the thank-you bar interview

An Interview with Choreographer Emily Johnson, about THE THANK-YOU BAR
by James Everest

Emily Johnson was born in Soldotna and grew up in Sterling. She is of Yup’ik descent on her father’s side, from the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta—Bethel and Akiak specifically. She has family in Anchorage, Fairbanks, on the Kenai, in Bethel, and every two weeks, in Prudhoe Bay. She has lived for fifteen years in Minneapolis and is trying to learn the Yup’ik language. Her personal experiences and questions regarding home/displacement/origin/identity led her to an intensive study of storytelling, writing, and the Yup’ik language during the creation of THE THANK-YOU BAR. She received guidance on storytelling from Kate Taluga, an Apalachicola Creek storyteller in Tallahassee, Florida, and elder Sakim, a linguist who taught her about language histories in relation to displacement histories. She also received mentorship on her writing from Gwen Westerman Griffin, a writer who is Dakota, through the Native Inroads Program at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

Where does the name “The Thank-you Bar” come from?

My grandma owned The Que-Ana Bar, down in Clam Gulch for many, many years. Quyana means thank-you and is the first Yup’ik word I consciously remember learning. Because my grandma and papa also lived there, the Que-Ana is where we went for Sunday sourdoughs and Thanksgiving dinner... it also served as our fishing and hunting headquarters - I have probably spent a million hours tying fish strips and cleaning clams there at grandmas! The bar had a jukebox filled with TRUE country music—my brothers and I kept it well supplied with quarters—and this music serves as the soundscape to my memories of family and food rituals. Making a dance about home and displacement, it seemed necessary to name it after this place. I also feel like the name ties to language—Que-Ana, Quyana—Thank-you.

When did you begin working on this new piece? How did the process begin in its earliest stages?

I wrote a short story about Blackfish in November, 2007 and it ended up being the beginning of this dance. I told the story in a few theater settings—while text and stories have been part of my work with my dance company for a long time, I personally never spoke much on stage—so I had to get used to the idea and find the right way to do it. I respect the art and traditions of telling stories and I needed to find a way that made sense to me, in a contemporary art world setting. It took a lot of time. I was very scared. It is something I still work on. 

I also rehearsed a lot outdoors at first, trying to dance in the ‘natural parts’ of the city. And, I spent a summer building a beaver lodge (that no beaver would see ft to live in!). I had a residency at the Blacklock Nature Sanctuary in Moose Lake, MN a while ago and an important part of my time there was watching the beavers—I guess they had an impact on me. In fact, a long time ago, there were beavers living across the highway from the Que-Ana Bar. We’d go over and watch them all the time. I did a science fair project on them in the 2nd grade... I guess beavers are part of my upbringing too and I’m fascinated by the architecture of their lodges. 

Also, this past winter my collaborators and I had a three week fellowship at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and the concentrated time we had to collaborate there was vital.

Where did the ideas & themes for THE THANK-YOU BAR come from?

I grew up near The Que-Ana Bar, but have lived for the past fifteen years in Minneapolis. While there are things I love about urban living, I understand that as I work as an artist in a city far from home, I lose time to learn from my family and the elders of my ancestral community. It is a trade off. I choose to live where I do, but feel displaced and miss where I am from. 

Also—living outside—I get asked about igloos a lot. Sometimes this happens when people learn I am from Alaska, but especially it happens when people learn I am Native. This fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. This preconceived notion of a place and of Alaska’s indigenous people is so prevalent—even in the 21st century! My 
fascination with this igloo-myth perception inspired me to work with actual and metaphorical architectures of natural and urban home structures—hence the beaver lodge that used to be part of this piece. 

How is this work different from your previous dances?

I think language is the biggest difference—I am trying to learn Yup’ik, my grandma is helping me and I have some tapes and books, and as I gain a little familiarity with Yup’ik word construction and meaning (though I have only just begun!) I begin to have a new way of understanding. Now, I don’t speak Yup’ik in this piece, nor do I dance traditionally. But in my dances, I try to make personal response and experience one of the essential weight bearing structures of composition so, as I learn more about Yup’ik worldview through language, then themes of displacement, particularly of language in relation to displacement, come out—albeit in an abstracted way—in THE THANK-YOU BAR. I am trying to starkly question miscommunication, preconceived notions, and the effects of a dominant language on a land with multiple indigenous language realities. And, because these issues are often subtly present in our lives, I am trying to do it in a subtle way in this piece. I think THE THANK-YOU BAR is the beginning of a new artistic process for me—a more integrated process. And I think it is the first in a series of works.

How did you choose your collaborators for THE THANK-YOU BAR?

This project exists because of the amazing artists I get to collaborate with! 

James Everest—who is also my husband—has been musical director for Catalyst since 2003 so we’ve collaborated on many projects. He composed the score and played live for my dance, HEAT AND LIFE. We toured that piece to fourteen states (including AK) over three years. Joel Pickard and I are part of a multidisciplinary team of artists who make art for public spaces. We once did a 24 hour art event on and around the Stone Arch bridge in Minneapolis. When I was writing my Blackfish story Joel was working on deconstructing country music standards, and the two efforts seemed intertwined. My work with James and Joel has surrounded the tradition of country music and the interplay between western expansion ideas and guitar—between silence and apathy. They are amazing musicians and we have really worked together to create this piece.

I first saw Karen Beaver’s work at Ancient Traders Gallery in Minneapolis and then as part of CHANGING HANDS: ART WITHOUT RESERVATION, a touring exhibit of the Museum of Arts & Design. I saw these Yup’ik style masks with intricate beading and a different kind of color palate than I was used to. I looked at her bio and sure enough, 
she was from Bethel. Our conversations have centered on story and image, based on things we remember being taught and things we remember seeing. We talk a lot about Alaska and about missing it. Karen lives in South Dakota and so we share an ancestral home and the experience of displacement. Karen is doing a storied beadwork on my costume.

Kari Multz is from Homer. She owns a boutique there that sells locally designed clothes. James and I were there 
this summer and I saw a shirt that immediately made me think of THE THANK-YOU BAR—it was like beautiful fish scales and country music rolled into one. We’ve had a great time sending ideas and measurements back and forth. Kari is making James and Joel’s shirts.

Carolyn Anderson and I both work at an amazing independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books. Carolyn is a painter who works closely with landscape and the often forced intersection between land and “development.” 
We are a really good team.

I have worked closely with both costumer Angie Vo and lighting designer Heidi Eckwall for almost ten years, and with such an intensely personal piece, I wanted to work with people who know me, my process, and my work.