Movement drives dancing stories about Minnesota in 'Shore'

Dancers Emily Johnson, right, and Aretha Aoki rehearse for Shore, a four-part event featuring dance, a story reading, an outdoor feast and volunteering, Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at Jawaahir Dance studio in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

To dancer and choreographer Emily Johnson, movement is everything.

"To me dance is happening all the time in the world, every moment," she said. "Whether it's in the trees, or the blood in our bodies, you know. And so I just try to frame performances having that very broad view."

Johnson and her internationally acclaimed Minneapolis company Catalyst Dance will express that philosophy over the next week in performances of her new piece called "Shore," an epic work spread over several days.

"Shore" begins Tuesday night, not with dance, but with a reading at the Loft in Minneapolis, where writers will tell stories about Minnesota and life along the Mississippi River. They will then move to the shores of the river before moving to the University of Minnesota and then across the St. Croix River to Osceola, Wisconsin.

Many dancers pride themselves on making their work look effortless. But at a rehearsal in a south Minneapolis studio, the sound of Johnson and her fellow dancers' feet pounding the floor echoed off the walls as they rehearsed. Johnson grunted as she hurled herself through the steps.

The finished piece will include music, but the rehearsal focused on movement, with dance that constantly switched pace and style. Classical ballet moves slid into steps from a Native American grass dance, and then primal gestures the dancers developed.

Moments of frenetic activity left them gasping for breath.

The dancers balanced them with moments of complete stillness they call the "silent story."

"We are quite actually creating a story in our mind," Johnson said. "And you see that thought process, and so it's not a blank stillness and silence. It's a very active stillness and silence."

Dance is only one element of the piece, almost two years in the making. "Shore," Johnson said, is equal parts story, performance, volunteerism, and feast.

"It's really all about gathering," she said. "So we gather in those different ways. We gather to work. We gather to listen to stories. We gather to eat. And we gather to experience performance."

Emily Johnson
Dancer Emily Johnson at rehearsal for "Shore" on Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at Jawaahir Dance studio in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

For "Shore," Johnson draws on her experiences growing up in a Native Alaskan community. Her family still gathers to hunt and fish and then to preserve the food for the long Alaskan winters. It's a time to tell stories, laugh and argue.

"I love those moments of gathering that really are work, and story and future and food," she said. "And I guess that's what I am trying to make."

Johnson always tries to link her work to the land. Another element of the piece is a clean-up on the shores of the Mississippi. Volunteers will pick up trash, hear stories and eat snacks at River Flats Park in Minneapolis.

The dance performances on Friday and Saturday will begin outdoors on the Northrop Mall at the University of Minnesota with 20 dancers. The performance will then move inside to the huge stage of the auditorium, where Johnson and just two other dancers will perform the bulk of the piece.

The prospect of three performers on such an enormous stage delights Johnson and director Ain Gordon.

"We have taken all the soft goods out," Gordon said. "It's a stripped bare stage, so as big as that stage can be is how big we have made it.

Dancer Krista Langberg said the big space will emphasize the tiny moments in the piece.

"It's almost perfect in a way," said Johnson, a fellow at the U of M's Institute for Advanced Studies, housed in Northrop. "Because it makes it even more extreme, this intimacy within almost emptiness."

Johnson's work is known for attracting both hard-core dance fans and dance newbies. "Shore" is also perfect for the reinvention underway at the Northrop Auditorium. Formerly just a performance venue, it's now home to several academic programs.

Northrop Director Christine Tschida said the institute aims to develop more connections between what's happening on the Northrop main stage with the academic life at the university.

"Whether that will mean more master classes, more extended residencies by artists when they are here, more of a connection with the students to the process of the work being performed onstage -- I mean, we will look for ways for that to develop," Tschida said.

The performance of "Shore" wraps up Sunday with a feast at a farm in Osceola Wisconsin. It's free but everyone is asked to bring a dish to share that has special meaning to them.

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