Emily Johnson in conversation with Ain Gordon

Choreographer Emily Johnson speaks with writer/director/actor Ain Gordon about Niicugni, co-presented by Performance Space 122 and Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of COIL 2013.  Niicugni is part 2 of her trilogy of works, which include The Thank-you Bar, winner of a 2012 Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance, and part 3, SHORE, to premiere in 2014. She discusses her research around the act of gathering, her Alaska upbringing, storytelling in performance, the impact of physical land and cultural heritage, and the importance of paying attention.

Ain: The first thing that is occurring to me is that press materials say this is the second in a trilogy; I’m wondering when you knew you were making a trilogy?

Emily: I knew at some point during the creation of Niicugni. It didn’t start out that way…actually it was in discussion with James [Everest]. I really can’t pinpoint the exact time but early on in the development at some point he noticed these threads that were sort of pulling from The Thank-you Bar and expanding into Niicugni. What I love about knowing it’s a trilogy is seeing how the works themselves are teaching me that. I don’t think I could have set out to make a trilogy but now I see that even though the idea came after, The Thank-you Bar encompasses it within some of the concepts and frameworks of Niicugni, and now in this next piece called SHORE which I’m just starting to develop, the structure really came from what I learned making Niicugni.

Ain: And how did you decide or pretend to decide that it is a trilogy as opposed to a quadrate, etc?

Emily: Well…I give myself permission to change that.


Trilogy is something I can wrap my head around. The Thank-you Bar premiered in 2009 and SHORE will premiere in 2014, which is not too long of a time span, but I think trilogy makes sense. I will also find out while making SHORE what is called for next. It might be related, who knows.

Ain: Do you have desire to see The Thank-you Bar and Niicugni side by side?

Emily: Yes. And I have a dream of all three being together–I think it would be really great for me to see what that’s like because so far it’s just a conceptual idea. It would be really great for audiences, to learn to watch another by the one that came before, which is the great thing about a series of works. Of course we could also look at all works like that in someone’s trajectory, how they sort of cycle back and comment upon one another or converse with one another. It’s easier to frame it as a trilogy so it can make sense for people.

Ain: That interests me too, that notion of “is anyone ever not making a trilogy? How do we frame that so we look at it that way?” And the notion of you looking at some of your heritage in relation to contemporary work; I am wondering how you think about it. You mention the ancients in the blurb, how you think about the ancients in relation to contemporary materials, how does that work for you? How do you get those two things to go together?

Emily: I’m thinking like that all the time, so it’s in my work as well. In Niicugni we are thinking about the land that we’re on, so when we are at Baryshnikov Arts Center we’re thinking about the land that’s underneath, holding the building up and supporting all of us in that building in that theater at that moment in time together, and also how that land moves in all directions out from that place and in a sense connects us all to places that we all know more intimately or places that we are from, places where our ancestors are from. As I was thinking about that while making Niicugni, I was also thinking about the actual matter of that ground, the fact that it’s made of all of our ancestors and all remains of all creatures who have ever lived and we will eventually become the ground. So acknowledging the cycle that is present in our lives, but that we often don’t think about. When we’re walking down the sidewalk we don’t always think about the ground that is actually underneath and supporting us. I’m trying to think about that in Niicugni and how in some ways that’s something in common across the whole world.

Ain: So my question is that if you consider the different land on which the piece happens when it travels, I know that that could change how you inhabit the material; does the material change in a visible way for an audience from place to place?

Emily: There are parts where that can happen; there are parts that can be different on different nights, but I think more important than that, than how it might look differently, is how the performers in the piece (and especially Aretha [Aoki] and I) embody that difference every night or how we let ourselves be available and open to those differences every night. And it actually is different every night, rather than just in every location.  Sometimes we are trying to access past and sometimes we are trying to access future, and in both of those we are trying to be very present, so that changes every night, and we need to be really available for those changes. That isn’t something that an audience member might see visually but could feel.

Ain: And when the two of you try to access those things, how does that operate in relation to her cultural heritage versus your cultural heritage, and how you’re thinking about that in the piece or even in the title of the piece?

Emily: Well there are a couple things. Again, we rooted it in land. We started this in Vermont at Vermont Performance Lab and we went outside in one of our first rehearsals and we were dancing on the ground, improvising and watching each other improvise. We would be standing on that ground and we would try to physically put ourselves, with all of our might, our minds, our thoughts, our bodies, on the land where we were born. Obviously, we were still in Vermont but we were dancing on the land where we were born, the land where we consider ourselves from (which may or may not be the land where we were born), the land where we consider home now and the land where we physically were at that moment. So we tried to put ourselves in these four different places and we tried to notice how those different places had an effect on our thoughts, feelings, actions, bodies, all of it. As a viewer, I tried to see what those changes might be. Then we really worked with those changes–they were quite drastic, quite different. For us then, because we rooted land in terms of the people who are from that land making up that land, we were already bringing ancestors into the conversation, dancing with and for and even about ourselves but also our pasts and our futures. So that became ingrained from the very beginning, and differences weren’t necessarily about our different cultural heritages, differences were that Aretha is from Vancouver and I’m from Alaska, and how we know our different lands differently; that’s where our conversations went.

Ain: Your physical conversations.

Emily: Yeah.

Emily Johnson and Aretha Aoki in Niicugni, Photo by Chris Cameron

Ain: It’s something I think about even in terms of text-based work that I make. You’re talking about, in a way, embodying narrative, and I’m wondering what your relationship is with the audience having any literal or not literal recognition of the embodied narrative.

Emily: I believe that the recognition can be there or is there. I don’t try to obscure things purposefully, but I don’t necessarily need for an audience to know even what I just told you: that an audience knows that whole back-story is not necessary. That Aretha and I and the other performers know it intimately is so necessary so we can be present in that action on stage in front of people, and as long as we are present in that, there is recognition. It might not be a verbal recognition, nobody might look at us and say, “oh now you’re…” That would be ridiculous and not at all what I’m aiming for, but I’m aiming for us to connect to something bigger than just being there on stage. I think aiming for that or trying that is recognizable, and as an audience member I appreciate that–I appreciate striving for something bigger than just watching bodies move on a stage. What’s behind that movement, what’s ingrained into the movement and what permeates off of that movement, is what’s exciting to me, and I try to make work that does that and that provokes recognition or questions or thoughts or memories.

Ain: So when you’re doing as you’re doing now with SHORE, when you’re first beginning to think about the new work, what is the order of events in terms of figuring out that landscape of things you want to think about through the body, and what the body does, what comes first? How do they arrive for you?

Emily: Its really very different, it’s always different. With The Thank-you Bar it was this story that I wrote about a fish that never dies, that was the beginning. And that was written as I was having an intense longing for my home back in Alaska, so that’s the start of that piece. Niicugni started when James and I were at a gallery in Alaska and we saw this exhibit, a visual art exhibit of work made of fish skin and that started this need to learn how to work with fish skin. At the same time my dad had received some land via the Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act so as I was looking at the map where that land was, trying to figure out how to build a relationship to this land, how do we belong to land, how do we relate to land, all of these questions were around. For Niicugni, we made all of these lanterns with volunteers across the country. The process of working with people who will volunteer for five days at a time to make this object for this performance piece–just learning that people will come together to make things together was just amazing to me, and I was so honored by that. SHORE is moving in that direction. All I know about SHORE right now is a structure: that I want to continue to research this act of gathering–for feasting, volunteering, coming together to watch performance, tell stories. Why do we gather in certain places to attend an event, make something, eat together? We do this, and with SHORE I know I want to continue that research. SHORE will be a day of feasting, a day of volunteerism, a day of curated storytelling, and performance that happens on a stage. This will happen on different days and I want to think about all of the parts as equal. If you come to the feast you’ve been to SHORE. If you watch a show you’ve also been to SHORE, and its not more important than if you came to the feast. And related to the trilogy, I wouldn’t have perhaps come to this curiosity about gathering, volunteers and feasting if I hadn’t been paying attention to how Niicugni was being made.

Ain: Did you end up making lanterns in New York too or had you finished that?

Emily: Our last workshop was in Arizona in September. We may make some more in the future in different places based on interest in doing that.

Ain: It also feeds the next part of the cycle; it can be an ancillary to the middle of the cycle and feed the next cycle. My last question for you–when taking the experiences and inspiration of your homeland and the people you come from and putting them, in effect, onto a stage in front of another community, do you have questions or feel permission or how do you look at the rights and responsibilities of using that source material in another environment?

Emily Johnson in Niicugni, Photo by Cameron Wittig

Emily: I am absolutely inspired by the land that I grew up on in Alaska and I’m absolutely inspired by the way of living that my family taught me or that the land taught me, and I’m inspired by my culture that is based in Alaska, and I’m inspired by the different food tradition, harvesting salmon, the migration of salmon, the migration of animals that we hunt and gather through the year. I’m definitely inspired by how my life was shaped by where I grew up. I’m careful to say that I don’t “take” inspiration, I try not to “take” inspiration from anything. I try to see how my life has been shaped by my inspirations. I’m sitting here looking at this beautiful tree in Minnesota; it’s full of birds, the light is hitting the ice on it, and there’s a red cardinal on the roof. I mean, this is gorgeous. It’s beautiful and inspiring, and I think Alaska taught me how to pay attention -Niicugni means “pay attention.” I try to pay attention to the world and I try to see how my work is in conversation with the world. I don’t want it to be made in these bubbles and be in theaters that don’t have avenues to the rest of the world, it’s just not what I want to make. I’m not saying I’m an ambassador of any heritage or of any place at all–what I make comes from me and then hopefully is broad enough to relate, like I said, to the world and to people and to creatures in a way that I don’t need permission to make a work that has, for example, fish skin work in it. But, I need to make those in a very honorable and thankful way, I need to thank all of those fish, we need to eat all of those fish, they need to be wild and sustainably caught. As I teach people to make the lanterns, the conversation always turns to my love of fish, and the process of making Niicugni. The work that everybody else is doing gathered around the table sewing these lanterns–it’s the process of making something that I think has to be rooted in respect. It was funny because I’ve been making work since 1998, and I think early on text and words and songs and stories were there but I never said them.


I’d have other performers says stories and words and texts, and if it was a solo, I’d find devices, tape-record it. It took me a long time to find the courage to say a story on stage. And I don’t think that’s because of a “dancers shouldn’t say words” thing, I think it was really, “can I do this? Can I say stories on stage?” Because storytelling is so important in so many cultures, all cultures really, and I think I was afraid at first because I really felt that “do I have permission to do this?” question.  One of my teachers is Kate Taluga, who is a storyteller, from the Creek community near Tallahassee, and that was my first question to her: “can I say stories on stage?”; she was like, “well, are they your stories?” And they were! I was so nervous about saying stories; she was like, “tell people that!” So in The Thank-you Bar that is written in, I make light of it that I’m new at saying stories.  Perhaps now I’m more used to it, and maybe I was being overly cautious, but it was a very true and honest question that I had at the time, one that I had to process.

Ain: And you can. To get to feel like you could inhabit that place as the performer, creator…that makes sense to me.

That seems like a good end.