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. A few hundred people, sitting expectantly on the great lawn as summer term students walked by, no sign of rain overhead. There was a sense of relief and excitement in the crowd. Most of them likely knew that part of the piece was going to be happening outside, and probably had been watching the weather forecasts carefully in the days leading up to the weekend.
There was a sense of excitement in the crowd, too, that couldn’t be explained solely by the audience’s relief at the meteorological situation. Taking a performance out of a traditional performance venue and letting it happen outside, with the full expectation that conditions can change and affect the piece in ways you can’t anticipate, is always an exciting thing to be a part of. How’s the artist going to handle it? I have been racked with anxiety in the past, seeing outdoor performances and watching the artist strut around anxiously on the sidelines, looking as if they’re trying to impose their art on the elements by sheer force of will. Very stressful for the artist, and for the audience, too.
Nothing like that on Northrup Mall, though. Emily walked to the center of the crowd out a few minutes after 7 p.m., stood on top of a box and introduced the piece with a sense of easygoing grace, humor and generosity. Her introduction involved recounting a dream she’d had, of a bird in flight, a lot like a bird who’d just soared overhead, making its way to the banks of the Mississippi River, just blocks away but hidden from sight by the trees and buildings on campus. I came with a friend who’d honestly been wary of the whole enterprise – she was expecting Difficult Art, and I think she was expecting chilliness, distance, impenetrability. But watching Emily on top of the box, addressing the assembled crowd as one would address a friend or a confidante – amazing how even the presence of a small, crackling speaker and microphone couldn’t diminish the intimacy of the moment – I thought I felt my friend’s misgivings fade away.
I barely remember how Emily’s opening remarks faded into the piece itself – at some point, she stepped off the box to gratified applause and joined the mass of dancers assembling on the other side of the lawn. But this is the nature of SHORE and the genius of Emily’s work. It is in expressing that dreamlike sense of traveling from one place to another and not being certain, upon arrival, how one got there. Enough time has passed from when I am writing these words and thinking back on the four events of SHORE – the reading at the Loft, the performance at the Northrup, the clean-up on the Mississippi, the meal at the Foxtail Farm in Wisconsin – that I have trouble distinguishing the chronology. The first minutes – maybe the first half-hour? – of SHORE, out on the mall, are of a line of singers, slowly walking forward and voices rising and falling, blending into the atmospheric sounds of a campus in the summer in the evening around them. They walk forward, draw back, walk forward, drop back, and before you’re consciously aware of the fact, they’re all around you, the wall of sound completely enveloping you. Like a shoreline. Like sitting on a beach – a grimy Minneapolis river beach on the Mississippi or a cold, pristine Kenai Peninsula beach on the Gulf of Alaska – and letting the water move over the shoreline, over your toes and feet, over the course of an afternoon.
The rest of those events that collectively made up SHORE flow in and out of one another in the same way. Emily’s incredible network of friends, allies and collaborators lent their voices throughout, popping up at various times and threading together the disparate parts of the geographically and temporally varied SHORE experience. Here is Ben Weaver, reading a prose poem on Washington Avenue about bicycling with his son across the Mississippi River, and here he is again, in a field in Wisconsin, singing a song about that same river and surrounded in that marsh by these tiny little frogs jumping around people’s feet. Or Nona Marie Invie, standing onstage inside the Northrup and singing a lonely song with that otherworldly voice, and then here she is again, scooping a plateful of scalloped potluck potatoes in a barn in front of you in line. Or the writer Jayal Chung, at the Loft, having come all the way from Thunder Bay, Ontario for the event on a Tuesday evening, an impossible distance, an international journey that serves as a sort of shorthand for collapsing distance and time.
I thought of her trip when I was driving to Osceola, Wisconsin a few days later – not my own relatively short drive from Minneapolis, but the fact that I was meeting a friend who’d been driving the opposite direction from New England with a friend to meet me at the potluck. (It’s amazing the distances people will travel for SHORE.) He was worried there wouldn’t be space at the potluck for some guy from out of state, but I told him he wouldn’t have to worry, I’d included him in the registration, he’d be accounted for. And he was. We all were.
The man dropping my friend off was traveling even further west. He had to leave earlier, so bidding us all farewell, he gestured to the scene around him: “What a place. What sweet people,” he said, sounding grateful and almost embarrassed. He was right. In that week, SHORE created its own world, outside time and space, but encompassing so much beyond those things.