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Artist Spotlight: Emily Johnson

Performing Arts intern Julia and Marketing/Public Relations intern Elizabeth team up for a chat with our artist-in-residence, Bessie-award winning choreographer/performer Emily Johnson (founder of Catalyst Dances) to discuss Johnson’s artistic background and the inspiration for her new work Niicugni (Listen).

Describe your dance and artistic background.

I grew up in a very small town in Alaska. I was an athlete growing up, mainly basketball, long distance running, and softball. Those were my absolute loves. Either sports instilled a love of movement or I had a love of movement going into it.

Dance was not in my life until I got to college. There was a great confluence of teachers at the University of Minnesota when I got there with a heavy focus on improvisation. I loved that suddenly there was movement that wasn’t connected to the game or the race. I could move fully; I could be feeling and thinking. My thoughts could change my movement and my movement could change my thoughts.

What inspires your movement vocabulary?

Movement always comes from an internal thought or feeling first. I’m always trying to get it out of my body, past the skin. In a way, I don’t care if people watch me or my dancer’s arm moving. It’s about what can be communicated between my arm movement and the audience. What is communicated in that space?

There has to be such intentionality in the movement. It’s not that any moment is more precious than the next but, in every moment, we have to know where we are in our story. We have to stay connected with that story and that effort in order to communicate it.

What were the conceptual seeds of Niicugni (Listen)?

A few thoughts crossed paths when I was looking into beginning a new piece. I saw an exhibit at a gallery in Homer, Alaska. It was an exhibit of work made entirely of fish skin. Salmon has always been part of my family’s life but I had never worked with the skin before. This image of 50 fish skin lanterns hanging in the stage and in the house, creating this secondary diagonal, was the first visual image of this piece before I even knew how to work with the skin.

Around the same time, my dad laid out a map on the counter in my parents’ house in Alaska. He had just received land from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Though the Settlement Act was created in 1970s, his land just finally came through. It just really very suddenly struck me that we would have to figure out how to build a relationship with that land.

I was struck with “What does this mean?” This land is now my father’s. It will eventually be passed to my brothers and me. How do we get to know land that is ancestral land? I was looking at this piece of paper that did not give me the information I needed. Maps tell us how to get somewhere, not how to live with land and what’s really there or who has been there before or who will be there after. This piece really started with all of those questions.

What about the vocal storytelling that is woven through the piece? How do those moments connect to the choreography?

To me, it’s all part of the dance. The stories are as much the dance as we are. Making these lanterns is as much the dance as anything. It’s not that they are just parts that are important; they are dance.

I like to work with the similarities and differences in how bodies and minds respond to stories and movement. What happens for someone listening to a story? How does a body take in a story? What images are created in your mind? Where does your mind go with that story? Then, how does your body take in movement? It’s the conversation between those two forms of communication that I find really interesting.

How your work evolved during your residency at MASS MoCA?

Very specifically, being here has allowed us to work on our rigging. We were able to work with all the crew here and our crew to create two improvements and a whole rigging system. That will have a profound impact on this work in terms of its touring life.

In a broad sense, the piece is always informed by the place we’re in because we think very specifically about the building and imagine feeling the ground beneath our feet. We think about how the ground moves in all directions. It’s the support for us here. It’s a new kind of mapping as we work to experience many places at once.

See Niicugni (Listen) in the Hunter Center at MASS MoCA on Friday, November 16 at 8 PM. Find tickets here.

Posted November 14, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Dance, Interns, Theater, Work-in-progress
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