mental contagion

Emily Johnson Minneapolis, MN 
Interviewed by Dean Pajevic | Web site | Upcoming Shows

Emily Johnson is originally from Alaska and currently lives in Minneapolis where she choreographs on her company, Catalyst, dances by emily johnson. Johnson forms gesture and movement into snapshots of the world, presenting content in images that allow for shifts of thought. By magnifying aspects of life through movement and choreographic form, she deconstructs the hugeness of our lives into the tiny actions, glances, and interactions that truly are the inner workings of our days. Offering her audience the chance to create their own, multiple interpretations, Catalyst is the stimulus by which these varied interpretations emerge.

DP: Art and Environment. For the dancer this seems like the quintessential definition of the form. In Heat and Life, you seem to be breaking down this very connection, or that the connection of life itself is breaking. Can you talk about the process in this piece? 

EJ: Heat and Life definitely takes place in a time where a certain force of life has already broken - maybe it's a particular humanness, or some kind of luxury that is missing; the kind of luxury that allows for taking pleasure in a breath; or perhaps the humanness that calls for the simplest of kindness among strangers does not exist in the Heat and Life world - there is no time for those kinds of connections, no time to do anything but to adapt. I think what you are referring to as the 'breaking down' is the way the dancers alter the performance space. Yes, space, or in other words, environment is essential to performance; to dance. The place a dancer takes up, the volume of body vs. the volume of air is where dance itself forms, but in HEAT AND LIFE, there is no reverence to space, rather, it's somewhat of a fight between the dance and the space the dance takes up. The dancers literally create the environment they dance in, they set their own floor, they light themselves, they use things and throw them away when they're done with them, creating impediments (or, rather, new choices) for movement. This calls for a very real and ever-changing adaptation to the space which, for me, is a strong connection to evolution - to the kind of evolution all the creatures on earth will have to undergo to survive in a world affected by global warming. There are certain systems that must be adhered to in the piece, certain rules - and as the dance is carried out, the dancers must continually adapt to the space in order to follow the rules. The space itself never stays still, let alone the dancers. True, it gets messy and dirty and some may see that as destruction, but we're really watching adaptation - and though adaptation can be cruel, it's really about survival, and that can be a beautiful thing to watch - watching something truly want to survive. 

I think of this place we've all put ourselves in - we humans (especially we American humans) had a definite part in creating this polluted and dying place we live in. At some point there was an obvious disconnect between life and what supports life. Now we have to try to adapt; make new policies, cut our losses in some cases. Some people have been severely affected, others not so much yet - is there any way to thread back to what we've lost? Any way to reconnect to this place - earth - that sustains us? Or have we come too far, is the outcome a new form, a new way of relating to other humans, a new way to shelter and feed ourselves? HEAT AND LIFE, for all the destruction it seems to carry, probably has too shiny an outcome - no one actually dies... We see the dancers that come close make some key adaptations. I wouldn't say the last ones left on stage are necessarily thriving, but they've definitely found a connection back to life support, they're not relating to their environment the way they did at the beginning of the piece. I think they find a certain harmony or make a new pact with their new 'earth' - and though some humans wouldn't ever want to have to change their life - these characters left on stage are probably better off than the rest of us humans out here in the 'real' world.

DP: Heat and Life is a searing dance and commentary on global warming. Was there a specific event that made you want to take on this issue? A watershed moment? 

EJ: The company and I started the research and rehearsing for HEAT AND LIFE in the spring of 2003 - this was before the general public's view on the issue was where it is now, definitely before anyone could imagine a green issue of Vanity Fair. It's been fascinating to be so involved in this issue as the the media and public opinions have changed. 2003 isn't so long ago and I can't tell you how many times people asked if it was a real issue, if it wasn't just hype. 

I'm definitely the obsessive type and the issues most dear to me come up in the dances I make. If there was a watershed moment, it was probably the Exxon Valdez's oil spill of 1989 - festering in me for 14 years until I was in Valdez shrimping with my parents in the summer of 2002. From anywhere in Valdez you have a clear view of the terminal - the place where oil barges continually come in and out filling up with oil to head back out to wherever it's being shipped. I just gaped in awe as these huge tankers went by us on the water, I'm not kidding, just one after the other after the other after the other. I felt this deep disgust with this never ending taking, taking, taking of this resource we have to drill down into the earth to retrieve. 

I grew up in Alaska and that place and the way I was brought up in it had a strong impact determining my environmentalism. My connection to sustainability is very concrete because it comes from the fishing and hunting and gardening practices I learned, took part in, and benefited from in the influence of my parents and grandma. The vastness of Alaska calls for a huge amount of respect for what is so much more powerful than any of us - nature and weather. 

It's so easy for me to get disconnected when I'm living in Minneapolis - I start to rely on the news forecast rather than the sky to find out how hot it will be or if will rain - and this jump starts a fear because I know it's a slippery slope. One minute I'm at the co-op buying organic apples, the next I'm at the gas station giving those tankers a reason to keep taking, taking, taking. 

DP: Your work reminds me very much of the Expressionist painters: raw color and shape expressing emotions. Heat and Life seems to use light, music and gestures to do the same. Can you talk more about this similarity? 

EJ: I suppose there is a similarity in that HEAT AND LIFE - which includes elements of dancing, performing, lighting, music, video, costumes, set - is not depicting our reality - it's not looking at life with a wide lens, rather it's a very focused look at the essence of what the dancers' reality within the world of HEAT AND LIFE is - and it does stress the emotional experience of their particular reality.

I like the similarity between using paint to thwart how we are accustomed to seeing a face, and using the entire body to thwart how we are accustomed to seeing an action. It's not my aim, through the choreographed movement of HEAT AND LIFE to distort, but the dancers are so pushed to physical limits - endurance limits, speed limits - one dancer even tries to move the walls - that, as the layers of movement, rules, communication, and tasks within HEAT AND LIFE pile up, a certain distortion occurs. We see will, determination, extreme anger, sadness; emotion, I would say in a very raw form through the physicality they have to endure.

There's a difference too though - I'm not only interested in getting the dancers to perform at that raw, emotional state, I'm also interested in content, making social commentary and - in the loftiest of goals - trying to create something that may generate a spark of change.

You note the light and music as well as gestures - I've collaborated for years with both Heidi Eckwall (lighting designer) and JG Everest (composer, musician), as well as Randy Kramer, the videographer and Angie Vo, the costume designer for this piece. At the very beginning of the rehearsal process, I called a meeting between all of us collaborators and started a discussion based on fear. I wanted a base emotion, a base expression we could all come back to as we each went off to work on our individual aspects. 

Heidi is a very active lighting designer; she has a way of shaping a piece, a room and putting context into lighting. She literally makes HEAT AND LIFE to go through a process to a point where we rely on human-powered lighting devices. JG is deft at creating music that is its own emotional hybrid. He doesn't 'capture a mood' through music, he creates one of his own, but in a way that is thoroughly embedded in HEAT AND LIFE, through its history (sound recordings from places we've rehearsed or performed), the voices of the dancers, the meaning behind each character (each dancer has a particular sound threaded into the soundscore), and the overarching subtext of fear. Randy's video elements aim to bring the outside in, as much of the dancing vocabulary does - it can highlight the melting of a glacier or the burning of fossil fuels as the dancers try to do the same on stage.

I know I'm lucky to have the opportunity to have such a long-standing, working relationship with these collaborators and dancers and I do know we all aim to shape HEAT AND LIFE in our own particular fashion each time it is performed. We each have a responsibility, as the piece is performed to build it, then succumb to it, control it in a certain way, but ultimately let the rawness of fear and the immediacy of necessary emotion remain. 

DP: The piece itself is a flurry of tight spaces, constrained movements, darkness, flashes of light, and brooding music. It made me feel like the damage is done and the environment is broken. It's like seeing a dead person. It's a shock. Does this resonate with you? Was it a goal? 

EJ: It wasn't a goal to shock, but in many ways I'm glad you said that. It's hard to make any piece of art and then say overtly "this piece is about X." It puts you in a very specific and constrained place and worse, it can put your piece of art in a very specific and constrained place.

Our environment is broken, right? And when I take a moment to fully realize that, it is shocking. The thought is consuming. Of course I want to make a piece that gets at that vein of truth - without teaching, preaching, or regurgitating information.

The goal for me is always to feel something and I hope to create connections to audiences that call them to feel something too - whether it's at the particular moment of watching, or later, on the way home. 

DP: By taking on global warming, you are engaging with one of the cataclysmic events of the human race. Do you see your piece as a wake-up call, or a eulogy? Is there reason for hope? 

EJ: I wouldn't take on the responsibility or credit of saying HEAT AND LIFE is a wake-up call! I think that wake-up call is happening, but it's been the work of environmentalists and the convergence of time that's opening that door, finally. I don't think it's eulogy or hope either - it just is. It's a world that is perhaps a microcosm of our own, and there's a harsh natural order to any world, especially in a world devoid of luxury. Survival is a goal and terseness is a byproduct in the world I see us heading toward. 

I'm trying to take HEAT AND LIFE to all 50 states in the U.S.A, trying to cover enough literal ground to define the U.S. as a site where art-based work can be seen and be an impetus for change. Not that I think this piece will be that force of change, it will just be a small part, to at least a few people in every state - this is a two-sided goal and it's both environmentally and artistically based. 

I WANT the U.S.A. to be a place where art and artists are respected. I WANT the U.S.A. to be a place that takes responsibility for its actions: politically, environmentally, socially. Time has also converged so that the U.S. administration is this one, the U.S. policies are what they are, HEAT AND LIFE is made, and I have this goal.

Can a dance have a positive effect on global warming? It's actually a larger question - because of course it can, not immediately and not totally, but in the largest sense dance does affect community/society. 

Does environmentalism only count if you're actively working on cleaning water and air? I don't think so. Environmentalism has to be more contemporary, it has to be broad in what it encompasses, it has to be about even more than policies and government and education. I think it also has to be about a deep connection to community, hunting, gathering (even if you don't do the hunting and gathering yourself), and to your place in a daily cycle. Every day we live we have an affect on the environment. This connection (the one that is already broken in HEAT AND LIFE and the one that is breaking on earth) has to be made real, and once it is real then environmentalism has a natural way of implementing itself.

If you are healthy, you do not harm yourself or your loved ones, therefore you do not harm the environment - it hurts too much and too deeply to know the effects.

I guess it's this way that, yes, I do feel that making a dance 'about' global warming is an act of environmentalism. It is a way to connect myself, the dancers, the collaborators, and the audience to a world we might not enjoy living in.

I can't teach an audience about their connection to global warming or what they can do about it, because I don't believe that a work of art is the place to do that. I do, however, believe that dance can be made about ABSOLUTELY any subject or concern, and it is the act of delving deeply into that concern and into a human being's physical reality inside that concern that makes dance powerful. 

DP: If there was a person, or a group of people in the world whom you think will never see your work, but whom you think need to; who would that be? Why? 

EJ: Ooh, the people who only pay $30 - $75 at a large, fancy auditorium to see concert dance. Why? Because I don't think they are getting an actual experience. They may be getting something pretty to look at, and they may be awed by physical beauty, but they're not getting something to take home with them, they're not creating new synapses in the brain, they're not having to decipher meaning themselves. They're not letting dance be part of their life, they're keeping it at a peripheral distance.

I was at a Yup'ik Eskimo dance festival in St. Mary's, Alaska in 1999. The school gymnasium was filled with people for 4 days straight - hours and hours of dancing each day. The connection between dancing, humor, storytelling, history, community, entertainment, and audience participation was immediate and strong. A potluck table kept getting refilled in the back. Kids ran around and sometimes joined in, people joked with or at the dancers. For all the joviality, a deep respect for the dancing and for the act of dancing was the base. 

This is how dance should be, how it should be seen: with respect, with a sense of humor, with a connection and thread to our lives. 

DP: I have only seen your dance through your videos. The moviemaking is very sophisticated; you do things you could not really do live. And, the dances seem like actors in a larger story. How does cinema fit in with your vision of dance? 

EJ: In the past couple of years I've become active in creating dance films, using video during performance, and co-curating and presenting a dance film series here in Minneapolis called: capture! It kind of happened by accident when someone donated a studio, camera operators, and an editor to us to film a piece called "Plain Old Andrea, with a Gun." We produced it on DVD and a whole new level of dance production started for Catalyst.

JG Everest, who is also a filmmaker and film buff influenced this departure from stage as has my collaboration with Randy Kramer and Brian Dehler of DV-Cinema. 

Randy and I made a dance film called "Wingspan 5'2'' - it's a side story of HEAT AND LIFE and it's a film of a solo dancer, Natasha Hassett dancing in about 15 different locations, from urban streets to an Alaskan mountaintop. I am, in many ways, a control freak, and I absolutely LOVE that I can more systematically control how an audience views a dance on film. I can put someone else's eyes exactly where they need to be to catch a particular shift - I can bring landscape into frame and meaning in a way that is not possible on a live stage. 

I'm directing a film version of HEAT AND LIFE with Randy and JG now - we've got a session later today. 

DP: This idea of confinement and repetition seems to be a theme in your work. Like we all struggle with the same ideas and actions, over and over again. What kind of force is the repetitive gesture? Natural? Intellectual? How would you describe this? 

EJ: What's the saying? That history repeats itself? I suppose a wise person would say that you should work all your life never to repeat the mistakes of the past... 

But we always fall into it don't we? It takes humans a long time to learn; it's natural to repeat until the repetition wears itself out. I do use forceful repetition in my dances - it's an approach to moving beyond the normal actions of a day. Sometimes it's a physical way to spell demise, sometimes it's a physical way to win. 

I get fascinated watching people in a city - which to me is confinement. It's almost like instead of the streets and parks and floors of buildings being the landscape we tread on and in, it's the people surrounding us. Maybe that's why in cities there's more crime against people - and in wild spaces there's more crime against the wildness, like poaching and tree clearing. It's people always trying to force themselves onto the landscape, whether they're confined in a city or have too much space in the wild. 

Repetition is also a way to adamantly say "no." I think my dances are often saying no to something. It's a construct, it's the way I see power and emotion in movement - it's often too strong a force to get out at one go, you've got to do it over and over until you wear it out from within. It's like speeding up the natural process. 

Heat and Life
Heat and Life.

DP: Why dance? What about it sparks your muse? 

EJ: I was an athlete well before I was a dancer. I don't think I could get the mindset of pushing limits out of myself even if I wanted to. Not only did I have me to push myself for years, but I had coaches and teams setting that in the framework of my psyche, muscles, and bones. Even now, I hate anyone telling me what to do - I think it hits a nerve from the training days. 

I do absolutely love moving, running the best of all. Improvising in a weird way is a close parallel to running for me. Even though running is repetitive and linear and improvising is usually far beyond either of those elements, for me, they both get at a core drive. They both set my mind within every cell of my body and generate a form of moving that just makes sense to me. When I'm running and when I'm improvising (as long as my mind doesn't get hung up on wondering what the hell I am doing) a certain meaning to movement becomes very clear to me. I find no need to say anything beside what my muscles and frame and spaces are saying. 

Of course, then I try to capture that in a choreographed setting and that process forms something with a completely different validity. The dancers in Catalyst (Susan Scalf, Arwen Wilder, Andrea Zimmerman, Natasha Hassett, Melissa Kennedy, Jessica Cressey, Sarah Baumert, Vanessa Voskuil) have danced with me, some of them since 1998, and we have a way of working together that I'm very proud of. It's partly my drive, but mostly it's this working relationship and their particular ways of honing in on the meaning within their dancing that creates the inner-workings of each piece. 

Dance is a very powerful form - because it's us, it's our shape and form - the human form. It's made of us and for us - there can be nothing closer.