The last time I saw Minneapolis-based choreographer/dancer Emily Johnson was on the tiny stage at the Bryant Lake Bowl, back in 2007. In an evening of new dance works (which she shared with several other choreographers), Johnson expressed her passion, concern and compassion for the natural world with idiosyncratic movement, props and spoken text. Beneath her works’ veneer of innocence was a sensibility at once bittersweet and viscerally real.
These works expressed an evolution in Johnson’s work. A graduate of the University of Minnesota’s dance program more than 10 years ago, Johnson began her career creating smart, emotionally charged, technically rigorous dance works for her band of tough young women. Collaborative and entrepreneurial, she sold videos of these works.
She created “Heat and Life,” an opus on global warming with live music by her now-husband J.G. Everest, which her company — Catalyst, Dances by Emily Johnson — performed at the Soap Factory before touring the United States.
She collaborated with other artists on performances in art galleries, in parks and on bridges in Minneapolis. And in celebration of her 30th birthday, she invited people (myself included) to perform a Judson Dance Theater style work at the Rogue Buddah Gallery in which we “walked the corn rows” and improvised movement to anthem-like music.
Through it all, Johnson’s attention to her Yup’ik heritage — she grew up in Alaska — has underpinned much of her work. This weekend she will perform “The Thank-You Bar” at Northrop, bringing her company (including her husband’s band Blackfish) to the stage along with audience members. That’s right: Everyone’s on stage together.
During her childhood in Alaska, many of Johnson’s family gatherings occurred at her grandmother’s home and bar called The Que-Ana Bar (quyana is the Yup’ik word for “thank you”). In her interdisciplinary piece, Johnson explores her feelings of displacement and home. The work begins in Northrop’s Gold Room, with the exhibition “This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land & Identity,” curated by Johnson and Carolyn Lee Anderson (Diné) .
The piece then moves to Northrop’s stage for an intimate evening of emotional exploration and choreographic intention, with live music by Everest and Joel Pickard of Blackfish. The evening, no doubt, will be one to remember.