Work samples

  • Zaz- The Big Easy

    ZAZ: The Big Easy transforms history, first-person testimonies, and site-specific research into sensory-driven immersive African Diasporic Percussive Dance Theater, reconceptualizing live performance and producing a performative archive of Black history. Zaz: The Big Easy is a sonic and kinetic percussive dance musical exploring the impact of Hurricane Katrina as a physical storm and as a metaphor for "storms" humans experience when silenced, marginalized, and oppressed who persevere through community, spirit, and traditions.

  • Kennedy Center Social Impact Residency

    On June 19, 2023, Ryan Johnson & SOLE Defined became the first percussive dancer/company to receive The John F. Kennedy Center's Office Hours Social Impact Residency. During the residency, Johnson created SOLE Defined LIVE a sonic and kinetic synthesis of African Diasporic Percussive Dance, integrated media, and synthetic music, establishing a sensory-driven immersive performance experience. The ancestry of Tap Dance, Body Percussion, and Sand Dance guides this 75-minute cultural embodied performance experience. A diverse group of percussive dancers turns movement into music, creating a performative archive of African Diasporic Percussive Dance honoring tradition and remixing it with technology. A portion of SOLE Defined LIVE was formed in residency at The John F. Kennedy Center and premiered at Jacob's Pillow.


About Ryan

Baltimore County

Ryan Johnson, MFA, is a Black & Indigenous hybrid from Baltimore, Maryland, with caramel skin, black curly hair, a salt and pepper beard, and a big smile. Johnson sits at the intersection of African Diasporic Percussive Dance and Nonprofit Leadership. Currently, he is the first post-MFA Fellow at The Ohio State University in the Department of Dance specializing in African Diasporic Percussive Dance and a visiting professor at Bowie State University Theatre Department, serving as a bridge… more

Zaz The Big Easy

Zaz: The Big Easy is a 75-minute percusical, percussive dance musical, transforming theater spaces into a local speakeasy slated in New Orleans during the summer of 2005. This kinetic and sonic synthesis of African Diasporic Percussive Dance, original script, digital media, and musical score narrates intimate first-person testimonies and interviews exploring the realities of Hurricane Katrina, honoring the resilience of survivors. A company of seven performers takes audiences on a black cultural experience utilizing tap dance, body percussion, original music, audience participation, vocal arrangements, and digital media to create an immersive sensory performance shifting traditional audience viewing practices. As an extension of Ryan K Johnson's MFA thesis, this work brings awareness to the nation's largest natural disaster while serving as a performative archive of Black oral histories. Furthermore, Zaz addresses America's infrastructure and the economic failings of marginalized communities to establish solution-oriented conversations advancing change. The goal is to honor the lives lost in the storm, utilizing art as a form of protest and supporting the advancement and investment in the rehabilitation of New Orleans East. We are clear that our show will not "fix" the magnitude of issues connected to Hurricane Katrina's destruction and governmental failures, which created generational pain, trauma, and suffering for the people of New Orleans. However, it is vital to use our platform for good and share the stories of a population of people who have strategically been forgotten. SOLE Defined has become a part of the community Zaz: The Big Easy narrates. We aim to honor the lives lost in the storm, utilizing art as a form of archiving and social justice, supporting the advancement of African Diasporic Percussive Dance in the academy and performing arts continuum. At the conclusion of each performance, a QR Code will provide information about New Orleans-based activists, artists, programs, and organizations audience members can support. This is our call to action! It's time we, as a country, remember August 2005.

There are five parts of SOLE Defined's creative methodology, Imagine + Download, Meditation + Mapping, The Lab, The Playbook, and The Physical Archive. In, Imagine + Download, an idea is formed or inspired by observation, conversation, memory, current events, or investigating a moment in American history. We define creativity as an energetic force translated into a physical, sensory, emotional, and spiritual experience cultivated through imagination, research, planning, risk-taking, collaboration, and lived experience. The creative team began to envision the storyline, characters, dialogue, production elements, and collaborators needed. Preliminary research is conducted through participant observations, interviews, site-specific investigation, newspaper articles, archived documents, government reports, YouTube videos, and scholarly journals combined with practice as research. 

The second part of the creative process is activated, Meditation + Mapping. This process starts with a water meditation, cleansing the mind, transcending into a dream state to envision the final product, and triggering a series of questions used as a framework. The working framework is expanded, molded, and arranged utilizing index cards to storyboard words, phrases, dates, times, links, and thoughts posted to a wall to establish connective tissue developing the narration, flow, and tempo. This process transformed into the script, which also underwent the same method of organizing and reorganizing scenes, dances, and lines, establishing multiple versions. A considerable portion of the research for Zaz: The Big Easy encompassed notating, listening to, and recording the oral histories of New Orleanians from New Orleans East and Lower 9th ward. The information collected is converted and synthesized with imagination into characters, plot, and script development.

Once the data has been collected and transcribed to paper, the studio process begins by scatting a rhythmic phrase out loud or pulling two or three bars from a song to dissect and translate to the body. Translating data into an embodied rhythmic expression is an ongoing investigation of the human body and possible notations to be discovered. The notes of the body are created by contouring internal organs with different intensities of hand strikes or hand positions infused with an articulation of foot placement learned through the kinesthetic memory of tap dance. The artists are an influential component of art-making. Each artist holds an archive of movement, experience, and memory. The data stored in each artist provides additional ingredients to build the work by tapping into their zone of genius. We envision what the choreography needs, and their internal archive allows them to translate the vision into a movement.

To prepare collaborators, The Playbook is developed from an analytical observation from a choreographic, creative, and technical lens, ensuring the elements collectively convey the story, history, and experience of a moment. The Playbook contains a production calendar including costume parades, load-in, stage/blocking, dry techs, cue-to-cue, dress rehearsals, soft opening, show call times, and load-out. The success of Zaz: The Big Easy depends on honesty, ethics of care, research, and curating a team of peers with a specific set of skills, holding us accountable and activating a new performative archive.

Zaz: The Big Easy is not a spectacle! It is the story of real people and events that have been forgotten. It will not "fix" anything, yet we hope it brings awareness to the harsh realities many people of color face in a white supremacy patriarchy. Our goal is to produce transformative work for those who engage with it while honoring the stories of those directly affected and recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Even after receiving permission to share the painful realities of real people, we continuously reflect on the ethics of care for the stories shared by people still healing from August 2005. We are intentional with what we share because archiving, translating, and interpreting the realities of an experience we did not have firsthand; we take it seriously.

Project status: Ongoing


  • We're Here To Stay
    We're Here To Stay
    We're Here To Stay, A rhythmic and vocal response to the new of Hurican Katrina off of the shore of New Orleans.
  • Zaz The Club
    Zaz The Club
    Welcome to Zaz, We are introduced to the locals who will take us on this rhytmic journey. Zaz is a small speakeasy in New Orleans where locals enjoy life and preserver through the storm.
  • Oya Elements
    Oya Elements
    The eye of the storm has arrived, which is represented by the strength and power of a black woman performing a West African solo, ending with the audience sitting in darkness to symbolize the widespread power outages.
  • I’ve Been Through The Storm
    I’ve Been Through The Storm
    This modern/contemporary infused solo starts with search lights of a Blackhawk surveying New Orleans East for survivors, expressing the emotions of being stranded and physiological effects of surviving a horrific storm.
  • Grandma/Pop Pop
    Grandma/Pop Pop
    A rhythmic exploration of vocal percussion using the words Grandma, Pop-Pop, Sister, Brother, Mother, Father, and Friends. This symbolizes those who were searching for their loved ones after the storm hit.
  • Intermission
    Hot off the press news articles about the destruction of the storm.
  • The CleanUp
    The CleanUp
    This section of the show symbolizes the spirit of NOLA, the strength of the community and the efforts to restore the community.
  • The Grand ReOpening
    The Grand ReOpening
    After years of rebuilding Zaz finally reopens.

Kennedy Center Social Impact Residency: SOLE Defined LIVE

Office Hours is a curated developmental residency program hosted at the Kennedy Center’s REACH. Provided with access to studio space in the REACH, artists have the sole task of creation. Office Hours seeks artists with an interest on site-specific work and supports the ideas of playful exploration and spatial intervention. SOLE Defined LIVE, immersive sensory-driven performance experience taking the audience on a rhythmic roller coaster of embodied storytelling and culture, transforming them from spectators to performers, activating their internal rhythmic knowledge. A fusion of African Diasporic Dance, Tap Dance, Body Percussion, Sand Dance, and Audience participation ignite the senses by translating global rhythms to the human body, producing a rhythmic score of movement and technology. The company is premiering Body Language, a sonic and kinetic exploration of African Diasporic Percussive Dance with technology, building an original score exploring improvisation, narration, and instrumentation in real time. Body Language is the company's latest work developed at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in an Office Hours Residency in 2023.

  • Take That Ride
    Take That Ride

    SOLE Defined LIVE at Bates Festival, NYC

  • Human Drum
    Human Drum

    SOLE Defined LIVE at Bates Festival in NYC

  • Oya
  • Libation
  • The Rehearsal

    Invited rehearsal run at The Kennedy Center.

  • SOLE Defined LIVE at Jacobs Pillow

    SOLE Defined LIVE premiered in the summer of 2023 at Jacobs Pillow.