Dancing in Diaspora
Interview with Ella Moriah Mason The name of your show is Queer/Jewish. Is that the faith in which you were raised?
Yes, I was raised Jewish. I grew up going to shul every week, keeping Shabbat, going to Hebrew school and was bat mitzvaed.
What is Shabbat?
Shabbat is a time to disconnect and really focus on rest, connecting with family, study and prayer. It’s considered sacred time, as being a little different and separate from the rest of the week.
Growing up, was practicing faith in such ritualized ways something your friends were doing too?
I grew up in Trafford, which is a former Westinghouse factory town. My family was the only Jewish family in town. I was often the first and only Jew most of my classmates had ever met. I experienced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up. Sometimes, just from a very ignorant perspective and sometimes out of a loving perspective, from conservative Christian friends who were evangelical and like ‘I’m really concerned you’re gonna go to hell, how can I be your friend and not try to give you Jesus?’.
And then there were people who were experimenting with some scarier bigotry and Nazi language or rhetoric. I would sometimes get death threats. It was really strange to get death threats from other little kids, and I was scared but also felt like, ‘what are you going to do, other ten-year-old?’. So, maybe I was in denial about it too, I just kind of brushed it off. It was a stressful environment.
When did dance and performance come into your life?
I got interested in theater and performing arts in general when I was 9 years old. I saw my older brother in a local high school musical, Singing in the Rain, and I thought that was amazing. I went to my mom and said, ‘Hey, I want to do musical theater’. There was a little studio in my town that had musical theater classes and acting and all that jazz, but it was the same night as Hebrew school, so she said, ‘You can’t do that but you can do ballet’. And I took that deal. As I got older, I realized that I really loved dance specifically and also really loved weird dance. The dances I make are often multi-media and will involve some text or vocalizing, but I am not making a Broadway musical. I’m not making that style. I discovered I really love post-modern performance art work.
I think for a lot of kids who struggle with isolation or bullying growing up, the arts are a really great release for frustration, sadness and anger. To have a sense of belonging, a place that they can feel powerful. It really helped me get through my childhood. I think that can be a place we find each other and that can be a little more accepting of gender variance. That was important to me.
What is the significance of the show's title, Queer/Jewish?
I’m queer and I am also Jewish. In this show, we’re looking at those intersections, starting from my personal experiences and then expanding to these larger communities and culture. As a white skinned Jew, I am a religious ethnic minority, but I also really blend in. That’s also true for me as a bisexual woman; when I am out with a guy I am seeing, it seems like I am a straight person. But, when I fall in love with a woman, wow do things look really different. There’s something that is really rich and worth exploring in these liminal identities.
We thought a lot about Barbara Streisand and are using her films and persona as a source for material. She's an interesting jumping off point for this piece because she's both a Jewish icon and a gay icon. So many of her stories and movies and her persona are about being an outsider, fighting to find a place of acceptance. I think that’s something a lot of Jewish people can identify with, something a lot of queer people can identify with – and it’s something that I definitely identified with from my childhood.
The show also takes a look at different stories from the Torah (the Hebrew bible) and from Jewish folklore. We’ve looked at instances of queer subtext and stories where women find ways to express their power despite living in an extremely patriarchal culture. We read between the lines and look at queer and feminist reinterpretations of these traditional stories. And we’re also taking some different elements of Jewish ritual and different traditions and casting them in a queer light, casting them in a creative futurists light.
How did this show come into being?
This was a commission and we also did receive some support from the Heinz Small Arts Initiative. I had previously done a show with Hans and Ginny a couple of years ago called Sex Werque and we were all really pleased with how that show turned out. I let them know I had another topic I wanted to work on, and they were incredibly enthusiastic and supportive about making it happen.
Who is in your show?
Sarah Friedlander is a local dancer who I have used in other pieces before. She’s quirky, deeply original and brings a lot of creativity, joy and lightness to the process. And she’s a beautiful dancer and choreographer in her own right. Ru Emmons is a dear friend and also a really beautiful, unique mover who also produces their own work. Amelia Reuss is a recent graduate from Point Park and I met her through one of my friends who is a professor there. I put out a call looking for some additional collaborators and Amelia sent in a beautiful submission about her experiences of queerness and faith. She’s a gorgeous dancer. We also have Harry Hawkins IV. I saw Harry perform in Queer Folk Lab last summer and they are a really beautiful mover, really deep thinker, and also someone who’s thinking a lot about queerness and faith. And then rounding out our cast, is Olivia Devorah, a deeply engaged, nerdy, queer Jew. Every week, I will give them a topic like, ‘Oh we want to talk about Lilith, Lilith as a demon queen’ and Olivia shows up with 6 pages of packets of source material from different eras, with beautiful art work from Jewish artists across the centuries and we really dive in. I’m really grateful for this particular group of people, it’s been a really fun process, we laugh a lot. Not only are they all amazing performers, but everyone has a personal interest and stake in the process and that’s felt really tender and fruitful.
Despite being bullied about your faith at young age, you still hold onto it today. Why is that? What is in the practice of faith that resonates with you?
Judaism isn't a faith or belief. It's a culture I am a part of and a heritage I value. Although some people might see it that way, for me, it never felt like a choice. Being bullied by Christians didn't make me want to be a Christian.
I really see Judaism, and religions in general, as a form of cultural technology. It’s a way and a frame work for us to, through tradition and ritual and creating a long series of texts across generations, to grapple with what it means to live a good life.
What’s interesting to me is to see, Ok, how did people I’m somehow related to, from deep in the past, how were they grappling with these issues and what insight can that give me about how we’re grappling with these issues today? How do we deal with economic power and money? How do we deal with hierarchy? How should we treat animals? How should we understand the place of work and family in our lives? How do we understand commitments of marriage or love? How do we understand the commitments we make to our children? I want to learn from the past and I don’t want to feel stuck and bound to it, but I think by being in conversation with it, we push things forward. I’m really interested in being a part of the current generation that’s recreating Judaism for the future. I think that’s really exciting.
What do you want your audience to take away from seeing your show?
I hope that people who see it feel a sense of engagement and a sense of power when reconsidering or looking at their own traditions or rituals that they follow, whether those are Jewish traditions or whether they come from a totally different background. Culture isn’t just magically given to us - we create it - we decide, and so I want everyone to realize that they can be a part of that creative act if they want to. I hope people see the way we are doing this within the piece and carry that inspiration home with them. They might try something a little different with the traditions they’ve been handed.
Any last thoughts?
We began planning this performance in September and it feels really meaningful to make this work now as we’ve witnessed so much blatant anti-Semitism and so many more attacks on queer people over the last year. It feels extra important to create work like this, as part of resistance and ongoing support for the community. I hope that the queer folks and Jews that come and see it, feel uplifted and feel loved by this work. I want that for all of us.