SHORE: Minneapolis ESSAY by Jacqueline Shea Murphy

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. So just a few days ago, Emily explains, she was standing right here, practicing this story, when she looked up at the sky and saw a hawk, and a silver airplane, flying like this. They looked like they were going to collide. She had to watch until they passed.  When they did, she had a sudden memory of the ground shifting beneath her feet. “I was here, and I was home. I was the tree, and I was me. I was alive, and I wasn’t yet born.” 

The other story Emily tells comes towards the end of the “indoor” installation part of the piece. It is about a whale. “The whale enters the room, opens its mouth, water pours out…,“ she says, but before she gets too far into the story, the Anonymous Choir singers that flank the front parts of the stage (they are there always, sitting or humming or singing or taking sips of water) sing loudly and forcefully over the story, repeating parts in ways that drown it out. “They want to touch it, want to remember… “ Emily says before the Choir singers come in with a loud, “Smells of rain…,” making the rest of what Emily is saying -- “sounds we forgot of our mother’s…”-- mostly unintelligible. All we get are snippets. Yet, as it repeats it starts to makes sense, in an evocative kind of way, if I listen hard enough and with more attunement within the cacophony and don’t get distracted by the tall woman who is conducting the singers in such a metered, intensely focused way: a sense of something big -- of yearning, for return to a mother-like womb-like embrace. 

These stories and storytellings frame the SHORE performance with suggestive, insistent, inclusive, recognition of connections to things before and after and outside of ourselves, whatever “ourselves” might be. They come with flashes of excitement where meanings cohere (it’s all about transformation! And being constituted through relations with one another! Across time and space!) and flashes of excitement when they don’t (or….maybe I’m not getting it at all?). It prods us to sense the connections we have--to one another, to the human and non-human entities around us --as well as the yearnings for connections that are, at the moment, not quite so clear. It prods us to recognize the joy and sadness and challenge and danger and intense and intimate beauty of these connections and relations and transformations, as well as of the yearning for them. 

The rest of the piece embodies these muffled connections, yearnings, and dream-like flashes of definition, and how quirky and fun, and full of love and joy if we tend to each other, moving amongst them can be. The dancers, with their red striped eyes, seem a bit like birds, in the clouds (are we in a dream state?). The colors are bright and fun. Things feel blurry, though not uncertain – just difficult to delineate. The dancer in red, Aretha, wears a fake mustache. She and the other dancers wear parkas over their costumes that cover them up. Emily, in yellow, gets up and moves, arms out wing-like, but only subtly so (bird? Not bird? Bird-ish?).  

Throughout, the lines between all kinds of things are blurred: between performance and real life, like how Emily walking around at the start, with a sign that says Gather Here, greeting some of us individually, is both part of the performance and just saying hello. “This is awesome,” she says, looking around at us all from the pedestal, after telling the tree/bird story. “I’ve been trying to think of the most joyous moment in my life, but I wasn’t sure what it is.  I think it might be right now.”  People cheer. Then she calls out to and thanks a couple of friends by name, and says to the rest of us that, if we could all help each other get to the theater together, that would be really great. “And—if someone could help me down?” We have all have exchanged our tickets for nametags, and are wearing them like it’s a big meet-and-greet cocktail party reunion. Of course we’ll help her down.

Likewise, things are blurred between performance and production. We see the stage rigging on both sides of the theater; we see the costume changes; we see someone sitting on a stool the whole performance and then pulling a rope so that fake snow flutters down. Things are blurred between dance performance and dance training. “If I could just…reach… a little bit….more…,” Aretha the Red dancer says, lifting her leg higher and higher onto a man (one of the few men in the piece) in the Physical Choir lineup. Later Krista, in Orange, does flailing jumping jacks alongside her across-the-diagonal Impressive Dance Moves. Things are blurred between “choreographic structure” and just movement, like when the dancers do this hunched galloping move, coming into and out of patterns and into and out of paths of contact with one another. Watching, I have no idea what the pattern is. It seems both random, and not random. The dancers turn and make sounds with their bodies; Emily slaps on the ground with her feet, such a commotion. The bright colors, the talk of joy, this playful feeling: there’s a sense of lightness and fun in it all, even if I can’t quite figure out what or why. 

The next day, at the Volunteering action, while we are hunched over planting seedlings in the rain garden, Emily tells me the feet slapping is the sound of basketball, her first love, the sound basketball makes, feet on the court, running.  And the patterns I can’t make sense of? Those are from basketball: the dancers watched and learned the paths of one Chicago Bulls game, the 1991 championship with the LA Lakers. Emily said, it’s always somewhat arbitrary how you make choreographic patterns – so why not choose the paths a player makes in a basketball game as the ones to follow?  Basketball was her first love, she tells me again.

In SHORE: PERFORMANCE, we see the all that has been incorporated into the piece as it’s been made, blurring the space between process and production, like the parkas the dancers wear over their outfits. (Emily tells me the coats are part of the piece’s accumulation: one of the studios they worked in was cold. They put on parkas. The parkas stayed in the piece.) We see the marking and unmarking of identity, the merging around the many things we are. Take, for example, Emily’s Yup’ik family background and connection to Native communities. At one point, a huge bright red curtain drops behind the Physical Choir group. They shimmer in its glow, and two side panels descend, with images of fish on them, though subtly so. (Photographs of her family’s fish strips, Emily tells me, real photos, scanned and overlaid upon one another to create an abstract pattern.) The word “Que-Ana” is written on one:  a version of “thank you” in Yup’ik, and the name of Emily’s grandmother’s bar and house, in Alaska, which is also the “Thank-you Bar” of the first part of Emily’s trilogy. It brings back that piece, as well part 2 of Emily’s trilogy, Niicugni, which signaled its relation to Emily’s Yup’ik family background through its title, through its use of salmon skin lanterns, through its stories, which evoked colonizing violence: the cutting apart of a person, the drops of blood that have to be counted. Here, in SHORE, the relation to Emily’s Yup’ik background and to Native peoples and histories are suggestive and momentary, flashes registering part of Emily’s story and of Native presence and community. Then the red curtain and fish side panels rise, and it looks like culturally unmarked contemporary dance stage again: there’s Krista in Orange doing swoopy dances, with claw-like hands, neck arched up. (Is she a bird? I seem to be stuck on this bird thing.) Later, a five-year old boy with a braid down his back, in long shorts and hi-top sneakers, does Grass Dance steps across the floor, head forward, braid bobbing, before rejoining the Physical Choir across the stage.

Then there’s gender. Is Aretha, wearing the mustache, supposed to be male? Is it just for fun? Maybe it’s just something in vogue these days, play mustaches--one of the piece’s accumulations. Maybe it gets us to think about gender and costuming, what we put on as signs, how they mean and how they don’t: what’s not so stable in what people see us as. I am struck by how peripheral the men are in SHORE, and how present the intimacy is between women, who are leading pretty much everything. Two of the dancers (I think it’s Emily and Krista) come forward and hug, embracing deeply. They stand forehead to forehead for a long time. It’s like throat singing, I think, except the Anonymous Choir is doing the singing part. It’s so close and sensual but strikingly a-sexual. There is a sense of intimacy, and emptiness, and space. I think how SHORE shows us women who embrace each other deeply and hold hands as they cross the stage in a diagonal band of light, voices singing, so that we see how difficult and intense and beautiful a simple thing, like holding hands and crossing a stage together, can be. 

On the pedestal out at the start, before asking us to help each other get inside, Emily says, “I think that our future, if we want it to be, could be really joyous.”  The performance makes me think: yes, in flashes, despite everything, the uncertainties and blurriness and times when we just don't know, yes maybe. When the piece is closing, the dancers and singers all walk off stage, and we clap, and they come back for the curtain call. Then they leave again, and we start to pack up. But wait-- faintly, I can still hear the Choir singing, from the lobby. I flash on an image of them singing together, with a sense of, oh right, that’s the point: it doesn’t end with the curtain call.