Emily Johnson’s SHORE Celebrates the Places Where Landscapes and Bodies Meet and Merge

Emily Johnson/Catalyst is bringing the expansive installation SHORE to New York this month, with gatherings and events throughout the city and performances at New York Live Arts. SHORE expands beyond the theater to celebrate the places where we meet and merge—land and water; performer and audience; art and community; past, present, and future.

Throughout her work, Johnson asks: How can performance uniquely connect us to our land, our lives and each other? A native of Alaska who is based in Minneapolis, Johnson has spent the past four months working with community partners to plan this locally-specific version of SHORE in New York City, or as the Native Americans called it, Lenapehoking (“land of the Lenape”). She describes the events planned for SHORE in Lenapehoking: “SHORE moves, over the course of a week, from the dunes in the Rockaways, to the East River estuary, onto and into New York Harbor, over Minetta Creek, to the banks and buoyancy of Newtown Creek. We’ll listen to stories, we’ll work together, we’ll share food and this performance, taking care of what we need to care for. We’ll walk and bike and canoe and celebrate.”

In addition to the community events and performances, Johnson is commissioning writers in each city where she presents SHORE to contribute essays about their experiences. The essays, which can be found on the Catalyst website, eloquently evoke the spirit of the project: finding and creating dance through a celebration of the land and the community, creating performance not just on a stage, but through volunteerism, feasting, and storytelling.

Below is the essay artist and playwright Will MacAdams wrote about participating in SHORE in Minneapolis:

Emily Johnson tells me that the first time she realized she was dancing was when she was hugging a tree as a little girl and she felt it’s swaying and she realized she was swaying with it.

I like imagining dance like that: something you echo, something you already are. I thought of it often when I was watching Catalyst’s SHORE, as well as planting in the rain garden at East River Flats and participating in the feast at Foxtail Farm.

Wait, Emily told me the story of her dancing with the tree after I did all of those things. True, but didn’t the story of the tree at the top of SHORE move forward and backward through time, as if to say: the past, the future, the present, they are knotted together like roots?

Yes. So…after I heard about the trees dancing, I saw movement everywhere in SHORE:

In the shivering crate that Emily stood on to tell us about the tree, her hand shivering as she told it. In the audience member who moved toward her, whose hand held her up.

In the walking across the grass at the top of SHORE, dancers young and old, formally trained and not. In the way that a child moves before being taught the coffin of straight lines. In the dancers running around the perimeter, washing toward us, a flood. In a woman dancing, nine months pregnant, a child dancing inside the water inside her.

In a longing for touch that came through on the stage at Northrop: Emily reaching out to other bodies, especially female ones, reaching out to touch, to be touched; in the velvet voice of Nona Marie Invie that sang to us and also turned away from us, as if SHORE came with two invitations: one saying, “Come closer,” and the other, “I do not know if I am ready to tell you this.” In trees in planters at the far end of the stage, emissaries of the tree described at the top of the show, but with none of its wildness. Are they longing for touch, too? Will they carry word back to the wild woods to join the dance? I leave feeling beauty, pain, hope, but most of all longing—is it because I, too, dream of dancing with the trees?

In the planting in the rain garden, where the Ranger, our tour guide, tells us proudly about a conversation with his daughter about the shape of the Mississippi, which for him is serpentine. But his daughter insists that it is round: from the river, to the sky, to the clouds, to the rain, and back again. I wonder: how can we dance with the serpent and the sky?

And here at the feast, at a long table filled with food and laughter and stories: of the three bean soup from the Dream of Wild Health cookbook and the Native owned / Native grown farm that sustains it; of the strawberries picked this morning in the drizzling fields of the Foxtail Farm; of the best-ever, still-warm strawberry shortcake; of the music, arranged like a good recipe by James Everest; and of all the food made with care for this meal. Somewhere close, there are hands sowing the fields, sewing stories, knitting together our knotted roots.

And, after the feast, a walk through the muddy fields where I carry two metal chairs that feel heavier by the step (every homesteading family has its awkward uncle) and then we arrive by a tree under the blanket of dusk. We listen to Ben Weaver’s songs of wandering, of camping and of being on the road. His voice will soon carry him on a trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and it gives me a new image for the shape of the river: not serpentine or round but the shape of a wanderer’s song.

And there is danger in movement, too. My friend Nick Slie, from New Orleans, is well-aware of water lines, so he points out that the trees we see as we cross the bridge into Wisconsin are not trees but tree tops, and I realize that this bridge isn’t supposed to rest on the water like this. This dance, this three-day SHORE dance, isn’t just a celebration, I learn. It is a warning. A global warning of a loneliness that I can’t even conceive. And yet even within that warning I find hope, because inside the warning there is a morning we remember and this company dances on the thread between that morning and this moment and so there is the possibility that this very moment might be a step to a brighter tomorrow; yes, the fact that you are seeing it, hearing it, that means that you remember that tomorrow, and maybe if enough people come together to see what they already know then this dance will help light the way.

–Will MacAdams, July 2014

Emily Johnson’s SHORE in Lenapehoking runs April 19-26. Click here for details on all events.