IMPRESSIONS: "Being Future Being:Inside/Outwards" by Emily Johnson at New York Live Arts

IMPRESSIONS: "Being Future Being:Inside/Outwards" by Emily Johnson at New York Live Arts
Catherine Tharin

By Catherine Tharin
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Published on November 7, 2022
Emily Johnson "Being Future Being"; Photo:Maria Baranova

In Collaboration with and Performed by:
Ashely Pierre-Louis, Jasmine Shorty, Stacy Lynn Smith, Sugar Vendil, Emily Johnson

Composed by Raven Chacon // Sound Design and Engineering by Chloe Alexandra Thompson
Lighting Design by Itohan Edoloyi // Scenic Design by Emily Johnson and Joseph Silovsky
Mask, Wearables, Portal Design and Construction by IV Castellanos
Video Mapping and Filming by Chloe Alexandra Thompson // Quilt Beings Designed by Korina Emmerich
Quilts Designed by Maggie Thompson // Portal Tattoos by Holly Mitiquq Nordlum
Costume Design by Raphael Regan // Costume Draping by Cathleen O’Neal

Climbing atop a parked car on West 19th Street, outside New York Live Arts, Yup’ik Nation member and creator Emily Johnson, with a megaphone in hand, encourages the assembled watchers to “pay attention to the gifts given - our hearts, our lungs.” Unhurriedly, we begin to breathe together and play our parts as fellow social protest activists. Our rapt attention reflects the charismatic Johnson’s persona.

Emily Johnson stands on car , speaking through a megaphone. She is in silhouette outside New York Live Arts addressing a crowd.
Emily Johnson at New York Live Arts; Photo: Maria Baranova

Johnson’s conversational tone contrasts with her assertive rage. “I can never speak of the horror,” she shouts, “but then I do.” She refers to our collective knowledge of planet degradation, the genocide of Native peoples, and the inequities experienced by many. In response, we are invited to stomp, legs wide, in what Johnson refers to as “rising stomp.” This beat of outcry recalls the Land Back movement, an acknowledgment of Indigenous rights. “When I jump on you (land), you hold me,” declares Johnson.

Johnson’s skill turns this staged event into something beyond theater. It is as if we’ve willingly assembled to protest rather than have simply purchased a ticket for a show. The protest is real for ticket holders and passersby alike. This is our chance and the earth’s chance for a future being.  We travel “underneath,” journeying to a place where the spirits abide. We are essential to Johnson and her company.

two women bend forward backs to audience. They are outside in the day light.
Pictured (left to right): Sugar Vendil and Emily Johnson with audience: Photo: Maria Baranova

Johnson invites 20 audience members from the sold-out crowd of over 200 to follow her, and I quickly scoot into the line of the self-chosen. We are escorted onto the spacious NYLA stage and take our places amidst three mysterious women ‘totems’ dressed in piled-high patchwork quilts. The totems represent sacred beings that serve as emblems for our NYLA clan community. A 10-foot mound of grass and dirt is situated upstage. In front of the mound, stands a woman cradling a folded quilt. Her demeanor, contemplative and mildly watchful, feels all-knowing and implies the immortal. Pulsing projections that resemble a petri dish of protozoa squirm on two walls.

The veiled, resplendent quilt beings swish between onlookers, pausing long enough for us to read messages written on the trains of their patchwork squares: "Patience, Security, Open-Mindedness, I want to be with my dog." Designed by Maggie Thompson, the quilts were stitched by hundreds of sewers and then sculpted by Korina Emmerich.  An eerie hum emanates from these spirits. One, the enigmatic Sugar Vendil, directs each of us with her mouthed whistle to sit on a chair.

amongst a crowd of onlookers on stage walks a woman dressed in an elaborate quilt sculpture

Sugar Vendil as Totem; Photo by Caitlin Ochs

“Hi, I’m Jasmine. Can someone open this door for me?” a persistent voice repeats. Finally,  a member of our group walks to the stage door and complies. Dancer Jasmine Shorty, who earlier was the quilt holder, a ritualistic figure,  now has become a regular, contemporary person.  She exits through the stage door, runs two flights into the lobby, and then bangs on the audience entrance door to come back in.  Again, someone finally lets her in. This continues for several rounds.  It's almost vaudevillian. The audience has been pulled in as problem solvers.

 Meanwhile, Vendil, long, dark hair fringed in blond, reenters the stage. Dressed in a handsome sage green jumper, ruffles swinging along her back, she splits into a deep, resonant second position. Fists clenched behind her thighs; she pounds the floor with weighted feet. The pounding seems to release the supernatural from the earth, thereby summoning the “underneath.” With this, the tenor of the room shifts.

a mound of dirt piled high on stage left, a dancer in green peers at it
Sugar Vendil; Photo by Maria Baranova

The dancers, including Ashley Pierre-Louis, Stacy Lynn Smith, and Johnson stir the space and audience areas with sticks. Large, ferocious bounding movements, leaps, and kicks contrast with small twinkling steps on releve. Arms swing above rotating wrists, fingers flick and spines undulate. Sounds in the throat, an ohhhh or a whisper, are discerned. This extended passage of unrelenting, captivating movement is rich with detail, both large and small. The mound is nominally ascended by two dancers who fling dirt onto the floor.

The entire cast eventually dances together in an enthralling build. As one seated amid the action, I am entranced. Accompanied by an electric electronic score by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Raven Chacon, deep sonorous sounds resemble thunder, explosions, rumblings, and wind. Each crackling flash of sound slides into the next. At this liminal moment, all things are prophetically possible. The future looks to the present and the present gazes at the past.

a woman in green leaps forward arms stretched upwards

Jasmine Shorty (Left/Background) and Sugar Vendil (Right/Foreground); Photo: Maria Baranova

Johnson has brought us to a different place altogether where each tree, animal, rock, flowing stream, and star is oracular. “The forest is an archive of breath.” Everything is part of this breathing spirit and central to Indigeneity. Johnson, with her many collaborators, has revealed the arcane. It's a compelling vision.


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