by Emily Johnson
Commissioned by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage

The other day I was jostled into a memory. Simply walking up a short set of stairs, my body suddenly remembered what day it was. I say it was my body remembering because that is where I felt it. It was not a thought connected to a date and time. It was not a moment connected to a memory. It was a physical interaction with time - a sudden condensation of time and place. I wondered what this sudden feeling was and then my mind caught up... And then I remembered.

My legs felt strong.

My chest felt heavy, as though it wanted to lie down and rest. I stood, my chest tipped and curved forward. I kept having to pull my neck back into a more comfortable alignment.

Then nothing, then the jostling. The ground felt very humus-y and moist, which is maybe not what it actually was. 
- Rehearsal notes 4/7/12; report on dancing while imagining the ground beneath the hundred year old gymnasium at Headlands Center for the Arts

I think of the bodies that are no longer here; that from them there is a lateral source of energy that encircles the world; an energy that moves from body to earth and back to body – it connects us to all beings past and present.

Slow and steady breathing from the corners of the eyes.
-Rehearsal notes 4/9/12

Past, present, and future in our bodies.

Current: the moment now, equal to the present.

Future: what will be in a moment and then a moment again.

Future also: when we die we become energy - soil, tree, leaf...

Eggs, semen, thought reside as future, possible.

Future generations and future thought held in our very present/current bodies.

Past: who we come from. Who made who. Who held who in whose womb and arms over generations. Whose thought moved your thought to now and beyond. It is simultaneous because it all exists at once. Right now.

The present inclusive of our past pasts and the future, possible.

Time does fold in on itself. Days and days and days and then a day your body remembers. Like my moment on the stairs. Also, other moments I recall: the ice cream I tasted before and then after great-grandma Lena died. Though they are two separate moments, I remember them as one and the memory is wrapped up in a million moments that bring me to my now. 

Can I begin this story by letting you know that basketball was my first true love? More than anything I devoted myself to it, to the ball, to the floor, to my team, to my coach. I tried being devoted to other things too -  a boyfriend, good grades, friends, but really, I wanted only to play, to be better, to win. We were mid-season when great-grandma died and I needed to go. I was asked to go. And this is where my body brings me: to the plane, with my dad. A small plane to Bethel, Alaska. The co-pilot handed us ice cream sandwiches. We tasted them. We flew. We landed. We stayed with cousins. My dad’s cousins. Everyone was cousins! There were days great-grandma was in her house and we were all there too. We drank tea, we talked, her sisters sang. Ceremonies and card games, food and drink, family getting to know one another again or for the first time. We grieved and we celebrated. The weather got bad. We hunkered down.

The words I remember - they were clear and sparse: we touch down in this life, we live to honor, we go, those who remain honor again. There is a right way to live.

My grandpa too, he was there. In ashes. And we let him go into the frozen Kuskokwim. How can I tell you this? In words it doesn’t even make sense, all of this history and generation upon generation folded into one time and many bodies. But see, my body, it remembers so much that now, more than twenty years later, it is as if the wind is blowing, my great-grandma is being sung for and we are standing on the frozen Kuskokwim. Me, my dad, my auntie, a cousin, an idling snowmachine, a small bottle of something to pour down…and we hardly need to fight back tears because we all cry in front of each other all the time anyway and also because this fierce wind freezes them whole as they come. There are more days. And then we get back on the small plane. The co-pilot hands us ice cream sandwiches. We taste them and I tuck back into my seat, hear the words great-grandma’s sister’s sang, feel the wind, my feet on that river and in her house, standing with all my relatives and cry, cry, cry. This sweet melting taste brings me immediately back to the before and brings all moments in between -- family, funeral, weather, singing, words -- closer. I look over at my dad and he is crying too.

The longing and the pulling. There was an actual pull toward west and also down, like the floor was tipping down, even though, well, maybe it does slope. And there was something in the distance and a knowledge of that distance – a measurement which came in the form of an imagined shot. Bullet traveling. The ground was forest.--Rehearsal notes 4/7/12; how it feels to dance in the hundred year old gymnasium at Headlands Center for the Arts while imagining the ground of my home in Sterling, Alaska.

I mentioned my love of basketball. When I got home from great-grandma’s funeral though, something changed. I wasn’t played. I sat on the bench. I waited. I practiced. I played as hard as I could. I waited. I sat on the bench. I got angry. I moved to the end of the bench. I got up to get some water from the faucet around the corner near the locker room. My mom was waiting for me. Basketball left me.  I did not go back.

A lower feeling, I could name it, for a second: fear. In my solar plexus. And wide, flat land. A river. A Mississippi. I could see it but I did not get pulled to it. A love came forth, a recognition. And lots of dancing. And I realize it is the land where I have done most of my dancing. Moving was inevitable. I wanted to keep moving and it came easily. “God” was pulling toward down. –Rehearsal notes 4/7/12; how it feels to dance in the hundred year old gymnasium at Headlands Center for the Arts while imagining dancing on the ground at the river flats in Minneapolis which is where I live now.

I think of our bodies as EVERYTHING: our bodies are culture, history, present and future, all at once. Out of respect for and trust in our bodies and collective memories, I give equal weight to story and image, to movement and stillness, to what I imagine and to what I do not know.

A tipping slope. A whale. – Rehearsal notes 4/7/12 and 3/27/12

This is why I dance and make dances – because the known and unknown are juicy, because dancing brings my cells simultaneously to the past, present, and future. It’s a shaking up of what I think I know. It’s a transformation. The stories in my body and in our collective memories exist in forms beyond language. And I trust them. I trust in a lifetime of memories that can be passed from one reality to another. I trust the senses. I trust that smell and taste—like the ice cream before and after great-grandma died—can conflate time.

When I make dances I rely on this trust. Why this moment now for this arm to raise, for this head to bow? Why, when I think about dancing on the ground below the building I am in does my chest feel heavy – as though I need to lie down onto the ground? What will happen if I do? 

I try it. I lie down. 

And maybe it’s not right – maybe I need to get back up because, of course, there is a mix of form and trust that goes into building this dance. Here is what I have learned so far from my particular mix of form and trust: I acknowledge my ancestors in movement; everything is dance; to think of the ground when I walk on the floor brings me closer to the world; to honor death – to think of death as a cycle; to have ceremony; to pay attention to things, wind, buildings, sound as I head to the studio; to pay attention to animals and plants that I pass or live with; to pay attention to the energies that exist from the lives that have passed; to recognize that we are here now and that we will all be gone one day, too.


With slow and steady breathing.

From the outside corners of the eyes so that your view is wide/expansive.

With all of your senses

With a willingness to look above, below, to all sides.

With trust and imagination.

-Rehearsal notes 4/10/12; on how to watch dances I make. I think these are good instructions for life.

Our bodies are EVERYTHING. They hold EVERYTHING and they are also the EVERYTHING, possible. Our bodies hold the stories from our lives as well as the stories from our ancestors. Our bodies remember. They know a history we cannot always name. They hold what is good to hold and also what causes pain. They hold consciously and unconsciously. Traumas remain for generations. Sickness comes back to itself. Loves hold tight. I wonder if what our bodies know can become accessible enough to change pattern when needed? To reverse trauma? To leave the possible as a glorious possible? To let some loves lie down and stay? Can this archive of living knowledge, body memory, and experience be of use? Can we learn to trust what our bodies know and remember as real information? Can others learn to respect this information, letting the stories and experiences held in our bodies be of good use to the world? Would it lead to an understanding beyond that which I can grasp?

The whale enters the room, undulates its spine, rolls its huge belly forward, opens its mouth and water pours over its teeth, out the door, and down the stairs. There is the smell of rain. The whale's soft eye is gazing at everyone in the room. The whale takes a deep breath And then there is the sound of breath. The floor sinks a bit under its weight, creaks, and then There is a sound the world has never heard. The people in the room drop their heads And their shoulders Then their arms, their hands to the floor. They are crawling forward in the sound, each one of them Toward the whale and they want to touch it, they want to remember, they want to hear, they want to rock into that belly They are whispering, they are whispering without knowing they are whispering the ongoing, the everlasting, the forgotten sounds The sounds they forgot Of their mothers. The sounds their mothers made when they first entered the world. -Rehearsal notes 3/27/12

My hands remind me of life as another time I held death. My hands hold a little box and I viscerally remember an entire life. How it felt to hold him - not only HOW, but it was, in that moment, that my hands were holding him again. I could feel the weight of his body. I looked at the box and knew it was not him and yet my hands felt as if they were holding him. And I cared for him in that moment, again.  I pet him. I carried him. And his body changed. I could feel all of that again in my hands. I could feel his bones move and his fur - how it got coarser. I could feel an exchange of love between us, and it was a gift. I remember knowing he was giving that moment to me, a last moment to hold him. And all the moments we had shared came through that one last moment – I was feeling memory and he was giving those moments to me. Time was folding in on itself.

There is MATTER that moves back to the earth upon death, but there is ENERGY too, the storied energy of our experiences. What a gift - to give these moments away! Could I do the same? Give my moments, memories, loves, experiences away? Do we choose that upon death? My grandma on my mother’s side has lost her immediate memory and the connection between her past and her present. But somehow, because we are all still by her side that connection exists. We hold what we know of her and her time and she, somewhere holds the rest. Though she can’t access them all the time, her stories are alive, they exist still in her body, as vital as blood, muscle, bone. They communicate with us. Maybe one day she will gift her memories, her stories to one of us and we’ll remember things we thought we had forgotten. Maybe they will pass on as energy somewhere else. The archive or our experience, of our pasts, presents and futures—this is what our bodies hold and what makes our bodies whole. 

The stories in our bodies; they jostle us from time to time. Come at us from nowhere. They pull us in directions we didn’t think we would go. They remind. They teach. I think they rest sometimes, too. I trust them and try to listen to them with all of my body.