For Emily Johnson, everything is a dance. This includes walking the banks of the Mississippi, cleaning up trash, feasting, farming, and performing. "I constantly ask the question, 'How do the dances I make relate to the work everyone does in the world?' Performance is one kind of work related to every other kind," says Johnson.
Her newest piece, "SHORE," is a peripatetic, multi-day performance installation of dance, story, volunteerism, and feasting. It begins with a reading today at the Loft Literary Center, and includes a day of community action and volunteerism along the Mississippi River, two evening performances at Northrop on the University of Minnesota campus, and a potluck feast in Wisconsin.
[jump] "Emily is an artist who thinks of dance in expansive ways," says Chris Tschida, the director of Northrop. She sees Johnson's approach as a perfect fit for the new Northrop, which opened its doors in April. Formerly primarily a performance venue, Northrop now defines itself as an epicenter of discovery and transformation that connects the University of Minnesota with multiple communities through innovation in the arts, performance, and academics.
Johnson is the poster child for that kind of holistic vision. Over the past year, she has been a fellow with the U of M's Institute for Advanced Study, which is housed in Northrop. She wanted help from IAS colleagues in various fields to create a research model based on the kind of power that "SHORE" was generating. "I kept asking questions of them: 'How do you view this project? What energy have we created with this project?' Being at IAS has helped me to find ways to think about this research," says Johnson.
Her travels to different communities around the state for the visioning sessions also helped Johnson to shape the piece. For instance, at the Native American Development Institute in Minneapolis, she asked various groups what they wanted to see happen in their neighborhoods, and in Minneapolis. Johnson calls it a "hugely generative process" that, after much sifting and winnowing, was distilled to six main themes: gathering together, art in the world, plants in the world, community care and safety, youth power, and story and language.
For Johnson and her colleagues in Catalyst, a Minneapolis-based performance project company, taking on such a multidimensional task is part of the organization's DNA. "SHORE" is the third in a trilogy that began in 2010 with "The Thank-You Bar," inspired by Johnson's childhood in Alaska as a Yup'ik person. It was commissioned by the old Northrop, and performed on the stage and throughout the building within an intimate, nest-like installation that housed both audience members and performers. The second work, "Niicugni" (a Yup'ik word that means "listen" or "pay attention"), questioned the ways we do and do not listen to our bodies, histories, impulses, and environments. It was performed within a light/sound installation of handmade fish-skin lanterns at the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul.
"This trilogy is a response to displacement, to feeling disconnected from place, people, ceremony, and tradition," says Johnson. "It began with a personal work, "The Thank-you Bar," which I created in the midst of a deep longing for my home in Alaska. The truth is, I miss more than my home. I miss the large family gatherings where we'd come together to harvest and put up our salmon, to butcher the moose my dad hunted. These gatherings included intense work, but in that work there is tradition: knowledge (how to smoke your salmon strips just right); the passing of knowledge (my young nephew learning to do what I did at his age); food, of course, because we always eat together; stories; jokes; drama. We share the work, our time together, and then through the year we share the bounty."
"SHORE" expands the ideas of the first two works out into the world, particularly our Minnesota world. Johnson's goal is to create different ways of connecting to place. At the Loft this Tuesday, local authors will gather to tell their own stories of land and displacement. Ongoing activities along the Mississippi have included a five-hour walk from Snelling State Park to the River Flats, with participants carrying jars of river water and envisioning the journey of that water from the headwaters to the gulf. During the Community Action on Saturday, June 21, participants will meet at the East River Flats for stories, snacks, group work on soil amendment, mulching, planting in the river garden, and trash pickup.
The performances will begin on the Northrop Mall, where the audience can experience a connection to the earth beneath and the trees surrounding that venerable edifice. Then Johnson will tell a story as the Anonymous Choir sings, and everyone files into the theater. Johnson and two other dancers, Aretha Aoki and Krista Langberg, become the central characters in an onstage dance drama, supported by other dancers (including the vital and effervescent Young Dance) and musicians. As with everything else Catalyst creates, the dance evolved through improvisation, as the three women worked with composer James Everest, musician/composer Nona Marie Invie, and musician Fletcher Barnhill. "We were together in a room, trying to conjure future joy. That gave us a present feeling of joy," says Johnson. Meanwhile, director Ain Gordon made decisions about what to set, what to let go.
The spectacle/celebration that is "SHORE" culminates in a potluck at Foxtail Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin, where a pig will be roasted, and participants are asked to bring a dish that means something to them and share the recipe. In Johnson's view, we are what we eat, what we plant, and what the stories lodged in our bodies bring to the world.
IF YOU GO:
A curated reading based on Emily Johnson and Catalyst's new dance work. With Jayal Chung, Paula Cisewski, Heid Erdrich, Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, R. Vincent Moniz Jr., and others.
7 p.m. Tuesday, June 17
Loft Literary Center
8 p.m. Friday, June 21 through 22
$20; $10 students, artists, and low income
For a complete list of related happenings, visit www.northrop.umn.edu.