culture rover • october 12, 2010

The Displacements
by Michael J Kramer

There is dislocation in Emily Johnson’s dance performance The Thank-you Bar, but there is no disarray; there is displacement, but there is no rupture. Things are fragmented, but thereby, miraculously, they emerge in a greater whole. The world is broken open, but precisely to understand that it is not broken. History accumulates, but you become distinctly aware that you are experiencing something new.

By the end of the event, you arrive home, and in arriving home, you also learn about what home is: it’s a familiar place rendered strange, a strange place made familiar; it’s a persistent reminder of something you have forgotten but whose impossible recovery is itself inscrutably comforting. It’s a rustle of leaves.

Johnson achieves a mood of anti-melancholic nostalgia. The Thank-you Bar is inspired by her own meditations on her efforts to feel at home in the world, to measure the connectedness between her childhood roots in rural Alaska, her current home in Minneapolis, and her traveling life as a touring artist. It is dedicated to registering the impossibility of ever completing this connection. The Thank-you Bar aches with longing. But it also offers a discovery: that it is precisely in incompleteness, in the impossibility of unifying the experience of movement, that home can be felt most potently.

The displacements are many in The Thank-you Bar. One enters the performance space to discover that the audience has been moved from the traditional seats in the house to the stage itself. There we sit arranged in a semi-circle around a set of amplifiers, microphones, pedals, instruments, and other musical equipment.

The musicians begin the performance. They walk in, play a fragment of the composition, then walk off stage. Yet they remain, relocated to repeating digital loops of the sounds they have made. The loops grow with each trip they make to their gear until a thick texture of ambient noise develops. A scratched acoustic guitar, a celestial falsetto hum, a jolt of electrified static, a scrap of country-music pedal steel guitar. They linger, slowly gathering steam and dust.

A video appears. On the screen, we are taken outside the theater, onto the street. Johnson drags in an imaginary tree, one that was cut down to make the building that is now the Columbia College Dance Center, which was itself once the Paramount Pictures Film Exchange warehouse. Layers upon layers begin to accumulate. Invisible sediment. Old facts yield new insights. We are among reassembled dislocations.

A voice in the video begins to tell us this story, but it is not Emily Johnson’s voice in the video. It is Emily Johnson’s voice on a tape recorder taped to her chest in the video, which has itself taken us from the theater’s actual stage to the screen above us.

Suddenly, from behind the audience, in from the door to the lobby, Johnson steps forward. The screen is gone. She walks on heavy stilts (once trees themselves). Flashlights are taped on to the bottom of each stilt to light her path. The footlights are headlights.

Johnson steps down from the stilts, rolls forward, rolls back, rolls forward, rolls back—displacement, replacement, sameness, change, repetition, alteration, recovery, discovery. We begin to follow her on a treadmill of movement: things and gestures that are here, now gone, now here again, half-forgotten, then suddenly present, remembered. “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” she sings in the dark, lying on the ground behind us.

Before us, musicians and Johnson then create community, which displaces this loneliness. She welcomes us to “The Thank You Bar,” which is the English translation of Que-Ana Bar, Yup’ik for thank you. This was the name of Johnson’s grandmother’s house and bar in rural Alaska, where she grew up. It’s a real place.

But it’s also a place now dislocated by other contacts, newfound connections, future histories. Johnson wheels out an imaginary igloo. She offers each audience member a paper box illuminated by a small light. We share in what Johnson calls an “igloo myth.” For though there were no igloos in her childhood, she is always asked whether there were. So fake igloos are also part of the real past of the Que-Ana Bar. Paper igloos cubes filled with light. The dislocating point of sharing.

Johnson talks to us through a distorted walkie-talkie; she tells a childhood story of being called an Indian and dances the act of not knowing how to respond, her breath itself swallowed up in memory. She turns us around on our chairs to the other side of the dance floor — “This is the deep end” a sign reads. She shines flashlights of all sizes and shapes into the dark air, searchlights, beams that become bridges across the dark, dissipating into the ether yet casting lines into unknown spaces.

Johnson shines a light upward. We follow it. “Pigeons live in this vent” a sign explains.

Johnson stands on a pedestal. She slaps name tags in rapid succession on her heart—the names of each audience member in attendance. She becomes each of us for a moment, as we become her. We lose ourselves for a moment. We discover new selves. Hello my name is….

Suddenly, a technician has become a dancer, in duet with Johnson. Suddenly, Johnson sings in quiet three-part harmony with the musicians. Suddenly, the musicians become the dancers. They spin in circles, hanging on to each other and Johnson with the tips of their fingers. They slip under each other’s arms, making a home of the dance floor by spinning off it.

Johnson gathers us around a small inflatable pool, fills it with dried leaves, climbs in with a flashlight, sinks in to her shoulders as she tells the story of a boy who tried to dissect a blackfish. He couldn’t. Its insides turned to thick black goop when he cut it open. He ate five in frustration, trying to get inside them by getting them inside him. He vomited the goop back out. Johnson’s flashlight crinkled in the leaves, shone out into the darkness.

You can’t get to the bottom of things, I think, when those are the things that are at the bottom of things.