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The Intense Environmental Awareness of "Catalyst"
By Linda Shapiro

Emily Johnson grew up in the wild open spaces of Alaska. While her U.S. contemporarieswere hanging out at the mall, Johnson was hiking and mountain biking on the KenaiPeninsula. Part Yup’ic Eskimo, she and her family fished from remote beaches,picked cranberries from the local bogs, even hunted moose.

“Since all my dances deal with something personal, environmental concernswere bound to come up sooner or later,” said Johnson, 30, who began makingdances in the 1990s as a student at the University of Minnesota. “The ExxonValdez oil spill emotionally affected me and many Alaskans. When you are involvedin nature, when you live inside its cycles and currents, you actually feel itwhen nature is adversely affected.”

Johnson certainly knows about living inside of a community powerfully linkedto nature and its processes. “We relied on a week of fishing to supplythe entire extended family for the winter,” said the soft-spoken Johnson. “Wealso relied on it to bring all the family from different parts of Alaska together.The process of the fishing itself—catching, scaling, gutting, brining,smoking, canning—would take the whole family into the wee hours of themorning. And we had to wait for Grandma’s okay for each phase.”Communal process has been central to the creation of “Heat and Life,” whichdeals with the affects of global warming. In 2003, Johnson took her company Catalyst,seven powerhouse female performers who have worked with Johnson for several years,to develop the work in the great outdoors. As they staggered up Wisconsin hillsand slogged through Alaskan cranberry bogs, the choreography developed the kindof muscular grit that characterizes Johnson’s movement vocabulary.

As the company worked, Johnson made room in the rehearsal process for peopleto drop by and ask questions. “People were curious, and we had many conversations,pro and con, about their views on global warming,” said Johnson. Now everyperformance is followed by a discussion of global warming, often with guest expertsand activists such as Emmett Pepper of Citizens Campaign for the Environment,who will join Johnson for post-show discussions at DTW.

The work, which was co-commissioned and presented by the Walker Art Center inMinneapolis, premiered in 2004 at an industrial warehouse on the MississippiRiver. The audience stood around as performers wearing bright orange jumpsuits,goggles, and masks squawked out desperate messages on walkie-talkies—“We’remissing a dancer. Please stand by. Everybody get out of here.” To an ominoussound score played by composer JG Everest on a variety of instruments and enhancedby electronic looping and shrill-to-excruciating industrial noises, the dancerscreated a post-apocalyptic world. Illuminated by industrial flashlights, dancersmoved at maximum voltage, flailing around the dusty space as if jolted by aliencurrents. They erupted in spasmodic moves, or huddled furtively in corners.

At the first performance fire alarms were inadvertently triggered, and fire trucksraced to the scene with sirens blaring and lights flashing. “People thoughtit was just part of the event,” laughed Philip Bither, performing artscurator at Walker Art Center, who has long admired Johnson’s confidenceand fierceness. “She has a clear vision of where she wants to go, and uncompromisingintensity,” he added. “She’s saying something new through apowerful movement vocabulary relevant to her generation.” The intensity of the work, which will have its first performance in a traditionaltheater at DTW, is somewhat alleviated by moments of sharp wit. At a recent rehearsalin Minneapolis, one dancer ordered the others to “Take 19 steps towardthe Hudson River. Take cover. Stand up. Fall down. Find a power source. Coveryour mouth. Lift your left shoulder.” The rapid-fire directives read likea sinister childhood game. That fits with Johnson’s penchant for game structures,which evolved from her experiences as a serious teenage athlete.“As in basketball, I set plays within which we improvise,” said thepetite and deceptively fragile looking Johnson. “These dancers know mywork intimately. They know how a piece is supposed to build, expand, come down,explode.”

While improvisation figures into the process, Johnson’s movement vocabularyis rigorously specific. “I like to create strict boundaries around my movement.” Andindeed, there is no release here—only energized, high-powered dancing.When the performers rest, it’s with exhausted wariness, as if they arepriming themselves for the next disaster. Johnson suggests the idea of land spacediminishing as sea levels rise—an effect of global warming—througha claustrophobic sense of dancers having their physical space constantly encroachedupon. Videotaped sequences of rural and urban landscapes enhance the sense ofloss and disorientation.