A Bad Spell : Gloss 1

Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars

I imagine everything is possible. I’ve always done this. As a kid, I wrapped potatoes and put them in drawers. I’ve always enjoyed tasks—ones that lead to tangible outcomes and ones that don’t. And I ran through the woods pretending I was a deer. I ran as fast and as far as possible, hopping logs, ducking branches, imagining I had four legs. And I kind of grew up in a bar—the one my grandmother owned and lived in, in Alaska. So amidst climbing the tree and watching the beavers, running the woods, kicking rocks and stacking wood and cutting fish, spooning one teaspoon of oil into each jar of kippured red salmon—I would listen to stories. Some I probably shouldn’t have heard. True stories and made-up ones, jokes and drunken tales from neighbors, family, strangers. The stories and voices mixed with the work and our play, with our actions and the actions of the strangers (kind actions and also sometimes cruel ones), and with the clams squirting saltwater—cleaning themselves in the bucket where they were stored until the freshwater in grandma’s pot boiled.

I make dances now. And I see dance in everything—in the blood moving through our bodies, the synapses of our brains, the sway of trees, and the migration of fish. I see dance in the theatres of our world, in the community centers and gymnasiums and back roads and bedrooms. And I view our bodies as everything: culture, history, present, future at once. Out of respect for, and trust in, our bodies and collective memories, I give equal weight to story and image, to movement and stillness, to what I imagine, and to what I do not know.

Sometimes I make dances that include feasting, stories (mine and those of others), volunteerism, performance. Sometimes I make dances that last all night. I make dances to conjure future joy. I make quilts upon which to host the audience and the dance. I make fish-skin lanterns to light us. (In actuality, a lot of us get together to make these quilts and lanterns.) I invite stillness, an awareness of the periphery. I invite you to turn your head to notice what is happening next to you. I adore endurance and struggle and know that sometimes struggle is not going to be resolved via physical manifestation. So sometimes the struggle is to stop. Let others care for what is being made, hold it. Invite others to be at and inside the core of the making.

And we gather. To share food on the banks of Newtown Creek or Tuggeght Beach, at Foxtail Farm or Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. We restore dunes by planting native shrubs, we clean oysters in the New York estuary, we daylight streams, clean up parks. These moments by my definition are dance, are theatre, are the sharing and making of story and life: action, purpose, non-purpose, possibility.

We need this: time together and also time together, alone. It’s so basic it makes my head spin. We need one another. We need one another in a sweat-inducing, vulnerable proximity and we need one another in a quiet, settled distance. We need time to let our stories settle and be heard. We need to practice telling them and by practice I just mean tell. We need to listen. We need the listening to intertwine with action—action we witness and action we take into and onto our bodies. We need to acknowledge where we are and whom we are with and what ground we stand, lay, sit on. It can be meticulous, this work. Or miraculous. Or both. I think it can be both. I imagine it is possible.



About the Author

Originally from Alaska, Emily Johnson is an artist of Yup’ik descent, who has been making body-based work since 1998. She is a Bessie Award-winning choreographer, 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of the 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award. Her written work has been published in Dance Research Journal and Movement Research Journal, and has been commissioned by SFMOMA and Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.