Emily Johnson/Catalyst

November 18, 2010

Emily Johnson/Catalyst
Northrop Auditorium

Minneapolis, MN

November 18–20, 2010

Reviewed by Linda Shapiro


Emily Johnson in
The Thank-you Bar. Photo by Cameron Wittig, Courtesy Northrop.

Throughout The Thank-you Bar, Emily Johnson interweaves strands of her life as a Yup’ik Indian from Alaska who now lives and works in Minnesota. We first get a sense of the displacement she feels—her stated theme—when 50 of us are seated onstage at Northrop Auditorium, flanked by a 4800-seat house. We face two small platforms stage right holding a variety of instruments and sound paraphernalia. An old tin lighting fixture, perhaps from Johnson’s grandmother’s bar, dangles from the grid. We are marooned in a vast, impersonal space that Johnson and the musicians known as Blackfish soon make as intimate as a Yup’ik family gathering.

The 75-minute performance layers live music, storytelling, film, and dance in ways that are often compelling, sometimes frustratingly ambiguous. Objects such as an igloo, a child’s swimming pool filled with fallen leaves, the Northrop lighting grid—all delicately and evocatively lit by Heidi Eckwall—help to create a palimpsest of memory, art, and intersecting cultures.

The piece begins as two musicians (James Everest and Joel Pickard) lay down an accumulating loop of sound, one fragment at a time. Rumbles, growls, plaintive sighs, and honky tonk chords resonate in a ghostly medley. On one track, a voice intones, “Do you have a story to tell?”

Suddenly Johnson enters from the distant theater lobby on illuminated stilts, slamming the door behind her. With ritual earnestness she lays the stilts aside, then repeatedly skitters backward and somersaults forward. It’s as if she’s assertively entered a bastion of high art, then had second thoughts. Finally she collapses, intoning what sounds like an exasperated Yup’ik chant. It’s a brilliant image—simultaneously vulnerable and commanding, mythical and wry.

While the performance offers other luminous moments, too often the choreography becomes a postmodern pastiche of fragments arbitrarily stitched together. In solos and a duet with guest dancer Sally Rousse, signature moves and gestures recur in various configurations: stamping, lunging, social dance moves, triplets, bourées, collapses, stiff-legged walks and turns, forward bends with windmilling arms. Johnson and Rousse are riveting performers. But the movement muscles its way into our consciousness, begging for interpretation: OK, that bit might express dislocation. Now she’s trying to find her balance between two cultures. And that’s got to be about her Yup’ik heritage pushing up against her identity as a concert dancer.

These sections lack the vitality and haunting reverberations of Johnson’s richly evocative, multi-layered stories. Or the fragile mystery of the igloo Johnson trundles out on a wooden platform, constructed entirely of butcher paper blocks that glow from within. She holds up a sign with a hand-written message: “My Tiny Igloo.” Then she passes the blocks out to audience members, who cradle them for the rest of the evening, becoming themselves a source of light.