Culture, community and dance: An Alaskan story

Sam norton

A&E Editor


Stories are what choreographer Emily Johnson knows best—from King Solomon, bears, monsters and even laughter—these are what compose Johnson’s childhood and culture.

But on Feb. 13 in the Redfern Arts Center, Johnson found a way to combine culture, community and dance into a story influenced by her Alaskan heritage.

Ivan Singer / Contributed Photo On Feb. 13, the Redfern Arts Center and the Vermont Performance Lab joined forces to present the work of award-winning choreographer Emily Johnson.

Ivan Singer / Contributed Photo
On Feb. 13, the Redfern Arts Center and the Vermont Performance Lab joined forces to present the work of award-winning choreographer Emily Johnson.

Johnson said when creating this piece she sought to define and attach meaning to a sense of place—where you’re born, where you are from, the home you have now and where you will be.

In order to convey this notion, Johnson said that she and fellow dancer, Aretha Aoki, improvised for one another.

“[Aoki] and I went outside in the rain, stood on the ground in the rain and danced for each other and imagined being in these other places,” Johnson said, “We tried to place our bodies, our minds, and our thoughts in those moments and places.”

However, in order for the movements to convey a particular sense of meaning and to capture a particular memory, Johnson used dialogue and audience members to develop the performance’s powerful meaning.

“That’s the power that I really think is in the movement. It can be incredibly complex or it can be incredibly simple. The movement itself doesn’t have a particular meaning, but it’s with all of it together, with all the parts—you need the stories, you need the people coming up, you need these lanterns, and then you have something,” she said.

However, Johnson and James Everest, fellow dancer and creator, saw an exhibit of fish-skin work at a contemporary gallery in Alaska, which ultimately provided her with a sense of inspiration to create this performance.

“I was walking on the beach during the Sockeye run and this thought or image of making objects that could be illuminated,” Johnson said.

This was when the idea came to life.  “It started with the fish work and questions about land and eternity. Fishing has been a part of my life forever and it comes up in my work in different ways through stories or images.”

Many cultures have fish skin in their culture because you can make waterproof clothing, shoes, and baskets and my teacher told me that once you know how to work with skin you can mold it into any form,” Johnson said.

These fish skins, which were all hand sculpted into lanterns, were used during the performance not only as an image that represented Johnson’s culture, but also as a way to create a sense of space.

“Things are chosen for a reason and I hope that the stories themselves lead people on somewhat of a parallel connectory that the dance itself leads people on. The images are a path to your own ideas and memories and the stories trigger other memories or other thoughts,” Johnson said.

William Seigh, professor of theatre and dance, said that the images present in Johnson’s performance were not only beautiful, but they were also sensory.

“I felt that I just spent time with a beautiful book of poetry and short stories,” Seigh said.

Junior Emma Bass said that Johnson’s concept of combining community, dance and storytelling into one performance was interesting.

Bass said that all of the elements incorporated into the performance, enhanced the understanding of the audience members. “It made it easier for people to connect to her work”

“I always appreciate things more when they’re personal, it makes me respect them more,” Bass said.

However, even though the stories present in the performance were Johnson’s personal stories, she invited audience members into the experience.

But while Johnson created a performance based on what she knew best, the images and the stories allowed for audience members to take the journey with her and realize the impact of space and place in the moment.

Johnson said, “I used to think that dance couldn’t change the world, but I don’t think that anymore. I do think that a performance can open the world up and alter how we view the world and how we relate to each other and I strive in my work to do that.”


Sam Norton can be contacted at


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