Originally from Alaska, Emily Johnson currently lives and works in New York City, though her forward-thinking productions have seen her travel both nationally and globally. An Indigenous artist of Yup’ik descent, Johnson has always been far-reaching in her work. While choreographic explorations are part of her multifaceted projects, she has been concerned with environmental and societal issues and deeply involved in audience engagement, enhancing her role as an artist with important aspects of community organizing and activism.
On an evening in early June, before the sun had gone down, a bonfire blazed outside Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. Handmade quilts lined the steps of the outdoor amphitheater. Anyone walking down Grand Street could come in and take a seat.
As a group of singers arranged themselves around a large cylindrical drum, the choreographer Emily Johnson stood up to speak a few careful, welcoming words.
Sixteen years ago, Emily Johnson moved from her home in rural Alaska to Minneapolis intending to become a physical therapist.
Then dance happened.
She had to drop an overbooked class and needed to schedule another in the same time slot. She chose “Beginning Modern Dance,” then took the next level, and then “Discovery of Improvisation.” It was a life-changer for the young Yup’ik woman, who had always loved the outdoors and sports.
Dancemaker, choreographer, and storyteller Emily Johnson combines personal stories and powerful movement in her latest work The Thank-you Bar, which debuted in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium. Johnson believes that anything can be dance: Our physical responses to the world is where dance begins. Johnson's philosophy about movement can be seen in her previous work Heat and Life, (2004) which was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to engage the controversial topic of global warming.
The November performance of The Thank-You Bar, created by Minneapolis dance maker Emily Johnson with musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard of Blackfish, didn't begin inside a theater. Instead, audience members entered a gallery space in the Northrop Auditorium building. The exhibition on view, curated by Johnson with Carolyn Lee Anderson and titled "This Is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity," set the tone for a deeply personal examination of the constants and changes that shape an individual's relationship to home.
In 2002, you could have seen Emily Johnson's Plain Old Andrea, with a Gun at the Southern Theater as part of the Momentum series. In 2004, you could have seen her Heat and Lifeat the Soap Factory, presented by the Walker. But since then, you'd have to be either lucky or savvy to catch Johnson -- she's performed primarily at various small venues (the BLB, the Rogue Buddha Gallery) or in site-specific explorations (Landmark at the Stone Arch Bridge).