Place & history

Through live music, dance, and storytelling, Emily Johnson’s Niicugni continues a trilogy about her Native heritage

GUILFORD — Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) and the Redfern Arts Center at Keene State College are joining forces to present Niicugni, a performance piece by native Alaskan choreographer Emily Johnson and Catalyst Dance on Feb. 13.

The second in a trilogy of works related to Johnson's Yup'ik heritage, Niicugni investigates identity, place, memory, and community of the indigenous people.

The first part of the trilogy, The Thank-you Bar, was presented by the Guilford-based arts residency program for experimental works in 2010. The final third of this trilogy is not yet completed.

“Niicugni” is the Yup'ik word for “listen” - a directive to pay attention. Through its layering of live music, dance, and storytelling, Niicugni quietly compels the audience to take notice of place and history.

Niicugni is about how land, or place, like our bodies, is a repository of past, present, and future,” Johnson says.

“It holds, at once, myth and truth, magic and evil, hope and death, laughter and monsters, as well as ancestral histories and cultural identities,” she says.

Johnson is inviting 40 community members from New Hampshire and Vermont to participate. The Redfern and VPL have been recruiting farmers and gardeners, librarians and archivists, sewers, knitters, and beekeepers.

“In the moment of each performance, Niicugni wonders if we can recognize the importance of everyone in the room,” Johnson says. “Can we see ourselves as part of the whole? Can we absorb that everyone we see is here now and will be gone?”

Sara Coffey, founder and producing director of VPL, says, “Emily is trying to get people from the community to rub off on her piece.”

Sights, sounds, smells, and place

Since 1998, Johnson, a director/choreographer/performer/curator based in Minneapolis, has been making performance works that blur the distinctions between music, dance, and daily life.

Her work is influenced by the landscape of south-central Alaska, where she was born, and by the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, where her father's family hails from.

As with Niicugni, Johnson's performance works often function as installations, engaging audiences within and through a space and environment using sights, sounds, and smells, as well as a place's architecture, history, and role in community.

Coffey believes Niicugni shows Johnson's growth as an artist.

“It is a bigger, more complex piece than the first part of the trilogy,” she says.

While Thank You Bar was designed for a small audience, Niicugni uses the large auditorium of the Redform Center for its venue, Coffey points out.

Two years ago, Johnson began creating Niicugni at VPL. Johnson had two creative residencies with VPL in 2010 and 2011 which included two weeks in the studio to develop movement and sound material. During a separate week, volunteers formed a sewing circle, where Johnson taught them how to create lanterns from salmon skin for use in the Niicugni set.

This group of local sewers created 11 of the 50 hand-sewn salmon-skin lanterns that now light the work.

“It was Sara's idea to bring people together to make these lanterns,” says Johnson. “We became the Vermont Sewing Bee Performance Lab.”

“I brought this idea with me when I went to other places to get the rest of the lanterns completed,” Johnson says. “I was overwhelmed by the generosity of this community of people giving so much of their time and craft intent on making something happen.”

The audience members at the Redfern Arts Center are invited to arrive early to view a lobby art exhibit and video that show community members making fish-skin lanterns.

Niicugni has been 2{1/2} years in its making,” says Johnson. “Although, of course, all pieces adapt and morph, I do consider this constantly evolving piece as finished.”

She is happy to return to New England, “where this piece first put its feet on the ground.”

A personal statement

Johnson has received a 2012 Bessie (New York Dance and Performance) Award for Outstanding Production for her work The Thank-you Bar at New York Live Arts. She is a 2012 Headlands and MacDowell Artist in Residence, a 2011 Native Arts and Cultures Fellow, a 2012, 2010, and 2009 MAP Fund Grant recipient, and a 2009 McKnight Fellow.

Like many artists talking about their own work, she is hesitant to say what her piece is really about.

“I hope there are many things people can take away with them from this piece as they walk out of the theater,” she says.

“I consider what I do very personal,” Johnson continues. “Everything begins with my own perceptions and experiences, and from that, the work may move out into the broader world.”

She says that it is social to the degree that she, the other creators and performers, and the audience “form a micro-community every night we perform. I consider what I do to be multicultural only in the sense that my own experiences of mixed heritage has been such.”

Nonetheless, she is willing to suggest that her vision might come from her culturally de-centered point-of-view.

“It may be because of my background that I look at the world from the corner of my eye,” she explains. “Ultimately, that is a more encompassing vision, as it encourages you to turn your head side by side and see things with a 360-degree vision. I ask my audience to join me and watch with trust and imagination.”

On the other hand, Coffey, who calls Johnson “a unique voice in contemporary dance right now,” is more willing to see the piece as inherently political.

Niicugni is both a commentary and statement about Euro-American encounters with Native American people,” she says.

“Unlike other Native American artists, “she does not feel compelled to draw upon the traditional iconography that, say, makes a work 'Eskimo,'” Coffey says.

“She is able to create pieces that are complexly nuanced, open to shifting voices,” she adds I find Niicugni to be a dance/performance piece that is simultaneously very contemporary and a reflection of Johnson's Native heritage.”

The audience is encouraged to stay after the show at Redfern to join Johnson and the other performers in a discussion about the issues that Niicugni reflects.

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