APAP Dispatch No. 1: Ancestral Plants & Animals

Emily Johnson and Aretha Aoki in Johnson’s “Niicugni.” Presented by Performance Space 122 and Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of PS122’s COIL festival. Photo: Chris Cameron.

By Siobhan Burke

So much has happened between then and now. The usher told Baryshnikov (oh look, it’s Baryshnikov) how much she loves “the space.” The critics clustered on the sidewalk, debating what they liked. (For me it was “the dancing.”) Walking, waiting, talking; waiting, parting, walking. The theater of the to-and-from. The spectacle of everything that, officially, is not one.

It had been one of those days of trudging around the Internet—physically stationed in front of the screen, cognitively roving. Everywhere you went, people were trashing the narcissistic writer—the comment threads ablaze—and influenza viruses were making the front page. One of those days where you felt like, thank goodness for 7:30; for this other person’s curiosity; for delicate hand-made materials; for presence in the space; for respiration, circulation; bones sliding into sockets, muscles hugging the bones; protective constellations of membranes, follicles, pores. For this other person asking nothing more than show up, pay attention, listen.

I sat down. Here, up above us, were the fish-skin lanterns, more ordinary than I’d pictured, but still, each one a rough-hewn work of art, sewn by hands in five United States. A wooden box made its way through the rows, passing between the pairs of hands in this room. When it reached mine, I clasped the firm sides and peered through the thin slits into the yellow glow. I stroked the patch of soft white fur on top. I tried to pry it open, and failing, passed it to the right.

The canopy of lights, all 47 of them, dimmed. Two undulating bodies, lying on their sides, came into view, somehow locomoting from far away to closer. Swift, efficient undulations—like fish, we can be sure of that. Sockeye salmon, halibut. Each dancer, disguised as herself, tore off her paper mask, the first of many sheddings. Later, one of them would piece hers back together rather tragically, slow-dancing with the other. Were they one, or two—or neither?

“Do you remember that story I told you about the tree? I’ll tell it again,” said Emily Johnson, who lives in Minneapolis but grew up in Alaska, who’s been making work inspired by her Yup’ik ancestry, her line of “warriors, fishers, weavers, drunks,” (or by ancestors, more generally), and who called this one Niicugni, which means “listen.” The tree has ears, a belly, knees, a mother to stitch it up when “the monster” leaves. The monster who “funneled my blood into a jar and counted every drop,” who relentlessly fails to understand that the land is the people and the people are the land.

Land evolves, and so do dances: cultivated, stripped away, continuously morphing. (Even this building, she later intones, sprang up on top of buried bones.) “There used to be a completely different dance here. It was like—” then she rattles off the shimmies, high-kicks, squats, in her electric earthy way: is this ironic? Or just meant to expose what comes and goes on the way to a “finished product”?

It’s hard to tell what’s real and what is not here, what’s sincere. “Don’t ask me if this story is real. It is real,” she (or maybe that’s Aretha Aoki, her wily almost-twin) contends, around the time she recollects the interloping backyard bear, who stole the plums and berries, who (her father said) predated her and would outlive her too—so let him be. (She found that “kind of cheesy.” Should we?) Which came after the tall tale of the swooping hawk and the wayward duck—now wrapped in a sweater backstage—on the roof of the Baryshnikov Arts Center earlier that day. Which, it turned out, “was not the story I meant to tell you.”

Within our present circumstances, interlopers take the form of people from the audience who come onstage and leave again—some with sloping shoulders and a murky sense of purpose that reminds you how much training it can take to simply stand. There’s the woman with the violin, the man with the guitar; the mothers with their toddlers, and the sudden band of skateboarders with jeans and lowered eyes.

I can appreciate the sentiment (communities, generations). The thing is, they keep pulling you away from these two characters, these women, ghosts, or animals. Ecstatic, breathless dances say a lot, and say enough—the vector of an arabesque, the wildly sculpting fingers, or the bounding, shimmering run. Before the lanterned darkness empties us back out, let’s take more time to listen to these ingenious muscles, nerves, and bones that channel the migrating fish, the statuesque fox, the eternal swaggering bear.


Siobhan Burke writes for The Brooklyn RailThe New York Times and Dance Magazine, where she is an associate editor.