Stopping for a Think at the 'Thank-You Bar'
by Caroline Palmer
Dancer Emily Johnson ponders questions of home, heritage and identity in a poetic performance.
"The Thank-You Bar" is designed for an audience of just 50 people and yet it unfolds on the vast Northrop Auditorium stage. Despite the dramatic difference in scale, this project created by choreographer Emily Johnson with James Everest and Joel Pickard of music duo Blackfish delivers a thoroughly intimate and quietly rewarding interactive performance experience.
Johnson has lived in Minneapolis for many years but she grew up in Alaska. The work celebrates her Yup'ik heritage and family life (the title refers to her grandmother's roadside tavern) but its vision transcends nostalgia. Home is actually a fluid concept, especially when considered in the context of cultural displacement. A person may be physically located one place but spiritually connected to another. Sometimes this separation occurs without choice. "The Thank-You Bar" imaginatively explores the emotional tension underlying this dual state of being.
The work begins in a gallery on the third floor of Northrop displaying works from Native artists representing 19 tribal nations, assembled by Johnson and Carolyn Lee Anderson. Audience members then walk from there to the theater. Once seated onstage, we have already made a journey and the destination is somewhere familiar that now seems ripe with fresh possibility.
Everest and Pickard set the tone throughout, using a virtual symphony of layered, dreamlike sounds, generating an impressionistic environment evocative of a Jim Jarmusch film. Johnson enters the back of the hall on stilts. En route to the stage, she tumbles in the theater aisle but she quickly abandons spectacle to develop a tight bond with the audience.
She assumes different names, dissembles the "igloo-myth" by distributing illuminated paper "bricks" to everyone, engages Sally Rousse of James Sewell Ballet in a hypnotic duet, and reveals the painful childhood moment when she hesitated to claim her indigenous identity.
Johnson's choreography is driven, strong, and delightfully idiosyncratic but her poetic sensibility is equally compelling. By the end she's sitting in a leaf-filled wading pool, explaining the blackfish's ability to lie patiently on its belly while waiting out adversity. "When the blackfish enters your dreams," she states, "listen to what it says. It will tell you how to survive this world." One way is to invent a time and space, however fleeting, in which to tell your story.