Time to rethink first impressions

Choreographer Emily Johnson used to set herself a solid rule: never use the words "tradition" or "contemporary" when discussing her work. Simple enough, you would think, but when you're an indigenous artist - in Johnson's case, of the Yup'ik people of the Alaskan peninsula - it amounts to defying a world that wants to pigeonhole your art into one of those two categories.

Arts Journal Review, SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)

Arts Journal Review, SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)

Emily Johnson’s Shore, the third part of a trilogy that was preceded by the Bessie-award-winning The Thank-You Bar and Nicugni, did not consist only of the performance that appeared at New York Live Arts from April 23-25. Beginning April 19, there were related community action events (land, water, and dune restoration) in the Rockaways and on Governors Island, a curated reading of stories on Rutgers Slip in downtown Manhattan, and a final potluck feast at the North Brooklyn Boat Club. The Governor’s Island event focused on the efforts to reseed the oyster beds that once existed in the waters there. Twenty partnering organizations are listed in the program insert. For Johnson, art should not be separated from community.

New York Times Review, SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)

New York Times Review, SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)

About a hundred people assembled at a basketball court on West 21st Street in Chelsea on Thursday night, huddled around a cardboard sign that read “Gather Here.” This was the starting point for “Shore: Performance,” one phase of the choreographer Emily Johnson’s multipart, multicity project, “Shore.” Following Ms. Johnson’s instructions to “walk together and in silence,” we made our way to New York Live Arts on West 19th Street, along the path (roughly) of what used to be Minetta Creek.

Covering large expanses of space and time, “Shore in Lenapehoking,” which ended on Sunday, unfolded over eight days in three boroughs, on beaches and docks, beneath highways and bridges, at a community center, a schoolyard and a theater. Lenapehoking, home of the Lenape tribe, encompasses what is now New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and part of Connecticut — places, the title reminds us, that have not always gone by these names.


This Week in New York Review, SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)

This Week in New York Review, SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)

Emily Johnson’s Shore is another beautifully organic participatory event that brings audience and performer together with the local surroundings. The last part of a trilogy that began with The Thank-you Bar and Niicugni, Shore opens in the outdoor playground of PS 11 on West Twenty-First St., where people gather near the large-scale mural by Os Gemeos and Futura of a cartoonish character wearing shorts covered in flags of the world, which is representative of the four-part work’s inclusiveness. (There are also separate volunteer, feast, and story sections of Shore.) Attendees can go on the slide, commune with a coop of chickens, shoot some hoops, or grab one of the red blankets and huddle for warmth in these cold late-April days.

Dance Enthusiast Feature, SHORE in Lenapehoking

Emily Johnson/Catalyst Dance Group's SHORE Extends Beyond Performance Into Community Making

APRIL 20, 2015

Minneapolis-based dancemaker Emily Johnson brings her latest performance installation, SHORE, to New York City in a week of events that began on April 19 and runs through April 26. SHORE extends beyond the theater and the usual temporal confines of performance and is comprised of four elements: performance, story, volunteerism, and feast.

SHORE began with a day of volunteerism in the Rockaways on April 19, followed later that evening by a curated story reading at the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. The performance will take place April 23 through 25. It begins outside at PS 11, in what Johnson calls a “very subtle fashion,” and then the audience and performers walk together to the theater at New York Live Arts. There will be another day of service on Governor’s Island on April 24, and then SHORE concludes with a group bike ride and later a potluck feast at the North Brooklyn Boat Club on April 26.

Pictured: Emily Johnson (gather here) as part of   SHORE  ; Photo: Erin Westover

Pictured: Emily Johnson (gather here) as part of SHORE; Photo: Erin Westover

Johnson describes SHORE as the third in a trilogy of works that began with her Bessie-award winning piece The Thank-You Bar and continued with Niicugni.

“It’s a kind of concentric ring structure. Thank-You Bar is in the middle, both because it was first, and because it was also very personal, very intimate. It was small, designed for 30 people on stage. And then Niicugni was structurally and thematically like the second ring. It holds some of Thank-You Bar in it, and expands out from there, and then each part of SHORE expands further,” said Johnson.

The impetus for the four pillars of SHORE grew out of the creative process for Niicugni. Johnson, who grew up in Alaska and is of Yu’pik descent, taught people how to make Yu’pik fish skin lanterns in workshops around the country. Those lanterns became the set for Niicugni.

Pictured: Emily Johnson and Krista Langberg as part of   SHORE  ; Photo: Erin Westover

Pictured: Emily Johnson and Krista Langberg as part of SHORE; Photo: Erin Westover

“Feasting and volunteering were really part of making that work,” said Johnson. “The lanterns are made from wild salmon skins from Alaska, so first we’d eat the fish. And at those workshops, I was floored that they were happening, that people were volunteering, that they were becoming so invested in this performance work.”

SHORE premiered in Minneapolis in June 2014, but Johnson said the New York incarnation will be unique because of the local organizations she has partnered with. As part of her teaching practice, Johnson holds Community Visioning workshops that encourage people to think about their “wants” for their neighborhoods, cities, and lives. She held one of these workshops at Gibney Dance in November, and said that this is where the seeds were planted for SHORE’s New York volunteer projects.

“That’s part of the joy of it for me, is I really get to know a place based on what bubbles up in the workshops,” she said. “It’s really quite amazing how specific people get. As an outsider, I get such a pulse about what is wanted in a city.”

Pictured: Aretha Aoki as part of   SHORE  ; Photo: Erin Westover

Pictured: Aretha Aoki as part of SHORE; Photo: Erin Westover

Performing arts organizations are always searching for new and larger audiences, and the community-oriented structure ofSHORE is an innovative approach to audience building. Johnson said that many Minneapolis audience members came to several of the SHORE events, and that there were plenty “new faces” at the performance. However, she emphasized that theSHORE performance is one equal part of four, and that building an audience does not just have to mean getting people into the theater.

Ultimately, said Johnson, SHORE is about creating opportunities for participation and caretaking. “I care for my audience and the people who participate and work with me very, very much. And I also want to provide situations where we care for each other and work things out together,” she said. “To do actual work in the world is not easy. To make a good future is not easy. So we have to be active in that process always. It’s absolutely an effort to be part of each element of SHORE. That’s conscious on our part.”

Culturebot Interview with Emily Johnson on SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)


APRIL 17, 2015

Photo of Emily Johnson by Erin Westover

Photo of Emily Johnson by Erin Westover

Your work focuses a lot on ancestry and community — what is your connection to these topics and when / why did you feel compelled to bring people together around them?

I think that my interest in ancestry is about people’s histories. It’s a combination of truth and myth, fantasy and reality, and I accept that in my building of stories and my ancestry, if I know and don’t know and can find and make up my own history, I hope that opens the door to hearing other people’s stories or being in touch with them somehow. When I look at people, I look beyond the form of body; I wonder about the stories and histories and ancestries.

When did this interest come about?

I think in 2000. I was experiencing very violent acts and threats directed at me, and I was making work at the same time and that time frame made me wonder who else was experiencing violence that I didn’t know. I felt like I wanted to create a platform where people could be in touch with those stories or share those stories. It made me feel like if we all talked about violence maybe we can somehow find solutions together. That was a particular moment in time that made me think about other people’s stories.

What is the bridge between the community work and the performance(s) that make-up SHORE?

I don’t even think about it as half and half; I think about SHORE as being all of it. It is performance, it is gathering, it is feasting, it is planting or picking up trash or talking about our wants for our city, there is no distinction. Certainly in regards to the week, this day is focused on performance, and that day on community action, but I like to think of that time as not separate either. Our community action in the Rockaways has this long term effect for that dune that we are going to shore up and somewhere in there there is performance and somewhere in there we share stories and share a feast, but it’s all held within a long platform for change. The performers are as invited in the community action work as anyone else.

What is your process for entering new communities with your cast and how do you build a new community within this process?

I am not coming in to build a community, really; I am coming in to share with what is already happening.  Certainly, together we grow and make something new together and that is an energetic shift that is all about possibility. It has been very positive but it’s really vital that that is created together. So my process really starts with conversation, introducing myself and this project in a very wide open way; “is this something that you might want to be involved in and what would you want to make together?” And I know I have this framework of volunteerism but when I come to a potential partner organization I just say, “here is the whole project, how do you want to be involved with it?” That openness is vital. It means that I am not in a directing role. Our conversations from the beginning are very broad in scope and partners know the whole project and ideas are then presented to me that I would never have thought. The partner then becomes really invested in the work because we are creating something together. It is about what we might do together that will serve the project and the goals of the organization and its community. It’s about allowing for space for possibility and not always bringing people to our performance world but outside of the theater, out through the walls, out into the world.

And we are also looking at this work as we are doing this work. I see this change happening and I am interested in seeing how it is happening, what are we doing that we could share with people who want to do this kind of work? So we are commissioning essays and have scribes who are writing what they notice, photos and video…we do follow-up interviews and have audience surveys. So we are interested in how SHORE affects you and that research project has become a project of itself.

Are you going to follow-up with these projects over time?

Absolutely. The conversations as part of this research project will continue, we will stay in touch with these organizations and I am not just going to leave, how could I? [Laughs]

That’s amazing and rare. SHORE has become also a durational work. You have brought this project to Minneapolis, are now presenting it in New York, and are about to show it in Alaska — does SHORE mold to each city you bring it to?

Yes, the performance is what I bring but the community activism and the feast is particular to every community. Where we begin outside and how we interact with that beginning site and how we interact with that audience outside changes from city to city (in the performance). It’s a very subtle beginning; it’s about gathering and having time for conversation. We walk together from PS11 in Chelsea to New York Live Arts so the beginning and the walk is crafted specifically to each place but then when we get to the theater it’s the same performance. There is a local and traveling cast. It’s of mixed ages. In Minneapolis we had two kids, two teenagers, so that changes the energy a lot. I love this piece very much, it’s very alive…it’s funny because of course every performance is alive, but this work is so alive to perform, somehow, for me. There is a very fine line between the very casual, real essence, and this fine-tuned performance.

It’s anchored in reality.

It is anchored in reality! And when we were creating the movement our thought process was to conjure future joy and we were supposed to let anything exist as part of that. That very open process changed something in my dancing, I’ve always created dances from an internal process but this was the core of my internal process! [Laughs] It’s very emotional to perform, it’s that alive part; when I am dancing it or when I am sharing those vocal stories, I am both remembering those stories from the year and a half that we spent making it and I am at the same time trying to conjure a future joy and that always brings me to this precipice of “will I ever experience joy? What has or will be my joy? What will our collective future be?” which goes back to the rest of SHORE which is relevant to our collective future. We have to plant native plants, we have to pick up our shit, we have to pay attention to each other, we have to share resources, we have to share food, stories, we have to listen. If we don’t do these things we are going to be so fucked! We already are fucked! [Laughs] We have to do them now.

What does conjuring future joy entail?

It’s very open. We are improvising to very open tasks. We improvise for 10 minutes like nothing exists and like everything is part of this dancing. Sometimes it’s images in my head, something it brings me to past joy…I was remembering things from being a kid, imagining the ocean, or very specifically my five year old birthday or something that I don’t know. That sometimes led me to feel very joyful and connected to people through joy, sometimes it led me to ask myself if I would ever feel or experience joy; quite scientific and the opposite of joy. My cat died prior to one of our rehearsals, and then we went in, trying to conjure future joy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about my cat. There is always that shadow, that duality. We didn’t make a happy dance because joy touches upon everything around it. The path towards nothing is inclusive of everything. But that process did conjure a richness. And we would share stories vocally and then started only using sounds, and then started sharing in silence. That I think is really beautiful because it touches upon what I was saying earlier, the possibility of stories that we are never going to hear from that person passing by us on the street. I think that we can tap into those stories is a start.

Are the volunteers aware of this aspect of the work?

Not specifically. There is a similarity in each of the gatherings to how I describe the beginning of the performance. It’s crafted in that same way, we gather, we begin, we work together. A group of teenagers who work in the Rockaways and help me with the volunteer program, the SHORE Core, have been writing stories about their lives in the Rockaways that we are going to share throughout the day. Certainly, as you work, you build relationships with people and there is a possibility that that relationship will extend beyond that time and place. At the feast, people are asked to bring a dish and people are curious about the stories behind each meal, so there are stories embedded within.

Your work seems to cross the boundaries of performance and enter the realm of community activism and social gathering which makes me wonder about your roles beyond choreographer; has your sense of identity changed since you’ve taken on this project?

I don’t think that my sense of myself has changed because it’s just all grown together. I always wanted to make performances that were vital to the world and I guess how I tried to do that has a grown alongside.

A lot of artists work with communities aside from their performances, but SHORE almost feels like it’s creating throughout the course of its duration a separate society, especially in an urban area like New York.

[Laughs] I have been so thrilled and stirred by what’s been happening here, already. And it’s not my doing, it’s our doing together. SHORE has already really been happening for months; there are these public events in April, which are one part of the project, but it’s already transformed my view of this city. The investment, the work, and the excitement from all the partners of this particular city has been so beautiful. To me it’s so exciting that right now, organizations around the city who are not necessarily connected to performance are very much invested in this performance. It’s so cool.

Just the beginning of the work connects PS11 to NYLA, two institutions who might not have worked together had it not been for SHORE.

And I think that those kinds of relationships lead to possibilities of them continuing to work together. I can’t make that happen but I can create the possibility of it happening. I like that that possibility exists.

Photo of Emily Johnson and Krista Langberg by Erin Westover

Photo of Emily Johnson and Krista Langberg by Erin Westover

SHORE: Minneapolis, Short Documentary

SHORE: Minneapolis, Short Documentary

SHORE is Emily Johnson/Catalyst's new dance work. It is the third in a trilogy of works that began with The Thank-you Bar, and continued with Niicugni. SHORE is a multi-day performance installation of dance, story, volunteerism, and feasting. It is a celebration of the places where we meet and merge—land and water, performer and audience, art and community, past, present, and future. 



SHORE is Emily Johnson/Catalyst's new dance work. It is the third in a trilogy of works that began with The Thank-you Bar, and continued with Niicugni. SHORE is a multi-day performance installation of dance, story, volunteerism, and feasting. It is a celebration of the places where we meet and merge—land and water, performer and audience, art and community, past, present, and future.



Northrop: When we interviewed you last spring about Niicugni, the second in this trilogy of works (SHORE being the third), you said as you’re making one work in this series, the next one begins. At what point in your process did you know what SHORE would encompass?

Emily Johnson: It was a natural progression—I remember looking around the room during one of our fish-skin sewing workshops during the making of Niicugni. I was overwhelmed with gratitude—for all of the energy and work people were donating to Niicugni through their preparations and sewing of the fish-skins. I decided I needed to continue to research this—why people come together and how the energy and actions of a group of people can have an effect on a project, on the world.



6.) Storytelling has been such an important part of the whole trilogy—stories told in so many different ways—and now, in SHORE, you present us with something called "Silent Story"—how did that come about?

I’ve always thought about the stories in each of our bodies—the stories we remember and know and also the stories that are somehow passed on and live in our bodies without words. I want to honor all of these stories that are in each of us. What we call ‘silent story’ isn’t about showing anything at all—it’s about sharing a vulnerable state, a joyful or grief-ful moment. We—Krista Langberg, Aretha Aoki, and I are creating stories in our minds and you see the effort of that. The stories are shared in that moment …you see us live a moment, we share that moment with you. It’s different for each of us. For me, it’s emotional and it’s not ‘performed’ at all. It’s real—it’s a real story. And it’s always different, always a new story—every rehearsal, every performance—each one of us is thinking a story that we haven’t thought before.



As Emily Johnson prepares her biggest performance to date, she explains her expansive view of what dance is, and what it can be.

For choreographer Emily Johnson, movement has a ripple effect that goes well beyond the stage. Dance, Johnson says, influences the rhythm of the world we live in.

That explains why “Shore,” Johnson’s latest project, embraces many elements that at first may seem far afield. It includes storytelling, conversation, community volunteerism, even feasting over several days.

Emily Johnson brings “SHORE” to Northrop

Emily Johnson brings “SHORE” to Northrop

“I look at the world in terms of movement and spatial relationships,” she said. “Birds flying, traffic — I try to think about how my dances relate to all this stuff already happening.”

For Johnson, every part of what she does acts in concert with the rhythm of the world. “SHORE,” the third piece in a trilogy Johnson has been working on for the past seven years, uses that as its theme.

The trilogy didn’t start as such, but 2010’s “The Thank-you Bar” spawned so much material that it proved a springboard for “Niicugni (Listen)” in 2012. “SHORE” will end the series with a massive bang — it has four different parts and takes place over an entire week.

Response to SHORE showing at MANCC

Response to SHORE showing at MANCC

The piece [SHORE] is beautiful and wondrous and wanderous and intriguing; welcoming, inviting, and yet private and hidden at the same time. 

I love how the three movers-and-shakers [dancers] embrace their heavy breathing/fatigue, even accentuate it, channel it and augment the performance with it... It makes me think of stamina, and its limits, and how we deal with its limits. 

Limits, and dealing with limits, seemed to me to be a motif that ran throughout the performance. For how long can we stomp around, virulent/frantic/big/loud/intense, before we come to a rest? For how long can we rest, still, lying on the ground, before we flail frantically and ecstatically, moving fast as if having a seizure?