Exploration With Myth, Memory and Movement
by Gia Kourlas
Matthew Murphy for The New York Times
As far as immersive installation performances go, Emily Johnson's "Thank-you Bar" is as disarming as they come. Much of that is due to the light touch of its creator, who has lived in Minneapolis for 17 years but was born in Alaska of Yu'pik descent. Everything about her exudes charisma.
In this work, which started its run at New York Live Arts on Wednesday, Ms. Johnson layers memories and movement to explore ideas about displacement and identity. The title is derived from her grandmother's bar, Que-Ana Bar — the word is Yup'ik for "thank you" — which, for Ms. Johnson, evokes home.
The audience is led down a stairway and through a hall to the theater's stage, which is enclosed by black curtains to create an anonymous space for dreams. On the way, we pass signs: "The sky is blue" and "This is a river." Seating is arranged in a semicircle of cushions and chairs; in darkness, we watch as the musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard, of the duo Blackfish, take turns generating sound for a looping score that uses guitar, hauntingly held notes and muffled questions. "Do you have a story to tell?"
Ms. Johnson introduces herself using our names — somehow memorized beforehand — and creates a feeling of displacement for the audience too: suddenly, we are as much a part of her as she is of us. She wheels in a dolly of light boxes, which, another sign indicates, form an igloo, and then she dismantles it, handing each audience member a glowing block.
From this point, the setting becomes something of a vigil. It's also a game of reversals: The musicians become dancers, performing a triplet step in which one foot hooks behind the other. There's a primitive formalism to Ms. Johnson's movement that steers it away from being dully playful; it's never as casual as it seems.
Still, the piece doesn't end with dancing. Seated in an inflatable pool and covered with dead leaves, Ms. Johnson quietly and confidingly draws us into the world of the pungent, oily and tenacious Alaska blackfish. As we surround her with our light boxes — a campfire in reverse — she enthralls us with another tale of survival until, finally, she slides underneath the leaves. She's just as slippery as a blackfish.