Earlier this spring, the performer and choreographer Emily Johnson presented SHORE, the culminating event in a trilogy of works she had been pursuing since early 2010 “in response to displacement, to feeling disconnected from place, people, ceremony, and tradition.” SHORE is a wide-reaching, ambitiously conceived initiative that afforded audiences opportunities to volunteer in environmental community actions in the Rockaways and Governor’s Island, prepare food and mingle during a potluck near Newtown Creek, and experience a richly layered part-indoor, part-outdoor performance in (and around) New York Live Arts in Manhattan.
In spite of being Minneapolis-based, this Alaskan native is certainly no stranger to New York audiences. Her New York debut—as well as the inaugural installment of this trilogy, the 2011 The Thank-you Bar—won her the prestigious New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award, and part two, Niicugni, was presented in New York as well. Ivan Talijancic took the time to catch up with the forward-thinking choreographer, soaking up the early spring sun on a bench in Brooklyn’s lively Boerum Hill.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): Going over your writing, I sense a deep connection to your ancestry. It seems that, through the making of the trilogy, you were able to unlock and articulate the way in which your background informs not just the work itself, but also the very fabric of your art-making.
Emily Johnson: I think you put it quite well. Of course, on the most simple, basic level, our ancestry is a core of who we are in the world—our histories, our stories. To me, my ancestry is also connected to land that I love, that I left. And it is apparently this deep missing and longing for land, for my family, that makes this trilogy. It’s not an investigation into who I am, it’s not a portrayal of my ancestors—it’s really just how I connect to places and people: that is what I am trying to share.
Rail: On my way to this interview, I was ruminating about your Native American origins and observing how, almost invariably, indigenous cultures tend to have a deep awareness of the land and the environment, whereas so-called “civilized” populations, by and large, seem disconnected or acculturated.
Johnson: Yes, and yet at the same time, it’s something I often have to fight against. My work doesn’t connect to the land because I am native. This connection to the land, looking at the movement of these clouds and that tree, just happens to be an interest of mine.
Rail: Some trilogies are presented as the sum of three equal parts. I sense that with your work, there’s a progression of performative works, and SHORE represents a culmination: it presents itself as the most elaborate undertaking in the trilogy. Can you talk a little about that progression, and how it informed the overall concept?
Johnson: To me, they go like this [She makes concentric circles with her hands]. I like that visual, because it means that one piece is held by the next. SHORE relates back to Niicugni, which refers back to The Thank-you Bar, because of this circular, rippling nature. They really do hold and inform each other.
Rail: It’s like the way in which oysters grow—
Johnson: Exactly! I didn’t start out making a trilogy at all. But after The Thank-you Bar, I wasn’t done thinking about home, about how we create communities, and how we find ourselves constantly adapting to each other. Niicugni led me into looking at connections with ancestors. Who do we come from and how does that relate to acknowledging who’s here—here in this room, here on this sidewalk right now—and the many stories that reverberate from us all the time? I’ve been interested in that, how I may not get to know that lady’s story but I know she has one, and I can relate to her on a more visceral level. In Niicugni, we built a set out of fish skin. Learning that craft, learning that skill, and then sharing it and teaching it all throughout the country made me appreciate how invested all these people were in this performance work years before it was done. And their physical labor made me want to create something that requires that responsibility from a lot of people, and also offers a lot to people.
Rail: In the current work, one of the many things that fascinated me was the use of face paint and these splendid fake eyelashes. The dancers also wear parkas, but underneath them are very contemporary suits. It felt like the dancers embodied a conflict between indigenous elements and civilization.
Johnson: Who we are is a lot more complicated than we often acknowledge, and to me that’s very evident: “Oh, you’re native, so you must be like this. You must think like this and your work must be like this.” We make judgments and develop preconceived notions all the time, and none of them are true. In my work, I want many layers. Part of that is the visuals: the face paint, the mason jar of water, the elusive strip of paint on the floor, the accoutrements, the eyelash, the little flicker of the eye. The question is: can I flip preconceived notions?
Rail: It seems that all of these elements trigger one’s imagination, but one can’t just take them at face value because there’s a question that is embodied in your decision to make them necessary.
Johnson: Yes, and that’s what makes, say, the parkas necessary: that they offer some kind of image that is from Alaska. They’re also necessary because of the reveal: what is meant when they are stripped away and left on the floor? When we did The Thank-you Bar in Chicago many years ago, there were flashlights hidden all over the stage that I used to light things, or an igloo I pulled out and then dismantled. There are many, many reveals in both pieces; you see all the theatrical tricks in plain sight. Someone once questioned: Why all of that, why do I use a flashlight to light myself when we’re in the theater and there can be a theater light? I had no idea how to answer that question for a long time and, many years later, I realized: that’s just how I live and how I was raised. I learned to make use of everything I have. That is adaptation: how we come to live and build. In making SHORE, I’ve been thinking about the tools of planting—having the shovel, needing the shovel to plant the bushes in the Rockaways. How is that related to a false eyelash, for example? Or, practically speaking, in the opening act of the performance I needed to stand up on a pedestal so I could see everyone, and so my voice could carry. Both the tools and the beautiful effects are necessary. Using what you have and being resourceful is a huge value to me in life, and to not be wasteful or unnecessarily extravagant unless it’s called for.
Rail: I’ve observed a very strong communal element to the various elements of SHORE—the volunteering, the potluck, even the prologue of the performance, which took the audience to a schoolyard before being led through the streets and into the theater. There was something about all these activities that was very much about gathering and sharing, being in the same space together. And yet I felt that in the performance itself there was a major departure. It had a presentational style, a proscenium setting. I am curious to hear what led you to that decision.
Johnson: I don’t think of them as separate. The beginning of the performance of SHORE is similar to how we gathered at the Rockaways and started working, or how we met at the ferry landing and then went to Governor’s Island, or how we gathered at the potluck and placed food at the table, and mingled, and observed how things build. You arrive and things are very intentional; they are not so codified. I’m going to try to offer something that has a structure and something that can hold you, but you also have to be responsible. You have to take good care of yourself and each other. I try to do that in each of these elements. In The Thank-you Bar everyone was on stage; it was designed for 30 people. Niicugni was more formal, proscenium-style, except there was a lot of movement because 40 members of the audience would cycle throughout the performance. At New York Live Arts, movement just didn’t work that way. But I do hope I created something in which that whole theater was thought of as one space. Whenever I work, or present work, I imagine that the walls are gone. Perhaps that’s not what anyone else is thinking, but if I’m sitting there, I can imagine it being expansive. It can be an ocean.
Rail: I think you did achieve that with the silver foil “horizon” on the back wall of the theater. Of course, it was symbolic, an architectural gesture—but because of the silver, the reflectiveness, and the fact that it was horizontal, I kept thinking about the horizon and the interplay with lighting—which your designers used to maximum effect.
Johnson: Exactly. We’re not trying to literally bring a shoreline into the theater. It’s very similar to what I was talking about before—we’re acknowledging someone’s story in this theater space, and also acknowledging that there’s a world outside these walls. We’re here for this moment, and in the next moment we’re there, in a completely different show. I was trying to encourage that.
Rail: Can you talk about working with director Ain Gordon on SHORE, and what prompted you to make that collaborative decision?
Johnson: We worked together for many years and currently collaborate with Sō Percussion ensemble. We made a work called Where We Live in which Ain was the director overall, and I was on stage directing the action that was happening in real time. We built our communication and our knowledge of what we were trying to have happen, and I wanted to keep working with him. My life is richer for this relationship, and the work is richer for it—the depth with which we understand each other’s intentions or design thoughts. I’m very thankful for it.
Rail: Is it challenging to make a work and also to perform in it?
Johnson: Absolutely. There’s a certain point where I can perform and he can take care of us. I didn’t even realize the importance of this until we first premiered the piece and I thought, oh, I don’t have this pain in my shoulder that I usually have because I’m dancing and looking at the same time. With a project of this size I need a good team. All the people in SHORE held different parts of it—their desire to be involved and all the work they do in their communities, that’s what made it work. I understand that now, and I am feeling it here too, knowing all of these people in the city who are holding their parts. That’s beautiful, and that’s the real effect of SHORE.