Emily Johnson with Aretha Aoki in “Niicugni.”
By GIA KOURLAS
Published: January 4, 2013
MOMENTS after walking into a Chelsea cafe the choreographer Emily Johnson accepted a compliment for her vintage black-and-white brocade coat. But there was a catch. “You do,” she said as her blue eyes twinkled mischievously, “have to take it off awkwardly.”
Emily Johnson at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where her work will appear.
Ms. Johnson slipped her arms out of the sleeves, lowered the fabric to the floor and stepped out of it.
“It’s really a dress,” she said.
Fittingly, Ms. Johnson’s richly detailed dance-installations are full of surprises too. A Minneapolis artist originally from Alaska, Ms. Johnson returns to New York to present “Niicugni,” the second piece in a trilogy of works related to her Yupik heritage, at the Baryshnikov Arts Centerbeginning Wednesday. The presentation is part of Performance Space 122’s Coil Festival.
“Niicugni,” which means “listen” or, more specifically, “to pay attention,” is Ms. Johnson’s follow-up to “The Thank-you Bar,” a Bessie award-winning work that focused on ideas of displacement, as well as stereotypes about American Indians through a ritualistic layering of dance, music and storytelling. Even though she’s been choreographing since the mid 1990s, this work was the first in which she addressed her culture.
“I was just in physical pain missing Alaska,” she said. “ ‘The Thank-you Bar’ came out of that time.”
She had also begun working at Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis owned by the author Louise Erdrich that specializes in American Indian writers. It was there that Ms. Johnson began to immerse herself in her heritage; it “brought me home,” she said. While Ms. Johnson, who still works at the bookstore, didn’t set out to create a trilogy, it soon became apparent that “The Thank-you Bar” was just the beginning.
Structurally Ms. Johnson sees her new “Niicugni” (nee-CHOOG-nee) as encompassing “The Thank-you Bar.” Within an installation of 51 handmade fish-skin lanterns, created by Ms. Johnson and participants from workshops held in conjunction with residencies around the country, the work explores ideas about how a place, including a body, can tie everything and everyone together. It focuses on the wholeness of land, rather than its territorial borders.
“I know what it feels like to walk on the land I grew up on,” she said. “It’s very spongy. The trees and the ground smell earthy and piney. I’m really interested in not forgetting that there’s ground underneath this floor, and that we are all connected, via land, via ground, even in the sense that the ground is made of the remains of all creatures that have ever existed, including our ancestors.”
In “Niicugni” Ms. Johnson performs intricate duets with the dancer Aretha Aoki; some of the choreography is rooted in improvisations that required them to imagine they were dancing on earth. Part of the inspiration for the piece came from a picture of a mountain. “You see a huge physical structure that seems so permanent and so still, but then you can see where there was maybe a rock slide,” Ms. Johnson said. “You can see the precariousness of it. The contradiction between presence and movement is a possibility at every moment.”
There’s also a political current running throughout the piece. One story she tells relates to land in a remote part of the state that her father was given through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. “It’s so far away from where we live,” she said. “How do we build a relationship to this land? What does it mean to be given land that was taken away and comes back?”
Ms. Johnson is the anchor of this installation of movement, stories and song. As with “The Thank-you Bar” her presence, at first, seems gentle. Ms. Johnson’s soft, clear voice makes her a seductive storyteller. Still, her words and, at times, disembodied delivery have bite. In “Niicugni,” a tale about how a monster bit off her ear, is a metaphor for how territory is dismantled throughout the world. “My body has come from colonization,” she explained. “That holds a lot of monsters. I couldn’t think about my connection to land and disregard that.”
As with “The Thank-you Bar” the musicians — the violinist Rachel Golub and the work’s composer, James Everest — perform movement sequences as they play. (Mr. Everest is also Ms. Johnson’s husband.) And even though the proscenium arrangement of “Niicugni” presents challenges, Ms. Johnson is intent on creating a single space that blurs the separation between the performers and the audience.
A canopy of lanterns stretches from the stage to the seats. Several contain speakers; the effect, Mr. Everest said, is like a pipe organ. “Each speaker has its own sound, and we can move the sounds, meaning from the back of the space to front,” he said. “Or it can go in a circle. It has many parts, but they become a whole. They play as one.”
Ms. Johnson has also enlisted a group of about 40 people who will sit in the audience but appear onstage from time to time to perform simple gestural movements. The result is a cycle of energy, in which audience members spill in and out of the piece. “You start to look to the side and notice — oh, we’re all in this room together,” Ms. Johnson said. “Can we pay attention to the fact that we are all here, and we will all be gone? What is our presence, and what is our absence?”
Finding such participants has been a crucial part of “Niicugni.” The lanterns were created at a residency at Vermont Performance Lab. “I think it’s very brave in the contemporary dance world to let all these others into your work,” the lab director, Sara Coffey, said. “You don’t always have control of what that’s going to be. I think Emily, as an artist, wants a place to rub off on her work as much as she wants to rub off on the place where she’s performing.”
As Ms. Johnson sees it, the lanterns carry stories. “There is the story of the fish that migrated for thousands of miles, the fish that fed people,” she said. “There is all the energy put into the object, and then the relationships and conversations that developed during the workshops. That process is the dance itself. It is as important as what is onstage. If you’re sitting in an audience, you might not get that whole story, but that story is there.”