Emily Johnson Brings on ‘Niicugni’
Choreographer and dancer Emily Johnson’s critically acclaimed work The Thank -you Bar was a Bessie-Award winner that placed her on the international stage. The piece explored ideas of displacement, longing, language, history and pre-conceived notions about native culture in Alaska. Now, Johnson is back with a second in this series, Niicugni, where she delves into how places and moments are vibrant mirrors that both reflect and project all that has come before and will follow. Niicugni comes to Miami courtesy of Tigertail Productions this Friday and Saturday. Johnson grew up in Alaska, before moving at the age of 18 to Minneapolis where she is now based. She is of Yup’ik descent and has strong emotional ties to the landscape of South Central Alaska and the Yukon delta. She was immersed in the family rituals of hunting and fishing, then smoking, drying, canning and freezing food. This experience of physically preparing one’s own meals informs some of the more obvious set pieces, namely the fish-skin lanterns that cover the stage. Niicugni means “listen” in the Yup’ik language. But in less literal terms the word is a entreaty to pay attention, to have cognizance of all that is around us. The work exists in layers of dance, live music, story telling and those fish-skin lanterns in a space occupied not just by the performers but the audience as well. It will be performed by Johnson and includes dancer Aretha Aoki, composer James Everest, violinist/electronic musician Bethany Lacktorin and lighting designer Heidi Eckwall. En route to Miami from her starting point last week in Arizona, Johnson stopped at a roadside restaurant with wi-fi in Mississippi to answer some questions. Referring to the title of the piece, Niicugni — in our current society there are so many demands placed on our attention. We have 24-hour news sources and streaming and so on. Yet it seems that even with the constant sharing of information, we only seem to know the most functional things about each other. How do you address this? I try to look at the world from the corners of my eyes, with an encompassing view, rather than a dead on, tunnel like search. This way of looking, of paying attention, makes me realize that I am within the context of what is around me. This is what we need to see — that by not paying attention we harm everything, the world, ourselves, our relationships. When the BP Deepwater Horizon was gushing oil into the gulf I stood at Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis. It’s a creek that feeds into the Mississippi River, which of course, feeds into the gulf. I stood there and because of that creek, I felt immediately close to the horror of the oil spill. And because I could feel that connection, I had to do something. I got online; I found an organization I could volunteer for even from far away. I’m not saying I made a huge difference by myself, but it’s this kind of connection to place, events and people, that can create a collective change. In your production notes you ask if, in the moment of a performance, the audience “recognizes the importance of everyone in the room.” It’s an interesting question in terms of the evolution on how we view and experience performance art. Why do you think it is important that we are aware of each other during a performance? The isolated, personally involved experience doesn’t just happen in theaters — it happens in grocery stores and on streets. Sometimes I will catch myself — I’ll come out of a store and realize that I didn’t actually notice anyone else in there! How could I walk past several people, have an exchange with someone at a cash register and still not fully acknowledge anyone? How disrespectful! That this happens in many theater-going experiences is absurd to me. The inclusion of local people in this show is actually an essential element of Niicugni. We gather volunteers who work with me and then perform for a short moment during the piece. They sit in the audience and at pre-determined moments, come onto stage for usually simple, and I think beautiful, moments. Unfortunately, in Miami …. I do know that [this] will be in a much smaller way. Your 12-minute video on how to create fish-skin lanterns was fascinating. Your personal and historical account of how “Salmon Brings Us Together” is worthy of its own spread in National Geographic. How is this part of the piece? There is the story of the fish, there is my history with fish and family, there are all these lanterns that were made by volunteers across the country; their time and effort embedded onstage. There are the processes Aretha and I go through and imagine as we dance and tell stories. There is the always-changing interaction with the audience. There is such an integral tapestry of the outdoors and natural spaces in this work. Is it hard to translate those natural wonders to a traditional indoor theater space, create that same sense of awe? What I describe as “wondrous” is actually very routine: salmon migration, for example. I am always trying to create an experience for audiences and part of that experience is about where we are and what is outside of the theater walls. I do try to bring the outside in. Can we see the wondrous routine of this? The cycle? Of work … of eating, of living, of dying? Isn’t this cycle (symbolic of all cycles) enough to make us all want to make the world a really beautiful place to live? Emily Johnson/CatalystDance will perform Niicugni on Friday & Saturday, March 22 & 23, 8:30 pm, at the On-Stage Black Box at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami, Tickets are $30 General Admission; $20 students and seniors; tigertail/org/events_niicugni.html. A version of this preview first appeared in the Miami Herald, March 20.