On a warm fall Saturday, about 30 people walked together down Houston Street on the Lower East Side, heading toward East River Park. A trumpeter led the way, sounding occasional notes that marked the path forward. Close behind, two volunteers held a banner that read, in hand-drawn letters, “The Forest Is an Archive of Breath.” Passing cars honked, a reminder that this was something out of the ordinary.
While it might have looked unusual from the outside, the procession felt right at home within the larger body of work of Emily Johnson, the choreographer whose latest project, “Being Future Being,” had brought us together. Merging art and activism, Johnson’s expansive work often brings its viewer-participants into outdoor public spaces, drawing our attention to the land beneath and around us — to what has been here before and what could be in the future. She heightens our awareness that this place widely called New York is a part of Lenapehoking, the homeland of the Lenape people, Manhattan’s first (human) inhabitants. And that before colonization and concrete, there were forests, or what Johnson sometimes calls “our more-than-human kin.”
An Indigenous artist of the Yup’ik nation in Alaska, Johnson, who lives on the Lower East Side, has been a leader in protests against the projected destruction of 1,000 trees in East River Park, part of a flood mitigation plan known as the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. (So far hundreds of trees have been cut down.) In “Being Future Being” — which unfolded over two weekends in two parts, at the park and then New York Live Arts — she and her collaborators commune with trees in both direct and elusive ways. The trees, in a sense, are also collaborators, essential to Johnson’s imagining of a more just future, in which land is restored to its original people, and in which people live in reciprocity with land.
Our walk across town in “Land/Celestial” — the first part of “Being Future Being” — led us to the threshold between the bulldozed section of the park, where hundreds of trees have already been cut down, and the section stretching north that, for now, remains intact. At the chain-link fence that separates the two, we were greeted by guides known as land defenders and split into three groups to witness three short performances.
My group followed our guide along the sparkling riverfront to a shady grove, where colorful handmade quilts — a signature of Johnson’s gatherings, designed by Maggie Thompson — awaited us on the ground. After the heat of the midday sun, strong even in mid-October, the shade of the tall trees was refreshing. We sat and watched as two performers, one in a stunning sound-emitting quilt sculpture (designed by Korina Emmerich) slowly diverged from each other. As the Quilt Being (Jasmine Shorty) walked toward the water, Stacy Lynn Smith danced restlessly among fallen leaves, as if gnarled roots were snaking up through her limbs.
“Do you remember that story I told you about the tree? I’ll tell it again,” Johnson said in her 2012 work “Niicugni” and again in “Shore” (2014). Back at the chain-link fence, she told a story about a tree once more, but this time just to a single audience member. Johnson then peeled away and linked up in a duet with the dancer Sugar Vendil, leaving the listener to relay the story to the rest of the group. If the details were a bit blurry, the message about the intelligence of trees came through: They are capable of listening.
That idea extended into a third vignette, during which the dancer Ashley Pierre-Louis introduced us to a tree that she called Fire Tree, with which she had “built a very strong connection.” Its branches, she pointed out, arched away from the demolition to the south.
A week later, on Friday night, Johnson climbed on top of a parked car on West 19th Street, outside of New York Live Arts. The audience for Part 2, “Being Future Being: Inside/Outwards,” gathered on the sidewalk, as she spoke into a megaphone, at one point shaking with rage. “What if right now,” she proposed in a calmer moment, “every one of us turned every one of our cells toward justice?”
When we entered the theater, it was through a backstage route, which had us approaching the performance space not from above but from under. This circuitous approach felt emblematic of Johnson’s method, to come at seemingly immovable problems a bit obliquely, from the ground up, and in this way, to make us pay attention.
In the performance that followed, images resurfaced from “Land/Celestial.” Three Quilt Beings roamed among audience members who had been invited to sit onstage. A tall mound of soil rested in one corner, a bed of leaves in another. Black-and-white projections of tree branches formed a fragmented, rustling backdrop. Raven Chacon’s entrancing score suggested a mingling of nature and violence. The dancers cut fiercely across this landscape, adding layers to the sound with their audible breath and the rhythm of a step that Johnson, atop the car, had introduced as the “rising stomp”: feet wide apart and knees bent, heels lifting then digging into the ground.
On Friday, the show was followed by a moving conversation with Branch of Knowledge, a group of Lenape matriarchs representing all of the federally recognized Lenape nations. One of the women, Lauryn French, spoke about how her ancestors had been displaced 28 times to arrive at their current home in Oklahoma.
Generational differences emerged. Elizabeth French, one of the eldest, said with a laugh that taking back land is “not going to happen.” The artist River Whittle, who is younger, joyfully countered: “I am going to say ‘land back.’ I do expect it.” The group reflected on how visiting New York, which some were doing for the very first time, is a powerful homecoming. As one member of the collective said: “I love it. I belong here. I know it.”
‘Being Future Being’
Through Sunday at New York Live Arts, Manhattan; newyorklivearts.org.