EMILY JOHNSON / CATALYST: NIICUGNI
Baryshnikov Arts Center, Howard Gilman Performance Space
450 West 37th St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
January 9-12, $20, 7:30
Alaska native Emily Johnson has titled her latest performance installation Niicugni, which means “to listen, to pay attention to,” and the Minneapolis-based choreographer once again proves she’s someone to pay attention to with the complex multimedia piece. Johnson incorporates themes of community and narrative in the immersive work, pronounced “nee-CHOOG-nee,” exploring people’s interconnectedness with the land, animals, and humanity itself in the past, present, and future. In a space filled with fish-skin lanterns hung at varying heights (and some containing speakers), Johnson and Aretha Aoki, wearing masks of their faces, move toward the audience like salmon swimming upstream, preparing to reproduce. Aoki tears up her mask, then puts the scraps awkwardly back on her face, introducing one of Niicugni’s central themes — the act of cutting things apart and putting them back together. “Do you remember the story I told you about the tree? I’ll tell it again,” Johnson says near the start of the show. “There was a monster that bit off my ear. Then, he cut off my arms, every branch. He cut my leg at the knee. He cut my belly and head. He kept cutting and cutting. . . . My mother stitched back my arms, my aunties sang back my legs, I poured by own blood back in.”
Inspired by seeing a gallery exhibit of fish-skin art in 2009, Johnson had volunteers around the country create the lanterns, taking the dried salmon skin and sewing the pieces back together to make something new, building useful objects as well as a sense of community. Later, her father, a Yupik, received land from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which took a large section of earth and divided it up. Niicugni contains several stories relating to these ideas as it delves into the art of storytelling itself. Over the course of seventy minutes, Johnson and Aoki eagerly share tales of a duck, a bear, and a fox; are joined by men, women, and children who emerge from the crowd and backstage; interact with lighting designer Heidi Eckwall, violinist Bethany Lacktorin, and guitarist-composer James Everest (who is also Johnson’s husband); and perform pas de deux that range from the abstract to the surreal to the self-referential. Niicugni began with birth, and it ends with a discussion of death, but Johnson does so, as always, with a sly, knowing grin. Now part of a trilogy that will conclude with Shore in 2014, Niicugni can be compelling and confusing, captivating and, at times, clunky. Not all of the individual sections work, but they come together to form another of Johnson’s engaging and involving examinations of personal and collective identity and humanity’s responsibility to the planet. In November 2011, Johnson and her Catalyst company presented The Thank-You Bar at New York Live Arts, winning an Outstanding Production award at the 2012 Bessies “for gently and deftly coaxing an audience into a community, holding them spellbound with stories spoken and unspoken. . . . for reminding us that we all come from a place unknowable, yet known.” Niicugni continues those ideas more than admirably. A very hot ticket, Niicugni runs at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through January 12 as part of PS122’s Coil festival; Johnson will participate in a free SPAN conversation on January 16 at 12 noon at the COIL hub at Dixon Place.