Salon NOTEBOOK: Emily Johnson and Molly Shanahan
by Zachary Whittenburg
It was probably a coincidence that the two dancemakers chosen to launch the 2010-11 CDF Salon Series, October 11 at Woman Made Gallery near the mouth of Milwaukee Avenue, were dressed almost identically. Emily Johnson wore a shift, in green and navy fabric suggesting palm fronds or zebra stripes, with patent brick-red flat boots. To her left, Molly Shanahan sat shod in matte maroon boots, wearing a dark blue-green dress cut similarly to Johnson's. Although their latest major works--The Thank-you Bar and Stamina of Curiosity, respectively--diverge in many ways, they share a common spirit in slant rhyme, alike the way their outfits were alike. Having followed Shanahan's work for some time, I noted when Johnson, with whom I was unfamiliar until that week, explicated the transmittal of an idea through movement in words that could just as easily have come from Shanahan herself.
"If I have a specific image related to a movement," Johnson said, "and all of the performers know what that is, or where its internal initiation point is, then, whether it's specifically translated to the audience or not, something of that intention is translated and that's the place--"
--Johnson leaned forward, arms outstretched, and tickled the air in front of her with both hands--
"--where we meet, out there, and that's what we talk about."
It was one of many convergences that made this pairing so satisfying, although it was most interesting considering how differently Thank-you Bar and Stamina cultivate intimacy between performer and audience--how they shape and give texture to that air Johnson tickled.
Thank-you Bar kept the stage rinsed in dim light, backgrounding everything not illuminated by a flashlight, remote lamp or brown paper brick glowing mysteriously from within. Shanahan's recent presentation of Stamina was deliberately scheduled during sunset in a massive Romanesque cathedral with stained-glass windows; the performance space was alternately washed with muted and shockingly vibrant color as clouds passed in front of the descending sun.
Looping guitarscapes by BLACKFISH--collaborating musicians James Everest and Joel Pickard--painted a backdrop of thawed tundra where Johnson's stories of growing up in Sterling, a small Alaskan town about 60 crow's miles southwest of Anchorage, could quietly bloom in cinematic detail. Shanahan and her four company members occasionally danced to some comparably-windswept sounds by Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, but the primary soundtrack was always the brush of bare feet on hard wood, unison exhalations, and skin slapping skin.
Objects and video were present throughout Thank-you Bar, and signage beforehand in the theater lobby. Shanahan will go to great lengths to clear her spaces of all but the barest necessities.
Their approaches to stagecraft are like night and day. So why did so many of Johnson's statements speak to Shanahan's work, and vice versa?
When Salon attendee, and co-founder of the Chicago Seminar on Dance and Performance, Elizabeth Liebman, asked why Shanahan named her audience members "witnesses," Shanahan's response included the following: "There's an assumption of the possibility of a kind of accidental uncovering of something important, and relevant to something larger than what the individual may have entered the sphere prepared for." That neatly summarizes an experience I had during Thank-you Bar, when Johnson is seated in an inflatable wading pool filled with fallen, orange leaves in which two mountaineering lamps nest, shining upward like a minimalist campfire. From there, she tells the story of her brother's thwarted dissection of a blackfish in the name of curiosity and science, and each sentence of the tale ends in a way that explodes with ideas like a firework. The flood of references that rush in seem accidentally unleashed, although Johnson's assured delivery guarantees it's a planned invasion.
"I specifically tried, in The Thank-you Bar, to make images--"
--Johnson often changed course mid-sentence--
"--I literally tried to plant something in your minds," she finished, recalling Leonardo DiCaprio's special talents in Inception. "It was the first time that I thought, ‘I want people to dream about this.' " As though entering the same house, but from a door on its opposite side, Shanahan said of her creative process that it's been about "the risk being taken with regard to the choice to accept or reject sensations, to choose or embrace the space of not knowing."
This thread of conversation came from an observation, also by Liebman, that both dance artists seemed fueled by the unknown. While Liebman spoke, Shanahan nodded slowly with a half-smile, about to deliver the previous quote. Johnson closed her eyes and reached out, almost as though she were blind and picking apples. Then her fingertips came together, and she responded, too. "That, what you just said, is literally in my artist's statement."
"We don't give enough attention to what we don't know," Johnson continued, "and what we don't know is, like, so huge."
These are just a few examples of the core resonance between Shanahan and Johnson as artists, apparent despite the oppositional qualities of Stamina and Thank-you Bar, excerpts of which were projected on the gallery's wall. (Their two companies--Chicago's Mad Shak and Minneapolis-based Catalyst Dance, respectively--aren't even in the same organizational category for tax purposes: Shanahan runs a non-profit, while Catalyst is an independent "business," with Springboard for the Arts in neighboring St. Paul serving as its fiscal agent.)
"The why of making my work is very related to the how I make dance work," said Johnson. "It's all one vessel, in a way--how I run my administration and budgeting, how I'm going to make this work, all of that, is always in tandem research." She held her arms toward us again, see-sawing her upward-facing palms like she was juggling fruit.
Shanahan's response to the same question came in on a parallel track. "Discoveries I've made in my work have proposed and insisted upon changed approaches to leadership, organization and management," she said. "Those questions are quite active, and disharmonies are glaring when they're sparked. There's a porousness that moves from bodily experience, to the experience of thought, to experience with institutions, and there's a line passing through, checking for harmony, and checking for where there's a dam."
Shanahan moved from the Canadian bluffs on Lake Huron to Chicago via Detroit in the '70s, a detour that brought an eye-opening rebuttal to her childhood assumption that when different cultures are thrown into interaction, they do so peacefully. She still sees her work as unpacking the contrast between the placidity of the natural environment--the view onto a Great Lake from Shanahan's office is essentially the same as her first home's--and a city's chaos.
Johnson moved to Minneapolis from south central Alaska's Kenai Peninsula at 18. She wasn't a dancer born and bred; she ran and played basketball, discovering dance "accidentally" in college. "I found that I could connect meaning and thought to movement, in addition to using my body in a more goal-oriented way and, as soon as I started dancing, I was about the idea that dance can be anything, be about anything...as long as it comes from an intention that's personal," she stated.
Why did so many of Johnson's statements speak to Shanahan's work, and vice versa? Their exchange alluded to tools we all wield when attempting to answer life's questions by moving.
After all, you shouldn't charge into the unknown empty-handed.
The Chicago Dancemakers Forum's 2010-11 Salon series continues November 22 at the Chicago Cultural Center with a panel discussion, "What Does Dance Do for the World?" co-presented by the Department of Cultural Affairs.