How do you listen to the quiet? This is no simple question, at least when it comes to describing “Niicugni” by Emily Johnson, choreographer and artistic director for Catalyst. The subtly beautiful and occasionally mystifying work had its local premiere Sunday night at The O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University in a co-presentation with Northrop Dance at the University of Minnesota.
This evening-length piece summoned the senses. Dozens of lanterns fashioned from dried salmon skin hung from the ceiling over the stage and the audience. They twinkled as if stars in a sky and flickered even faster, like fireflies. Aretha Aoki and Emily Johnson danced and spoke together in an organic manner, as if each was a lost but reunited part of the other’s body and soul. And Johnson drew upon her deep-felt connections to the natural world to interweave poignant fables, the kind whispered in the middle of the night.
“Niicugni” is a command to listen, to be aware, even alert with instinct. It is the second part of a trilogy by the Bessie and Sage award-winner, which began with 2010’s “The Thank You Bar.” Johnson, who lives in Minneapolis, is an Alaska native, and both works draw upon her Yupik heritage.
Relationships to animals (bears, ducks, owls), a threatening monster (man-made, supernatural or imaginary) and the land itself are key, but “Niicugni” also has a distinct spiritual aspect, enhanced by haunting music created by collaborator James Everest. He also performed live with violinist Lynn Bechtold.
The work’s communal ritualism is in many ways its weakest aspect. Audience members come on stage to stand or perform basic movements. But they sometimes feel like an intrusion from the outside world by the third wall, and the way this choice shatters the intuitive moments between Johnson and Aoki feels unwanted. But then again, perhaps that was the artist’s intention, to try and shake us out of a dream or back into another reality.
Lighting designer Heidi Eckwall also appears, running onto the stage to adjust the lights or to insert herself into the performance in a way that is unexpected for someone usually behind the scenes. She is the more effective gate crasher in this quiet, dark and contained world. She is the one who urges us to hear.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.