When I first reached out to Emily Johnson about doing a livestream for Dance Magazine's Facebook page, I never anticipated participating in the performance. But when she invited me to be a steward (whose role was to assist the audience with the events occurring throughout the night), I jumped at the opportunity.
Johnson is known for her participatory dance performances that bring together both artist and audience, usually in a compilation of deeply personal stories told through both movement and words. But what really drew me into her work was her genuine interest in the well-being of her surroundings and her community.
Her latest project, Then A Cunning Voice and A Night We Spent Gazing at Stars, took place on Randall's Island last Saturday, hosted by Performance Space 122. The all-night production was yet another beautifully organic performance experience by Johnson's company Catalyst Dance, bringing together dance, storytelling, star-gazing, silence, discussion, breakfast and sunrise.
Emily Johnson at Wassiac Residency, Photo by Karl Allen
The performance opened with a serving of Rivermint rainforest cherry iced tea and Pimihkan bites dipped in chocolate, created by artist and food futurist Jen Rae. After brief opening remarks by Johnson and members of the Lenape Tribe, my fellow stewards and I led the audience two miles along the East River to the performance location at Sunken Meadow. Johnson informed the audience that we were on Lenape homeland and to pay respect she directed us to walk in silence.
At Sunken Meadow there were 84 folded quilts designed by textile artist Maggie Thompson, and created by various sewing bees in cities around the United States, Taiwan and Australia. Written on the quilts were answers to questions like, "What do you want for your well-being? For your family and friends? For your greater community?" While I opened the quilts I could feel the community of people it took to make them, and the bonds we were about to make answering those same questions.
Sewing Bee audience and volunteers at Northern Spark, Photo by Erin Westover
Throughout the evening those conversations occurred over feasts of smoked salmon from Alaska, Iroquios white cornbread and delicious raw vegetables from the Randall's Island Urban Farm. As stewards, we led groups to various campfires where stories were told by native elders and park administrators. Sprinkled throughout the evening were performances by Johnson and her collaborators, Tania Isaac and 12-year-old Georgia Lucas, who we did a short dance with as Johnson provocatively spoke of the people from which her body comes from. Her movement was simple and gestural, but powerful. You couldn't help but breathe each breath with her and notice all the performers' attention to detail while simultaneously telling stories of family and community.
At one point in the night Johnson asked us to rest our bodies on the ground; to rest so deeply that we feel the boundless possibilities that come from the earth's connection to us. I felt myself transported back to college, where I met Johnson for the first time; she was in residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and I was a student in the FSU School of Dance. At my school there was an open green—similar to the one I was lying on right then and there—where I used to lie down and think of the many possibilities ahead, and how boundless the opportunities were.
It's so interesting the way our minds can time travel. Feeling that connection to my younger self made me realize the immense amount of growth and change that I have endured. With growth comes knowledge and with knowledge comes responsibility. I realized I too have a responsibility to my community as an artist—to share my art for the good of society and create work that invites audiences to explore what is being presented to them as it relates to their own lives. That seems to be an effect that Johnson has her audiences.
Photo courtesy of Emily Johnson/Catalyst
At 4:30 am violinist Lynn Bechtold began to play a somber melody that allowed the audience time to reflect on the wisdom and conversation that had been shared throughout the night. By 6:11 am the sun was rising and the performers and audience members were spread along the shore of the East River.
I found myself full of gratitude for the thought-provoking experience and left asking myself the same questions that had been asked of many throughout this process: How do the actions and interests of our neighbors create the landscapes we live in? How can we better ourselves for the better of our community? For a better future?