Following His Own Footsteps
Robert Henry Johnson is in love with the theater. He has been ever since he first stepped on stage as a 7-year-old in a children’s performance of “Stagolee,” a reenactment of the ballad of the Southern outlaw who killed Billy de Lyons because “he stole his Stetson hat.”
“I had to dance and to act. I was Stagolee, ‘mean old Stagolee,’ ” Johnson remembers during an interview at his San Francisco rehearsal studio. “I loved it.”
Some 20 years later, Johnson, the son of a cabaret singer and a guitarist father, practically lives on stage. In the intervening years, he has become a budding playwright, promising choreographer and, above all, a prodigious dancer whom the San Francisco Examiner last month called “the most youthful spirit around and one of the Bay Area’s most exuberantly communicative dancers.” While his dancing is still getting Johnson his highest accolades, increasingly his choreography also has been noted as “a solid, cohesive body of work, a mature but permeable aesthetic, and a technique that combines elements of Johnson’s broad and eclectic training into a vocabulary that is as unique . . . as his fingerprints.”
Today, Johnson and his six-member company, whose choreography is characterized by its mission to meld classical and modern dance with African and street stylings, begin a two-week residency at Cal State Long Beach as part of the Cal State Summer Arts program. Johnson, along with longtime collaborator Midnight Voices, the hip-hop musical group, will perform, lecture and teach a dance-theater-music workshop.
A San Francisco native, Johnson spent his elementary school years in an after-school theater program in his Western Addition neighborhood. That experience, at the BES Children’s Educational Theater Company, got him hooked on theater. “The teacher there, Ms. Judith Holten, trained me for the stage. I still hear her voice every time I step on stage.”
After attending an arts magnet school, he earned a full-tuition scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. The four years weren’t easy ones for Johnson. He put himself through the discipline of daily class but became convinced that ballet was not the right career path for him.
“I knew that I would never become a soloist; I don’t have the right body for ballet, and I also realized that I was temperamentally not suited for the work,” he says. “I already had an artistic identity when I got there, and I had started to dibble-dabble in choreography. Ballet is a monarchy, and I saw that I would never fit in.”
When Frankfurt Ballet choreographer William Forsythe observed Johnson at work with a fellow student on a piece at the school, he got him a choreography residency with the Bavarian State Opera Ballet.
“In Munich, people thought I was a Brit or from Paris or from West Africa, in that order. When I told them I was American, they got excited and said, ‘Oh, Michael Jackson.’ That’s when I realized that I came from a people who had been taken to a foreign land, who had adopted some of those ways, but who had kept their culture and had created something new, which is now informing the whole world. It felt so good, I just had to come back.”
After less than a year in Europe, he came back to what he calls his “multicultural” home in the Western Addition. But he still couldn’t figure out where he fit as a dancer and a choreographer. So for a while he stopped dancing completely and concentrated on writing.
“That was when I wrote my first play, ‘Poison Ground,’ ” he says. (The work was produced in 1995 by the Hartford Stage Company.) However, an opportunity to choreograph a work for the 1992 Men Dancing Festival proved to be irresistible.
“Hemisphere,” which Johnson has described as “a science-fiction dance of the universe,” is his homage to Forsythe. It also got him back on stage. “I loved the feedback from the audience. Some people went wild, others just sat on their hands.” He decided to stop looking for a place to fit in and formed his own company in 1993.
Johnson embodies many dance influences: jazz, hip-hop, Asian, butoh, African, ballet and modern. As a choreographer, the output for the Robert Henry Johnson Dance Company has been protean; every concert features several new works. They are often quite short, almost sketch-like, marked, according to the Houston Chronicle, by his “own fluidity as a performer and his free-fall imagination.”
Johnson has presented himself as a “roadie” in “The Yellow Carnival,” originally choreographed for Ballet British Columbia, in which a young man and preacher hook up for a trip to Hollywood glamour. He is indefatigable in exploring male-female relationships (“Hothouse Flower,” “A Nappyred Summer: Vesper,” “Blue Light Til Dawn”). He has been a very human Jesus figure in his solo “Five Loaves of Bread and Two Fishes,” and he has explored the Kwanzaa ritual in “The Nutmeg Project” with another generation of children from BES Children’s Educational Theater.
One of Johnson’s most ambitious works, which he plans to present for his public performance at Summer Arts on Wednesday at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, is “Late Night at the Upper Room,” one of his collaborations with Midnight Voices, which released an album by the same name.
In the early ‘90s, the Upper Room was a short-lived alcohol-free, tobacco-free performance space in which young artists, primarily African American, tried out new work. “Late Night,” which premiered in October 1995, is a celebration of and elegy for this space.
“I wanted to do this piece, first of all because of the music,” Johnson explains, “and also because I felt I could say how I felt about the world in a clear and honest voice. It’s my most mature work.”
Like Johnson, the 10-member Midnight Voices, led by Will “Will Power” Wylie and “Mystic” Mohammed Bilal, also defies categorization. The group uses electronic sampling and instruments from around the world, and adds movement and even skits to its rap-based music. For Johnson, the group is a logical artistic partner.
“These guys [Power and Bilal] are my best friends. We all grew up together; we went to school together. We did theater together, and we all wanted to become actors. I got sidetracked into dance, they into music.”
But the affinity goes deeper: They all share a similar creative M.O. "[We] come from an African-based heritage in which you explore culture in order to find out why things are the way they are,” Johnson says. “It’s a philosophy which includes the old and the new and merges them in order to learn something from the good and the bad that we share.”
The Robert Henry Johnson Dance Company, with Midnight Voices, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., July 8, 8 p.m. $8-$12. (562) 985-7000.
Johnson, Bilal and Power will also participate Friday at 8 p.m. in a public lecture, “Creating American Art by the Call and Response of African Culture.” Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall, Cal State Long Beach. $2-$5. (562) 985-7000.