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Embracing change and finding strength in community with faculty Brianna Rae Johnson

  • Brianna Rae Johnson, adjunct dance faculty

By Ella Spoelstra ’21

December 10, 2020

Closing off the Carthage Theatre fall season, the Dance program shared their fall dance show: “Flying & Falling” over a virtual platform this past weekend. Originally scheduled to be live performances, the choreographers, dancers, design team, and crew quickly adjusted to the virtual platform to share the dance show amidst changes due to COVID-19. I had the joy of speaking to one of the choreographers, Brianna Rae Johnson, about her first year at Carthage as an adjunct dance instructor, her unique lens as an artist, and choreographing the piece “Brood IX for this year’s fall dance show. 

How would you describe your first semester teaching at Carthage? What has it been like to join the dance faculty at a new school during a pandemic?

“My first semester at Carthage has been really wonderful. I didn’t really have to build community — it was already there. I had a classroom full of warm, fun, playful people who also just got down and dirty with what matters: with hard issues. They think critically and want to discuss. It’s been what I hope for in a community.

“I will say, it’s hard to know how much the pandemic really changes things. But, having the first part of the semester on Zoom without knowing any of the people in the class was probably the hardest part. It’s hard to have a bunch of muted people staring back at me and to not have the community and energy in the room be there right off the bat. I was worried it wasn’t going to ever be there. But I was wrong, and it happened. And even now that we’re back on Zoom, it’s there. I think people will speak up when they have a question, or tell me how something felt. Those kinds of things in a reciprocal classroom are there: I’m there to create the foundation and the students show up. We have that now, so that’s great.”

Tell me about your piece “Brood IX” that you choreographed for “Flying & Falling!” What was your inspiration behind the piece? What was the rehearsal process like?

“About a year or two ago I read “Parable of the Sower,” which is a book by Octavia E. Butler, a black science fiction author. The book is a post-apocalyptic survival story about a young black girl who connects with the earth and becomes a leader through change. When 2020 hit us, even before the pandemic was really in the US, I felt as if it was the apocalypse. There were locust plagues, and my friends whose families were in China, were telling me how the highways were shut down and there was no traveling. I felt like what I was seeing, was straight out of “Parable of the Sower.” This book is about change being inevitable and adapting to change with persistence.

“Here are a couple of the parables that the young girl in the book writes as she learns to lead. “Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, and it is set in 2024. So, Octavia E. Butler was not far off.

“When apparently stability disintegrates, as it must, God is change. People tend to give in: to fear and oppression, to need and greed. When no influence is strong enough to unify people, they divide, they struggle, one against one, group against group, for survival, position, power. They remember old hates, and regenerate new ones. They create chaos and nurture it. They kill and kill and kill until they are exhausted and destroyed. Until they are conquered by outside forces or until one of them becomes a leader…”

“Embrace diversity, unite or be divided, robbed, ruled, killed, by those who see you as prey. Embrace diversity or be destroyed.”

“When I started to see what was going on around us this year, I was thinking a lot about this kind of futuristic survival in the post-apocalyptic world, and that’s part of where “Brood IX came from. Also, another author, Adrienne Maree Brown, who writes a lot about Octavia E. Butler, who is a queer black activist in Michigan wrote a book called “Emergent Strategy.” In thinking about emerging from this year, all of the histories that it wrapped up, and what’s happening now. I think of what Adrienne Maree Brown calls “fractal like change.” It’s the idea that what happens with the small keeps repeating itself, and what you pay attention to grows. Therefore, I was thinking about emerging from the tumult of this year and also the strength of women as leaders.

“I also started thinking about cicadas. I thought about how generations of cicadas are underground for seventeen years and then they emerge on the 17th year. As I started researching more, I learned the cicadas that emerged this year were called “Brood Nine”. Which also made me think of a book called “Octavia’s Brood,” by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha. The book is a group of science fiction stories about social change. So really, the overarching inspiration for this dance is 2020, and finding strength in community and leadership from young people. Change really does start small and it grows from there.

“In addition, I also worked with a composer who created music specifically for this dance. His name is Andy Miller, and he’s the director of music at the dance department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. We discussed this slow emerging, and he decided to go with organic sounds. I would send him a video, and he would send me music. In addition, I would give the dancers words and they would create movement from those words. So they also had their own creative voice in this piece.”

What is your favorite style of dance and where do you draw inspiration from as a dancer?

“I think the United States is a little bit confused about where the boundaries are between dance forms: particularly modern and contemporary. In Europe, modern dance has kind of evolved into what they call contemporary dance. In the United States, some universities have started to call what was their modern dance, contemporary now. Some people think contemporary dance is more competition style, studio dance. Therefore, I don’t really know what to call it, but somewhere on the lineage of modern dance and contemporary dance–in maybe the more European way.

“I’m also a contact improviser, and I love Latin social dance. I feel the need to, for myself, differentiate between the kind of ballroom competition dance, and the salsa that is done at clubs and on the streets.  It’s more grounded and less codified. I also have taken a lot of African dance classes and have absolutely loved them. I think all of these dance styles impact what I do as a mover and as a choreographer. I love movement that is centered in sensation and fills the body with that awareness, and a kind of explorative way of making, understanding, and thinking. My movement tends to value momentum, weight, floor work, and an undulating spine. I see a lot of the kind of salsa and Africanist influence in the way that I move now, as well as modern/contemporary aesthetics. And, I generally center on partnering and weight sharing, but that is not something I’ve been able to do this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As you have degrees in both dance and biology, with a concentration in American Racial and Multicultural Studies, how has having an interdisciplinary educational background impacted you as an artist and as a teacher?

“As an undergrad, I called my parents and told them I was going to drop the biology major, and I was then specifically told I was not going to drop the biology major. But I will say, they were also very supportive of me as an artist. When I called them later and said, ‘I can’t be a dancer, I won’t have health insurance,’ they were encouraging and said, “We’ll figure it out. You can do it, don’t stop now!” My parents were definitely supportive, and they didn’t want me to close doors.

“The American Racial and Multicultural Studies concentration was something that I discovered my passion for in my college community. I didn’t know how much I cared about it until I got there. But, let’s start with biology and interdisciplinary studies. I see this kind of showing up three ways in my artistry. First, kind of scientifically, I love creating improvisation experiments where we create a kind of guideline and see what happens in a hypothesis and results way. Second, I took an invertebrate biology class as an undergrad and ended up doing this project on spiders and silk, and then later got interested in molting and how spiders move. I have done some artistic research into spiders now, and that definitely continues to show up for me. Third, I have gotten into the programming and computer side of things and making interactive technology systems that audience members can interact with and control an aspect of the performance. Recently, I created a piece called “Vantage Being” where there were three groups of dancers in the space, and audience members could pick up windows and move them around to explore projections and also to impact the space: the world in which the dancers were moving. This kind of interactive technology and programming takes some amount of scientific thinking to understand the way to program.

“The American Racial and Multicultural Studies concentration colors everything that I see and think about, as a teacher and as a person. I wrote a paper in undergrad; it was about whiteness and privilege, and really inspecting my own, and that has really changed me. And while I don’t have students write a paper like that, I do create my classes with a few goals in mind. First, I want them to trust their body, to explore and sense their body, and to be able to learn skills in the class that help them problem solve in their own bodies without me. And second, to be able to investigate the context. The way culture and history impact the movement values of a technique, and to interrogate that. And so really contextualizing, and decentering the Eurocentric ideals that have become somewhat normative in academia. Also for students to inspect their own biases: what do they think is beautiful and why? Where did those come from? What’s excluded? I want them to understand the multiplicity of perspectives.”

What has been your favorite memory from your first semester at Carthage?

“Today was our very last day of class on Zoom, and with ten minutes left, I said to my students, ‘Okay you have five minutes, and in five minutes be back here with the weirdest costume you can find.’ And within three minutes people were back with wigs and costumes they wore when they were eight years old, and hats, and things that they found in their grandparents house like civil war capes. It was just absolutely phenomenal and so funny.” 

While this year’s fall dance show will look a bit different as it has moved to an online viewing experience, it will be exciting to get more of a behind the scenes look at the dances. What do you hope people take away from watching “Flying & Falling?”

“I think academia tends to privilege words as ‘knowing,’ rather than the body and sensing as knowing. I think in general, many people, perhaps ourselves included, don’t know how to sense themselves and notice how they’re feeling. This is a power that dance has. However, sometimes we lose people along the way because there are not necessarily words to explain the sensation or help frame what is happening in the body. And that’s something special this version of “Flying & Falling” does. It gives people a little more context so they can settle in and really take things in more fully. And hopefully, builds the foundation for doing that in the future, maybe without as much help from verbal explanation. I also think the students are incredibly powerful in this performance, and they have worked so hard. I hope audience comes away with the respect for the hard work, and the power these students, our future leaders, have. To see the respect of what dance is capable of.”