2010 - 2011 + 2013 Lab Artist: Emily Johnson

About Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson is a director/choreographer/curator, originally from Alaska and currently based in Minneapolis. Since 1998 she has created work about the experience of sensing AND seeing performance; her pieces often function as installations, engaging audiences within and through a space and environment – sights, sounds, smells – as well as a place's architecture, history, and role in community. She works to blur distinctions between performance and daily life and to create work that reveals and respects multiple perspectives. This allows for the possibility of multiple meanings - with a goal of stimulating reflection and emotional empathy between performer and audience, and between audience members. Her work has toured across the USA and in Montreal and Russia.

Emily received a 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award and her work is currently supported by Creative Capital, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, Map Fund, a Joyce Award, the McKnight Foundation, New England Foundation for the Arts, and The Doris Duke Residency to Build Demand for the Arts. Emily is a current Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, a 2014 Fellow at the Robert Rauschenberg Residency, a 2012 Headlands Center for the Arts and MacDowell Artist in Residence, a Native Arts and Cultures Fellow (2011), a MANCC Choreographer Fellow (2009/2010/2012/2014/2016), a MAP Fund Grant recipient (2009/2010/2012/2013), and McKnight Fellow (2009). In 2015 Emily will be an Artist in Residence at Williams College. Emily and her collaborators received a 2012 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for Outstanding Performance for her work, The Thank-you Bar, at New York Live Arts. Her recent work, Niicugni, finished its ten city US tour in 2013 and her current work, SHORE - which is equal parts feast, volunteerism, story, and performance - premiered in Minneapolis, MN in June 2014 and tours to New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, and Alaska through 2015.

Emily grew up in her native Alaska playing basketball and running long distance. At 18 she left rural living, moved to Minneapolis, and quite by accident, learned to become a choreographer and performer. Since her start, city living has swirled around her, dragging her, literally, away from the physical space of Alaska and the summer and fall family rituals of hunting and fishing, then smoking, drying, canning and freezing food. She is pulled back, conceptually, when midwesterners and others ask her if she lived in an igloo (myth), if she has an Eskimo name (no), and if it is OK to say the word "Eskimo" (it is, but only sometimes). She is of Yup'ik descent, though she does not speak the language – yet. Emotionally, she is tied to the landscape of South Central Alaska where she was born and to the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, where her father's family is from.

VPL supported the development of Niicugni (Listen) through two creative residency periods in Vermont (August 2010 and January 2011) and through a presentation of the work in 2013 at the Redfern Arts Center in Keene, NH. Niicugni is the second in a trilogy of works related to Johnson’s Yup'ik heritage and the personal confluences of cultural traditions and contemporary performance work. In addition to supporting Johnson through its Lab Program, VPL presented The Thank You Bar in June 2011, Johnson’s first work in her trilogy.

The residencies at VPL in 2010-2011 included two weeks in the studio to develop movement and sound material, and a separate week in which volunteers formed a fish-skin sewing circle to create lanterns for the Niicugni set. Fish-skin sewing is an Alaska Native art form whereby the skin is prepared, dried, and sewn to create clothing, functional vessels, and art. The lanterns for the set were made of transparent, round salmon-skin. Johnson, along with Abenaki artist and master basket maker Judy Dow, worked with an inter-generational group of hand-workers from the local community to form a New England style sewing bee around the project. In this process, traces of Vermont were infused into the piece through the handiwork of local sewers as they created lanterns for Niicugni. Johnson's project brought to life some of the very real issues effecting Native Alaskan and Native American communities in the U.S.

Niicugni was performed and created by Emily Johnson in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist James Everest and violinist and electronic musician Bethany Lacktorin and dancer Aretha Aoki. In the process of creating the work in Vermont, local participants were engaged and influenced by Johnson and the issues raised in her work around native peoples, land, home and displacement.


Since 2006, VPL has hosted over 80 residencies