NORTH ADAMS -- Dancer and choreographer Emily Johnson looks at land and time, and people, as connected, and she illustrates that vision in her new dance piece and installation, "Niicugni (Listen)."
Johnson and company will perform at Mass MoCA following a residency there tonight at 8.
The production includes two dancers -- Johnson, along with Aretha Aoki -- as well as two musicians and a lighting designer. The troupe is rounded out by 40 people that Johnson pulls from the community to take part in the performance. The audience participation acts as a way to wrap in the energy produced by the interaction between audience and performer, as well as make the performance more a part of the venue it takes place in, rather than merely a visiting entity.
"You're thinking of being in that theater with an audience, and people on the stage," Johnson said. "Is there a way that I could think about paying attention to everyone in that room? If I'm thinking about how we can pay attention to each other in the world, can I think about paying attention to everyone in this one room at this one time to see and be in the show."
Johnson's desire is to acknowledge the presence and importance of each individual in the room during the performance, and also ground the performance in the geographic location it unfolds in.
"I try to not just import my works to a new town and perform it and leave," she said. "That model doesn't feel good to me. I want my work to try and be in conversation with different places and people. In this piece, by having people who actually live in this place be on stage with us, that very concretely grounds the piece here. It also abstractly grounds it here, and I like that interplay."
It is these forms of connection that inhabit Johnson's work, drawing parallels between each other and the land, as well as history and tradition.
"I'm thinking about the inherent connection between ourselves, our bodies, and land," said Johnson. "We will all become land, and the land that we all live on is actually made of all creatures and all of our ancestors, who have lived before us. There is a connection between the tiniest parts of our bodies and the tiny parts of land, and it can bloom out from there. There's a direct connection between our bodies and our societies and land."
Johnson's own history has seen her spend the last 18 years of her life in Minneapolis, but prior to that, she lived in Alaska, and her family remains there.
"Alaska is so huge in me," Johnson said. "I think my work is in conversation with that place in particular, and then broadening from there into places that I find myself. I find myself in Minneapolis. How did I build a home here? How did I build a community?"
It's this process of how a person gathers a life and how in doing so, they draw on their own history to connect with others who have settled on the same point of geography that fascinates Johnson.
"By choice or by force so many humans and creatures have been displaced from their home, but we find ways to build home again where we are," said Johnson. "That physical structure, that social structure, that emotional structure, all of that, and things continue from that point but is looking at a broader sense of world and land and that cycle between our lives and the world."
One aspect of Johnson's life in Alaska, and with her family, that has been incorporated into the piece is fish, through the inclusion of 50 illuminated fish skin lanterns that are featured in the dance performance.
"Fish have always been a big part of my life and childhood," she said, "and harvesting sal mon with my family has always been a big part of my life -- and still is. I still go back for the red salmon run every year and gather fish with my family."
It was on a 2009 visit that brought that connection to gether with performance reality when she saw a show of contemporary fish skin art at a small gallery that smashed her previous conceptions of the possibilities with that material.
"I've known other fish skin work, and fish skin work has been around for ages as a very functional form, creating carrying bags and clothing and such, but I had never seen contemporary fish skin work in this context," Johnson said.
"It's really interesting in the process of creating things some ideas come to mind and you follow through and at the beginning stages, perhaps you're not sure why but you have to follow through with that impulse and then they find ways to either stay in the piece or you find that was a direction that needed continuing."
Johnson immediately took a workshop and then gave herself the task of designing and making the 50 lanterns that would hang over the stage. It took two and a half years to complete, through a series of workshops she held across the country. The most recent one in Arizona saw the last eight being made -- the first one ever was in Guilford, Vt. -- and the process has been away not only to build community around the dance piece, but bring in the energy of community to the stage.
"We start with fillets of wild salmon, and we have a feast and then you work with the skin," said Johnson. "People have been volunteering. We sit together and we sew. That process of gathering people together for the act of creating these objects, it was really personal to me."
The first gathering was at the Vermont Performance Lab in Guilford for five days of creating the lanterns together.
"We worked together, we were strangers and we became friends," Johnson said. "We started to talk about what these objects are, we talked about fish, certainly, we talked about the piece I'm making and, of course, we'd talk about each other's lives, and I learned about their work and about the town of Guilford. Each of those workshops was really, really rich and now the lanterns are infused with that energy and with that labor and with the good intention. That, I think, just the process of making them, was important."
By using her own history, Johnson found a tool of connection within the performance.
"I wanted to create a sense of bridging between the stage and where the audience is, so I'm creating this feeling that it houses us all," she said. "There isn't so much a separation, with audience here and stage over here. That is, essentially, one of their functions. People in the audience don't necessarily have to know that whole story, but it is there and that intention and energy and labor makes them something. This object becomes important."
The performance then becomes an energetic medley of influences connecting the people in the audience with people from around the country and within Johnson's own family and experience. The connections stretch across the artificial ones created by politics and inhabit an invisible emotional landscape held between people
"Over the course of an hour, you've seen 40 other people on stage and then back in the audience with you, so you've seen a lot of energy," said Johnson. "This change of people standing there and people back in their seats, a lot of energy gets transferred and starts moving in the room. Those people who worked on the lanterns, their energy is there too, and it's acknowledging all of that at once."
Johnson's hope is to gather back together the disparate parts of the world, both human and ground, wrap it into an all-inclusive perspective of past, present and future, and offer it up as an inter-connected reality, rejoined through movement.
"We've decided somehow to make sense of the world by cutting it up into parts and then use it to its maximum capacity depending on how we label it," she said. "And we do it to each other too. We categorize each other and very often without permission. I think that's a very limited way of looking at, understanding, and viewing the world. This piece is looking at a broader view of the world, and of ourselves."