'Thank You Dance' Comes to Homer
by Naomi Kouda
On the Sterling Highway, near Clam Gulch, an old-fashioned bar made of logs carries a Yup’ik name that’s spelled wrong; mostly to help people pronounce it correctly: Que’Ana Bar.
It means “thank you,” and is the place resting fitfully in the memory of a young woman who visited her grandparents there for many years.
As Emily Johnson grew up, she attended Thanksgivings and Sunday dinners there, and helped process salmon from the family’s nearby setnetting site. In these activities, Johnson was influenced by her Yup’ik grandmother, Hanna Laraux Stormo, who was born in the Kuskokwim region.
“Going to Grandma’s house was going to the Que’Ana Bar,” Johnson said. “It holds so many of my memories. It had one of those big, old jukeboxes that had all this country music. That is the soundtrack to my memories. In a dream, you get pieces and parts and feelings that are larger than life.”
Johnson, now 33, lives in Minneapolis and runs a dance theatre called Catalyst. She has produced a theatre piece called, “The Thank You Bar,” which explores layers of memory and themes of displacement. She is traveling to Homer to perform it Oct. 16-17. This week, the show – as well as the exhibit, “This is Displacement” – are at Out North Theatre in Anchorage.
Being far from home, away from her family and not able to pursue her Native customs gave Johnson plenty of fodder for thoughts about being displaced.
“There are emotional repercussions in displacement, whether it’s from the self or imposed by an outside force,” Johnson said Thursday.
“I think of it as something that every creature knows something about. When we build something or walk somewhere else, we are always creating displacement.”
Though Johnson loves to come home and spends twice yearly visits with her family, Minneapolis is where she can do her performance work.
And, she enjoys the urban setting.
“It’s a strongly supportive city for contemporary dance and experimental theatre,” she explained. “And my husband is a musician.”
Johnson said she may be able to move back to Alaska if she can find a way to continue her work here, adding that she misses her family, “ … and the land itself.”
Johnson’s parents and two brothers live with their families in Sterling, Soldotna and Kenai. Sometimes she brings her entire dance company home with her.
“I have a very supportive family,” Johnson said. “In 2004, we came here and rehearsed in my parents’ yard. We sort of made up this residency program, and my family was cooking dinners while we rehearsed.”
According to Johnson, her Grandma Hanna will be at her opening night in Anchorage. It will be the first time she has seen the show.
“The Thank You Bar” is a piece designed for a small, intimate audience, which is why Bunnell provides such a “great venue.”
Johnson resists describing the narrative, saying she wants people to experience it fresh.
“The dancing happens all around you – the dancing encompasses the architecture of the building,” she explained. “We’re used to looking at these places we build as if it is an end to our vision. We stop thinking of what used to be here, what was here before we came and what will it be like in the future. We get stuck in our architecture as being a solid thing.”
Johnson performs in the context of four separate stories about growing up at the Que’Ana Bar. She said the purpose of the performance is to – for one hour – “think about where they live in a different way perhaps; a way they haven’t thought of before.”
Her costume includes a beaded headpiece created by another displaced Yup’ik woman, Karen Beaver of Bethel. Beaver now lives in North Dakota, but is coming home for the show.
“I just love it that we are creating these expanding circles of people,” Johnson said.
While there are some opportunities to learn the Yup’ik language far from home, Johnson said it is not easy to do it that way. She made tapes of her grandmother’s talk and uses books, foreshadowing a possible theme of language in the displacement process as her next focus.
“As I learn more about the Yup’ik world view through language, themes of displacement come out – albeit in an abstracted way – in The Thank You Bar,” she said.