Emily Johnson’s SHORE at New York Live Arts

Photo of Emily Johnson by Erin Westover

Photo of Emily Johnson by Erin Westover

Your work focuses a lot on ancestry and community — what is your connection to these topics and when / why did you feel compelled to bring people together around them?

I think that my interest in ancestry is about people’s histories. It’s a combination of truth and myth, fantasy and reality, and I accept that in my building of stories and my ancestry, if I know and don’t know and can find and make up my own history, I hope that opens the door to hearing other people’s stories or being in touch with them somehow. When I look at people, I look beyond the form of body; I wonder about the stories and histories and ancestries.

When did this interest come about?

I think in 2000. I was experiencing very violent acts and threats directed at me, and I was making work at the same time and that time frame made me wonder who else was experiencing violence that I didn’t know. I felt like I wanted to create a platform where people could be in touch with those stories or share those stories. It made me feel like if we all talked about violence maybe we can somehow find solutions together. That was a particular moment in time that made me think about other people’s stories.

What is the bridge between the community work and the performance(s) that make-up SHORE?

I don’t even think about it as half and half; I think about SHORE as being all of it. It is performance, it is gathering, it is feasting, it is planting or picking up trash or talking about our wants for our city, there is no distinction. Certainly in regards to the week, this day is focused on performance, and that day on community action, but I like to think of that time as not separate either. Our community action in the Rockaways has this long term effect for that dune that we are going to shore up and somewhere in there there is performance and somewhere in there we share stories and share a feast, but it’s all held within a long platform for change. The performers are as invited in the community action work as anyone else.

What is your process for entering new communities with your cast and how do you build a new community within this process?

I am not coming in to build a community, really; I am coming in to share with what is already happening.  Certainly, together we grow and make something new together and that is an energetic shift that is all about possibility. It has been very positive but it’s really vital that that is created together. So my process really starts with conversation, introducing myself and this project in a very wide open way; “is this something that you might want to be involved in and what would you want to make together?” And I know I have this framework of volunteerism but when I come to a potential partner organization I just say, “here is the whole project, how do you want to be involved with it?” That openness is vital. It means that I am not in a directing role. Our conversations from the beginning are very broad in scope and partners know the whole project and ideas are then presented to me that I would never have thought. The partner then becomes really invested in the work because we are creating something together. It is about what we might do together that will serve the project and the goals of the organization and its community. It’s about allowing for space for possibility and not always bringing people to our performance world but outside of the theater, out through the walls, out into the world.

And we are also looking at this work as we are doing this work. I see this change happening and I am interested in seeing how it is happening, what are we doing that we could share with people who want to do this kind of work? So we are commissioning essays and have scribes who are writing what they notice, photos and video…we do follow-up interviews and have audience surveys. So we are interested in how SHORE affects you and that research project has become a project of itself.

Are you going to follow-up with these projects over time?

Absolutely. The conversations as part of this research project will continue, we will stay in touch with these organizations and I am not just going to leave, how could I? [Laughs]

That’s amazing and rare. SHORE has become also a durational work. You have brought this project to Minneapolis, are now presenting it in New York, and are about to show it in Alaska — does SHORE mold to each city you bring it to?

Yes, the performance is what I bring but the community activism and the feast is particular to every community. Where we begin outside and how we interact with that beginning site and how we interact with that audience outside changes from city to city (in the performance). It’s a very subtle beginning; it’s about gathering and having time for conversation. We walk together from PS11 in Chelsea to New York Live Arts so the beginning and the walk is crafted specifically to each place but then when we get to the theater it’s the same performance. There is a local and traveling cast. It’s of mixed ages. In Minneapolis we had two kids, two teenagers, so that changes the energy a lot. I love this piece very much, it’s very alive…it’s funny because of course every performance is alive, but this work is so alive to perform, somehow, for me. There is a very fine line between the very casual, real essence, and this fine-tuned performance.

It’s anchored in reality.

It is anchored in reality! And when we were creating the movement our thought process was to conjure future joy and we were supposed to let anything exist as part of that. That very open process changed something in my dancing, I’ve always created dances from an internal process but this was the core of my internal process! [Laughs] It’s very emotional to perform, it’s that alive part; when I am dancing it or when I am sharing those vocal stories, I am both remembering those stories from the year and a half that we spent making it and I am at the same time trying to conjure a future joy and that always brings me to this precipice of “will I ever experience joy? What has or will be my joy? What will our collective future be?” which goes back to the rest of SHORE which is relevant to our collective future. We have to plant native plants, we have to pick up our shit, we have to pay attention to each other, we have to share resources, we have to share food, stories, we have to listen. If we don’t do these things we are going to be so fucked! We already are fucked! [Laughs] We have to do them now.

What does conjuring future joy entail?

It’s very open. We are improvising to very open tasks. We improvise for 10 minutes like nothing exists and like everything is part of this dancing. Sometimes it’s images in my head, something it brings me to past joy…I was remembering things from being a kid, imagining the ocean, or very specifically my five year old birthday or something that I don’t know. That sometimes led me to feel very joyful and connected to people through joy, sometimes it led me to ask myself if I would ever feel or experience joy; quite scientific and the opposite of joy. My cat died prior to one of our rehearsals, and then we went in, trying to conjure future joy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about my cat. There is always that shadow, that duality. We didn’t make a happy dance because joy touches upon everything around it. The path towards nothing is inclusive of everything. But that process did conjure a richness. And we would share stories vocally and then started only using sounds, and then started sharing in silence. That I think is really beautiful because it touches upon what I was saying earlier, the possibility of stories that we are never going to hear from that person passing by us on the street. I think that we can tap into those stories is a start.

Are the volunteers aware of this aspect of the work?

Not specifically. There is a similarity in each of the gatherings to how I describe the beginning of the performance. It’s crafted in that same way, we gather, we begin, we work together. A group of teenagers who work in the Rockaways and help me with the volunteer program, the SHORE Core, have been writing stories about their lives in the Rockaways that we are going to share throughout the day. Certainly, as you work, you build relationships with people and there is a possibility that that relationship will extend beyond that time and place. At the feast, people are asked to bring a dish and people are curious about the stories behind each meal, so there are stories embedded within.

Your work seems to cross the boundaries of performance and enter the realm of community activism and social gathering which makes me wonder about your roles beyond choreographer; has your sense of identity changed since you’ve taken on this project?

I don’t think that my sense of myself has changed because it’s just all grown together. I always wanted to make performances that were vital to the world and I guess how I tried to do that has a grown alongside.

A lot of artists work with communities aside from their performances, but SHORE almost feels like it’s creating throughout the course of its duration a separate society, especially in an urban area like New York.

[Laughs] I have been so thrilled and stirred by what’s been happening here, already. And it’s not my doing, it’s our doing together. SHORE has already really been happening for months; there are these public events in April, which are one part of the project, but it’s already transformed my view of this city. The investment, the work, and the excitement from all the partners of this particular city has been so beautiful. To me it’s so exciting that right now, organizations around the city who are not necessarily connected to performance are very much invested in this performance. It’s so cool.

Just the beginning of the work connects PS11 to NYLA, two institutions who might not have worked together had it not been for SHORE.

And I think that those kinds of relationships lead to possibilities of them continuing to work together. I can’t make that happen but I can create the possibility of it happening. I like that that possibility exists.

Photo Emily Johnson and Krista Langberg by Erin Westover

Photo Emily Johnson and Krista Langberg by Erin Westover

Performances of SHORE will take place at New York Live Arts April 23-25. Community events are scheduled for April 19, 24, 26.


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