New York Times Review, SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)

Review: ‘Shore,’ a Dance and More Over Space and Time

APRIL 28, 2015

The choreographer Emily Johnson brought her multipart project, "Shore," to New York Live Arts.      Credit  Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

The choreographer Emily Johnson brought her multipart project, "Shore," to New York Live Arts. Credit Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

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.

“Shore” reflects on such layers of history, on where we come from and where we are right now: Literally, what are we standing on? It does so in four phases: Performance (a show), Story (a reading), Community Action (volunteer work) and Feast (a potluck).

“What do you remember?” asks a survey tucked inside the programs for “Shore” in an envelope that reads “Open in Four Days.” For me it was not the dancing, at least not the part in the theater. (“Everything is a dance,” Ms. Johnson might counter.) It was being outdoors and talking to people, zigzagging across the city and seeing it from new angles. Yet the dancing anchored this all. Ms. Johnson calls her company Catalyst for a reason.

The final third of a trilogy, “Shore” comes after “Niicugni” (2012) and the Bessie Award-winning “The Thank-You Bar” (2009). Ms. Johnson, a native Alaskan of Yupik ancestry, has said that she created “The Thank-You Bar” out of a yearning for family and home. (She lives in Minneapolis.) Its intimate structure, with the audience communing onstage, has since rippled outward, in a series of increasingly public, participatory works.

“Niicugni” featured a lighting installation of delicate fish-skin lanterns, hand-sewn by volunteers around the country. At each stop on its 10-city tour, local performers joined the cast, just as “Shore,” which extends more deliberately beyond the theater, incorporates a chorus of local singers and dancers.

Ms. Johnson, a magnetic performer, is adept at mobilizing people, onstage and off; you want to follow. On one of two Community Action days, volunteers met at Rockaway Beach, in Queens, for a dune-planting expedition guided by teenage environmentalists from the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance.

That evening on the Lower East Side, at the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, children from Live Lines, a writing program, shared poems about their neighborhoods, odes to familiar sights, sounds and smells. (“Roses smell like a lady with a fresh smelly perfume.”) They opened for several more seasoned poets — Emmanuel Iduma, Kao Nhia Kue, Sahar Muradi, Ben Weaver — who reflected on their own roots in Nigeria, Laos, Afghanistan and the Midwest.

A few days later, another volunteer group ventured to Governors Island for hands-on work with the Billion Oyster Project, an initiative to introduce a billion oysters into New York Harbor. A once-thriving species depleted over centuries — along with its unparalleled filtration properties — the oyster, now making an ecological comeback, could be a mascot for “Shore.” At the final feast, on the toxic but nonetheless inviting banks of Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, oysters were on the menu; their discarded shells would be used to grow more oysters.

So much about “Shore” felt optimistic, even its simple outdoor choreography. At the basketball court, before our pilgrimage to the theater, people on the sidewalk began to sing, a few simple tones. A cluster of performers in street clothes built from a slow-motion walk to a run that encircled the spectators. Ms. Johnson spoke from a pedestal.

“Have I told you the story about the tree? I’ll tell it again,” she said, a line repurposed from elsewhere in the trilogy. “Shore,” like trees and dunes, bears traces of its past.

Indoors, we watched three dancers — Ms. Johnson, Aretha Aoki and Krista Langberg, wearing bright jumpsuits and red paint around their eyes — get their bearings in the space. Between enigmatic spells of gazing into the distance, they entangled themselves in restless, breathless, prodding skeins of movement, as if intent on awakening the air around them, the ground beneath them. They seemed very far away. The 29-member chorus sang, chanted, gestured and drummed, not always looking sure of their role. They ended with a song in the lobby, that threshold between the theater and the world.