An extended conversation with choreographer Emily Johnson about her new work The Thank-You Bar.
Emily Johnson, a Yup’ik Native American who grew up in Alaska, has ascended the Twin Cities dance scene since moving to Minneapolis a couple decades ago. When her troupe, Catalyst, performs The Thank-You Bar from November 18 to 20 at the Northrop Auditorium, joined by her husband’s musical duo, Blackfish, they will be the first local group to perform in the prestigious Northrop Dance Series since 1987.
This show is about home. What does home mean to you?
It’s funny, I’m still asked on occasion if I’ve ever lived in an igloo. The short answer is no. I miss Alaska. Though I choose to live here, I do feel displaced. And I’m fascinated by how we build our homes in new places—not the materials, but this idea of resilience. How we can build a new home that we sometimes feel more connected to than the place we were displaced from.
Think of birds, for instance. When we build a condo atop birds’ nests, the birds pick up and build new nests somewhere else. We have to give animals, and people, more credit for being resilient.
Home is not just a place.
We can rebuild our house, but what is our home? Is it a structure, the people around you?
The show takes its title from the English name for the bar your grandmother ran in Alaska. What does it symbolize to you?
It was also a smoke house, two or three stories high. We fished in the summers in Alaska and we did all our fish processing at the bar. It was about fishing, hunting, subsistence. In the show, I plan to use lanterns made of fish skin.
The name of your husband’s duo, Blackfish, is actually a fish native to Alaska. Is it special to you, as well?
These fish can live in swamp-like water. And you can put them in a freezer and when you thaw them out they can live again. There is resiliency in all creatures and that’s a beautiful thing.
For the show, you’ll have the audience onstage with you. Why?
It’s about acknowledging the fact that we’re all together. I can’t ignore the fact that we all came from somewhere else to be here, in this place.
We’ll first bring people into a gallery in Northrop to view art by Native Americans, then we’ll move to the stage.
Many people are still shy about contemporary dance—they don’t feel they can understand it. Does that make sense to you?
I understand what it feels like to not understand, to listen to music, for instance, and not feel like I can tell the musician how I think about what I just heard. That said, when it comes to dance and movement, we all have at least one body—we understand how it moves.
Sometimes it’s easier to think of it as story. Something onstage will trigger a thought. And we can always talk about our own experiences.
The Thank-You Bar is performed November 18 to 20 at the Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis. For more information, visit northrop.umn.edu/events/emily-johnson