Professional dancer and university professor Robin Johnson is in motion even when sitting still. There is a quality of gracious good humor, enthusiasm and total commitment when he speaks. He smiles often and radiates joie de vivre.
Although formally retired from a 34-year teaching career at Cal State Fullerton and professional touring with three modern dance companies, Johnson is already enthusiastically engaged in Hill activities. A Hill resident since last August, Johnson leapt immediately into teaching movement to Idyllwild School students as a smARTS volunteer. He joined the Associates of Idyllwild Arts. “When I came here, I decided to go to everything, whether art exhibits, concerts or Thanksgiving dinner at the American Legion,” he said. “I’m trying to attend everything.”
Educated at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah, Johnson has had a very successful career as dancer, choreographer and educator. “I’ve never been unemployed,” beamed Johnson, noting the rarity of that statement for any working artist. He graduated from UCSB in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in dance and a master’s degree in fine arts in dance from the University of Utah in 1975. After obtaining his master’s he joined Utah-based Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and later the Gloria Newman Dance Theatre. Now Emeritus Professor of Dance, Johnson taught at CSUF from 1980 until 2014. While at CSUF, he founded and performed in the Dance Repertory Theatre. In 2000, he was a Fulbright senior scholar and taught in Lisbon, Portugal. In his early dance career, he taught and performed in major venues, both nationally and internationally. He is a past president of the California Dance Educators Association.
“I danced until I was 44,” said Johnson. “And for the last 20 years, my focus has been principally as a choreographer and teacher.” Asked what he enjoyed most, dancing or choreographing, Johnson reflected. “It’s the nature of things that dance must come first,” he said. “A dancer has to experience their body, the theater and the stage before they can choreograph. But it was very easy for me to sit down and not dance again. I didn’t have any of that conflict over leaving the stage. Plus, I got to see my work produced, the movement I created with the music I chose, the costumes and the dancers.”
Johnson recalled his years as teacher and choreographer at CSUF. “The department had so many technical resources,” he said. “The productions were beautifully presented. It was a great place to work because of the kids we attracted.”
Johnson’s career has been in modern dance, not ballet, a barefoot school pioneered by Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey and later by Merce Cunningham and Anna Sokolow. It was a style not bound by the rigid rules of classical ballet and characterized by expressive fluidity and freedom flowing from interpretive themes.
Asked which came first in his choreography, movement or music ideas, Johnson said it changed as he grew older. “When I was younger, the ideas for movement came first, then the music. But when teaching at a big department, the first production meetings came with many questions including, ‘What is your music?,’ so more and more music came, and that suggested a theme or a setting.”
And for an artist who has seen his dances beautifully costumed and staged, Johnson is just as enthusiastic when teaching Idyllwild School K-5 grade students to move through the lifecycle of a butterfly, a subject students had been studying. “I coordinated with their teachers for some of the ideas,” said Johnson. “I was trained in that in college, where movement is related to the curriculum,” he said. “At CSUF, I taught a seminar in Dance for Children, teaching my students how to teach dance to children. And these Idyllwild School students are so responsive and enthusiastic.”
In looking over Johnson’s reviews as both a dancer and choreographer, there is a common defining thread — connection with the audience, humor, celebration and intellect — just what Johnson seems to be bringing to his new life on the Hill.
Johnson and partner actor/singer Matt Shaker are Pine Cove residents.