By Randi Somers
Celebrated director, choreographer and curator Emily Johnson presents NIICUGNI a new dance/music/art performance, enhanced by hanging fish-skin sculptures at Pier One Theatre this weekend.
“The fish-skin sculptures are an integral part of a memorable theatrical journey of music and dance with contemporary performance. The effect is one of taking the audience out of the theater and into nature, to NIICUGNI (listen) to our connection with the Earth and our ancestors.” a reviewer wrote. “Johnson has almost ethereal ability to weave elements of theater, dance and art into a uniquely affecting experience. Her richly detailed dance numbers are full of surprises.”
The performance includes dance, storytelling, video, live music and a light and sound installation of hand-sewn fish skin lanterns which hang above the stage and the audience.
“Niicugni” is the second in a trilogy of works that began with Johnson’s Bessie-Award-winning “The Thank-you Bar,” which was performed in Homer at the Bunnell Street Art Center in 2009. It was inspired by Johnson’s childhood memories of her grandma’s Que-Ana Bar in Clam Gulch. The fish skin lanterns that adorn the set for “Niicugni” were inspired by the “Skin Sisters” exhibit that ran at Bunnell Street Art Center in June 2009. The show is a collaboration with the Bunnell.
Now a Minneapolis artist originally from Alaska, Johnson returned to New York to present “Niicugni,” the second piece in a trilogy of works related to her Yup’ik heritage.
“The Thank-you Bar,” focused on ideas of displacement, as well as stereotypes about American Indians through a ritualistic layering of dance, music and storytelling. Even though she’s been choreographing since the mid 1990s, this work was the first in which she addresses her culture.
She had begun working at Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis owned by author Louise Erdrich. The shop specializes in American Indian writers. It was there that Johnson began to immerse herself in her own heritage. “It “brought me home,” she said. While Johnson, who still works at the bookstore, didn’t set out to create a trilogy, it soon became apparent that “The Thank-you Bar” was just the beginning.
Structurally Johnson sees her new “Niicugni” as encompassing “The Thank-you Bar.” Within an installation of 51 handmade fish-skin lanterns, created by Johnson and participants from workshops held in conjunction with residencies around the country, the work explores ideas about how a place, including a body, can tie everything and everyone together. It focuses on the wholeness of land, rather than its territorial borders.“I know what it feels like to walk on the land I grew up on,” she said. “It’s very spongy. The trees and the ground smell earthy and piney. I’m really interested in not forgetting that there’s ground underneath this floor, and that we are all connected, via land, via ground, even in the sense that the ground is made of the remains of all creatures that have ever existed, including our ancestors.”
A potluck and artist’s talk at Bunnell last weekend set the stage.
Niicugni shows at Pier One Theater Friday, May 24 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m.
Advance tickets are available at Bunnell Street Arts Center and at show times at Pier One Theater. They are $15 general, $10 student/senior, and $12 for members of Bunnell or Pier One.
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