anchorage daily news

Of bars and blackfish : After gaining national notice, choreographer Emily Johnson returns home to debut her newest work
by Mike Dunham

Growing up Emily Johnson looked forward to spending Sundays at Grandma's. It wasn't just the family, the sourdough pancakes, the country music. It was the ambiance.

"It was a very social place," she said. "It was a bar."

Grandma owned the Que-Ana Bar in Clam Gulch, which doubled as her home. It also was where Emily and her relatives congregated for Thanksgiving, moose hunting expeditions and putting up salmon.

The name of the saloon is a play on "quyana," the Yup'ik Eskimo word for "Thank you." Johnson's latest piece of performance art, premiering at Out North on Thursday, is "The Thank-You Bar."

Part dance, part storytelling, part art installation, "The Thank-You Bar" is not easy to categorize. None of Johnson's works are, but they've garnered attention in the Lower 48.

Johnson, of Yup'ik descent on her father's side, was born in Soldotna in 1976, raised in Sterling and went to college in Minnesota. Originally she planned to become a physical therapist but, in her first year, she took a class in modern dance and was hooked.

She graduated ("summa cum laude," she stresses) from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance and started her own company, Catalyst. With two other women she created a trio piece and took it to a festival in Toronto, then returned to Minneapolis and produced her own show. Awards and fellowships soon came her way and critics took notice.

"Johnson, whose choreography can be as fierce as she is sweet, is one of the most entrepreneurial dance artists in town," wrote Minneapolis Star Tribune dance critic Camille LeFevre. LeFevre also praised her "clean, strong physicality... as well as her readiness to take on pertinent issues," including relationships, feminism and the environment.

The themes of "The Thank-You Bar" are not easy to pinpoint. It sprang, she said, with her memory of a story told to her by a cousin in St. Mary's. The story is about the slippery, elusive, eelish, carnivorous, tenacious blackfish.

"But it's not narrative," she said, opening her hands like a book.

Johnson uses her hands constantly and with great precision when talking. When describing a piece with "dramatic lighting," she turned her wrists toward the reporter and spread out her fingers in front of her eyes in imitation of spotlights.

The hands almost hint at Yup'ik dance, which uses only the upper part of the body. But none of her work is in any way "traditional." It's all cutting-edge, abstract, contemporary performance art; LeFevre calls some of it "post-post-modern."

Johnson herself has called her pieces "dance experiments."

She admitted, however, that she is increasingly interested in finding out more about her Alaska Native heritage. She had her grandmother record Yup'ik phrases to help her become more familiar with the language. "I have sticky notes around the house with the names of things in Yup'ik," she said.

When she attended a performer's showcase in New Orleans, she told the audience of art presenters more about her plans, concluding, "If anyone knows a Yup'ik artist who'd like to work with me, let me know."

In that audience sat Mike Huelsman, the executive director of Anchorage's Out North and a former resident of the Yup'ik village of New Stuyahok.

"I said to myself, 'This is my chance!' " he recalled. He caught up with her and introduced himself by saying "Hello" in Yup'ik. Out North wound up co-commissioning "The Thank-You Bar" along with the Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota.

Johnson often performs in unexpected places like sculpture parks, street corners, art galleries -- and bars. In 2004 she performed in a store front in Homer.

"I like to do that because it has a different sense than you get in a place where you might usually expect to see a performance," she said.

For the Out North performance, the bleacher seating is out. The audience will instead sit in three concentric rows with the performers in the center. And the audience will be limited to 30 people for each show.

"My work is always very personal," Johnson said. "I want this to be very intimate, to perform for a nice, small group. I try to create a place in the theater that can be our home for the hour."

Some Catalyst performances include several dancers, but "The Thank-You Bar" as we see it will use only three performers: Johnson herself and musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard.

The performers have been connected for some time, she said. Everest was a fan of Catalyst and Johnson was looking for ways to work live music into the pieces when an artist friend introduced the two.

Pickard came up with the idea of exploring implications in classic country music, which made Johnson recall the juke box at the Que-Ana Bar. The three pulled their lines of thought together and worked out "The Thank-You Bar" last winter during a three-week fellowship at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography in Florida.

Everest and Pickard, who use electronic music loops in conjunction with guitars (sometimes bowed) and pedal steel, call their duo "Blackfish" in honor of the animal's role in "The Thank-You Bar," Everest said. They'll be presenting improvised concerts in conjunction with the show as it's presented in Anchorage, then in Homer, and plan to record them, he said.

The performance also coincides with an art show at Out North featuring work by Native Americans, titled "This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity."

The art in the show reflects some of the thematic material in "The Thank-You Bar." On some level, it's about home and displacement, Johnson said.

"I still consider myself an Alaskan," Johnson said, "but in a way, I'm displaced. I've been away from home for 15 years and have this feeling that I need to come back."

She'll have to talk over any move with her husband, Everest. Their artistic collaboration morphed into matrimony in 2005.

The wedding reception took place -- where else? -- at the Que-Ana Bar.