Too Damn Hot

Emily Johnson sits down for a critic-artist chat about her piece 'Heat and Life'

On the weekend before the election, the Walker Art Center and No Name Exhibitions presented the premiere of local choreographer Emily Johnson's Heat and Life at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. The show was an elliptical examination of global warming featuring Johnson's all-female dance troupe Catalyst, original music by JG Everest, and video recorded during the two years Johnson and her colleagues spent researching, developing, and rehearsing the project. Much of the development took place in Johnson's native Alaska, where the early effects of global warming can be seen--along with human-dwarfing grandeur of the natural world. A few days after the show, I sat down with Johnson for a bit of critic-artist give and take. Here's an excerpt of our discussion.

 

Emily Johnson and Catalyst pump it up in 'Heat and Life'
Courtesy of Walker Art Center
Emily Johnson and Catalyst pump it up in 'Heat and Life'

CP:At the beginning of the show, the dancers approached the audience with tape recorders and brusquely asked us to give our names. I hadn't read any advance press or the press release, so after I was accosted by one of the dancers I thought the piece was going to be about homeland security and the Patriot Act, and I stayed in that mindset for a fair amount of the show. Is that ambivalence deliberate? I mean the piece also has this totalitarian vibe.

Johnson: All of that--how the dancers came up to the audience to record their names, at the end when we commanded the audience out of their seats, and also how the dancers' interactions with each other were often a little less than humanitarian--was related to climate change. With diminished space and diminished quality of life, there's diminished time to actually relate to each other--just having time for the basics--I need your name, I need you to move.

CP:As we discussed earlier, I'm a dilettante at best when it comes to dance, so I'm just going to be open about my ignorance. That said, a lot of the dance I've seen is more clearly about watching people's bodies, whereas here with the dark light and the bulky costumes, the movement is a bit broader, you can't focus on...

Johnson: The technique...

CP:Yeah.

Johnson: In my movement I focus particularly on initiation points of movement, and always on a gut-level response, and when I move I feel it in my guts and in my sternum, and the dancers who have been dancing with me for years take it from there as well, and I'm never one to show off technique, maybe a little dirtier movement or a little rougher movement is very real to me.

CP:One critique I have is that I felt like there were some false starts and false endings. At the beginning, I thought,Okay, now we're going to really move into the heart, and later I thought,This has to be the end. Was there an effort to have the piece build slowly, and to tease the audience a bit at the end?

Johnson: At the beginning, do you mean when they were hauling out the sod?

CP: I guess I just mean that during the first 10 minutes or so there was a lot of stuff that seemed like an introductory section that I expected to be over sooner.

Johnson: Basically what I wanted in that beginning was to have people see the setup of pulling out the sod, for the audience to see how the dancers create the environment that they then have to deal with--the same thing that we do out in the rest of the world. Yeah, sitting down for an hour-and-five-minute dance performance is a challenging thing. I thought about putting a timer on the back wall, a countdown from back to front, thinking that would give people more patience, because I knew that the piece goes up and goes down, goes up, goes down. And that whole last chapter was sort of a recapitulation of everything previous, but focusing on the individual dancers' take on everything, how one dancer ends not being able to breathe, for example. I left a lot of it open-ended. But the whole rise and fall wasn't meant to con anybody.

CP:I wonder if a dancer might be particularly attuned to the issues of global warming, because I would think that a dancer becomes especially aware of his or her own body, how everything affects it, what you're eating, emotional well-being, all that stuff informs what you can do with your art. I wonder if that might have been helpful, with what you were talking about earlier about symbiosis.

Johnson: I don't know. It's true that how your body feels in the summer is so different than how it feels in the cold, in your joints, and dancers certainly know that how well your body can move through the air in August is so different than how it can move through in December, and I don't even think that there are people who don't have that relationship to the outside.

CP:Was there a transcendent moment for you from the weekend of performances?

Johnson: On the first night, the smoke and fog we used set off the fire alarms, and at first I thought that it was something that Heidi, the lighting designer, decided to try. I thought, "Oh, that's interesting." I had such trust in all the collaborators, and there's room in this piece for improvisation, so that was in the realm of possibility. Then I realized it was a real fire alarm, and I had to leave the stage and find a flashlight and find the box, and I realized I had no question about what would continue in the performance area, everybody was so involved in the piece and knew every aspect of it so well, because of the way we work together, how it was created. So here was a test--during this art piece about climate change these alarms going off. I came back in, the audience was still totally drawn into the piece, and then the fire trucks showed up. It was a beautiful accident.

 
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