Emily Johnson and The Thank-You Bar: Much More than Dance.
by Christina Whiting
What do Clam Gulch, blackfish and experimental dance have in common? How about the latest performance piece, The Thank-You Bar, by choreographer Emily Johnson? Born in Soldotna and raised in Sterling, Johnson spent much of her childhood visiting her Yup'ik grandmother at the bar she owned in Clam Gulch, the Que'Ana Bar. The bar was a hub of activity, including family gatherings, friends, strangers and music. Johnson's memories are filled with the faces and stories of the people who frequented her grandmother's bar.
Johnson moved from Alaska to Minneapolis to study physical therapy, but shifted her focus after taking a modern dance class. She graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance and started her own dance company, Catalyst, which has been performing since 1998.
Johnson is now a nationally recognized choreographer who refers to her pieces as dance experiments. She explores current issues, including socialism, the environment, relationships and displacement. Her dance pieces are intended to be thought-provoking and entertaining, and include dance, music and visual art.
Johnson's resume is extensive and continues to grow. From commissions to presentations to performance projects to dance films to teaching in the United States and abroad, Johnson has received numerous art grants, residencies and fellowships. She also writes about dance and performance in the online magazine, Mental Contagion.
Johnson hopes that The Thank-You Bar will have a touring life. After the debut in Anchorage and Homer, Johnson will present the piece at a Living Arts Festival in Tulsa, Okla., and in Minneapolis in the fall.
"I would like to think that my dances are for everybody and that maybe they even enlighten small aspects of our existence," she says in her Web site bio.
A collaboration of Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer and Out North Theatre Company in Anchorage, The Thank-You Bar was commissioned by Out North and the National Performance Network.
"We are so fortunate to have access to cutting-edge artists out in the thick of things" said Adele Groning, Bunnell Street Arts Center's executive assistant. "Emily is pushing the boundary of what is performance and what is installation."
Johnson creates performance pieces that include themes that range from climate change and the environment to home and relationships to memory, regret and hope. For the past 11 years, Johnson's creativity has come from a place of social consciousness and passionate perspectives.
"I've always had a political sense and a passion for the environment," she says.
Johnson's personal experiences regarding identity tie into her Yup'ik heritage. Living away from Alaska and her family, she knows what it is to feel displaced.
"When I'm away from Alaska I remember the land and the light and the ocean. Memories of the land have influenced me and still do," she says.
Trying to learn the Yup'ik language so far from home, Johnson writes on her Web site: "As I gain familiarity with the Yup'ik language and meaning, I begin to have a new way of understanding. As I learn more about Yup'ik worldview through language, the theme of displacement comes out.
"The Thank-You Bar is my way of questioning miscommunication, preconceived notions and the effects a dominant language has on a land with multiple indigenous realities."
"The purpose of this performance is for people to think about where they live in a different way, in a way that they perhaps haven't done so before," she writer.
Johnson designed The Thank-You Bar for a smaller, more intimate audience so that she can connect with her audience, making the Bunnell Street Arts Center the perfect venue.
Johnson is the director, choreographer and curator of The Thank-You Bar, but the piece is very much a collaborative effort and includes musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard, who call themselves Blackfish.
Pickard plays pedal steel guitar and Everest plays nylon and steel string acoustic guitars. Along with Johnson, Everest and Picard, The Thank-You Bar also includes visual art by other artists, including Homer's Kari Multz.