SHORE: An Invitation
At one point in the performance of SHORE at New York Live Arts, Emily Johnson stands on her tiptoes, raises her arms up and throws her head back, spine arched, and looks behind her, head upside down, as she tries to walk forward. The move is both difficult and mesmerizing to watch, and occurs, I believe, about halfway through the performance. I say “I believe” because SHORE has a dense, dreamlike structure that is difficult to recall in linear time. And this move, a body pulled backwards and forwards, a gaze intentionally flipped embodies the questions that rise up for me as I watch the piece: Can we trick ourselves out of “easy” habits that may be destroying our culture, our earth? What role does community play in the lives of U.S. citizens who have been trained to forge ahead and self actualize? What does it mean to be completely contemporary, inhabiting / inhabited by the DNA of our ancestors? What gymnastic feats are necessary in order to find fresh perspectives / original thought?
In Lenapehoking, SHORE began outside on a school basketball court. As the audience hung out on mats, Emily played basketball with a couple of friends, a band of red makeup across her eyes, evoking a heightened state of ritual: this was not your average pick up game. I watched them play and the rest of the audience gathering, and before I really knew it was happening, sensed dozens of other performers circling me, jogging at an energized pace, one by one leaving the court to begin a slow walk down the sidewalk on the other side of the chain link fence. Emily stood on a pedastal in front of us and told us story about dreaming herself into a tree. As I listened, I turned my head towards the fence and watched Manhattan pedestrians quickly passing the slow-walking line performers – a woman with a baby carriage, a man talking on his blue tooth cell phone. A casual glance, their stride not broken. The tunnel vision of getting where you’re going, of pushing through. The intentional gaze of live performance: see and re-see. Conjure the space. Create the energy.
A bell rings and we are all asked to silently walk to the theater, about 5 Manhattan blocks. The performers line the sidewalk as we make our way – some of them intoning chords, holding the space for us. In the theater, I see Aretha Aoki, one of the three trio of dancers who anchor the piece, dressed in red on stage, with red warrior paint that matches Emily’s and a fake mustache pasted to her lips. Associations begin to fly: The lady in Red. Gender (bending it, playing it, inhabiting it). Aretha’s Japanese heritage (but was she born there? Or in the US? Is she part Japanese?) Aretha as trickster: a mythic creature that causes mayhem in order to bring wisdom.
This dance moved fluidly between small group movement (performed by Aretha, Emily and Krista Langberg) and large group events (performed by the 20 + person ensemble). The image of the trickster stayed with me throughout, for this dance seemed designed to jolt me into new, fresh moments, to keep me in the present. A solo ends, timpani drums begin to play, echoed by the stamping feet of the chorus. A trio of the three warrior women, holding hands, walking slowly, eyes closed. A brightly colored curtain suddenly drops from the sky, a backdrop of a moment of choral singing. A pilgrimage of potted plants, carried across the stage. Emily, dancing as fast as she can, cutting the air with her arms until she is out of breath and close to tears. Acknowledging the paradox: we must stay present, we must engage in the work of repairing, healing, maintaining, nurturing. We must acknowledge our anger during the times when it all feels futile. And yet, in all times, transcendent and excruciating, we live in a community. We are part of an ecosystem. We can say fuck you, or we can say yes, I’m here, I’m with you, a part of you.
Perhaps what I am most struck by with SHORE is the feeling of being invited into an active group contemplation. The experience felt private, but ONLY within the context of being in an audience in a room with these performers. The honesty of the performance pulled me out of myself and into the room. There was no hiding of the mechanics of the performance – costume changes happen in full view, the ensemble never leaves the stage. No mysteries or questions resolved. It was as though Emily said: Here. Here are my free associations on this matter. Oh and by the way? I free associate with my body. I can’t make this easy for you, but I can invite you in, and challenge you, within this community of thinkers, to go deeper when you leave this room. We are all in this together, and we all have the potential to be tricksters. To embrace who we are and where we’ve come from. To actively and joyfully shake up the norm. Shall we?
In the last weeks of April after a tireless winter, the sun’s appearance became consistent and a frozen New York City began to thaw. We shed our wool layers and our dormancy as the layers of snow melted to reveal the earth below. With this reveal of land and skin, the city quickly regenerated. Communities were reborn. Around the same time in April, Emily Johnson introduced her own form of warmth to New York. She began on the shore.
As I emerged from underground on a Far Rockaway bound subway, I saw the morning sun glisten atop the calm Jamaica Bay and felt worlds away from my Brooklyn home that had grown all too familiar during the long winter months. When I exited the subway at my destination on Rockaway Beach Blvd., I consumed the familiar scents of cold air and sea and recalled the coastal town where I was born and raised. Homesick doesn’t quite describe this sensation; I was home-filled.
I continued to think of the various homes I’ve come to know—of memories of their peculiarities and their roles in the different stages of my life—as I walked to Firehouse 59, the meeting point for the first event of SHORE: Lenapehoking. The plan was to join local volunteers in a dune restoration project following a story walk led by the high school student leaders of The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance. The importance of home, particularly the way that individuals come together because of shared adoration and respect for their homes and communities, was evident from the moment I entered the gathering.
Firehouse 59 bustled with movement as volunteers interacted with one another, peeling oranges and playing an impromptu game of soccer. I was sitting on a picnic table observing the ease and comfort of those around me when I noticed that Emily was running with the ball, exuding pure joy and laughter. When the activity wound down and Emily briefly described SHORE and the structure of the day, I reminded myself of the context of this event—I was at an art performance. I forgot.
This temporary lapse in awareness of the context of my participation continued to occupy my thoughts as words were shared. Members of The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance’s high school internship program, Shore Corps, relayed personal stories of their involvement in the Rockaway community and how their participation in the program has helped to connect them with the physical environment where they were born. I attempted to recall another instance where I forgot I was in the presence of a work of art. Nothing. However, this revelation is not a negative one; in fact, it was exciting. I contemplated SHORE’s humble merging of art and life—of performer and audience, of history and action, of land and movement—realizing that this bond is what made our presence on the beach that day so profoundly pure. It was honest.
As we traveled from the lawn to the dunes where we would plant two hundred native shrubs in an attempt to restore the beach, which was severely damaged in Hurricane Sandy, the stories never ceased. I spoke with excited students who would head to college in the fall to study architecture and environmental science, leaving their home in the Rockaways for the first time. I heard reflections ranging from the devastation of the hurricane to a fight for the inclusion of a bike lane along Rockaway Beach Blvd. In each distinct recitation the significance of community was apparent, and it played out as we worked together to plant the shrubs along the dunes.
After all two hundred shrubs were planted, we gathered near an entrance to the newly renovated boardwalk where were asked to form a circle together and to take turns speaking synonyms for “joy.” As the group stumbled through the task, laughing and enacting the meaning of each unique word, I spoke with a poet and musician who was participating in the SHORE: Story curated reading later that night in downtown Manhattan. We shared brief anecdotes about the different cities we call home, our thoughts on our common experiences, and what drew us to Emily’s SHORE performance project. I asked him if there was a theme that would unite all of the storytellers that evening. He responded: we will tell stories of home. As I left the beach, warm with shoes full of sand, preparing to descend back underground, I felt ready to write my own.
SHORE NYC - an insider and indigenous perspective
by Jack Gray
Months before SHORE happened in Lenapehoking, I was told a story about Emily Johnson, an established and well known choreographer of Alaskan Yu’pik descent. My friend and colleague, Jacqueline Shea Murphy had gone to see the work premiere in Minnesota and had said something along the lines of “I think you will really like Emily’s work, you two have alot in common”.
In my culture, as a Maori from Aotearoa (New Zealand), I am familiar with these types of connective introductions, we call them mihi. Our system of greeting is a way of acknowledging. We acknowledge all things, from our ancestral geographies and points of origin (even if they may be different to where we ourselves were born), from mountain to river, from ocean to land, from living to dead, we constantly cross the thresholds of what was, what is, and what will be.
Cut to a moment during the performances of SHORE, with my now familial relationship of listening to Emily’s mihi. Every night around dusk, we would congregate to make a circle of awareness. Emily would center everyone to tell us about her dream. This dream was also told to me by Emily another time, when I was with a group of friends, artists, scholars and practitioners whom I had assembled in another configuration called the Lenapehoking Transformance Lab.
Weeks before at Nelson A. Rockefeller Park, the Lab had convened to discuss Emily’s work SHORE. I asked her quietly if she might share a song — customary practice for Maori - and she replied, “I will share a dance”. The dance partly was a retelling of the dream. In that dance, she gave us a closed eye meditation, that enabled us to feel the soles of our feet, to feel the concrete beneath the shoes, to go deeper to feel the earth beneath the concrete, to imagine that sensation connecting in all directions throughout Manahatta.
During that invocation, my meditation self had burst across the ocean (past the Statue of Liberty) back on shore in another place. I was in Mitimiti, my ancestral home in Aotearoa. A place I have invested alot of time in reconnecting to, and before my journey to the United States, had stood on shore there looking deeply and hopefully into the horizon. I recall this strange time travelling moment, going back to Mitimiti (from the future) to look at my past self wondering exactly what I might be doing in New York.
In my own artistic practice I explore phenomena in indigenous cultural cosmologies looking at the pathway of the spirit after death. The name of my dance company Atamira, means platform or stage. But also, traditionally, Atamira was the raised platform dead bodies were placed on during mourning rituals. Another work of mine, Te Reinga, created in Hawaii, honoured the site of Rerenga Wairua, where departing spirits jump off the tip of the North Island of New Zealand, Te Ika a Maui to return to Hawaiiki (our ancestral home as Polynesians).
Her meditation exercise reminded me of other moments of seeing, feeling and tracing intangible pathways that inform my choreographic interests. Like dance, our dreams develop intuitive abilities of acknowledging and opening into new spaces, allowing us to converse and tap into this richer knowing. So Emily, the storyteller, shares these glimpses, opening spaces and creating portals for both knowing and maybe unknowing. I found myself always rooted in more than one place at one time, just like the tree, just like the whale, just like the hawk or the eagle or the owl.
On Day 1 of rehearsals, the SHORE choir that I had infiltrated had its first meeting. I always find the beginnings of things so interesting, who are all these people, what are we doing, what is to be explored? Emily broke the ice, funny thinking about that metaphor, as she would many times in many interactions with people. You see, she has this disarming way of being, firstly she always smiles, and she also blushes, she's also confident, and she's also introverted. It’s a fascinating mix, that just makes you want to do something for her. If she asks for something, it seems like the most natural thing in the world is to reciprocate. This is why I think she's incredibly powerful, and also why I think she takes such good care and responsibility for others.
There is something about her unconscious understatedness (as a choreographer and human) that provokes a type of mistiness for people. Even after days of spending time together, learning and relearning the songs, breath, sounds, silence and blocking and reblocking, one of the funniest things to me was when fellow ensemble members would say, “Do you know what this piece is about?”. Perhaps a cultural lens is required, demanded almost, to allow what it is, or could be, to permeate through.
I noticed that Emily didn’t bring out in larger discussions, the notion of indigenous cultural identity. I became aware of the way this type of discourse goes in the United States. It is very different in Aotearoa, in fact almost the opposite, where we are culturally conditioned to speak to our genealogy and enact its assertion at almost every opportunity. I mean, recently, the Queen of England's (and ours) grandson, Prince Harry, came to New Zealand and partook in a haka, a Maori dance of defiant looking gestures. It was a social media hit, even my mother was saying how much she loved dear Harry for doing the haka, as if he was now an adopted nephew.
I couldn’t help myself from orienting everything I experienced throughout the SHORE life I lived back to its innate indigeneity. It was almost like this marvelous secret. This piece was a hall of ghosts. These ghosts gathered in places around us. They came out at twilight, in the streets, cloaked amongst everyday pedestrians. They occupied a different sense of time, they were much slower, more present, less preoccupied. They witnessed everything. Every night when it was my turn to leave the nest, I would walk into the dream and catch my step, from fast to slow. I would always pass by people unaware of the performance/ceremony and realize there was a shift in zone. These people thought we were crazy, or religious, or odd. I always savored the moment of being one of them, and then transitioning into the other side. I felt like presence made present, made people feel uncomfortable. Singing life, breathing to the leafless trees, the giant painted figure on the wall of the school, to the clouds, this opening moment was precious.
Wandering from the children playground to the venue at New York Live Arts, past the sex shop, the rainbow rising, the three ducks and not the Joyce, an imperceptible thread was being woven through the city. One night, I concentrated my thoughts on following the pathway of Minetta Creek. It was hard being a ghost without the ability to walk through people, theres so much making way in this city. In my silence, I often noticed alot of action at one particular restaurant. From people standing outside smoking, to people with dogs. For some strange reason I always felt underdressed at the same spot every night.
Making our way into the theatre, without fail every single night I would rush to the toilet before going to the stage. Again, it became a ritual, that was an odd reoccurrence. I would see myself every night, swish my hair in the mirror, notice that I was wearing the same outfit, and run back into the dream again. One time during a run through, I had turned the wrong way with Yumi, and ended up being very late to stage. Being late to your own dream scared me, so I never did that again.
The show, well, so much to say. I feel and know, that I saw something crystallize over the rehearsal and performance period, in a profound way I might never experience again. The dancers, Emily, Aretha and Krista, became my guides, they lived something every single time in this black box world, that engulfed us all. During the rehearsals, I thoroughly enjoyed my witnessing state, the room was filled with thirty participants, all there to watch, sing, move and pay attention. I introduced myself to Aretha and Krista immediately, it felt almost rude to be let into this intimacy, without announcing myself. I think if I were a ghost, I would be the kind that knocks the vase over.
I watched this dance happen and everytime it had an authenticity about it that breathed differently. I was entranced by Aretha, this gorgeous creature, fierce, warrior-like, sharp, powerful, she had a presence that bled over the stage. I was constantly checking in on Emily, feisty, emotive, breathy, full, she was unpredictable and unapologetic. And my heart warmed to Krista, this languid, swan like vessel of fluidity and warmth. She really can move. They were all so beautiful, so different and so connected.
As a choreographer myself, I watch for gaps, spaces, things that link, tried to decode their secret language and marveled to see that what looked like improvisation, would be the same night after night. And then somehow it wasn’t the same night after night. The movement was a combination of sitting, waiting, thinking, expressing, it had sustained periods of complexity and effort. I loved many of the scenes, and watched the same pathways over and over.
In this process I experienced my own journey in multiple ways knowing there was no way to replicate anything anyway. I felt exposed and seen, and then forgotten and unseen, I felt like I was contributing, and other times I felt like I was crowding the space. There was a message of humility that made me somehow compliant to something unspoken. I was always grateful for the moment that Georgia brought the plant over to the front of the stage. Somehow that plant made me feel real again, somehow it distracted people to think and consider something else. Over the show nights, I tried different approaches to being. That was hilarious I suppose, as it might have translated into the same thing. Like a leaf trying to fly a different angle, even though it was always still attached to the tree.
I think this piece might have a great power, and I constantly wondered if people noticed. Just in the same way that people might not notice the creek beneath the concrete. There was always a part in the show where it felt like it was our last song, and then there was still more of the show to do. These types of intersections interest me. What signals time, what shifts the moment, what more is to be said and done?
I didn’t attend some of the other events associated with the project, the first time because I had a severe case of disorientation and ended up catching so many types of public transport over a period of three hours still to end absolutely nowhere (according to my rapidly dying iPhone) that I gave up. Another time, I was just exhausted from the many activities I was doing in New York City. There was certainly something about getting around that city and having the energy to do it that I encountered my own resistance. I did however make it to the feast, remarkable also because I gave up going to a dear friends wedding just to be there. I would’t have felt complete if I didn’t and I suppose thats a testament to the type of work SHORE is. As I said before, Emily has that way that if she asks you, you just want to oblige. The Feast was a beautiful event, more salmon and oysters cooked on an open fire, a pleasant row in a canoe through a superfund site (I had to google superfund to know what that was), and my favourite, a final sing with Emily, Margot, Julia, Meredith and Ben to the setting sun. Yes, this is what we do right?
I am so grateful to reflect about these things, and I know it will be ongoing. I know that the depth and reach of SHORE is as unlimited as we make it. I thank Emily and Catalyst for their work, and also for introducing me personally to the concept of future joy. I send love back across the ocean, as I sit in my bed in Auckland, New Zealand, knowing time to stand together again will come, remembering we can indeed, be in two places at once.
At The Loft Literary Center, housed in Open Book in Minneapolis, Emily Johnson has gathered poets and writers from as far away as Thunder Bay and as close as Phillips. They are here for SHORE: STORY, the literary arts segment of her dynamic multidisciplinary project. There are sons and grandmothers and everyone in-between, reading, and we in the audience are consuming. Read aloud often enough and you know the audience is a living part of the craft. While the majority of the poets are Indigenous, there are also other races speaking their hearts and truths. Everyone’s shoreline is different. Someone says “sure, why not?” and that attitude strikes me as powerful. The writers address racial conflicts, talk to their community like a lover, relate a conversation with their child on a bike ride, allude to teaching creative writing to businessmen.
It had been a rainy few days before SHORE’s opening weekend. Or the part of SHORE that took place at the Northrop, at least – Emily Johnson’s SHORE is a multi-faceted project that existed in a number of different locations and spaces. Even the part that took place at the Northrop didn’t take place in the Northrop. Not initially. The first part of the performance had a few hundred people sitting on the great lawn outside, on the University of Minnesota’s mall, the oldest part of campus.
In the center of a long, low barn, a 30 foot table covered with a white tablecloth holds a dazzling array of homemade food: salads straight from the garden, an enormous platter of roasted pig, warm biscuits with strawberries and real whipped cream. White lights ramble across the rough walls, lending a celebratory feeling to this gathering. A side table offers dozens of plants to be taken home as a gift for each person. Quilt squares bearing a scrawled word or two are strung along the wall, each one invoking something we would like to see in our community. Everywhere I turn, there is an invitation to create, to share, and to participate. Outside a light rain is falling, as if blessing this event.
Emily Johnson’s SHORE gave me a keen sense that this artist, and the circle of artists with whom she collaborates, have been making their way toward me for a long time and vice versa. The stories of this new work emerge, strange and disturbing, and join the accumulating conversations with the works in this trilogy, The Thank-You Bar followed by Niicugni. Johnson’s works dwell in the liminal space between memoir and dream, intimate and mythical, dance and installation, continually working away at the boundaries between performers and audience.
In two parts of SHORE: PERFORMANCE, Emily Johnson tells stories out loud. She tells one standing on a pedestal on the grass of the University of Minnesota campus, pointing to a tree just down a ways from where we are sitting. “I think I remember that tree in my bones,” she says. Then she tells us about a dream she had during the SHORE production process. In the dream, she’s at rehearsal, and out the window sees an eagle and a hawk flying together in tandem, touching. She calls everyone over to see, and then the birds land right outside the window, and the eagle turns into a hawk, and the hawk turns into a baby, and the hawk holds onto the baby.
Emily Johnson tells me that the first time she realized she was dancing was when she was hugging a tree as a little girl and she felt it’s swaying and she realized she was swaying with it.
I like imagining dance like that: something you echo, something you already are. I thought of it often when I was watching Catalyst’s SHORE, as well as planting in the rain garden at East River Flats and participating in the feast at Foxtail Farm.
Wait, Emily told me the story of her dancing with the tree after I did all of those things. True, but didn’t the story of the tree at the top of SHORE move forward and backward through time, as if to say: the past, the future, the present, they are knotted together like roots?