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Emily Johnson's "The Thank-You Bar," Wading In the Deep End

You never know what to expect when you walk into a modern dance/performance art installation that describes itself as "a jukebox, a roadside bar and a fish that never dies," but don't expect any of those things, especially not immortal fish.

This weekend, April 29 and 30, Diverse Works Art Space hosts Emily Johnson's "The Thank-You Bar," in conjunction with her co-curated show, "This is Displacement," which runs through June 11. While Johnson's performance piece could stand alone, it is much stronger after examining the Native Artists' own perceptions of what it means to be supplanted from their homes and identities. Johnson, herself, is an Alaskan born choreographer and curator, a native of the Yup'ik culture.

"The Thank-You Bar" extends the theme of cultural identity and Native American background through music, movement and scene. Backed by two very talented sound loopers, James Everest and Joel Pickard, Johnson creates a hollow, almost empty longing for home. The musicians, who perform together as the group Blackfish and will be doing so Saturday night, open the piece with an amplifying round of multi-instrumented noise. It starts slow, but builds nicely and was also pretty cool to watch. Anyone who plays guitar with a bow is alright in my book.

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But it's Johnson who takes center stage. Her emotions emit from her body, making you feel even slightly uncomfortable. She enters the Diverse Works Theater via video, carrying a "pretend" mound of dirt. There's some symbolism in there, but she moves away from it too quickly to get to her other "big picture" topics: family, heritage, and loss of the two. She asks what's behind a name and what that has to do with your past and present. She takes apart her figurative igloo and (literally) invites you to take a piece of her home.

And then, she dances! I will be honest, in all my years I have never loved modern dance, but I keep trying to. I can appreciate the effort and practice that goes into it, and I am sure there is very careful consideration made for each move, but I don't get it. I've seen many of Johnson's fallback moves re-purposed enough times that they've lost some of their "interpretive" street cred. Incorporating the dance with story and mixed media made the night more engaging than a traditional modern dance (traditional modern?) show, but still, I found parts of it to be scattered.

Over all it was very interesting, and regardless of your heritage, feeling like you miss the concept of "home" is a universal theme. Worth seeing, sure, why not! Just don't expect any live fish flopping around. (Seriously, did I miss the fish strapped to her arms? Anyone?)

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