As Emily Johnson prepares her biggest performance to date, she explains her expansive view of what dance is, and what it can be.
For choreographer Emily Johnson, movement has a ripple effect that goes well beyond the stage. Dance, Johnson says, influences the rhythm of the world we live in.
That explains why “Shore,” Johnson’s latest project, embraces many elements that at first may seem far afield. It includes storytelling, conversation, community volunteerism, even feasting over several days.
“I have a broad definition of what performance is,” the Minneapolis-based dance maker said recently. “It’s about gathering, whether we are listening to stories, picking up trash, planting, brainstorming about what we want for the world or cooking food. It’s all part of building connection between people.”
Johnson has learned more about her city than she ever could from within the confines of a dance studio, she said. Her willingness to expand the role of the artist is part of the reason why Johnson, who founded Catalyst Dance in 1998, has earned increasing national recognition, including fellowships, tours and residencies. She recently received a life-altering 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award of $275,000.
“Shore” is part three of a trilogy. “The Thank-You Bar” premiered in 2010, received a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award and critical praise for its poignant personal storytelling. “Niicugni” (2013) was as mysterious and thematically elusive as a dream, in some parts. Each work drew upon the 38-year-old’s memory of — and separation from — her birthplace in Alaska as well as her Yup’ik Eskimo heritage and the relationship between people and the natural world.
Parts one and two, however, are intimate in scale compared to “Shore,” with its cast of 55 and a host of other collaborators. The Friday and Saturday performances will begin outside, in front of Northrop Auditorium, before moving indoors.
For the first time Johnson has a director, Ain Gordon, who co-directs New York’s Pick Up Performance Co(S) and is a three-time Obie Award winner. “Ain and I have a similar sensibility,” said Johnson. “I love trying to create normal action, even if it’s very specialized, and to take away the artificial. He’s so good at making things you’re supposed to see be seen. He’s really helping me.”
“We are trying to sustain the outside event all the way to your seat inside so there is no seam, no drop in energy,” Gordon said by phone. The stage itself will be stripped down entirely, revealing the enormity of the space, especially when the three lead dancers, Aretha Aoki, Krista Langberg and Johnson, are alone within it. Other movers in the work include members of Young Dance.
An unexpected career
Johnson didn’t plan to be a choreographer. Growing up in the small town of Sterling on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Johnson played basketball and participated in dance line. She came to the University of Minnesota on an academic scholarship to study physical therapy. But then Johnson signed up for a modern dance class with Paula Mann. “I loved that suddenly I could be physically active and not worry about winning,” she said.
She didn’t realize how important dance would become to her, however, until a friend’s death. “I was like, ‘Why I am living away from my family?’ I had stopped going to classes, and one day I looked at the clock and had enough time to make it to modern dance. I got there and it just felt good to move,” Johnson said. “I was still full of grief, but I physically felt that grief shift. I thought, ‘This is because I’m dancing. I’m connecting to my mind through movement.’ ”
“Shore” may be elaborate, but it has a homespun feel. Photocopied zines created by administrator Julia Bither document the work’s development period with photos, poetry and recipes.
The Minneapolis version includes a reading at the Loft Literary Center that took place on June 17, the weekend performances at Northrop, a cleanup session complete with guided talking tours at East River Flats Park organized by the Native American Community Development Institute, Dream of Wild Health and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on Saturday and a potluck celebration at Foxtail Farms in Osceola, Wis. (catered by Red Stag Supper Club).
Johnson worried at first that so many partners would require constant negotiating, but everyone is tending to their part. “I am feeling so much care,” she said. “The only way it will work is if we all pull it along.”
Dancing with the world
According to music/sound director James Everest (also Johnson’s husband and lead collaborator), all of these moving parts “tell the story of whatever place we’re performing in.” A similar process will unfold when “Shore” tours to Seattle and New York.
While a pedal steel guitar sound defined “The Thank-You Bar” and the violin for “Niicugni,” “Shore” focuses on vocals, and features singer Nona Marie Invie of the Minneapolis band Dark Dark Dark.