University of Minnesota

Looking out further to the SHORE

What started as a single performance piece for Emily Johnson is culminating in a multi-part finale of an engaging trilogy.

June 19, 2014

When U alumna Emily Johnson created her performance piece The Thank-you Bar at the “old” Northrop Auditorium four years ago, she had no idea what it would eventually spawn.

That piece was robust in and of itself. It arose from a deep sense of displacement for Johnson from her home and traditions in Alaska. The work featured an intimate, thought-provoking performance with patrons joining the cast of Catalyst on stage, and was accompanied by an art installation that examined other artists’ ideas of displacement. (See story.)

End of show, right?

“The Thank-you Bar was really [about] just making that one piece,” grins Johnson in an airy lounge at the new Northrop, which has becoming something of a second home for her. “It did start with a very personal story, but then, of course, as you dig into your own personal story you can sometimes find a well there that continues [to flow]. … If you’re paying attention to the process of making something, I think it really does lead you into what you need to make next.”

For Johnson and her company, Catalyst, that meant a subsequent piece, Niicugni. Niicugni, a Yup’ik Eskimo word that means pay attention or listen, addressed the topic of listening—to one another and to the land—and whether that act can be a way to actively engage with the past, present, and future.

And that has subsequently led Johnson to create the third piece of what she believes will remain a trilogy. SHORE is the most ambitious of the three, and moves Johnson’s questions “out into the world.”

It features four equal parts: a curated reading, which took place at The Loft Literary Center on June 17; a performance (indoor and outdoor installation) on June 20 and 21 at Northrop; community action (volunteerism) culminating in caretaking near the Mississippi River, on June 21 in the morning; and a feast (potluck celebration) at Foxtail Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin, on June 22.

SHORE is really thinking about the present into the future,” Johnson says. “How can we make these moments of gathering—of sharing experiences, sharing stories, sharing food, sharing work together—be really good moments? We have to create our future, and if we want to make it good we have to do that together.”

The four-part SHORE has been a collaboration involving some 18 community partners—including the U’s River Life and Honors programs—and about 55 performers, she says.

“We’re partnering with … so many organizations—some involved in arts and some not necessarily involved in arts, like the Minneapolis Parks Board,” she says. “And it’s so awesome to have built these relationships.”

She suddenly recalls a conversation from the day before with a farmer at the feast site. “We were in the barn and we started talking about art and work. And he said, ‘I was thinking about this project and thinking about how that performance is work, but the real work is here at the farm,’” Johnson says. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what this piece is—the connection between your work and my work.’ It’s just amazing to have these conversations all over the place and with so many different people. I just cherish that.”

A distant SHORE

Johnson, who is currently a fellow at the U’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), plans to have similar conversations as SHORE hits the road. The scheduled tour is spread out enough that she hopes to replicate that same immersion within the community at each stop. That means figuring out what the volunteerism aspect will be in New York (next April), what the stories will entail, what the feast will be, etc. “and it will take a lot of work,” she says.

And down the road further?

“I would love to work on the trilogy as its own tour,” she says. “They’ve toured separately, but I would love to see if we could have all three happen in the same place. And then I’m sure I’ll start something new sometime soon.”

Johnson gazes around in amazement at the new Northrop, where she has office space at the IAS, and recalls her long history here becoming a dancer. One of her first memories of Northrop was as an undergraduate, when she danced a duet as part of a celebration there hosted by Garrison Keillor.

“We were finished and off stage in the wings watching the other things. I just remember the last thing was the marching band and there was a cow brought out with the band,” she says. “And I remember thinking, I’m going to remember this. This is amazing. If this is any clue to how my life is going to be, awesome!”

Twin Cities Campus: