critical correspondence

Emily Johnson in conversation with Anna Marie Shogren

Anna Marie Shogren, a Brooklyn-based artist and dancer converses with Minneapolis choreographer Emily Johnson about naming, homesickness, and the emotional lives of places. Johnson will perform The Thank-you Bar, named for her grandparents' bar in Alaska, at New York Live Arts this November 9-12.

Anna Marie Shogren: So you've been traveling with this show [The Thank-you Bar] for a few years already?

Emily Johnson: Yes, we premiered in 2009 in Anchorage and then brought it to Homer, Alaska, which is a small town about three, four hours south of Anchorage. We've been to Tulsa and Portland at the TBA Festival; Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Houston, Vermont, Tallahassee, and now we are coming to New York.

Anna: What kind of venues have you been going to? Your website lists some huge theaters, like where they have college graduations? [laughs]

Emily: Yeah, the spaces that we've been in have varied greatly. From Northrop [a performing arts center at the University of Minnesota], which is a huge house, a huge stage. The ceiling was, I don't even know how many feet high it was, but it was just amazing to be on that stage and have our fans on stage with us. And, we had the curtains open so you could the full, empty house. And, then, we've also been in a tiny art gallery in Homer.

Anna: It seems like The Thank-you Bar is a pretty intimate piece with some gathering around with people. I feel like that must of changed significantly then, at places where people don't necessarily have the opportunity to get anywhere near or close to you.

Emily: It is designed for thirty people and if we can fit more people onstage, we do. But it is designed for a very small audience to sit on stage with us. In all cases, whatever size of space or wherever we're performing, the piece is somewhat adapted to that specific location. I don't think the audience experience is that changed whether it's in a huge space or a small space.

Anna: I appreciate shows where there is opportunity for audience participation, but you can still choose to stay on the outside of that and watch the whole thing.

Emily: Yes, people ask about audience participation, but I honestly don't think that's what it is. It's inclusive of the audience in a very particular way, but I think audience participation in quotes is not quite what happens and is not quite what I am after.

Anna: Yeah, I tend to be a shy audience member. Even walking to a different location seems participatory to me.

Emily: Yes. I do call for active engagement. There's a moment where, if you're in the audience, I hand you something. You don't necessarily have to do anything with what I hand you, but that is a very important part of the piece: that I hand every audience member this object. Or, you do have to stand up and turn your chairs around at one moment. It is active; I like that word. You never have to be in the piece…but you're always watching, or listening, or turning your head.

Anna: There is a lot of storytelling in this piece, or more than I have seen you do in the past. Which is exciting. I remember seeing you do an excerpt a few years ago that was storytelling and I remember being kind of knocked out and surprised and captivated. You struck me as a quiet person and, all of a sudden, you were magnetically telling me this fantastic story, where I was like a young child… Was the storytelling element new or specific to this project?

Emily: This work recounts a very personal experience of desperately missing where I'm from and the place that I call home. But [also] realizing that for the last seventeen years I've been building this other home. And, so there is honesty and truth…but in the dance as it is and in the stories, it's not truthful. Or, there's truth but it's mixed with complete fantasy. I don't really enjoy using the word myth, but I haven't found a good replacement yet. But, it is. It's like truth mixed with myth. And, maybe that's why for the shows, when people come up to me, and tell me stories about where they're from or about their home or they say "I've never been anywhere that has ever had snow. I'm from the Mediterranean, but this is my experience." That has been incredible for me to share these stories that came from a very personal experience, but they have a resonance with people. Strangers want to come and tell me their story as well. That's huge.

Anna: I was curious about if people have been sharing their secrets with you! That's a pretty powerful response. [The piece] is called The Thank-you Bar after your grandparents' bar, isn't it? I am curious how exactly it is used as an emotional landscape for the work?

Emily: It's named after, you're right, my grandparents' bar, the Que-Ana Bar. Que-Ana is the Yup'ik [an Alaskan dialect] word for "thank you." There are obvious ways the piece is about the place. The Que-Ana Bar is very large in my upbringing. It wasn't just a bar, my grandma lived there also, so that was her house. It was a meeting place for relatives and big dinners and Sundays and activities and where we did our fish processing after catching salmon in the summer. This piece is so much about place.

It makes me think about naming. In The Thank-you Bar, I am thinking about how we call people or places or things names that aren't necessarily always true or correct. Someone can name themselves, but we don't always pay attention to that. Sometimes, we put a different name on to somebody. We gather or we project these ideas upon people and places and things. With the Que-Ana Bar it comes down to language, too. Yupik language wasn't a written language for a very long time. But, now, "quyana" is spelled 'q-u-y-a-n-a'. But, my grandma, I haven't asked her yet why, but she spells it, "Q-u-e, dash, a-n-a." So, at first look, it's this thing that people could read phonetically. Or, it could be that my grandma doesn't know the other spelling; or, it could be that there are multiple spellings; or, it could just be that her interpretation of what that word would look like in English. There are all these layers of naming and place and language for just this one location. She named her home, and named it in her language, but she was serving people who don't speak her language, and that was sort of a fascinating thing for me to notice.

You're Anna. What if I start calling myself Anna? What is it like to see your name? What is it like to hear your name? And, whether there are three Annas there, or just you, it's your name. Who we are and what are own histories and heritages are; we all have a personal relationship with those histories. And, it would be best if we could all share those relationships with one another. Saying, I am this, or I am of this heritage. That doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. What makes sense to me is how do you relate to that? What is your life like? What is your life like now? What is it like when someone asks you if you've ever lived in an igloo [laughs]? That happens to me. And, it's hilarious. It also makes me really angry.

Anna: There are many collaborators in this piece…[including] James Everest and Joel Pickard. And there's an art exhibition showing along with the work. How much have those collaborations fed in to the content of the work?

Emily: There was this amazing jukebox in the Que-Ana Bar. As kids it was so much fun to feed it quarters and pick your song. Pretty much any classic country song can come on the radio and I can sing along with it, whether or not I consciously know if I know that song or not. This was the soundtrack to growing up and I knew it had to be part of this dance as well. I try to make a "place" for us all—performers and audience for an hour. It comes from the bar, this amazing jukebox and recliners and this feeling that was sparkling. The sound had to be part of this piece but in a way that is not so direct. In a way where you might dance with the classic country song. They are there somehow in my mind, but I can't quite grab them, I can't quite sing the song right now. That's how we decided to think about the music.

I've worked with James Everest for many years and we both worked with Joel Pickard on the 24 Hours project that you were a part of, back in, what was that? 2005. Joel and I always wanted to work together again. He plays pedal steel guitar, which is the sound of those classic country songs, and he was working on the theories of deconstructing classic country songs, which was the perfect timing for both of us. The song was malleable in our minds; sort of a deconstructed and untouchable, yet very resonant. Both James and Joel were in on the process very early as was Heidi Eckwall, who designed the lights. I've worked with her for a long time.

Other people have come in in ways, too. There's this story that we talked about and that's very much this almost tactile story that I tell. I asked my friend Karen Beaver, who's an amazing bead worker and, I said, can you bead this story? And, she beaded on to one of the parts of my costume—actually, the vest from the Que-Ana Bar. So, that story comes across visually.

And the exhibit came about because this piece is very much about finding home, missing home, building another home. Even though it was very personal and I have a strong connection to those ideas and pains, I didn't just want it to be my story. My friend, a visual artist, Carolyn Lee Anderson and I, we curated this exhibit that ended up being an exhibit of forty-six artists from nineteen different tribal nations. And, in the best scenario, the entire exhibit tours with the dance. People start in the exhibit and then are brought on to the stage for the performance. So, suddenly there were many stories, there were many images, there were many different ways of looking at displacement. It was like a universal opening that was incredible to be a part of.

Anna: I can imagine. It's so full of people and layers and mediums. I am curious, though, working with a physical medium, do the ideas feed into each other? Do you feel like there was a different way of dealing with movement?

Emily: Often I will dance and I will try to put my mind somewhere else, and I will try to be back in Alaska. But, that's too broad. I will find a specific place, or a specific time, or a specific visual landscape to do it in. A physical interaction between past and present, that's obviously only actually present. But, somehow, for me at those times, it merges. It becomes where there isn't that much space between past and present and future. I think that is the truth about our physical body, is that we are all those times at once. Maybe physical action is the only true place that you can find that sublime sense of time where it is all at once. I can be standing in Minneapolis but, I can also at the same time, with intention, be at my grandma's house in Alaska or I could be in New York. Maybe talking about it makes it seem like that can't be true, but it really is.

Anna: When you talk about your working installation, I feel like I understand that in terms of an emotional environment developing.

Emily: When you're on an airplane or some busy restaurant and someone brings you a snack and it smells like something and it just puts you in a different place. So, right then, you are in that place. Everyone has felt that. We know that that exists, so for me to actively pursue that on stage in front of people is exciting. It's exciting but it's also something I can't force. That moment has to be truthful in me. Otherwise, it has happened where—well, that's a whole other thing. I was going to talk about when I haven't found that truthful place [laughs].

Anna: What's fantastic about live performance is sometimes it goes very wrong. You're completely accountable for your sincerity. You don't get a five-minute coffee break or anything in the middle of the show.