On the Rise: Emily Johnson

July 26, 2007

Don’t call her work “activist art,” says choreographer Emily Johnson. Though the endangered natural environment has been her theme in several works, the soft-spoken, slender Johnson says she owes her vision as much to the exploratory vocabulary of contact improvisation as the natural world of her Alaskan childhood.


Praised by Minneapolis critics for the clean, strong physicality of her movement as well as her readiness to take on pertinent issues, Johnson is winning grants and increasing national recognition. Performing on the spit/sluice we are outlaws this past June in a tiny theater adjacent to a bowling alley in Minneapolis, Johnson emanated a ferocity-laced sweetness in a duet, performed with dancer Susan Scalf, that she originally choreographed on a spit of land in her native Alaska. Johnson’s sharp, truncated movements contrasted with Scalf’s more robust presence and whipping limbs, with both styles interspersed with the occasional spoken word or shout. The props included a blue tarp, representing the Mississippi River, in which Johnson rolled herself. At one point, dancers threw glasses of water on windows, then quickly tried to staunch the downward flow with their fingers.

In her freshman year as a scholarship student studying physical therapy at the University of Minnesota, Johnson took a dance class—and changed her major. She studied ballet and modern dance, but her biggest influence at the university was contact improvisation guru Chris Aiken. “Dance improvisation has been a huge force in my training ever since,” she says. “I feel that’s where my base is.” (She has since also studied improvisation with Julyen Hamilton, Jennifer Monson, and Nancy Stark Smith.)

Johnson, 30, who is one-eighth Yup’ik Eskimo, acquired her environmental sensitivity while growing up on the Kenai Peninsula, where she relished her family’s hunting, camping, and fishing trips. Her mother was a homemaker and special-education teacher’s aide, her father an electrician.  Johnson played varsity basketball and ran cross-country in high school. As a child, her only dance training was a “tap and tumble” class, she recalls.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1998, Johnson turned out a prolific body of lean, rigorous, abstract work performed by Catalyst, her company of powerful young women. Spoken text, sports metaphors, children’s games, and props entered into the work, while Johnson deftly fused humor, drama ,and movement into riveting minimalist pieces both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Works like Power Play (2001) examined competitive sports via Johnson’s muscular moderndance idiom. Never Meant to Hurt (2003) realized a beautiful text on love and loneliness through an unsentimental choreography of tension and release, grasping and flinging away, long open moves, and angled limbs—all of which enhanced the work’s mystery.

In 2004, the Walker Art Center commissioned and produced Johnson’s most ambitious work to date, Heat and Life. Performed in an old soap factory near downtown Minneapolis, it was accompanied by an electronic ambient soundscape created by Lateduster,  a group, led by Johnson’s husband, JG Everest. The dancers performed the stripped-down, vernacular choreography with singleminded purpose. The walked, ran, and reconfigured themselves like a SWAT team, representing her vision of a world already reeling from the affects of global warming But Johnson’s use of the site and space, her costuming and props, and music and movement were a flashback to the performances of dancemakers in the 1960s and ’70s. It was the piece that Johnson brought this summer to New York’s Dance Theater Workshop and that she intends to perform in all 50 states. She’s crossed Alaska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York off the list; this fall Catalyst performs the work in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa, and in March 2007 the work will be at Links Hall in Chicago. After each show, the audience participates in a question-and-answer session with a local environmental organization.

“I don’t feel this piece will change the world,” Johnson says, “but the feedback I get from the organizations I collaborate with is they feel it creates a vital intersection of art and science. They can talk facts and figures, but they can’t talk about the heart or emotion of the situation. They can’t paint a dire picture, which is where the performance comes in. That’s the role of art.”

Camille LeFevre is freelance dance critic and arts journalist based in St. Paul, Minnesota.