Niicugni, PS 122’s COIL Festival, Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York

Inside the evening’s programme was a diagram of the constellation of handmade fish-skin lanterns hanging brightly overhead. The map’s key identified the person who constructed each delicate, irregular sheath and the exact number of miles this particular sacrificial salmon would have swum to return to its birthplace,spawn and die. The motif of displacement flitted through Niicugni (“Listen”). How far can a fish, a dance, a people or person – such as choreographer Emily Johnson, based in Minnesota, far from her native Alaska and her Yupik kin – stray and still remember the starting place? But Niicugni does not explore this theme so much as admit defeat before it – and in the process give us a shove.

Take the first of several tales that Johnson and Aretha Aoki recited together, about a “monster” who dismembers a tree person, then hands the bloody bits back to the mother and aunties for reassembly. Johnson inserted into the story, with its folktale simplicity, pathos and symbolic shimmer, anachronistic details that broke the spell. Likewise, a turn of the temporal screw made anecdotes of the here and now disappear into a blurry elsewhere.

At least the two women’s intermittent dancing, in costumes by Angie Vo that gleamed like fish scales, was appealing. Aoki and Johnson repeated simple moves like animals intent on a task. They stomped, undulated along the floor, padded on all fours. But a veil descended over even this primitive pleasure when Johnson informed us that “there used to be a different dance here”, which she proceeded to perform. In between these incursions into the self-consciously postmodern, a bunch of schlubs in civilian dress – likely recruited from the various residencies that enabled the piece – would slouch onstage and, before we could figure out why they were there, slump off.

Niicugni follows on Johnson’s breakout piece, the 2011 Thank You Bar, which after more than a decade of choreographing was her first to invoke her Yupik heritage. It is not uncommon to lose confidence in yourself just as everyone else is gaining it. But it is also not too late for Johnson to make amends for her equivocating – revise Niicugni to uncover its conviction and depth – before she heads out on a multi-city tour next month.

Until Saturday,

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