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University of Minnesota

Finding her place

November 9, 2010

Emily Johnson with fish attached to her arms.

Emily Johnson's collaborators on The Thank-you Bar include musicians Joel Pickard and James Everest of BLACKFISH.

Emily Johnson and friends weigh in on place and displacement in The Thank-you Bar

By Rick Moore

Describing exactly what audiences are likely to see and experience in Emily Johnson and Catalyst’s upcoming show at Northrop Auditorium (November 18-20) is about like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. It’s a slippery proposition, at best.

Johnson, a University of Minnesota alumna, is a dancer turned choreographer whose work is designed to stimulate the senses on many levels. Her current piece, The Thank-you Bar, is part of the Northrop Dance Series, but the “dance” descriptor only begins to tell the story.

Each show will have 50 audience members seated on the Northrop stage. They’ll experience dance, visual imagery, storytelling, and live music, among other sensory treats.

“I literally try to make the Northrop stage our home for an hour, including the audience,” Johnson says. In addition, there is an accompanying art exhibit at Northrop and a special Friday evening concert by BLACKFISH.

A home away from home

Johnson, who is of Yup’ik Eskimo descent, grew up in Alaska and often spent Sundays socializing at her grandmother’s tavern—the Que-Ana Bar. Quyana is the Yup’ik word for “thank you;” hence, the name of Johnson’s piece.

At 18, she left her rural life to attend the University of Minnesota on a scholarship to study physical therapy. During her first year at the U, she replaced a lecture class with a modern dance class, and “by the end of the year I had changed my major to dance,” she says.

She’s now spent 16 years living amidst the buzz and flurry and energy of the big city, which is great given the Twin Cities’ esteem in the arts community.  But it means she’s miles and miles away, literally and figuratively, from her homeland and her family rituals of hunting and fishing, then smoking, canning, and freezing food.

That sense of displacement is the driving theme in The Thank-you Bar. She says the piece started with a short story she wrote about blackfish, which have the ability to survive in harsh and seemingly unbearable conditions.

“This story exists in The Thank-you Bar,” she says. “It makes me think of how we all find the way to adapt.”

Other points of view

“Everything I’ve made has come, in general, from a personal place,” Johnson says. “I [create] from the thing I’m obsessing about.”

Now she has an eye toward conveying other stories and points of view. “I don’t want to present only my images and ideas and thoughts about displacement,” she says. “I wanted to present the audience a much broader and larger scope of what displacement can be.”

So, along with her friend Carolyn Lee Anderson, she’s curating the special exhibit, “This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land & Identity,” that accompanies The Thank-you Bar. It chronicles the views of more than a dozen different artists spanning Native nations from across the country.

Music is also an important part of the mix, much as it was at the Que-Ana Bar with its country-flavored jukebox. Her Catalyst collaborators James Everest (Johnson’s husband) and Joel Pickard helped develop The Thank-you Bar, and their music on stage enhances the imagery.

“It’s more of a sensory experience,” says Johnson. “I’m trying to get at memories. And I’m trying to create memories for the audience.”

Tags: Northrop Auditorium

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