Under the Stars and Quilts, with Randalls Island As Her Stage
It's a sleepover to beat all sleepovers. Food, stories, discussions, dances and, after an opening ceremony and a two-mile walk, settling down for the night on a 4,000-square-foot bed of quilts.For her newest performance project, "Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars," the dance artist Emily Johnson will play host to 300 strangers in Randalls Island Park. This all-night event on Saturday, Aug. 19, which is presented by Performance Space 122, is no endurance test. Participants will be on the island long enough to watch the sun set and rise again. Ms. Johnson, who specializes in multidisciplinary work, is trying to spark some change and some healing in the world. "It takes us taking a step together to do that," she said. "I love bringing people together."And she's good at it. For Ms. Johnson, a soft-spoken Alaskan of Yup'ik ancestry, action taken, no matter how small, adds up. "Gather our awareness, gather our senses," she continued. "Gather our ability to care for one another, to rest together and to move toward a guided action."She can't predict what that action will be in the end, but Ms. Johnson does feel adamant that it's time for a shift. "Across the world, there are these disruptions and ripples â deep, deep anguish and deep, deep bursts of action, all of which is necessary," she said. "But how can we focus? We come together. And that is like ceremony. You don't know what the end of ceremony is, you just know that you're stepping into a process."Ms. Johnson, who lives on the Lower East Side after 21 years spent in Minneapolis, has been working toward such an event. Her recent project "Shore" extended beyond the proscenium stage to include, in a 2015 New York iteration, a performance that began outside and moved indoors, a section directed by Ain Gordon; volunteerism in the Rockaways and on Governors Island; and a potluck feast.This time, Mr. Gordon is directing the entire event; early on, he convinced Ms. Johnson to contain "Then a Cunning Voice" to a single site."She was talking about this idea of stargazing and about turning off electric light, so I sort of said, 'So we're going to do all that and then march everybody off to a theater and turn on stage lights?" he said. "That doesn't sound theatrical to me. So we began to talk about how it could all happen in one place."Mr. Gordon, a three-time Obie winner, enjoys the collaborative process because it refreshes his own. It helps that he and Ms. Johnson have different artistic impulses. "She tends to wish for things to ebb and flow," he said, "and I tend to be more decisive about 'here is the beginning and here is the end.'"In the millions of conversations we've had, I don't remember Emily saying, 'Will this be big enough for the size of the stage?' And I say that all the time."After hearing his comment, Ms. Johnson laughed for a good 10 seconds. "Good," she said.Ms. Johnson is just as fond of her other collaborators, who include the dancers Tania Isaac and Georgia Lucas, a 12-year-old from Newark who performed in "Shore," as well as the textile artist Maggie Thompson, who designed the quilts. They were created in multiple cities by volunteers at community sewing bees around the United States and in Taiwan and Australia. Inscriptions are sewn into the quilts, answering questions like, "What do you want for your well-being?" One answer reads: "A changed relationship to time."Jen Rae, a founder of the Australia-based Fair Share Fare, a collaborative art project that focuses on the future of food amid the looming disruptions of climate change, is planning the menu. In Melbourne, where "Shore" was also performed, Ms. Rae focused on indigenous food.In her work, subtly or otherwise, there is always a recognition of the notion of indigenous people and their land. Randalls Island, as Ms. Johnson pointed out, is in the Lenapehoking homeland â the lands inhabited by Native Americans known as the Lenape. For "Then a Cunning Voice," Ms. Rae is researching the history of Randalls Island, including its soil and the language and traditions of the Lenape people. It's not catering, but rather, it's food as art.Ms. Johnson knows that 12 hours is a long time to spend with strangers. She hopes that the initial walk to the performance site will be a way, she said, "to shed what we need to shed from the day.""I'm really relying on people to be ready to shift," she said. "That's going to be really necessary for this night to feel good. And that relates to what this whole night is about, which is about shifting so that we can shift the world."The audience, in other words, must be a willing participant and is very much a part of the piece itself. (An etiquette guide for the performance comes with purchase of a ticket.)"We are together and responsible for this thing," she said. "I think that that's good practice about being a responsible citizen. Why can't we enact this kind of responsibility in our lives?"Both she and Mr. Gordon are sure about one thing: the setting. "On Randalls Island, you can hear and feel the city, but you're also separate from it a little bit," Ms. Johnson said. "It's situated across from Rikers Island. I was like, all right, this is energy that wants to be exchanged and cleared and acknowledged â this feels like the right place to do this work."Mr. Gordon describes Randalls Island as being very old New York, which he likes. "All the beautification of New York â none of that has happened in how you get to Randalls Island," he said. "It's the old version of how you get somewhere. You really have to take the train to 125th Street and then you have to look for the bus stop, and it's a regular old bus, and then you say to the bus driver, 'Which stop do I get off for the Sunken Meadow?' And he says, 'I don't know.'"Laughing with delight, Mr. Gordon said: "It is kind of a secret little spot. That's how it feels to me."