Choreographer Emily Johnson explores the Puye Cliff Dwellings near Española, N.M. with "Doctor Atomic" librettist/director Peter Sellars. (Christopher Thompson/The New York Times)


Former Minnesota choreographer Emily Johnson found herself in the national spotlight this week thanks to the choreographer's work on Santa Fe Opera’s "Doctor Atomic."

Written by composer John Adams with a libretto by director Peter Sellars, “Doctor Atomic” tells the story of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb test in 1945 — just a few miles from Santa Fe.

Sellars had never worked with Johnson, now based in New York City. But he was impressed by her "active gatherings." "Yes, it is dance, but is so much more — it is feasting together, it is its own type of ceremony," Johnson said.

An Alaska native of Yup'ik descent, Johnson's concept for the production's choreography meant building relationships with key communities around Santa Fe. That includes Downwinders — people negatively affected by the nuclear industry — and the area's three Pueblo communities.

Before the opera begins, Johnson said, the three Pueblos are seen performing a ceremony, with more dancing together later in the show.

As for the Downwinders, they’re seen facing General Groves as he tells Openheimer not to evacuate the test site. “Their first action is to stand there, in a presence that demands to be seen,” Johnson said, adding that on opening night, their faces were streaked with tears. “It’s incredibly powerful to share that moment on stage with them.”

 Although "Doctor Atomic" was first staged in 2005, Johnson said the opera is “not only history — it is present, it is current” as the world’s leaders “toss around words like nuclear missiles as if it’s not a threat that would destroy the world.”

The production runs through Aug. 16. See for more information.