Summer Solstice 2014 marked the world premiere of SHORE, a site-responsive piece by Bessie-Award winning choreographer Emily Johnson and her company, Catalyst. Following spirit of the Midsummer’s Eve celebrations that have happened across the world since ancient times, SHORE acknowledged the growth that at a turning point.
PERFORMANCE — one component of a four-part program that included STORY on June 17, COMMUNITY ACTION on June 21, and FEAST on June 22 — took place both in front of and within Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Upon arrival, I noticed about 20 persons of all ages, shapes, and sizes clumped in the middle of a vast, green lawn. Each one wearing a name tag, they faced outward and stood still.
Nearby was Emily Johnson.
Wearing black windbreaker pants, an olive-colored vest, and dramatic eye makeup, she held a brown sign that read “GATHER HERE.” Audience members sat and stood around her, chatting with friends and enjoying the warm, summer evening.
An usher then asked me to exchange my ticket for a handwritten name tag. I complied and joined the growing crowd on the lawn.
Without any warning, SHORE began.
The once stationary clump of persons had expanded into several linear and cyclical formations of at least fifty performers from the Twin Cities who ran, jogged, walked, or inched along the lawn. With growing frequency, the performers sang a mesmeric series of notes. They moved and chanted for about 10 minutes, traveling around and ultimately into the audience.
Now intermingled, we all listened as Johnson, standing on a box at the center of the group, made a series of impassioned, though somewhat obscure, remarks about loss, memory, and belonging. When she spoke, it seemed as though she might suddenly cry.
At Johnson’s invitation, the whole group began a slow procession toward the auditorium — their migration accompanied by chimes.
The mesmeric melody from outdoors resonated in its new space, Northrop’s marble lobby. The performers began to sing once more.
Performers and audience members were indistinguishable during the change of venue — yet, the whole procession evoked impressions of cults or zombies.
Once the audience was seated in the auditorium, the indoor section of the performance began.
If there was a narrative to grasp, I missed it entirely — though much of the imagery seemed to allude to Johnson’s life experience.
Dancers Aretha Aoki, Krista Langberg, and Johnson took the stage with singer-songwriter Nona Marie Invie, framed by more Twin Cities community performers.
A mixture of choreography, text, and design elements, this section hearkened back to Johnson’s previous speech outdoors by speaking to the same themes.
The choreography — primarily slicing, stomping, shaking, shivering, and tracing motions — was arranged into solos, duets, and trios through extensive use of repetition. Much of it was engaging. However, the recurring, elongated periods without movement or dynamic were extremely monotonous.
Aoki gave a solid, though initially hesitant, performance. Langberg, who is elegant and sinewy, had a buoyant and expressive upper body. And Johnson was an incredibly expressive mover, her performance style a little wild and significantly more evocative than the others.
I enjoyed the concept of incorporating community-sourced performers, especially the enthusiastic, heartwarming child participants. But this element of SHORE didn’t pan out as well on a proscenium stage as it did in an outdoor setting.
Recurring moments of imprecise spacing and vague blocking became more apparent set against the technical team’s precise lighting, sound, and set design.
Johnson could address this by using a smaller cast of community performers, or by presenting this section in an alternate type of theater space.
Northrop Auditorium strikes me as too formal.
SHORE will tour both U.S. coasts throughout this year and next. See for yourself what performance, storytelling, volunteerism, and feasting look like when Johnson and company transplant them to your neck of the woods.