By Steve Sucato
Pittsburgh Current Dance Writer
In 2017, dancer/choreographer Moriah Ella Mason’s Sex Werque, a one-woman dance-theater piece about working as a stripper in Pittsburgh, became the Carnegie Stage’s big box office hit and was one of Pittsburgh’s best dance productions that year.
Following up that triumph, Mason now returns to the Carnegie Stage, August 8-18, with her latest thought-provoking dance-theater piece entitled Queer, Jewish.
Choreographed and directed by Mason in collaboration with 5 other area performers who are either queer, Jewish, or both, the 80-minute work is a collection of dances that explore intersections of queer and Jewish identity in diaspora.
Mason is a Trafford-native who began her dance training at age 10 and went on to study dance and choreography at Sarah Lawrence College. She danced professionally in Tucson, Arizona before returning to Pittsburgh where she works as a massage therapist, filmmaker, visual artist and freelance dancer/choreographer. She has performed with the Pillow Project, STAYCEE PEARL dance project, Maree ReMalia/merrygogo and Double Blind Productions.
A tumble down a flight of stairs last fall in which she broke a bone in her left foot and partially tore a ligament in her right ankle, while slowing her down as a performer she says, gave her the time to develop Queer, Jewish whose genesis comes from an autobiographical solo she created and performed a few years back called “Funny, She doesn’t look Jewish,” about her experiences growing up as the only Jewish kid in Trafford.
“A lot of what came up in that exploration were the difficulties of having both queer and Jewish identities,” says Mason. “It took me a long time to accept my queerness and come out of the closet. It felt really hard to claim two marginalized identities in an extremely white, predominately conservative Christian town.”
Mason says she experienced a lot of anti-Semitic bullying in her elementary and high school years including fellow students physically abusing her in a game they called “Kick the Jew” or telling her she was a devil and was going to hell for not being Christian. She even received death threats.
“It feels especially important to me now to claim a space for Jews and queers and queer Jews that is joyful and vibrant and not just focused on the trauma we have been dealt from the violence we were dealt,” says Mason.
To do so in the work Mason turned to an unusual source, singer Barbara Streisand.
“Looking at her as this Jewish icon and also a popular gay icon of the last generation, we drew choreographic ideas from the gestures she used in her films, her press persona and the types of films that she does where she feels like an outsider and is treated like one but manages to find a way to carve out a place for herself in the larger culture and even become admired for it, get the guy, or claim a different version of femininity,” says Mason.
Also a large part of the work, was material gathered from stories in The Hebrew Bible and from Jewish folklore. With the help of cast member and dramaturge Olivia Devorah, who works as Program Coordinator and Executive Assistant to Rabbi Sharyn Henry at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Mason and Devorah looked for places in those ancient stories one could read in queerness or female power.
Devorah contextualized examples from several stories including Lilith, the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition and Lot’s wife who is depicted in the Book of Genesis as a disobedient woman who looked back when told not to and was turned into a pillar of salt. “That was her town and those were her people and of course she turned to look back,” says Devorah. Using that story Devorah says the cast began thinking about their own queer experience when they were told to walk in a certain direction and not to deviate, and what was gained or lost when they did.
Lastly, Mason and her collaborators layered into the work reinterpretations of Jewish rituals and traditions that she says “feel resonant with what we need as part of our own healing process today.” One such reinterpretation was paralleling the ritual of “tefillin,” the wrapping Jewish prayer straps with that of the practices of BDSM erotic play.
While all of those elements stem from narratives, Mason says Queer, Jewish does not have one. “It is more like a bunch of stories and influences thrown together in a blender to give the audience a dance-theater experience.”
Performed to a recorded original and atmospheric soundscape by Pittsburgh’s slowdanger, the hope for production says dancer Ru Emmons, is that it “will draw people into the deep emotion of these myths and stories and relay the message that queerness has existed all throughout history, across cultures and will do so into the future.”
For Mason the work represents much more.
“Tradition is an intergenerational artistic process,” says Mason. “In every generation I think we get to decide how we contribute to that artistic process. We get to look at what has been handed down, see what serves us and improve on it, carry it forward, add new things to it and reinterpret it. I find that really exciting and I see this dance work as one small way I and my cast get to engage in that artistic process.”
Moriah Ella Mason’s Queer, Jewish will be performed, 8 p.m., August 8, 9,10, 15, 16, 17 and 7 p.m., August 11 & 18. Carnegie Stage, 25 W Main St., Carnegie. Tickets are $20 general, $10 artists/students. Call (724) 873-3576 or visit insideoffthewall.com/queer-jewish for tickets and information.