Love + Concern + Compassion = Art?

Camille LeFevre reviews the Catalyst show "Something More Useful Then"--an Emily Johnson project with many collaborators. She's a fan--but maybe a reluctant one. Read on for more on this intense and interesting project.

Emily Johnson

In “Something More Useful Then” Emily Johnson, Susan Scalf, Stephen Herzog, Nadine Sures (from Montreal), Channy Moon Casselle (of Roma di Luna), and JG Everest (Lateduster, Vicious, Vicious, JG Everest) perform a variety of physical, vocal, and instrumental feats in work created by Johnson, Scalf in collaboration with Herzog, and Deborah Dunn of Montreal. This work appeared at Bryant Lake Bowl Theater the weekend of June 29-30.

“What do you do for the world, Emily?” asks Nadine Sures in the duet “Something More Useful than Reaching for More Hope than is Possible.” As if to say, “This. Don’t you know?,” Emily Johnson replies by dancing the frenetic, limb-flinging, wide-legged stomping bit to cat-meow music she earlier performed in her solo “One for Resolve/Emily.” It’s meant to be funny, a little bit cute. And it is.

But the real answer, after seeing last weekend’s show “Something More Useful Then” at the Bryant Lake Bowl, which includes works by Johnson, Susan Scalf, and two Montreal choreographers, is that what Johnson is intent on giving the world, right now, is all the love, concern, and compassion she can manifest in her highly idiosyncratic, prop- and text-heavy, movement-based works. In “One for Resolve/Emily,” this includes emptying a garbage pail of paper coffee cups, crumpled cans, and bottles, kissing each one before tossing them to the floor.
She creates a tableau out of this garbage, fistfuls of dirt, and a plaster duck as she tells the poignant story, in taped voiceover, of a Florida painter’s garden—a sort of “Grey Gardens” tale of glamour dismantled by time and family neglect and “minds no longer reliable.” In the piece, Johnson jackknife-jumps to particular words, combines ballet moves and cheerleading gestures as she sings out “I don’t want to live in the U.S.A.,” contorts her body on the floor, and saunters drunkenly in her white wig with boombox and wine bottle in hand. Clearly, she cares—about the environment, politics, people.

In the duet with Sures, a Montreal-based choreographer and dancer, there’s a narrative impulse of sorts having to do with the push/pull of their friendship. Looking like dolls or puppets, the women wear pleated paper skirts, ruffs, and wrist cuffs that rustle with every awkward move, flung arm and leg, squirm on the floor, tussle and toss. Sures says she needs a word, and Johnson writes “LOVE” on her chest. Later, Johnson writes “DIRE” on her own chest. They decide they’ll help the world by screaming at some kids who were throwing rocks at ducks. (Ducks seem to be some sort of theme in the show, as is a choreography of flung and tossed legs, arms and torsos.)

Can I just say, for the record, that I miss the old, younger Johnson? When she burst forth from the University of Minnesota dance program some 10 years or so ago, with her band of arch, angry young women in tow, she made clear, intelligent, emotionally charged, technically rigorous dance works that blew everyone away. Prestigious grants, commissions and accolades followed. Ambitious and forward-thinking, she made and sold videos of her work, created an opus on global warming (Heat and Life) that’s toured around the United States, and collaborated with other artists to perform in art galleries, in parks and on bridges in Minneapolis.

Now we have this. Along with a work by Scalf, “take2,” featuring Stephen Herzog singing in drag and the always indomitable, charismatic Scalf, a physical force of nature as she precisely parts curtains or hurls herself about the stage. Sures, in feathered bra and a jagged skirt, also performs the solo “The Wild Girl of Champagne” by Montreal choreographer Deborah Dunn. Based on the eighteenth-century story of a young girl found in the woods of the Champagne district of France, the work has Sures swigging from a bottle of bubbly (get it?), and exploring the fine line between feral behavior and party-girl antics (wild, get it?) with robust physicality.

Overall, to be sure, the show had a sweet, handmade, immediate quality that made it likeable. And Johnson’s quartet “loveletter to Minn-nnea-polis,” which ends the show, sealed the deal. After being wrapped in this lilting, uplifting song and dance number that’s poignant, bittersweet, and all too real beneath its veneer of blithe innocence, one couldn’t help but leave the theater feeling springy and smiley, if all-too-aware of how easily once-intimate connections can fall away.