Emily Johnson: Dancing Her Way Back to Alaska

by Konnie LeMay

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.

“It was the study of improvisation particularly that resonated with me. … I always loved moving,” she said. “I could have this love of movement, but it didn’t have to be related to winning. That just really resonated with me.”

Yet in her ensuing career as a choreographer, performer and director of the performance project company Catalyst, Johnson has been a winner. She has earned a string of awards, the latest being a $20,000 grant from the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation to develop her project with the working title Niicugni—Yup’ik for “Listen.”

Johnson grew up about 130 miles south of Anchorage, in Sterling, Alaska, where she spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and fishing. In Clam Gulch along the Kenai Peninsula coast, the family spent time in her grandmother’s tavern, The Que-Ana Bar, cleaning clams and listening to classic country on the jukebox.

She played on the basketball team and was a long-distance runner, but admits to being anxious before every race. Despite her massive success in dance, she admits she’s still overcoming those pre-show jitters.

“I’ve really had to work on nerves, but somehow with performing, there’s something that you get. You’re building this relationship. I love that so much, it can be worth it.”

Johnson’s “performance installations,” which she has performed before audiences throughout the United States and in Canada and Russia, are energetic and intelligent, combining storytelling, video, movement and music. In The Thank-you Bar, touring this year, performers create a sense of space by seating audiences on stage and performing around them. The program is coupled with an exhibition curated by Johnson and Carolyn Lee Anderson, a Diné visual artist. This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity features written and visual arts by 46 artists from 19 tribal nations.

The Thank-you Bar invokes the longing for home that Johnson finds is universal. Its title refers to a place from her own youth: Her grandmother’s Que-Ana Bar. The Yup’ik word for “thank you” isquyana.

“It was wonderful to premiere that piece in Alaska. It is so much about missing Alaska and missing where I’m from.”

In The Thank-you Bar, Johnson takes the audience through a series of vignettes, stories of displacement and home, often accompanied a duo of musicians-composers, Joel Pickard and her husband, James Everest. She incorporates props into many of the pieces, entering onto the stage on short stilts, echoing wood-on-wood. She ends the piece in a small wading pool filled with leaves, telling a story of the blackfish, a species native to Alaska known for its hardy adaptability.

Click here to see video clips of Emily Johnson’s The Thank-you Bar and Niicugni.

The piece links past and future. “When you are displaced … by choice or by force, you are put somewhere. You have to build another home. You have to make sense of this place, and you have to live your life fully in this place.”

Art as Johnson practices it is something of a team sport. As a choreographer, director or curator, she taps the talents of others to express a shared vision. She engages the musicians and other performers, negotiating and examining specific choices. “That way of working together is really exciting because everyone I’m working with is so invested in the process.”

The Thank-you Bar will influence Niicugni, her new project. “It’s a little more particularly about where I’m from … about identity, that connection between identity and where we are from and that connection between our bodies and the land. … (When) you’re holding a finger full of soil, you’re also holding the world. There’s this wholeness in that thought. … It’s not only listening as hearing, but also in paying attention.

“I love when somebody after a performance comes and tells me, ‘This made me think of this,’ and then they tell me a story. It somehow then opens up time a little bit, it becomes the past and the future at the same time. It’s the best way to access these deep parts of ourselves.”

Johnson accesses her life with each project. “All of my works are Yup’ik because I am. I think being Yup’ik influences everything I do.”

Perhaps that is why performing The Thank-you Bar before her grandmother was so moving. Even the retelling left her a little misty-eyed. “It was just so big, so big,” Johnson said. “To have her be there, and proud, and my family, too. At the end, we were bowing and my grandmother, both her and my mother, came up and gave me a gift—a Yup’ik language dictionary.”

The dictionary is a practical item for someone who is always asking questions about the language, but it was also a hint from her mother and grandmother that she ought to study it harder. “It was a gift,” she quips, “but also was little kick.”

A gift, then, that reflects well what Johnson most wants to give to her audiences.