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Emily Johnson's “Being Future Being.” Photograph by Skye Schmidt

Land Back Now

Emily Johnson’s Latest Work Brings An Indigenized Future to New York Live Arts

“That dancing in/of past, present, and future is a shaking, is a way of transforming this place we are caught up in, this place of knowing only one way of knowing, of forced worldview, of bunkers on mountains, of concrete levee, of rising heat, of 1000 dead trees, of nothing in promise, no sound of bee or bird or place to fish or carry on, for career, for nothing real, for what you have been sold, for a future you…”

—Emily Johnson, excepted from “That dancing in/of past, present, and future is a shaking…,” The Poetry Project Newsletter #266, Fall 2021, East River Park Feature.

It is the end of September, and I am sitting on a bench in East River Park in Manhattan with choreographer Emily Johnson. Before colonization, this area was known as Manahatta, the hilly island home of the Lenape people. It feels impossible for me to be in Johnson’s presence and not acknowledge this fact; as we talk she continually draws my attention away from the construction trucks obscuring our view of the waterfront and back to the land of Lenapehoking.

We sit just north of 25 acres of park that have just been bulldozed as part of New York City’s East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. This contentious public works project was unveiled last year in the final days of then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and replaced an award-winning, community-backed flood mitigation plan called the Big U that addressed all of lower Manhattan. I am shocked to learn that 700 old-growth trees have already been cut down to relocate the park on top of an 8-foot seawall. In the second phase of construction, 500 more trees will be lost. I am also stunned by my own ignorance: I had no idea there was anywhere in Manhattan, outside of Central Park, where that many trees had still existed in one place. But Johnson has been keenly aware of their presence, having spent some years enjoying the wildness of her neighborhood park and then, for the last year, protesting daily in it. Adding to the trauma that is so deeply felt by Johnson and many other allies in the community and neighborhood, the southern tip of this park-turned-construction site, Corlears Hook, is also the site of a Lenape massacre.

Emily Johnson performing “Being Future Being.” Photograph by Gema Galiana

Johnson belongs to the Yup’ik Nation and grew up in Alaska. Her long and deep relationship with trees, and her efforts to save them, informs her latest dance work “Being Future Being.” On the heels of its premiere at the Broad Stage on the Tongva land known as Santa Monica, Emily Johnson/Catalyst brings Johnson’s multi-faceted production and activism to New York Live Arts October 20-22, with a special off-site performance of “Being Future Being: Land /Celestial on October 15” (location in Lower Manhattan will be shared with ticket holders on the day of the event). Rich in texture and featuring an original score from Pulitizer Prize-winning Diné composer Raven Chacon and larger-than-life quilt beings from designer Korina Emmerich (Coast Salish Territory, Puyallup tribe), this evening-length performance has been years in the making and involves a dizzying number of creators and collaborators.

The development of this work began during the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Johnson began to have daily Zoom calls with her longtime collaborator, the Urban Cree scholar Karyn Recollet. Through “Kinstillatory Mappings in Light and Dark Matter”—an ongoing project at Abrons Arts Center that gathers community around a ceremonial fire—Johnson and Recollect have long been committed to fostering connections between people and nature.

There was one tree Johnson could see out of her window during those days of isolation and she moved her to desk to face it. “It’s a way of being in relation with one another and more-than-human kin,” explains Johnson. “Through this many year collaboration with Karyn and the kinstillatory fire, Covid and our daily calls, and the tree outside the window, we started the process of thinking about how to work with trees collaboratively.”

Simultaneously, Johnson and Chacon had a series of conversations.

“We began the process by just talking to each other, discussing ideas, talking about our individual philosophies of the world we live in,” says Chacon. “In her case, it was this interest in protecting trees and connecting with the plant world and the ways they communicate and interact with us, and the knowledge that they hold. That led to discussions about forms and shapes and patterns, things that I could start thinking about in terms of music or notation or durations of sound.”

Once Chacon took in rehearsal with the dancers and got a sense of the movements and physical gestures, he knew where he wanted to begin. His process involved gathering various sounds while also utilizing Johnson’s text: the wind, sticks breaking, sticks tracing words into the ground, Johnson’s whispers. The resulting sound score is highly responsive to the environment.

“In line with my practice, it’s constant and perpetual improvisation,” says Chacon, “that’s where Emily and I connected. We feel that this piece is malleable, and sounds might change. They have to change because the site will change, meaning things have to be tuned every time.”

 A bubble residency at Jacob’s Pillow folded Diné dancer Jasmine Shorty into the process. Nearly alone on the famed campus in the Berkshires, Johnson and Shorty tapped into the language of the trees.

“It really started with, all right, how do I physically spend time with a tree? And which tree?”Johnson laughs. “At first I went up to the tree, but then there was a feeling that that wasn’t quite the thing. And so we spent a lot of time and figuring out what is that first introduction.”

Emily Johnson in “Being Future Being.” Photograph by Gema Galiana

Through their deep listening and trying to take in the wholeness of a tree, they found the most resonance when they stood under the outer branch spread of the tree, which also happened to mirror the reach of the roots system. Eventually, they could trace a circle around the tree with their eyes closed.

“If I closed my eyes, I could feel that magnetism on the outskirts of the tree,” says Shorty. “I could walk really slowly around the tree and if I opened my eyes I’d be exactly in the perimeter. It opened me up to being able to feel and be guided by this kind of inner energy.”

New to experiencing trees in this way, Shorty found that this slow work altered her relationship with time, offering her a quality she can use on stage: “It’s not like I have 10 minutes and I do the choreography and then I’m done. It’s almost like I’m moving before the dance piece starts and I tap into this slow-moving river that extends after the piece ends.”

But not all the movement, and sounds, are calm or meditative. Johnson has been working with a movement she calls a “rising stomp,” where feet pound into the earth from a wide-legged stance, focusing on the oppositional energy coming up from the ground. She also notes that there are challenging moments in Chacon’s composition. Chacon emphasizes that his conceptual process means that some of the sounds in the score aren’t necessarily sounds he likes or even listens to:

“From a listening perspective, the sounds themselves might have nothing to do with trees. However, they are made is through these actions of great respect to the trees and to the land and the communication of the people involved, and all the dancers making actions that create sound, which then get recorded and put back into the soundtrack that they’re working with.”

And then there are the “quilt beings.” Emmerich crafted these wearable textile sculptures from quilts designed by Maggie Thompson (Fond du Lac Ojibwa) and stitched by hundreds of people for Johnson’s 2017 durational work “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars.”

“We didn’t want to cut up the quilts, so I draped folds and did a lot of hand sewing on them,” says Emmerich. “The armature creates a different head, so the dancer is almost 12 feet tall when she has it on, looking a little bit otherworldly.”

Stacy Lynn Smith, Sugar Vendil, Ashley Pierre-Louis, Jasmine Shorty in “Being Future Being.” Photograph by Skye Schmidt

Inside these elements are intense movement scores created in collaboration and performed by Johnson and Shorty, along with Ashley Pierre-Louis, Stacy Lynn Smith, and Sugar Vendil. One of the scores asks the dancers to “orient all of your cells toward justice.”

For Johnson, justice seems to be synonymous with the Land Back movement. Even the sticky notes she puts up on the wall of her apartment to help her plan Catalyst’s projects are all arranged under the note reading, “Land Back.”

Land Back is a term that encompasses various methods for re-establishing and respecting Indigenous political authority. Though the movement’s name derives from the largest of these reparative goals—ceding Indigenous lands back to Indigenous peoples—Johnson is committed to the supporting efforts too. 

“It’s been the call for 500 years, but it is the call of the moment. Land back is title transfer, yes. But it’s also a multitude of other things. Sometimes creating the possibility for what can be next, and people being in relation to land is the most important thing. It is up to Indigenous folks and our allies and accomplices to figure out multiple, different ways.”

Emily Johnson’s “Being Future Being.” Photograph by Skye Schmidt

In a way, “Being Future Being” is an embodiment of this movement. The performances are only one element, or branch, of Johnson’s multi-pronged approach to create a radically just and Indigenized future we can all share in now. “Being Future Being” is also informed by the Branch of Knowledge—a group of womxn and femmes of the Lenape diaspora organized and stewarded by River Little of the Caddo Nation and Delaware Nations Oklahoma (Lenni Lenape)—and is arranging support for 20 members of the Lenape community to visit Manahatta for the first time.

This outreach is important connective tissue for Johnson and something she does not take for granted after a negative experience with a presenter almost derailed this project. “Being Future Being” was originally set to be presented at Montclair State University as part of Peak Performances. On January 20, 2021, Johnson wrote a letter to the National Endowment for the Arts detailing, among other questionable and unethical experiences, the verbal abuse she suffered during a meeting when she inquired about Peak Performances’s Land Acknowledgment and requested a commitment to the decolonization process. The letter explained why she found it necessary to break off the relationship, foregoing the $100,000 commissioning fee (to which the NEA had contributed grant money) and rallied a diverse group of arts workers to collectively draft Creating New Futures: Working Guidelines for Ethics & Equity in Presenting Dance & Performance.

Catalyst now codifies such commitments like “engag[ing] directly with Indigenous community,” in their Decolonization Rider and Johnson has even led a cohort of presenters, including Live Arts, including Live Arts, in an 8-month Decolonization Track. In the recently created role of Interkinector, IV Castellanos endeavors to make sure Catalyst “walks in a good way, in every aspect,” in every community they touch, whether it is drawing attention to saving East River Park in New York City or spending some hours in solidarity with Indigenous people trying to save a sacred spring while they are on tour in Santa Monica.

“It’s just being conscious,” says Castellanos. “The Interkinector is the attempt to try to micro-analyze all of those little parts. We can shape all these aspects of how we’re operating as a company, as people, and then that can actually make a difference. And if everyone was doing that, we would be able to shape and shift things in a better way consistently.”

While many choreographers tackle political issues in their dances and can be credited with bringing awareness to them, Johnson stands out for the deliberate actions she takes to move the work beyond the stage and inspire real world change. She has even invented a term for it: the Architecture of Overflow.

“How can a performance project that has a certain moment where people gather together, how can that serve as just the starting point?” Johnson asks. “What is the architecture of the overflow that can support local land events going into the future? Is that physical? Is that spiritual? Is that financial?”

She intends for the philosophy and values that have guided Catalyst, started a reckoning with presenters and funders, and birthed “Being Future Being” to extend beyond the performance. Ultimately, she wants to transform your relationship to the land you inhabit. Right now. And she is still determined to save what is left of East River Park.

Walking back past the construction site together, I ask her how she manages the grief she feels over the loss of so many trees. Her eyes begin to cloud as she tells me about the network of Land Back movements that are happening all over Turtle Island. These pockets of resistance give her strength and perspective.

“This is an active site of destruction but also of protection . . . we don’t have to destroy this half [of the park]. This can still become a truly resilient project, which it isn’t right now. So, there is hope too.”