The Static and the Ecstatic: Emily Johnson
by Paul David Young
I met Emily Johnson in a bar in Cobble Hill on one of those desperately cold days we enjoyed all too often in New York this winter. Once out of the chill, I quickly found her waiting in a cozy booth, just made for a tête-à-tête. The bar itself was snug and lively on a Saturday afternoon. As I learned during our conversation, the character of the milieu was hardly an accident.
She struck me straight off as intelligent and gracious. I liked her immediately, and I was pretty sure most any other person would have the same reaction. I recollected the video of SHORE. The performance began almost imperceptibly outdoors, allowing the audience an experience of their environment and each other and a chance to find correspondences between the movement of the dancers and other things happening around them. It became more structured as she appeared and addressed the audience assembled for the occasion. The piece seemed gathered around her person, and, having met her, I found that to be a very fine choice.
SHORE is sometimes static, I noticed. When I think of dance, I tend to think of movement, whatever form that takes, but here I was being focused on nonmovement in a novel way, though there are also moments of highly athletic dancing. I asked her if I was correct in experiencing the work as alternately static and ecstatic. She said that she consciously allows these quiet moments as opportunities for reflection by all of the participants. Some of the still parts, when the performers are seated downstage close to the audience, she described as “silent stories,” since the performers are at that moment thinking stories but not speaking them. She also referred to the power of the potentiality in nonmovement. “Movement possibility is really exciting.” In creating SHORE, she strove to give herself and her collaborators permission to “let anything be possible—stillness, nothing, tons of motion, rigorous endurance, scratching your nose.”
When I asked her about the concept of virtuosity as it applied to her work, she said, “Of course, there’s virtuosity in the dance.” But she also drew attention to aspects of sitting and walking, seemingly mundane, nondance activities which occupy portions of her work and are crafted in many subtle ways. She described, for example, “a gentle way of seeing, a more encompassing view, which changes the body.” She showed me how this works as she took in the bar in what seemed to be a 360-degree scan, not a tight stare, nor a focus on details, but an openness to everything there is around us.
In SHORE, she wears red paint around her eyes, a kind of mask of maquillage. She explained that this was partly a way of raising questions about how we routinely link appearance and aspects of character and identity. But she had an even more ambitious interpretation: “It is a portal to another world.” She is of Yup’ik ancestry, which influences her understanding of the function of masks.
Her work contains a variety of components. “I can’t imagine my work without all of those elements,” she said. “It’s all an effort to give space for us to get to know each other and this place.” She described her family’s annual salmon harvest as a gathering that included people of all ages playing, working and eating together and telling stories and jokes. Similarly, in addition to two community service projects (one in the Rockaways and another on Governors Island), SHORE includes the experience of gathering and being together along with dance and stories and finally food. She is careful not to claim the community projects as her own; rather, wherever SHORE is performed, she seeks out community groups to work with, trying to be sensitive and responsive to local needs and organizations. “I can’t be a part of that community. Building a community, no, that takes time. But I can come in and engage with it. I’ve always wanted what I do to connect.” She does hope that there will be long-term resonance. “While I can’t know or make it to happen, it’s through those connections that the work we need to continue to do together (as citizens, as community members, as humans) becomes clearer.”
I had wondered, since her work was so particular to her history and her embodiment of it, whether it could be performed or exist without her. And indeed, she said she has almost never created work on other people, but always with others. She emphasized in our conversation that the movement, the stories, and the entirety of the piece were created through improvisation, a process in which she welcomes the contributions and uniqueness of her collaborators.
To make SHORE, the task for Johnson and her collaborators was “conjuring future joy,” a necessary and emotional starting point. “We have to work to envision a good future. We can’t rely on anyone else to do that for us.” For Johnson, the task involved recognizing a more fluid sense of time, which she regards as cyclical rather than linear. “We can access the future and the past in the moment. We are made of our ancestors. All of our thoughts and the possibility of our future thoughts reside inside us. Future joy connects us to the present and to past joy.”
Her words had elevated our conversation to a splendid plateau, where it should have stayed, but I had to know. It was definitely trivial, but I was curious. Does she really dance in a full-fledged down parka in SHORE? Though I liked it as a costuming choice, I could easily imagine fainting if I tried such a thing. I thought maybe she had emptied the feathers out of the coat or otherwise altered it to prevent heat stroke. She answered, “It’s a real parka. It gets very hot.”