Friday, April 24, 2015

Gather here: Walking Minetta Creek trail with Emily Johnson

Gathering at the basketball court of Chelsea's PS 11
for the opening passages of
Emily Johnson's SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC)
(c)2015, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Dance artist Emily Johnson with audience member
(c)2015, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

I view 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.
-- Emily Johnson, Artist Statement

Emily Johnson (Emily Johnson/Catalyst), a Minneapolis-based dance artist born in South Central Alaska of Yup'ik descent, seeks to use her art and knowledge to reawaken people to their environment and to one another, to realize connections that offer meaning and dignity. Her mission springs from her own deep longing for the landscape of her native state and for its indigenous traditions.

She has taken up this healing work in a celebrated trilogy, including The Thank-You Bar, which won a 2012 Bessie, and Niicugni (2013). The trilogy concludes now with SHORE, originally presented in Minneapolis and now manifesting in our city as SHORE in Lenapehoking (NYC), a multifaceted ceremony spanning several days and venues, with multiple artistic and community partners. The project involves volunteer activities in the Rockaways and on Governors Island, storytelling and readings, bike rides and potluck feasts, and a silent procession to dance installation performances at New York Live Arts.*

All parts of SHORE engage with the larger world beyond theater space. According to Johnson, each bears equal importance. Certainly, total immersion in SHORE should offer not only the most complete understanding of the project but likely provide its intended benefits. Regrettably, I could only take part in last evening's event--a dance/vocal prelude and silent walk from the basketball court of Chelsea's PS 11 along a serpentine path, once the large Minetta Creek, to the New York Live Arts's theater for the rest of the performance. I'm glad I did at least this much.

A sliver of moon hung above the city, and a crow winged across 21st Street, quickly disappearing. Audience and performers gathered, greeting friends and colleagues in the sudden dramatic chill of this late April evening. Johnson provided heavy red blankets as wraps for several folks, and the rest of us made do with winter gear we thought we would have stored away by now.

Performers at PS 11 basketball court
(c)2015, Eva Yaa Asantewaa)

A cluster of performers began an unhurried dispersal. Meanwhile, beyond the court's gate, other dancers took slow, intermittent strides along the sidewalk. Eventually, members of the inside group picked up their pace, even sprinting around us in a wide orbit. Through their movements, the ground seemed to come a little more alive, indeed provoking curiosity about who and what once coursed through this region.

Above and below: Emily Johnson at PS 11
(photos: Ian Douglas)

Johnson, her face sporting a band of red makeup across her eyes set with thick, jet-black false eyelashes, mounted a wooden stand to relate her dream of an eagle, a hawk and a baby. A dream that, in her impassioned telling, felt numinous and ecstatic and right for this stark weather. She then asked us to make our way to the theater, walking the creek trail together without talking.

We walked, guided by soothing, pulsing sounds from little portable speakers and human voices. We moved forward, united in purpose, as if part of an invisible watercourse, an invisible ceremony feeding through the busy, darkening Chelsea streets. We held no signs, wore no identifiable costumes. We could have been any stream of pedestrians making our way through traffic and street noise. In fact, outsiders unwittingly strode in and out of our procession. I'd like to think the sonic and kinetic energy reached them on a level just beneath everyday consciousness.

At New York Live Arts, SHORE performers
L-r: Krista Langberg, Emily Johnson and Aretha Aoki
(photo: Ian Douglas)

Johnson's stagecraft at New York Live Arts works boldly with the visual and kinetic energy. SHORE straddles a line between stark abstraction and subtle representation. Performers mass in large groups or lines that recall swaying, rustling trees or pound footfalls like earth tremors or recede like a damaged, vanishing habitat. Dancer Aretha Aoki makes no obvious bird-like moves, but the lash of her arms, jutting turns and impetuous attacks on air seem avian to me. Gasps, electronically amplified, connect human breath to the life force within all living beings. Pairs of dancers sometimes move right into each other's space, nose to nose, so close that they might breathe as one. Kettledrums blare out another potent voice of nature.

There is gracefulness and power, a sense of empty distances, quiet and loneliness as well as a certain homeyness and intimacy--the presence of houseplants at the edge of the space, sounds of a televised basketball game, the flicker of false eyelashes in the otherwise stillness of a hunched over body. Late in the performance, you might become aware that the theater's houselights have gotten a little brighter because, really, you're not just watching from over there, are you? You're part of the story and the song, too.


The SHORE Choir: Margot Bassett, Pareena Lim, Jules Skloot, Erika Banks, K.J. Holmes, Emma Brown, Lisa Loew, Tatyana Tenenbaum, Peter Sciscioli, Michael Becker, Carime Santa-Coloma, Jack Gray

The Physical Choir: Marýa Wethers, Ben Weaver, Madeline Sayet, Koliane Rochon, Tara Willis, Erica Ricketts, Pavel Machuca, Mary Kate Sickle, Monica Gonzalez, Steph Lee, Maré Hieronimus, Erica Chen, Brooke Wheeler, Greer Dworman, Tyler Rai, Lariza Reyes, Gavino Limon

Concept, choreography and writing: Emily Johnson
Direction: Ain Gordon
Soundscore: James Everest and Nona Marie Invie with Fletcher Barnhill
Lighting: Heidi Eckwall
Costumes: Angie Vo
Scenic design: Johnson, Gordon, Everest, Ecwall



It's going to be another cold night. If you're planning to see SHORE tonight, wear sufficiently warm clothing for standing around at the school and walking to the theater.

Do not arrive at New York Live Arts. Performances--tonight and tomorrow at 7:30pm--begin in the basketball court of PS 11: The William T. Harris School at 320 West 21st Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues), Manhattan.

*Additional SHORE events this Sunday

SHORE: FEAST Group Bike Ride*

Sunday, April 26 at 12:30pm
Red Lantern Bicycles, 345 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn

Bicycling songwriter, poet, and SHORE cast member Ben Weaver, will lead a group bike ride starting at Red Lantern Bicycles in Brooklyn and ending 6 miles later at the North Brooklyn Boat Club where SHORE: FEAST will take place.

*Riders are responsible for getting themselves home from the feast.

Pre-register (FREE)

SHORE: FEAST (potluck celebration) at North Brooklyn Boat Club

Sunday, April 26, 2pm-6pm
North Brooklyn Boat Club, 49 Ash Street, Brooklyn
Under Pulaski Bridge, on Newtown Creek

Outdoor event: Please dress for the weather.

Pre-register (FREE)

For all information and tickets or RSVPs, click here.

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