An Interview with Emily Johnson

Apr 18, 2013

Director/Choreographer Emily Johnson talks with James Everest about Niicugni, the second part of her trilogy that began with The Thank-you Bar and part of the Women of Substance series focusing on women in dance, copresented with The O'Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University.

1.) Why do you refer to your work as "performance installation," as opposed to "dance?"  

The work I do is definitely rooted in the body – in dance. But I have a very broad definition of what that means: our bodies, even in “stillness,” dance. There's the blood moving through us, our hearts pumping, our cells dividing and growing and dying, the synapses in our brain firing ... so we dance, always. And it isn't performance, but it is (to me) dance. And I think that is a beautiful thing. However, there's this problem with the word, too ... it can direct expectations. I don't dislike the word, and sometimes I do use it. It is just not inclusive enough.

My hope is that “performance installation” is inclusive: of dance, of many methods of communication (visual, aural, architectural, historical, implied), of all forms of performance and specifically of the performances I make.  Installation is really about how I try to immerse a place and audiences within the context of a particular show. I want to engage many senses: have sound come from all over, offer something you might hold or take care of, something you might smell –  it's all to encourage a broad way of paying attention to the place we are in and the people we are near.

2.) How did you decide to create a trilogy?

I am making this series of works because as I make each one, the next one begins. I say right now that it's a trilogy, but maybe it will continue... I started The Thank-you Bar as I desperately missed home, I was rooted in memory. It led me to consider how “home” becomes where we are – it becomes what we make, who we commune with, how we relate to what and who is around us. Niicugni was made with a connection to place and to people and as I made it, I questioned the ways we do and do not pay attention to these connections. Making Niicugni led me to think, quite literally, about the ground beneath our feet and beneath our buildings. It made me think of the connection between our bodies and that ground, to everything around us and to the disconnections, too. As we worked in the studio I also worked with volunteers to make the fish-skin lanterns that comprise the set. This taught me so much! I was floored that people would volunteer to work on creating these objects with me; get their hands messy, build something they were donating to a performance project. Our work together (the fish-skin lanterns) remains with Niicugni and it is leading me to develop my next work, SHORE. SHORE is all about possibility ... SHORE will be a work that includes research into how performance can be a vital part of our lives. It will include feasting, volunteerism, story, and performance. There is of course, a framing to a series of works. Some insight of which might come when the series is coming near an end, rather than from the middle. But I do see a trajectory – one that spirals from the personal outward and one that circles from the past, to the present, to the future; from memory to possibility.

3.) Where does the word niicugni come from?

Niicugni is a word that means 'pay attention' or 'listen.' It is a Yup'ik word. It comes from Alaska. In the title, The Thank-you Bar, I was playing with language: there is an actual bar in Alaska called the Que-Ana Bar. My grandmother owned it. She and my papa lived there, in an apartment in the back. It was Grandma's house, where we had special family events and where we processed our fish, but it was also this lively place full of customers (on a good day). Que-Ana means "thank-you" in Yup'ik and it is the first Yup'ik word I learned. However, "Que-Ana" is not how it is spelled. Yup'ik language wasn't written for a long time, but now it is and this word is spelled: quyana (though I have seen other variations, too). My grandma speaks Yup'ik but doesn't write it. She named her bar in her language but I don't know if she spelled it the way she did because that was the accepted way to spell it at the time, or if that was the way she thought it should be spelled, or if she just wanted a phonetic spelling so that her language would be correctly pronounced by her customers. Via my grandma, I have a strong and complicated relationship to Yup'ik language, though I don't speak it. In thinking about this new piece I choose to work with a Yup'ik word because it seemed right. As I work with Yup'ik words I get to know them better. Niicugni – the word – had led me to many conversations with family and friends and friends of friends on its meaning. Niicugni is now a word that is vital to my life. I am also continuing to look at the relationship between Yup'ik language and English language in my family and in this country – it's a difficult one with many layers. 

4.) Where did Niicugni the dance come from? 

Niicugni the dance comes from me and from my collaborators. It comes from fish – salmon mostly. It comes from Alaska, too. It comes from a map that my dad placed on the kitchen counter. It comes from colonization. It comes from family history and from a radically made-up and partly true history of everything that has ever been here: the dances that were here, on this ground before we of the present time were; the trees that were here before the highway was put in; the stories that permeated the air before we began telling our own stories. I am not nostalgic for the past – but I do honor it and I do see the relationship between past, present, and future. To me, they are simultaneous and accessible. I created Niicugni with my collaborators and as we perform we mingle with past, present, and future. There is a moment when Aretha and I very literally acknowledge the past – we mention and demonstrate a "completely different dance" that used to be "here." We are, in that moment, verbally referencing the Indigenous dances that have always happened "here" – wherever we are. But we are, at the same time, physically referencing a different dance that was previously done on the particular stage we're performing on. We learn bits of movement from each theater's archived video and piece it together, blending it with movement we've already learned from previous stages/venues – so it's a constantly evolving section of the dance – acquiring new layers in each city we tour to. It's a short moment that means more than one thing and acknowledges many layers of "past" time.

5.) While it's clear to me that Niicugni exists in the world of contemporary performance, I can't help but notice a larger, almost ceremonial, arc that feels like perhaps a more traditional sensibility how did that take shape?

It is hard for me to talk about words like “traditional” and “contemporary” and “ceremonial.” Similar to the word “dance” – these words hold connotations and expectations that may not be intended by the speaker or by the work the words refer to. My friend and collaborator Judy Dow and I once gave a presentation on our work and the words “traditional” and “contemporary.” They are the same thing. It is the context that changes and therefore the understanding of the thing or event being described as “traditional,” “contemporary,” or “ceremonial.” However, my yoga teacher says that it is ok to do hard things, so I will try to talk about these words and my work...

I have a strong belief in dance and performance. I do believe it can affect people's lives. I do believe it can make the world better. I don't think every dance has to do this and I don't think a dance has to try to in order to be good. Quite the opposite. I believe in the potential. I believe in the risk. Dance and performance have altered my life to the point of saving it – I don't feel a debt to the form, but it does make it personal....it does mean that I think dance and performance can be cellular-level-powerful. I think this is why I find permission in Niicugni – permission to gather groups of people for example – mostly non-performers to join us on stage at six different moments; people who get up from the audience, come onto the stage, perform a small, simple gesture and depart. These volunteers pass through Niicugni – the audience doesn't get to know them, they are not characters. They are quite simply, people, who for a moment are on stage, serving as a reflection of the local audience back to itself.  Imbedding each community inside the work, albeit briefly. If I were in the audience, this would make me turn my head and notice who was sitting next to me, maybe wonder if they too, were going to get up and join in the performance. It's a crazy thing! To gather up to forty people in each community we tour to! To rehearse with them and find the right gesture and moment for each group to enter. To make sure the volunteers feel comfortable on stage even though most of them have never performed. To expect that the audience will care about these seemingly interruptive, unconnected entrances by strangers! But that's just it – it IS an opportunity to care. Toward the end of Niicugni, all of the volunteer performers get up onto stage together. They shut their eyes, they try to feel their feet on the ground below the theater building, and they imagine their favorite place. One of them counts silently to 30. They all walk off. It is a beautiful moment that roots Niicugni to the place we are in and also to the whole world. Most of the audience doesn't specifically know that this exact thing is happening and it does not matter to me – what matters is the act. The BELIEVING, the IMAGINGING. We sense that there is a concentrated activity happening on stage. We sense the concentration. Something permeates outward. Maybe there is no word for it.

6.) I counted 4 very different types of masks used in the piece - can you talk about the use of masks in Niicugni and their role in Yup'ik culture? 

I can't talk about masks in Yup'ik culture without making you think I am an expert on the subject, which I am not.  I can even say: “I am not an expert on the subject of masked dancing in Yup'ik culture” and still, someone will read that and assume that I know something about it, that I am borrowing or referencing Yup'ik dancing when we don paper masks with color copied photos of our faces on them. Yes. There are masks in Yup'ik culture. Powerful masks. Beautiful masks. There are masks for faces and hands. There are masked dances. The dances in my Yup'ik culture are strong and I connect to them because they connect to me. The Yup'ik dances I have seen are story, they are community, they are history, they are present at once. The "Invitational" dance that happens during a night of dancing  – is that a “traditional” or a “contemporary” dance?  Either way, it means that when invited, anyone can come up onto “stage” – whether that be a stage or a gym floor or a place on the ground – and you can dance with the dancers. It is an open space for community, for sharing in the act of dancing. There are many, many places and people you can learn about Yup'ik dances and masks from. I do wish I knew more. I only know my experience. 

When I see a mask (one my aunt made, or one my friends dad made, or one made for me, or one in a museum) I think of the dances that mask may have seen and been part of or might be part of yet. Masks in Yup'ik culture are absolutely important – I don't want my ignorance to disregard that fact. When I see masks I think about who made them, I think about their service to cultural ceremony, to healing, to telling story, to connecting with parts of the world and universe that we don't have access to on a regular basis. 

The masks in Niicugni serve many purposes, perhaps the most obvious being the reference to skin, the temporal forms we all take – whether made of scales, flesh, fur.  They are also a vehicle of transformation. They are a peeling of skin. They are a layer we are always underneath, again and again. They show us reality and at the same time, they make reality larger than normal. You mention four masks, but there are actually seven: there are the masks Aretha and I don at the beginning. They are just slightly larger than our faces but they are colored photo copies of our faces and we wear them on the front and back of our heads. There's the mask that Aretha creates out of fragments of first masks – a refracted composite of both our faces on her own. There are the sheets of paper we hold up that hold the projected image of our faces again, this time much larger and the faces are switched: I hold Aretha's, she holds mine. They are also crumpled off, stripped away. There are the owl masks. There are the blank paper masks at the end. There are Heidi's constantly changing faces on her T-shirt. There is also a moment when Aretha and I don monsters. This mask isn't one we put on – we let our actual faces distort in the actual experience of sadness and then of anger. We let ourselves feel sad. We let ourselves feel angry. We let you see it. Sadness and anger are part of our world. I don't think it would be responsible to make a work about “paying attention” and not pay attention to the sadness and anger in our world. Aretha and I think about it. We see it. We let it in. And then, we transform it. We let it grow. Sometimes we let it overtake us. Sometimes it is too difficult. We let it make us sad. We let it make us angry. But because we are transforming it, we are in conversation with it. We notice how it (what we are feeling) affects our breathing, how it affects our muscles, how it affects our presence in the room. We try to stay with the changes as we transform them further. We begin to move from something real to something projected, something named, something “fake” and in its 'fakeness', something we can all recognize and chuckle or laugh at. We transform our faces into what we call 'fake monster.' It's the picture of fake. It's the picture of fake sadness and fake anger and in its fakeness, it is something we all recognize. Usually people laugh with us...and we continue to transform this non-masked masked dance. We make the faces toward each other, at each other. We push one another into a short game and we take the game into a short game of chase, and into true laughter as we think about the faces we just shared with you – the ugliness we conjured and revealed, then made-up and let go. It is through this process that we offer a way to deal with the sadness and the anger: acknowledge it/feel it and then present it in a fashion that eases the actual pain so we – as a community – can talk about it. Can change it. 

This is why masks are important. They offer the possibility – of transformation, of communication, of evolution.

7.) The word "monster" is one of the first we hear in Niicugni, and the first story-driven image is there a connection to the traditional use of "monsters" in Yup'ik dances or storytelling?

In stories throughout the world – written, spoken, and passed on there are often "monsters" – people or entities who disrespect rules, the environment, the lives of animals or people. Obviously, the monsters in stories serve a role: they display the wrong actions so that we might learn the right ones. My stories in Niicugni are not different. There are stories in Niicugni that pay attention to and then transform the actions of monsters. 

“Monster” in Niicugni is real and also made up. "Monsters" exist in the world – and similar to the process I explained above, Niicugni accepts monsters as part of the world so that we can deal with them and get over their terrific power, but also see that there is something underneath. Niicugni as a performance does not call out any particular monster, but it does reference monsters who take advantage of people's bodies, of the lives of animals, of the land. As a performance the 'monster' remains an image, a metaphor – one that I do hope lets us start talking about the many monsters in our world that need transformation. I do think that listening, paying attention, and creating/cultivating relationships with the land and with each other is a way to this. 

8.) Storytelling was such an important part of The Thank-you Bar, and you've continued to expand your use and approach of storytelling in Niicugni - how are these stories different?

The stories in The Thank-you Bar were concerned with the physical world: where we are, the building, the tree, the people sitting near to you. They were about creating and accessing memory, some were based in reality so that we could be presented with possibility. Largely they were rooted in the past – in history, memory. 

The stories in Niicugni are more concerned with the non-physical world, and with the present: our relationships between past, present, future, with each other, with our ancestors, with other beings. They try to acknowledge that which we tend to not acknowledge or actively try to ignore: the rape of people and land, the destruction of our world, our refusal to communicate with other species, death. They exist to transform communication; to move from human brain to animal brain; to acknowledge our ancestors and everything that was here before our time. They exist as an alternative way of viewing the world.

We also wanted to continue to experiment with different ways of telling stories – a monster story in the dark, a story told in unison, stories by other cast members – it's part of an arc that will continue with SHORE – moving from the personal to the public in terms of whose stories we're listening to. 

9.) You used paper sculptures in The Thank-you Bar, and have continued to use paper in Niicugni what is the significance of paper? 

Ha! It is freezer paper – well, in Niicugni it is freezer paper. The lanterns are made of fish-skin - salmon skin and in my Alaska household, we keep our frozen fish (and frozen moose and frozen shrimp, etc.) wrapped in freezer paper. I made an artwork for THIS IS DISPLACEMENT (an exhibit that toured with The Thank-you Bar) on freezer paper and I wrote the following for the accompanying exhibit catalogue.  I think it applies to Niicugni as well:

“I use freezer paper because this is what we freeze our salmon and moose meat with. We write the date and the contents on the paper and in this way we preserve food, location, tradition. When we open the package to eat, a little bit of blood remains on the paper, mingled with our writing, with our efforts of hunting/fishing, and with our hunger. I see this as beautiful. My actual CIB (Certificate of Indian Blood) does not have a blood smear on it, though it could. But whose blood would it be? Mine? My ancestor’s? My would-be conqueror’s? I place blood on these works as a symbolic link to the animals we depend on, to the land we live on, and to the rough mixture of blood used to define us.”

 

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