DANCE | Emily Johnson breaks boundaries and wins hearts at Northrop


“So what did you think?” asked my friend as we biked across the Washington Avenue Bridge after seeing Emily Johnson’s The Thank-You Bar at Northrop Auditorium.

I thought for a second. “You know,” I responded, “how sometimes the people who annoy you the most are also the people you love the most? This show is like that.”

Contemporary dance routinely gets pretty out-there, but even in that context, The Thank-You Bar is unusual. My ticket directed me to “Northrop stage,” which I assumed was a smaller venue adjacent to the auditorium—but no. It actually meant the stage of Northrop Auditorium, where both Johnson and the entire audience remain for the entire performance. Well, actually Johnson begins the show in the back of the auditorium, where you watch her come somersaulting through the doors before the curtain drops and Johnson appears on a video projection, carrying a big imaginary tree. It’s that kind of a show.

zenon dance company’s 2010 fall season, presented through november 20 at northrop auditorium. for tickets and information, see

The piece comprises several segments, performed by Johnson and set to the live music of the duo Blackfish (James Everest and Joel Pickard).* The Thank-You Bar explores Johnson’s identity as an Alaskan-turned-Minnesotan of Native descent. She tells stories (in one case, sitting in a kiddie pool full of dead leaves), she stands in an igloo that she then distributes to the audience, and she runs around a lot. She does also move in a fashion recognizable as dance—though this being contemporary dance, even the pool-sitting might be technically considered “dancing.”

In this eclectic composition, it’s the relatively straightforward dance that works best. In the solo dance at the performance’s core, Johnson contrasts the rhythms of Native dance with the conventional vocabulary of contemporary dance, jerking furiously about in a manner that speaks more eloquently to her identity conflicts than do her stories, or some later business involving dozens of name tags.

And yet, the piece wouldn’t be as effective without its eccentricity and intimacy. Sitting on the Northrop stage as the curtain drops on the vast, empty auditorium creates a striking sensation of dislocation. You feel out-of-place and yet unmistakably embraced, in a manner that may reflect some of Johnson’s feelings about her ethnicity and identity. Blackfish’s ambient music is so warm and eloquent that, I told my friend, it feels almost like cheating: Blackfish could perform a score for toilet-scrubbing and it would move you to tears. In this piece, it emphasizes the uncanny personal glow Johnson emanates as she moves about the stage smiling, wearing a ridiculously charming ski-vest-and-jumper ensemble created by Angie Vo.

The exhaustiveness with which Johnson exploits the space gets a little wearing, and by the time we were walking across the stage to squeeze in around the kiddie pool, I must report that I allowed my eyes to roll. But then there we were, and we listened to a story, and Johnson lay back and the lights dimmed as she sang softly, her lips were silhouetted against one of the glowing igloo bricks, and it was a transcendent moment. Sometimes the people who annoy you the most are also the people you love the most.

* To be precise, The Thank-You Bar is a creation of “Emily Johnson | Catalyst,” and BLACKFISH is properly written like so, in capital letters. So you know.