Myron Johnson sounded as though he was convincing himself. The Ballet of the Dolls founder was asked whether his new show, “Songs for a Swan,” really would be his final solo performance — really, truly, the last?
“Yeah, I’m sure it is,” Johnson said after a long day of rehearsal and teaching at the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis. He paused, thought for a moment and then repeated the words with more conviction. “Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I wouldn’t do it again.”
Understand that Johnson has no plans to retire as a dancer or choreographer. Don’t worry, he said; he doesn’t have cancer, he isn’t hobbled and his mind is still alive with ideas. But this is his swan song as a solitary dancer.
“I’m keenly aware working on this that I don’t have the energy and stamina that I had 30 years ago,” he said. “And I don’t have the memory. I like to work fast, and the dancers are awesome at remembering what I’ve told them, but when it’s just me alone in the studio, I can’t ask the dancers to remind me what I had told them yesterday.”
“Songs for a Swan” is an occasion to recognize Johnson’s 50 years of work in the Twin Cities theater and dance communities. He was a 6-year-old waif when he first stepped into the fantasy world of theater — a respite from his real-life hell, personified by an abusive, alcoholic father.
Theater people became his family, and he grew up fast, starring in new plays at Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) at 12, studying with Marcel Marceau in Paris at 16, choreographing and directing at 17 — the year he left home and struck out on his own.
A plunge into the New York performance-art scene expanded his taste for camp, wit and irreverence, and he molded these ideas into the Ballet of the Dolls in 1985. Along the way, he has worked at many Twin Cities theaters and dance companies.
“He’s always been my favorite collaborator,” said director Gary Gisselman, who first worked with Johnson in the early days of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. “Myron always sees the show totally different from how I see it, so it’s always great to have that energy in the room.”
A consummate outsider
Johnson, informed by his outsider’s perspective, works against the grain, turning classic ballets, from “Giselle” to “Swan Lake,” on their heads, injecting a sly naughtiness and brash wit that assails convention. It’s much the same aesthetic he witnessed in Paris, where artists constantly challenged the status quo, said John Clark Donahue, who first worked with Johnson at CTC.
“But there is no mean edge in his work, Donahue said. “I don’t think he has a resentful or dark side. His work has been celebratory of the human spirit.”
As Johnson mused on why he’s chosen to put together this solo show, he found humor in his current standing as an eminence grise in the dance community.
“It’s so weird because I was always the baby,” he said. “When we were having meetings about the Cowles Center, we were talkingabout dance in the 1970s, and it hit me that I had turned into Loyce Houlton.”
The late Houlton was the legendary creator of Minnesota Dance Theatre’s “Nutcracker,” and for several decades the preeminent face of dance in the Twin Cities. She was also a mentor and model for the young Johnson, who paid a sort of homage to Houlton with his deliciously wicked signature work “Nutcracker!? (not so) Suite.”
Johnson started working on “Songs for a Swan” on Oct. 2, he said, although the first three days consisted of distractions and procrastination. When dancers are waiting in the studio to work, the boss has to be on time and ready to work. When it’s just Johnson, he can easily ignore the voice within telling him to quit staring out the window.
“There were times when I asked myself, 'Why in the world did I decide to do this?’” he said. “The task was so enormous that I didn’t know where to start.”
But eventually he did get started, and the work has grown throughout the month into an eclectic statement of himself. The body might not allow him the flexibility he enjoyed 20 years ago, he said, but age itself conjures a certain boldness.
He’s still putting together the music, he said, indicating only that the work feels autobiographical in abstract ways.
“I’m surprised at how expressing intimate feelings onstage is a piece of cake for me,” he said.
In the 1990s, Johnson created the solo work “Move This!” for himself. Since then, his organization spearheaded a renovation at the Ritz, home to the Dolls since 2006. Equally significant, he moved out of downtown Minneapolis for the leafy streets of Wayzata. The very idea of this sassy iconoclast rubbing elbows with the blue-blooded lake crowd is fodder for a Dolls’ send-up.
“It got too ugly,” he said of the late-night hubbub on the streets of downtown Minneapolis. “I guess both me and the city were changing. I was mellowing and the city was getting tougher.”
Now he has dogs, trees, land, no streetlights and peace. How that is reflected in his work remains a question.
Without question, though, is his desire to continue working — after this swan song. Theater and dance are his life, not his career. His body and mind have perhaps made evident to him that he doesn’t need to do another solo show, or have the desire to dance the lead role in the “Nutcracker.”
“I don’t have to show anyone I can dance,” he said. “But I can show where I am at in my dancing.”
Donahue, who laughs at the notion that he has known Johnson more than 50 years, said his student always has possessed an ageless quality — older than his years as a youth, and younger as a mature performer.
“So much of his life is about energy, and you could feel his energy, and it was celebratory and positive and tireless and without complaint,” Donahue said. “Today, everyone starts to ask themselves, 'What do we do that hasn’t been done before?’ I don’t speak for him, but people are always looking at artists and wondering, 'What’s next?’”
Stephanie Carr Smith, who danced with the Dolls from 1994 to 2010 and is building a costume for “Songs for a Swan,” says she has a hunch what’s next.
“I have a feeling that he is the Cher of the dance world,” Smith said. “Myron should never say never. I just know that in 10 years he’s going to be doing another solo show.”