Catalyst, dances by Emily Johnson

October 28, 2004

Catalyst, Dances by Emily Johnson:
Heat and Life @ The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN

©Photography by Gene Pittman

for Walker Art Center


Catalyst, dances by Emily Johnson
The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN

October 28–30, 2004

Reviewed by Camille LeFevre


Shortly after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1998, Emily Johnson became a presence in the Twin Cities for her rigorous, abstract dance works performed by Catalyst, her company of lithe, tough women. Her choreography was fresh and fierce, evocative and disciplined, her use of staging, costumes, and live music surprisingly mature. Critics hailed the young choreographer as a fresh talent with tremendous potential.

In her much-anticipated new work, Heat and Life, Johnson displays a more experimental bent. Although the work’s theme is the future perils of global warming, Johnson’s use of site and space, costuming and props, music and movement conjures flashbacks to the performances of dancemakers in the 1960s.

Heat and Life takes place inside (and at times outside) the cavernous rooms of a former soap factory. The seven dancers eschew “dancerly” costumes for pants, boots, blaze-orange vests or ponchos, goggles, and face masks. In the stripped-down choreography, they walk, run, and assemble, dissemble, and reassemble with the orderly purpose of a SWAT team.

Everyday items like industrial electrical cords, blocks of ice melting in red plastic bags, and the walkie-talkies the dancers use to shout out each other’s movements add a touch of realism. As if intending to subvert our notions of performance, the dancers yell to each other using their real names, sell dust masks before the show, and order the audience to another part of the factory at the end of the performance.

Throughout the 80-minute piece, the aura of hazard rarely lets up. The dancers negotiate squares of green turf (vibrant pieces of nature in an otherwise barren world) on the concrete floor like dangerous terrain. Standing on tiptoe, they stumble or collapse, legs crumbling beneath them. They crab walk, hum like bees, stand at attention with their hands clasped behind their heads.

One woman gets left behind, twisting in place before pulling her shirt over her head and rocking herself. Another woman tears apart a square of turf with a garden shears. Like giant birds, the dancers slowly bow their heads, raise and lower their arms—or are they signaling through the flames? Repetitiveness, multiple endings, and a lack of focus marred an otherwise ardent venture.

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