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.