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D.C. native Lisa Johnson has traveled around the world as a dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company. But realizing that she’s coming home for her choreographic debut has her nervous.
“At first I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get home,’” says the 33-year-old artist, who grew up in the Capitol Hill area. “But now it’s turning into, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be home.’”
Restricted, her first professionally presented work, had its premiere in New York last December and got good notices from the finicky Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times. It takes as its theme the idea of self-limitation, which is pretty personal to Johnson, who had to stop handicapping herself to begin choreographing the dance. She says she used to let other people hold her to certain ideas of success, which kept her from doing anything remotely dangerous with her career.
“I had made it into Ailey, and that was it. That was the pinnacle to everyone…my family and my friends and my teachers and my mentors,” Johnson says. “But I had to say, ‘What is good for Lisa?’ I had to let go.”
Ailey dancers have not traditionally choreographed for the company, but two years ago its artistic director, Judith Jamison, began to develop new work by company members. Interested dancers had to submit a proposal. Six were selected to participate in the workshop. At the end, two dancers, Johnson and Troy O’Neil Powell, were given the opportunity to develop new pieces.
Johnson’s dance begins with three women and one man onstage, entangled in a long yellow ropea symbol she uses to represent the invisible bond between all individuals, with the color implying caution. The lighting, by Pamela Hobson, another D.C. native who grew up with Johnson, reinforces the idea of boundaries and limitations with its use of boxes of light and defined spaces.
Set to Michael Mays’ percussive score mixing jazz, classical, and electronic music, the dance progresses as a series of images, giving the viewer glimpses of a broader narrative that is never fully revealed. In one scene, the rope partially encircles a solitary male, but it’s a circle he could easily escape from if he chose to. In another scene, a woman dances a solo entangled in the rope, while two other women dance entwined in each other’s arms.
Johnson dedicated the dance to her cousin, Roxanne Eley, who was raped and murdered in D.C. in 1996. The crime was never solved, and the family believes Eley was targeted for being a lesbian. And although Johnson had her cousin in mind as she developed the duet section, she doesn’t want the piece to be interpreted literally.
“It’s the meaning of the relationship that she had with me, with her mother, with her friend,” says Johnson. “It’s not just one person. It’s not just her.”Holly Bass