Thursday, Sept. 16 at Imago Theater:
"I AM SO LONELY," croons the woman laying flat on her back to the left of the audience. We're marooned in the middle of the Imago Theatre, perched on an island of chairs and cushions, surrounded by the insides of Emily Johnson
's head. There are hand-scrawled signs labeling "MY AMP" and "MAKESHIFT SCREEN" tacked to objects around the room; a tangle of wires, cords and pedals snaking up to a guitar and a pedal steel. In front and above us floats an old-timey stained-glass lamp, the kind you might find over a pool table in an old-timey bar. Later a tiny igloo made of illuminated boxes will show up, as will a kiddie pool filled with dead leaves and a heavy oak podium.
Johnson, along with her stellar musical collaborators, James Everest
and Joel Pickard
, use all these objects to great effect during The Thank-You Bar
, the Minneapolis-based dancemaker's curious and compelling new work about identity, home and the longing for home when you're away. The foundations of the piece hark back to Johnson's Alaskan childhood. Her own grandma did own a bar in Clam Gulch, Alaska, named the Que'Ana Bar (“thank you” in the Alaskan native language of Yupik).
The entire work plunks fragments of memory and sound from her young days in that western tavern in the middle of Imago, the pedal steeling even whining its way through a ghostly, fractured rendition of Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue"
at one point.
This work is a jumble—and mostly that's a good thing.
The action flits from Johnson's forcefully danced everyday movements to storytelling to video and back again, disconnected and often unsettling. In one early scene, she turns on a recorder strapped to her chest and a tinny voice explains the history of the Imago Theatre itself, its origins as a Masonic lodge, its roots in the forest and the dirt before that, Johnson's eyebrows and hands keeping time with the disembodied voice. Later, she shines a flashlight on the ceiling above us, where a sign notes that "Vaux swifts nest in this beam."
With plenty of vignettes to hold a viewer's interest, The Thank-You Bar
is abstract and yet wholly approachable. If one scene doesn't connect with you, the next—be it Johnson's bittersweet story of "the first time somebody called me an Indian" or a passage where she and another dancer try to one up each other by pasting name tags of audience members to their chests in a breast-beating frenzy—probably will.
One of the most successful feats of the show is simply its ability to draw you in, to create a warmth and intimacy with a trio of performers we've never meet before, and will probably never see again. Near the end of the show Johnson beckons her audience to get up and move closer, closer still, to sit in a semicircle around her like story hour at the library. She has things to tell you. Things you almost remember from your own childhood, your own home; if you could only stop long enough to catch them.
GO: The Thank-You Bar at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave. 4:30, 6:30 and 8:30 pm Friday, 2:30, 4:30, 6:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 17-19. $15 members, $20 general. Reservations required. James Everest and Joel Pickard perform at "Blackfish" at Imago 8 pm Sunday, Sept. 19. The Blackfish show is free.