Magical 'Then a Cunning Voice' a transformative experience which will have to be shared to make a lasting impact

“The land does not belong to me, but I belong to the land.”

The words of 14-year-old Georgia Lucas (originally derived at 11 years old), as stated in her extended solo at “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spent Gazing at Stars,” prodded the heart of why we were all gathered in the Calumet Park Fieldhouse at 11:30 p.m.—to remember where we came from and who or what we hold with us as we continue forward. 

Through a smartly curated series of Indigenous rituals, personal narrative, communal meals and movement, Emily Johnson/Catalyst’s “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spent Gazing at Stars” brought an intimate audience through a magical investigation of the impact our earth, community and family have on us as individuals and conversely the responsibility we carry to preserve the wellbeing of ourselves, our communities and our planet. Presented by the Dance Center at Columbia College Chicago, the experience took the audience out of the theater for the entire evening of Sept 28 (5 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following morning) to learn about the land we live on and the communities who call it home through different activities and performances woven together into one extended ceremony and celebration.

Led by the people native to Calumet and Indiginous Chicago tribes, the evening was marked by the personal stories shared by the performers, collaborators and audience members. Expanding on the notion of remembering how the land looked and was cared for before colonization, the vivid details of these narratives demonstrated the power of the everyday individual’s experience, and the necessity to preserve the spaces we call home. 

When Calumet resident Maricela Rivera casually recalled the changed Calumet community, she did so through stories about the car her father bought, where neighborhood kids used to play and the shifting storefronts of the local businesses. When playwright Marisa Carr shared her journey to finding a home in Chicago as an Indiginous woman, she spoke of punk rock, wacky neighbors and how she missed the casual way Native language was integrated into everyday life back in Minneapolis.

The movement of “Then a Cunning Voice...” mirrored these narratives and histories, blending simple walking patterns that brought to mind constellations and the evolution of time with intimate partnering where Emily Johnson and dancer Tania Isaac shifted through various moments of gentle connection and support of each other.

Toward the end of the evening, a pounding thunderstorm sent the performance indoors, with most of the participants cocooning into blankets and drifting in and out of sleep. But even with less than ideal weather conditions, the evening’s enchantment refused to fade. With soothing violin by Dominic Johnson juxtaposed by rain hitting the gymnasium roof, I was further entranced by the sound of Johnson’s and Isaac’s feet against the gym floor (something I would not have heard so clearly out in the grass) as folk dance-esque footwork traversed them across the space—weaving in and out of sleeping participants and again moving in and out of quiet, intimate moments. 

Even the food, experienced together in warm, candlelit settings, told the story of ingredients taken from natural grounds and Indigenous farmers, shared with the participants as artful demonstrations of food as fuel, labor, technology and knowledge. Food artist Jen Rae made a point through both the provided food menu and the words she exchanged with participants during the night to share the details of where the recipes came from, who originated them and how participants could adopt some of the practices for themselves. 

With the opportunity for the audience to volunteer to prepare food, clean dishes and participate in parts of the performance, Johnson reiterated the importance of moving from reflection to action. With the help of the Chicago community among other artists, she created a unique performance experience that engaged participants in an extended ritual and celebration not often experienced in the United States, where personal space and self-help are often prioritized, respected and expected. 

I believe “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spent Gazing at Stars” was a transformative experience for all involved, but its impact only reaches as far as those who participated carry it. As a one-time performance in Chicago created by a non-local artist, it’s important that all who attended pass on the stories shared, the movement experienced and the practices learned. I hope to see another iteration of this work in the future, and I hope to experience continued efforts in Chicago to bring Native and local history to the city’s attention and to restore the local environment to a clean, biodiverse state.