Dance Review: The Joy of Swimming Upstream — Emily Johnson’s “Niicugni”

Emily Johnson may be off the mainstream cultural radar, but I guarantee that is going to change, big time.

By Debra Cash

Emily Johnson/Catalyst in Niicugni (Listen). Coproduced by Redfern Arts Center and Vermont Performance Lab. At the Redfern Arts Center at Keene State College, Keene, NH, February 13. National tour continues through June 2013.

Emily Johnson performing at Keene State College. Photo: Ivan Singer

King Salmon gave Emily Johnson her blue eyes.

That’s the story Johnson’s family tells in the Yup’ik community on the Kenai Peninsula 130 miles south of Anchorage where she grew up. It is the story that knits her personal journey into the storytelling in Niicugni, the remarkable dance/theatre work recently on view at the Redfern Arts Center at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

Johnson, a head-turningly beautiful woman who, in her program note biography, defines herself not as a dancer or choreographer but as “an artist who makes body-based work,” left rural Alaska and moved to Minneapolis when she was 18 with the intention of becoming a physical therapist. Instead, she became an artist with a distinctive, cleansing sensibility.

Earlier this month, Johnson won the 2013 Joyce Award that supports the creation new work from artists of color. The $50,000 prize will fund the final installment of Johnson’s trilogy in process, planned as a multi-day occasion that integrates dance, storytelling, volunteerism, and a shared feast, all timed to coincide with the reopening of the University of Minnesota’s Northrup Auditorium. She can put this credential alongside her recent Creative Capital award, a New York “Bessie,” and residencies from MacDowell and the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography. She may be off the mainstream cultural radar, but I guarantee that is going to change, big time.

“Harvesting wild salmon has been part of my family’s life for thousands of years” Johnson told one interviewer recently. Each summer she travels back to Alaska for the sockeye run, a week of communal fishing and living on the beach to catch the staple that feeds her family through the winter. She describes those summer memories lovingly here. She returns to Alaska to imprint aboriginal traditions in her heart and in her hands, and the theatre work she has created takes a hard look at maintaining cultural identity.

I didn’t see The Thank-You Bar (2009–2011), the beginning of Johnson’s triology. A reportedly diffuse work, it was based in part on the gatherings happening in and around in her Yup’ik grandmother’s roadside bar and was accompanied by an art exhibit and catalog dealing with contemporary tribal responses to displacement.

Niicugni, a word that means Listen, takes place in a world of “skin and pelts.” It is a world of shape-shifting and deep ecology. Inspired in part by Johnson’s 2009 experience seeing an exhibit of contemporary textile work made from fish skins, it builds in flickering episodes. Johnson had a vision of making lanterns from salmon skins—when she describes them, she sketches their dimensions with her hands—but at the beginning, she had no idea how that was to be accomplished. Inuit peoples have made waterproof clothing, shoes, and baskets from fish skins since time immemorial,  but it wasn’t a skill anyone in her family still knew how to do. Her first prototype lantern, she recalls with amused humility, took her four days and two fish to construct.

Emily Johnson performing at Keene State College. Photo: Ivan Singer.

Judy Dow, a Vermont-based, Abenaki artist and basket maker came to Johnson’s creative rescue in an artist-to-artist exchange organized by the Vermont Performance Lab. Arts presenters in Minneapolis, Vermont, Alaska, Arizona, and California assembled multigenerational fish skin “sewing bees” that ultimately produced 50 whip-stitched lanterns in the shapes of wind socks, misshapen vessels, and armless torsos.

Fish skin lanterns light Niicugi literally and spiritually. Hung in the bland, utilitarian lobby of Redfern Arts Center, their lumpy loveliness seemed prosaic. Max Wirsing, who serves as Emily Johnson/Catalyst’s company administrator, had replicated their idiosyncratic shapes on a huge poster flanking an elaborate, point-to-point line diagram indicating where each lantern was hung (the theatre’s lobby, loge, over the audience); the name of the volunteer maker or makers; and finally the type of salmon skin used and the mind-boggling distance that particular fish had migrated: 4,536 miles for Coho salmon, 12,357 for Bristol Bay.

Emily Johnson performing at Keene State College. Photo: Ivan Singer.

Preshow, Johnson’s soothing voice over headphones guided a meditation instructing the listener to bring her attention to the lobby floor, the footings of the building, and the land below it stretching in all directions. If you had time, you could place flags on a blank piece of paper marked only with the cardinal directions, inquiring as to your birthplace, hometown, current position.

Inside the auditorium, the fish-skin lanterns were hung at different levels across the stage space and over the heads of the seated audience. The lanterns glowed with a violin’s tremulo, and in the dusk, figures undulated on the floor, synchronized as shadows.

While framed by communal actions and impressions, Niicugni is fundamentally an augmented duet for Johnson and Aretha Aoki, a wiry dancer of Japanese descent who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and earned her MFA at Smith. Shaman and storyteller, Johnson crouches and whispers in Aoki’s ear. “A monster bit off my ear,” she begins, a story that wends between darkness and light. The protagonist may be a tree; it may be a person; it may be a spirit; it may be all three. But sometimes a story is interrupted by Johnson apologizing “that is not the story I meant to tell you” or declaring her dance would have looked this way, but her mind and circumstances have changed. Time and intention are slippery; the dance you see is not the dance in mind.

In Miyake-style, pleated tunics and glimmering, fish-skin-like leggings (by Vietnamese-American designer Angie Vo, a former dancer herself), Aoki and Johnson stand close or shift from foot to foot in a hug. Through much of Niicugni their speaking voices intertwine. This isn’t a postmodern strategy. Women in the arctic have perfected the sophisticated improvisatory game of throat singing where they face each other and rock side to side sharing evolving vocal patterns and breathing. Their synchronized storytelling rings in tight chords.

Aretha Aoki performing at Keene State College. Photo: Ivan Singer.

Images emerge with the intricacy of dreams. The women hopping and stamping as if the peaty ground has the springiness of a trampoline and vibrating with the thumping, breath-eating joy of their exertions. Johnson looking like she is going to cry or vomit while Aoki looks smug and pleased until they turn into snarling bears. The women shivering behind a pair of huge, chrysanthemum-petalled, snowy owl masks. (In traditional Yup’ik culture, wearing masks was a way of praying “so the animals would come when they hunted them.”) Just as violinist Rachel Golub strolls around sounding tones against a recorded score, the unknown—and uncanny—visual imagery reverberates against the tame and known.

During the Keene performance, 40 volunteers clambered out of their auditorium seats at different moments, taking to the stage with vague gestures such as patting a wall or later sewing invisible lanterns. This aspect of Niicugni is probably more necessary on paper than it was in performance. The theatrical timing of the work’s sequences could be much stronger, and one imagines that as Johnson moves her trilogy towards its conclusion, she will continue to refine—or more deliberately subvert—the performance’s dramatic arc.

Yet Niicugni’s closing moments are eerily convincing. The fish-skin lanterns, animated by use, are understood to be glowing ghosts. Johnson and Aoki again lie on the stage floor transformed into undulating, thrusting salmon. They remove the pale tissues draped over their costumes and reverently set them aside. In this mythic and very present time, death is of use.

Debra Cash, a founding contributor to the Arts Fuse now serving on its Board, is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance. She spent a month as a journalist working in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand in February, 1980.

c 2013 Debra Cash

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