total commitment. I don't mean sacrifice," Johnson explains a bit dreamily. "It's something about the inability to do it any other way."

And so the Dolls continue to do it Myron's way, which seems to work out well for everyone. With Hello Dali as the last Dolls production in the Loring Playhouse before moving to a temporary studio in Northeast, Johnson is dreaming a little bigger again. He awaits approval from the Dolls' board of directors to purchase and renovate the abandoned Ritz Theater on 13th Avenue Northeast, back in his old neighborhood. He imagines a grand chandelier hanging over the audience--a fantasy of elegance for this neighborhood of grain elevators and sports bars.

"It's funny that we're in our 14th year as a company, because it feels just like being a 14-year-old," he reasons. "We're eager, willing to take risks, and a little snotty. That's the Dolls."

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