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In the Spotlight: Millicent Johnnie

Bringing Innovation to the Modern Dance World

By Lee Gleiser

Millicent Johnnie bursts into every choreography project like a fireball of energy. In the space of a just a few months she’s traveled to projects in New York City; Ashland, Oregon; Los Angeles; and Trinidad, all while teaching and conducting research as an assistant professor of dance at SMU.

Johnnie grew up in Louisiana and was exposed to a wide variety of music, dance and cultures by her father, a blues and jazz musician, and her mother, a storyteller and language arts and history teacher. Johnnie feels a kinship with music from all over the world and brings a fusion of styles and cultures to her choreography, including hip-hop, house, classical ballet, Caribbean, West African jazz and zydeco, among others.

In New York, Johnnie has begun working on an opera, Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter. The opera is based on the life of renowned African- American artist Clementine Hunter, who was born on a plantation in Louisiana and is known for her paintings depicting life in the early 20th century. The opera was conceived by Texas-born Robert Wilson, one of today’s foremost experimental theatre artists. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, and her daughter Toshi cowrote the libretto. Johnnie will design the major dance number for the opera, which will have its world premiere in New Jersey in January 2013. “It was nice to bring it back to my cultural roots and use dance vocabulary and music I grew up with,” Johnnie says of her choreographic work on the project.

Next, Johnnie headed to Trinidad to The New Waves Performance and Dance Institute. There she participated in intensive master classes and workshops in contemporary dance, Caribbean dance, composition and repertory with artists from all over the world.

She then flew to Oregon to work on the new musical Party People, directed by Liesl Tommy for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Party People looks at the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the social movement of the ’60s. Through theatre, poetry, jazz, hip-hop, bolero and salsa, the piece explores an American revolution that took place four decades ago and its impact on generations since. To design the choreography Johnnie conducted extensive research in collaboration with Universes poetic theater ensemble, which included watching videos and newscasts and interviewing members of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords to learn their stories.

“A lot goes into choreography. People think it’s just dance steps, but so much more is involved. There are technical aspects, as well as scholarship and research that all go into the creative process,” Johnnie says.

Party People addresses the role of women in party leadership. Machismo was a big part of the Young Lords’ party philosophy, but the women involved at the time saw it as counterrevolutionary. Johnnie used dance to express this conversation about the role of women. Because members of the Young Lords were from all over Latin America, she incorporated elements of flamenco, rumba and bomba (a traditional musical style of Puerto Rico) to “texture the conversation.”

Johnnie says, “We are all connected. We are responsible to and for each other to do this kind of storytelling and to do so with integrity.” Party People premiered in July and ran through November 3.

When Johnnie isn’t traveling to broaden the experiences she brings to Meadows dancers, she devotes much of her life to research about sugar cane plantations and the folklore, music and dance associated with them, particularly the dances, which were passed down through the generations. She is also actively involved with the 28-year-old organization Urban Bush Women, a critically acclaimed and internationally recognized dance company based in New York City. Johnnie served as the company’s youngest resident choreographer and rehearsal director at age 23.

Johnnie was just selected to be the scene choreographer for Scary Movie 5. She is one of two choreographers for the film, and is responsible for creating all the ballet hybrid movement. She says director Malcolm D. Lee is funny, down to earth and intelligent, as well as helpful. “Talking with Lee and executive producers Phil Dornfeld and David Zucker has been important to understand the role of dance in the film and then find a marriage between their visions and mine,” she says.

Johnnie counts herself lucky to be able to do work she loves. “It is my purpose,” she says. “I really can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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