The Thank You Bar is an intimate affair
by Theodore Bale
Somewhere toward the end of the 20th century, many young American choreographers became tired of cool abstraction. Their strategies changed, and they engaged audiences through emotional themes and narratives without abandoning form. Minnesota-based choreographer Emily Johnson is one such choreographer, and her highly personal The Thank You Bar is a stunning example of an emerging contemporary American aesthetic.
The Houston premiere at DiverseWorks on Thursday exceeded the scope of what one normally thinks of as "a show." Rather, this was a kind of temporary landscape to inhabit for a while and then to leave, feeling refreshed. Viewers entered the performance space through the gallery, which holdsThis Is Displacement, a comprehensive exhibit of 43 American Indian artists from 19 tribal nations. The work varies from quilting and sculpture to painting and poetry, some of it confrontational and shocking, some of it pastoral and dreamlike. The nine panels of Emily Johnson's 2009 CIB, made with actual Yup'ik blood on freezer paper along with sand from northern areas, for example, is somewhere in between these realms.
The performance is limited to 30 people, and it is a deeply intimate experience. Composers and musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard begin with a ritual of establishing looped musical phrases, each coming and going on his own, until a dense layer of sound swathes the audience. Everest used a violin bow on an acoustic guitar, Pickard held a walkie-talkie to the strings of a pedal steel guitar, and both sang briefly. The harmonies and melodies recall the country jukebox atmosphere of a bar Johnson's grandmother opened in the 1970s in Alaska. There is a strange comfort in the sonorities.
The methods of The Thank You Bar are mostly subtle, but early it becomes evident that the viewers themselves have been incorporated into Johnson's ritual. Your name appears in her storytelling and on props, she gives you a block from her electric Igloo to hold in your lap, and she whispers to you, looking directly into your eyes. The music and dancing move around the audience, and it seems that the space begins to shift. Nothing is stable at The Thank You Bar. "This is the deep end," says a sign posted at one end of the room.
Then the players exchange roles: The musicians dance a waltz, and the dancers sing, until the performance reaches a climax with the steady pounding of a drum. At first, Johnson's vigorous choreography is idiosyncratic, seemingly arbitrary. Once she amplifies the movement through unison phrasing, however, the extreme discipline of it becomes quite clear.
What is most stunning is the skillful integration of so many elements: film, movement, lighting design, music, storytelling and sculpture emerge and fade in a most elegant organization. Johnson finishes the evening in an inflatable kiddie pool filled with dry leaves, encouraging the audience to gather around. As she recounts an odd tale about the Alaskan blackfish, she begins to feel like a little sister to everyone present. She sings a soft lullaby to herself, disappears under the pile of leaves, an unmistakably charismatic and mysterious figure.