True Home

Alaska native Emily Johnson dances her way back

Emily Johnson walks into a bar. She orders a niçoise salad and pulls a thick sweater around her. Then she explains why, in the publicity photos for The Thank-you Bar, her upcoming performance piece at Northrop Auditorium, she’s wearing whole fish, fresh from the grocery and strapped to her arms like amulets. ¶ “They’re trout,” she says with a shy smile. A Yupik American Indian, she spent many idyllic summers fishing while growing up in Alaska. And since The Thank-you Bar is about home—“What is a home? Is it the community around you? Is it the structure itself?” she asks—it only seemed natural to use fish as a symbol for her own notions of home. “Fish are a part of my identity,” she says.

That identity became complicated when Johnson moved to Minnesota 16 years ago for college. She soon launched her own dance troupe, Catalyst, and earned enough acclaim that Catalyst will be the first local troupe featured in the Northrop Dance Series since 1987. Yet Minneapolis can still seem foreign. People still ask if she ever lived in an igloo (short answer: no). And she’s still sorting out what it means to live in one place while her heart remains in another, a tension that spawned The Thank-you Bar. The title refers to a beloved tavern and smokehouse that Johnson’s grandmother once ran in Alaska.

For the Northrop show, the audience, limited to about 50 people, will venture first into the Northrop underbelly to view a gallery of art by American Indians. Then they’ll huddle onstage for Catalyst’s dancing and storytelling, the better to feel they’ve come from all over to share that space. “I’ll be so close to them, sometimes this close,” Johnson says, leaning across the table.

There won’t actually be any trout in the show. But there will be references to blackfish, a species abundant in Alaska and, to Johnson, a symbol of adaptability. “They live in these swampy areas there,” she says. “They survive where you wouldn’t think something could live.”


1. She’s married to guitarist James Everest, who’ll play in the duo Blackfish during her show.
2. She works at Birchbark Books and advises All My Relations Arts, an American Indian gallery.
3. Her dance style is as imagistic as it is kinetic. “Like a painting,” she says, “an imprint.”
4. She’s striving to learn Yupik. “My grandma speaks it,” she says. “It’s not easy.”
5. The premiere of The Thank-you Bar was held last year at an art gallery/theater in Anchorage.

Read more of our chat with Emily at