For more than 20 years, Myron Johnson has been producing dance-theater that defies classification and attracts audiences who normally wouldn't set foot in a dance concert. Smart and smart-ass, campy and classical, sexy and sinister, Johnson's work injects large-scale ideas with intimate charm. In 1986 he formed Ballet of the Dolls, a company of glam dancers with chops in everything from classical ballet to club dance, and put them in funky, informal venues like Ruby's Cabaret in Minneapolis. Since then he has produced shows, at an almost alarming rate, that combine transgressive subject matter, kick-butt dancing, and a cozy sense of welcome.
While Johnson's work skews everything from gender roles to family dynamics to famous classical ballets, it also demonstrates over and over the transformative power of dance-theater. That's because Johnson knows a heck of a lot about theater, ballet, mime (he studied with Marcel Marceau in Paris), popular culture, musicals, and cult movies from Barbarella to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? He mixes styles and genres in rowdy, inventive ways, creating dances that ricochet from wildly subversive to poignant to just plain gorgeous. His recent Le Chat Noir: A French Cabaret merges the stylized perversity of Helmut Newton's S&M fashion photos with a stylistic mélange that includes a hip-hop can-can number.
Johnson is also a savvy presenter who runs his shows for several weeks (typical in theater but rare in dance) and supports his organization mostly from box office receipts (unlike most dance organizations that survive on grants and donations). He not only puts butts in the seats, he has spearheaded the creation of audience-friendly venues like the Ritz Theater, the Dolls' new home that is currently jump-starting a performing-arts scene in northeast Minneapolis.
Long may this master of artifice continue generating innovative art that flies by the seat of its very fashionable pants.
Linda Shapiro is a freelance writer who writes about dance and performance.