Catalyst Dance & Blackfish Make Themselves (and Us) at Home Onstage

Joel Pickard, Emily Johnson, and James Everest. Photo by Cameron Wittig.

“When I was growing up, it was grandma’s house. There just also happened to be these strangers getting drinks at the bar. And we could also sit up there and get Shirley Temples,” Emily Johnson said with a laugh. “It is probably still the coolest place.”

This was mid last week, and I was sitting in the lobby of New York Live Arts with Johnson and her musical collaborator James Everest, who were finally opening up mid-way through our conversation, having began a bit blurry-eyed due to the fact they’d just finished loading-in the set for The Thank-you Bar (Nov. 9-12; tickets $16 advance/$20 DOS) after a three-day drive from Minneapolis.

“She also had a craft shop as part of it, too,” Everest commented.

“Well that came later, a little gift shop,” Johnson said, before continuing to reminisce. “There was the bar, and the drinks. My papa was a jokester, so he’d always bring out these jokes. Our favorite one was this doll where you pulled the tie on the doll and it would spit in your face and laugh maniacally. So we’d always [beg], ‘Bring the doll! Bring the doll!’ And he’d do it to customers. And there was a jukebox, and we just kept it supplied with quarters and kept it going all the time. And there was the pool table, there was a dance floor, there was a fireplace, there were recliners. There was always a scrabble game or two going on. There were plants everywhere. So it was very homey, but also a bar. There was always a Western going on on the TV in the corner. And then my grandma would bring out some snacks. ‘Here, have some dried fish we have here!’ ‘Here, have some herring we’ve got!’ ‘Here, have some cookies!'”

“I think the beer was usually served in cans,” Everest added.

They were telling me about the work’s namesake, The Que-ana Bar outside the small town of Clam Gulch, Alaska, “Que-ana” (or, I was told, “quyana” in the more accepted transliteration, though the bar used the former spelling) meaning “thank you” in the Yup’ik language of Johnson’s heritage. The bar, as mentioned, was both a roadside bar in a small community on the Kenai Peninsula, near where Johnson grew up in the town of Sterling, as well as her grandmother’s house (which was an attached apartment), and a centerpiece of Johnson’s childhood.

“This was the place where the whole extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles would all go,” Everest said, “for, well, holidays at grandma’s house–Thanksgiving and that sort of thing. But also for the different kind of more traditional Alaskan festivals of processing fish after the salmon run, everyone going to do their jobs, cutting them into strips, hanging them in the smokehouse, putting them in the brine. Or moose. Or clam digging. April is shrimp, June is silver salmon, July is red salmon. September is moose. November is caribou. And clam digging is at certain tide differentials.”

The Alaska-born Johnson moved to Minneapolis in the 1990s to attend college, initially intending to study physical therapy following a career as a high school athlete, before switching to dance part way through her freshman year. After college, she continued living and working in Minneapolis, founding her own company Catalyst, and coming up through the same vibrant scene that’s produced artists and companies like Hijack Dance and Morgan Thorson. Everest, a guitarist and composer who comes from more indie rock-oriented background, met Johnson in 2001 and began collaborating with her in 2002. He’s been the musical director, involved in virtually every Catalyst project, since.

The genesis of The Thank-you Bar, a dance/music/installation work by Johnson, Everest, and composer/lap-steel guitarist Joel Pickard, was several years ago when Johnson, discovering she was becoming more and more homesick for her native Alaska, began writing stories.

Photo by Cameron Wittig.

“It’s been, what, 17 years or something since I’ve lived in Minneapolis,” she told me, “and it’s in a way getting harder and harder, just in the sense that I really, really miss Alaska, and really miss where I’m from. My family’s all there, so of course I miss them, but I also just miss the land. So that was really coming to a head a couple years ago when I started this piece, so The Thank-you Bar is very much about missing home.”

The work ultimately began with a short story, “Blackfish.”

“I wrote this story about blackfish. And blackfish are real, though they’re quite embellished in this story. Then I started this [the dance] piece, the physical images, everything else, came somewhat from that impetus,” Johnson explained. “Because once I wrote that story, I knew I needed to tell that story within the piece. And it was difficult to figure out how to tell those stories onstage. I had not done a whole lot of speaking onstage. All of my works have had stories, text, language, song. But I personally had not done it. I’d always found ways to move around it–like tape recording my voice on a tape recorder, having it over loud speakers. So I studied with a storyteller, down in Tallahassee, and found the right way to approach it.”

Before admitting I didn’t actually know what a blackfish was, I asked if, in fact, there would be fish within the performance, as I’d seen in the images for it (as above). “Fish don’t actually appear other than as an image,” she replied, grinning, to my disappointment.

“They’re fantastic to me!” she explained of the blackfish, known as an almost mythologically durable fish, capable of surviving when its watery home freezes by burrowing into the beds of lakes and rivers. “The first time I ate them was in 1999, I was at a Yup’ik dance festive in St. Mary’s, Alaska. Another cousin–my grandma and I were staying–another cousin, he brought out some blackfish and we were eating it and then he was telling a story about when he was little and he did a science fair project on blackfish, trying to see through what conditions¬† these things could actually live. Like freezing them–how long can they be frozen? He said he won the science fair. And this started this story about the blackfish.”

Ultimately, Johnson settled on four stories and began developing the work from there. In addition to training in storytelling–conducted with an experienced Native American elder from the Creek tribe in Florida–the work developed as a musical piece, as well. Portland, Oregon-based musician Pickard had worked with them in the past, and the new work offered an opportunity to collaborate again.

“We wanted to work with Joel,” Everest explained. “[And] because there was a jukebox at the Que-ana Bar that had classic country, that was the soundtrack to Emily’s childhood growing up, going to grandma’s house, which happened to be this bar at grandma’s house. And so musically that was an element we wanted to have. So having wanted to work with Joel in general, and knowing he had this instrument, we kind of went about deconstructing country classics, country standards, it was a perfect moment to bring that together.”

Over time, Everest and Pickard’s collaboration developed its own life along with the piece, which has now been performed more than 70 times around the country. After one residency a couple years ago, the two proposed doing a musical performance on its own within the space the performance takes place in. The audience is non-traditionally arranged on the stage space for the performance, creating numerous opportunities for movement and sonic exploration. The two, working under the name Blackfish, present their own installation/musical performance at each run of the show (in New York, it takes place at 9 pm Saturday, either included with the 7:30 pm ticket or $10 on its own). The duo have recorded a half dozen of their semi-improvisational performance which are now available as a CD. A final component of the work is an art installation, represented in New York via slideshow due to space issues, called “This Is Displacement,” featuring the work of 46 artists from 19 tribal nations that explores displacement as experienced by Native American groups.

But at its heart, The Thank-you Bar is about more than just Johnson’s evocation of her childhood and longing for her home–it’s a work that invites the audience to consider issues of home, comfort, displacement, and what it takes to make a place your own.

“For me, [home is] Alaska,” Johnson told me, “but in a broader sense, it’s about somebody missing home, and also then it’s about building a home where you find yourself. Because we always, we all do that many times in our lives. Either by–and I’ve said this many times–either by force, someone forces us to move, or by choice. And then we’re always dealing with the ramifications of that. Sometimes it’s joyful, and sometimes it’s awful. Trying to find a way to continue life. How you build community, how you build your home, where you find the resources to do that. What do you actually call a home? Is it a physical space, or the people around? In the piece, we try to build a home onstage for all of us, for the people in the audience. The audience sits onstage with us. It’s our little home, for an hour.”

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