It was 3pm in late March. Inside a window-wrapped dance studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC), a performance was about to begin. Except for faint slivers of light peeking through drawn shades, and the glow from an amorphous pile of white fabric placed in the middle of the space, the studio was dark. As people found their seats, a piano player in the corner played a soft duet with a recorded track—the sound bouncing off the high ceilings.
The darkness, the lit sculpture, and the music created a feeling of anticipation. Even before it began, choreographer Claude Johnson built a sense of curiosity in his audience. As part of his month-long residency at BAC, Johnson was about to debut his new work Franchise, a piece that he developed alongside two dancers and collaborators, Ashley Merker and Yiannis Logothetis.
Throughout the residency, I had the privilege to witness Johnson’s rehearsals and was struck by his studio presence—how he gently lands in the studio each day with ease and grace; how he activates movement with his collaborators through thoughtful suggestions, generosity, and laughter; how he toils with language and storytelling by asking hard questions and deep listening.
Johnson—who also goes by CJ—and I agreed to meet over coffee before the residency began. Before we met, his text exchanges foreshadowed the kind of choreographic maker he is: open, generous, inviting. We roved in conversation, talking about our various backgrounds, growing up in Chicago, and eventually, the motivation behind the work he wanted to make during the residency.
There was a profound focus on what he hoped to achieve during the month. He talked of wanting to physicalize what is or what isn’t satisfaction. Inspired by a conversation he had with his grandmother, he was gripped by how the feeling of satisfaction is not often considered day-to-day and perhaps can be evoked more simply than we think. Johnson then told me about his uncle, who was locally known in Chicago as “Franchise.” His uncle, he told me, was the kind of person who was always satisfied and would say things like “I don’t need anything. I have everything that I need.” Johnson knew there was something deeper there he wanted to explore. What is satisfaction? How do we achieve it? How do we know when we have achieved it? Can the audience of this dance piece find satisfaction while watching? These were some of the questions he brought to the studio.
Johnson spent many years dancing for Kyle Abraham’s company A.I.M. before deciding to embark on his own, a decision he described as being both thrilling and vulnerable. Towards the end of our first conversation, he told me that, for him, making dance is less about what is known—that what emerges will always be surprising and different than what was originally planned. He compared it to a road trip, where yes, you have a destination in mind, but there are many choices to make on how to get there. An impulsive detour to go the scenic route perhaps. But even when you stick to the highway, unexpected things will happen: a gorgeous rainbow after a rainstorm, a call from a friend.
The first time I visited the studio, Johnson and his dancers greeted me generously. It was an unusually cold and windy March afternoon that left my cheeks burning red. The dancers began slowly warming up their bodies and I began taking notes. We were collectively unthawing. Johnson is devoted to connection, to being present, to allow for a natural unraveling. Each day, the dancers didn’t have a routine warm-up. Johnson encouraged a collaborative practice.
At one of these rehearsals each dancer took turns lying horizontally while the other two did bodywork, similar to Reiki. Soft adjustments of the neck, the ankle, and the thigh. He told me later he was interested in what it would feel like to get into a meditative state before rehearsal. Another day, a melancholic melody guided them as they moved together, always staying connected by their ankles, wrists, shoulders, and elbows. At one point, Johnson said something I couldn’t quite make out. But I know it was funny because they smiled and laughed as they twisted around each other like a human tumbleweed. On another day after playfully improvising together, Johnson began asking questions about satisfaction—who makes you the most satisfied; where do you feel the most satisfied; when have you felt it? In another rehearsal, he explored how choice and autonomy interacts with suggested movement. Each dancer moved idiosyncratically as others provided prompts: “dance like the color yellow” and “give 50 kisses.” Johnson creates an environment where anything goes and everything matters. A place that doesn’t have rigid boundaries, where imagination is always active, and where there is a lot of negotiation and receiving.
Against the backdrop of Manhattan, the dancers wriggled, shook, rolled, and toiled with what it is to “make a dance.” As the rehearsals progressed, Johnson layered on new ideas to complicate rehearsed scores, changing it so much that it was almost unrecognizable from what it had originally been. The process was surprising and alluring. As I watched, I thought to myself, I am on a road trip, and I just saw a rainbow.
In rehearsals, there was incredible intimacy and trust—Johnson encouraged and relied on the intuition of his dancers. As the month got closer to the end, he began refining movement not through demonstration, but through dialogue, a central component of his process. He is careful and precise with his words. As an observer and dancer myself, it prompted questions in me. What does it mean to put controls upon a movement that is established and learned? Once it is changed, what happens to that original idea? Does the original idea matter anymore? Is being satisfied the same as being elastic?
The performance reflected these myriad qualities and approaches to process. The space remained in darkness while Logothetis began to slowly move toward the center of the studio, toward the glowing fabric. Holding onto the material, a costume it turned out, Logothetis commanded the space with his fluid torso. He eventually put the costume on and the audience seemed to lean in closer, perhaps because it was dark; perhaps because his movement had a yearning quality to it, effortless with every dip and turn blended into the next.
The studio lights came on and Logothetis wriggled out of the costume and gave it to Merker. Her interaction with the costume was more playful, and had much more vigor and harshness. She stepped on the costume and tied it to her head before putting it on only to take it off again leaving it in a pile on the ground. The music stopped and a recorded voice began speaking to the dancer calling out, “hey you, yes you.” It was the costume. Merker engaged with the voice as it seemed to want to know why she wasn’t satisfied. It asked her, “what’s going on in your life?” This part of the piece was quirky, and perhaps a bit too self-referential—a moment that showed the raw/risky nature of works-in-progress. The conversation ended with no resolution, but it laid the foundations for one in the future.
Johnson then invited us to move our chairs across the space to create a small crescent-shaped stage enclosing the corner of the studio. There was a moment of clanking as people and chairs settled into place. He rolled up the blinds revealing the city. Candidly, he explained that he and the dancers were going to show something unfinished and unnamed they had created, inspired by the spectacular sunsets they witnessed each evening working in the studio. A golden hue would glow through the windows and rebound off the high rises of Hell’s Kitchen. The dancers all faced away from each other, shoulder to shoulder, finger to finger. They stood supported by the weight of their bodies, inching their feet out, behind their knees, and leaning into each other’s backs while slowly moving the shape around.
Their hands clasped together told a story of reliance, trust, and cohesion. As their bodies twisted and tangled and untangled, it became clear to me that we were watching the relationship that they had built together during the residency. The day before the showing, I asked Johnson about this second piece he planned to show. “I just wanted to make something without intention, and get the focus off the franchise.” I knew he was talking about his dance—Franchise—but I also wondered if he meant the business of dance-making. The pressures we place in making…anything. There is something in the unplanned, the unthinking, and the simple act of showing what you have learned along the way with the people around you. In the last piece, I thought I saw three dancers feeling satisfied. When I left the show that afternoon, I was satisfied too.
Elanor Bock is a dancer and writer based in New York. Originally from Chicago, she began her dance career with Ballet West where she performed many classical and neoclassical works. Since moving to New York, Elanor has worked for and collaborated with contemporary choreographers such as Hadley Smith, Phoebe Berglund, and Loni Landin, worked on camera for editorial and commercial campaigns, and has collaborated with musicians and visual artists both as a mover and as a movement director.