Daniela Gesundheit (vocalist, composer), Johnny Spence (director), Erin Poole (choreographer) All Our Departed / El Male Rachamim אל מלא רחמים, Super 8 film, September 2020.
Johnny Mrym Spence (JMS): Can I start by asking you to describe the history of the garment you’re wearing in the video?
Daniela Gesundheit (DG): Yes! I had been living in Horses Atelier jumpsuits for a long time, and they became a kind of performance uniform for me. So when I was imagining how I would present these songs, how I would usher these prayers out of their ritual context, I knew I needed some sort of protective garment to do that. And I thought of tallitot because they’re these garments of protection during prayer. And they also afford an emotional privacy, which was something that I wanted to bring with me when I took these prayers out. So I approached Horses Atelier about making this garment and thankfully Claudia Dey and Heidi Sopinka were totally on board with doing that. I ended up ordering tallitot online from Jerusalem—
JMS: Did you tell them what you were planning on doing?
DG: Oh, not at all!
JMS: It’s very treyf.
DG: Yeah, not a chance. Often people are buried in their tallit, so I knew getting used tallitot wouldn’t be an option. I thought a lot about how in order to make this garment we would have to cut the tallitot, which is usually something that’s only done upon someone’s death. And for me that act has a symbolism related to the reworking and reconstructing of my tradition. To make it fit my body. To fit my female body. To fit the intention behind these prayers.
JMS: Yeah, it seems like a mirror artistic process to what you’re doing by reworking the liturgy. A shaping to you; for you.
DG: Exactly. While communicating with Tala Kamea and Mickelli Orbe, who were the ones at Horses who designed the garment—
JMS: Wait, are they Jewish?
JMS: So did you explain to them at all what the significance was? What it meant? Or did you intentionally not want to do that?
DG: Oh, I did tell them the significance. I remember them asking at one point, “Is this sacrilegious? Are we doing something transgressive here?” And I said, “Yes, but with my blessing and I’ll take any flak for it.” [laughs] So they were aware of what we were doing. And we communicated a bit about where to sew the tzitzit. We placed tzitzit on the wrists, ankles, and hips, which has the effect of delineating the female body in a different way.
I wanted to ask you, did the garment itself have any bearing on what inspired you to make this video?
JMS: It was the original inspiration and acted as a kind of guide throughout. I remember it started when I learned you were having this garment made, and I wanted to do a video for El Malei Rachamim featuring it. The idea that one is buried in their tallit seemed appropriate for a prayer that’s often sung at burials.
I knew I wanted movement, especially since both of our loves are movement artists, and it felt right to work with the two people closest to us for this. Picturing two dancers made me imagine two juxtaposing sets of outfits for them; one light and one dark. And it made sense to ask Horses if they could supply the dancer’s wardrobe, since the whole idea sprang from this beautiful performance garment they made for you. This idea of things in opposition to each other made me think we should film in two locations, one inside at night and one outside during the day, with the garments being the inverse of the surrounding space.
[Image description: Fashion illustration with front and back of a black and white striped jumpsuit for a female body. The garment is made of tallitot, Jewish prayer shawls, placing the tzitzit, knotted ritual fringes, on the wrists, ankles, and hips.]
DG: Yeah, that’s so true. You really tapped into the polarities.
JMS: Normally I try to avoid binary thought in creative gestures — that’s something I’m very mindful of — but death feels like one of the few true binaries. Death is a moment you pass through, a point that is different on the other side. This is something Erin Poole — the choreographer for the video and also my partner — and I have talked about a lot, and conversations with her have really informed my thoughts. I tried to nod at this structurally in the video by having those two windows within the wider frame which occasionally open and disappear.
DG: Oh, that’s so beautiful. There’s this way that the two sets of performance outfits, the dark and the light set, melt and blend with the black and white stripes of my garment. Visually, my figure in the video acts as this sort of bridge.
DG: Which I often think of when I’m leading Jewish life cycle rituals. Not in the sense of being an intermediary for people, because I think in the Jewish tradition we all have the right to direct access with the divine, or to God, or to our own spirituality. There isn’t a mandate to have someone else translate for you. But I do think about being a… translator isn’t the right word… sort of a transmuter.
JMS: Yeah, totally. What you’re doing with this garment and these texts, through making this outfit and by creating this album, Alphabet of Wrongdoing, is an act of translation into our modern times and onto you.
DG: It’s true. And I think about this idea of transmutation a lot. If I’m in a ritual, for example, I feel what’s happening in the room and I try to let it move through me and come back out as something else. To create this feedback loop between myself and anyone else who’s there.
JMS: It’s interesting to hear you talk about things moving through you. When I started to talk with Erin, her own movement practice works a lot with grief and memory, and when she heard your recording of the prayer the first thing she talked about was “pouring.” Like, the porous nature of things, and a pouring into one another. And she spoke about wanting to try and show that through movement. So it’s nice to hear about your experience of energy pouring through you. I think in the final video the idea that things are porous comes across. I like that the choreographic intentions aren’t necessarily things you immediately associate with death. The idea of pouring and being porous, and the idea of supporting and sharing weight with each other, they’re not the most obvious connectors to death, but they are very present in it.
DG: Oh, yeah, that moment is so porous, and there’s a lot of leaning on one another. I think a person who’s going through that transition needs people around to have that exchange.
Going back to Erin’s involvement, because she was so such an important part of how this video came together, at what point did you include her in the process?
JMS: Pretty quickly. Knowing that it’s a song of remembrance, often sung at memorials and burials, I thought to ask Erin because her practice explores those themes. She has such great ideas and a deep way of considering these concepts in the body. Then I asked Caitlin Wolfe O’Brien, the videographer, because I knew she shot on Super 8 and I wanted to shoot film because it has this element of decay.
DG: I think we even talked about that during the recording of the song. Because, well, you’re also playing the synthesizer on the audio track, and I remember talking about William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops in the studio. Having the track sound like it’s dissolving as it’s being sung. It’s evaporating. Mirroring the soul’s departure.
JMS: Mmhhm. I was definitely thinking about that with editing. These veils upon veils that get placed in front of the movement. They appear and then disappear between the viewer and the screen. I was really thinking, during editing, of the different layers of footage as garments themselves that can be put on and taken off in different moments.
DG: Oh, that’s so cool. I love that!
JMS: And there was a nice moment of happenstance when Caitlin gave me the developed rolls. We shot three-and-a-half five-minute rolls of film, and the other half of the fourth roll was footage Caitlin had filmed later that day on her own. It was just different close-ups of foliage and trees. I asked her if I could use them as well and she said “Sure, go ahead!” And it ended up being very important. The more I inserted these Video-Veil layers of flowers over top of the footage we shot I started to realize, “Oh, yeah, flowers decay!” They’re the quintessential symbol of life, but also an ever present reminder that things die.
DG: Yeah, and there was this synchronicity that I don’t even know if I shared with you. A lot of the foliage is yellow because it was shot in the fall, and when I saw the video it really evoked a memory from when I was 12. My family took my grandparents back to Poland and Lithuania for the first time since they fled in World War II. We returned to Žasliai, Lithuania, the village where my grandmother was from, and went to this clearing in the forest that was the mass grave where her father, her sister, and her sister’s family were most likely killed. And I was there seeing her have this experience, and the field was completely overgrown with these yellow flowers. That’s a really strong image that has stuck with me ever since. And when I saw your video, I immediately flashed on these yellow flowers. And I looked up, “What are the yellow flowers in Lithuania?” The national flower of Lithuania is Rue, a yellow wildflower. It’s a medicinal flower that’s edible in trace amounts, but poisonous if you eat too much of it.
JMS: Like life.
DG: (laughs) Exactly. But yeah, that was such an unexpected, very personal image for me. No one else would make that connection, but when I sing this song I think of my family who perished there. And I think of other people’s families who’ve perished under fascist regimes and under all manners of devastating circumstances. I like that those images of yellow flowers are in the video. It’s a reminder to myself that family is this circuitry for empathy.
JMS: That’s such a powerful image and story.
For me the fall foliage seemed fitting because it reminds me of the holidays, Yom Kippur specifically, and that seemed fitting.
DG: I want to turn more directly to “Contracting at the Seams,” which is the theme of this issue of PROTOCOLS. What does that make you think of in relation to this project?
JMS: I mean, I think contracting and seams are both such complex words.
JMS: “Contract” is interesting to me in the context of a Jewish publication. I think of Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre — the idea of a legally binding agreement. The covenant or “contract” with God. But then there’s also “contracting,” meaning getting smaller, and that also has a very obvious relation to the Jewish people. And lastly, I think “contracting” like when you catch something, right? When you catch a disease. Which is omnipresent these days.
JMS: Such a complex word. And “seams” feels equally slippery… I don’t know.
DG: Yeah, I agree. And the expression is usually “bursting at the seams.”
JMS: And then “contracting at the seams” becomes very related to the body. The “seam” being a suture or somehow related to skin.
DG: Seams are also a border, right? It’s where two fabrics come together, so seams are a border of sorts. Contracting right at the border.
JMS: It loops back to this idea of porousness for me. If the seam itself is contracting — the dividing barrier is getting smaller — then you’re moving closer to breaking down this binary. Which is related to everything: your experience leading a congregation, one’s experience of passing, loved ones witnessing someone pass. That’s all an experience of the dissipation of a seam.
DG: Yeah, and the thing about seams is that they don’t occur spontaneously. They are created. If you sew a garment then you remember the moment of creating that seam. If you choose to alter the garment then you also have this memory of disassembling that seam. It makes me think of this idea that supposedly all Jews, for all time, were present at Sinai for the moment of revelation. Have you ever heard that?
JMS: I don’t think so.
DG: I thought we talked about this at, maybe, Pesach or on Shavuot… remember?
JMS: Oh, yes!
DG: There’s this thought that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai. And supposedly there was a collective synaesthesia during the moments when Moses received the commandments and returned from the mountain. People saw thunder and heard lightning.
JMS: Which is definitely the seams of perception contracting.
DG: Exactly, exactly! But also, if we imagine, that was the moment the collective Jewish consciousness was created, when we sewed these seams onto this body of our experience. By going in and reimagining and reworking the tradition — trying to make it fit my figurative and literal body — there’s this act of ripping and reworking some of those seams, with a full awareness of having been a part of creating those seams on some level, ancestrally.
JMS: Wow, yes! Makes me think of grade 10 science class and the idea that nothing can be created or destroyed. Truly, things are only ever being reworked, right? And so, by ripping up those seams, it’s not as if the garment gets any smaller, it’s just being retailored. You’re using that same stitching, that same thread, but you’re rearranging it.
DG: Well, that’s my feeling. I mean, I live by that. I really do. Our garments of belief are always being retailored, whether or not you’re embracing that. And in fact, that reshaping is necessary for survival.
JMS: I mean, if people don’t think you’re heretical, you’re not doing it right.
All Our Departed (audio) was performed by Daniela Gesundheit (voice) and Johnny Spence (synthesizer) and mixed by Steve Kaye. The audio was recorded on a dusty analog synth that created a live Basinski-esque disintegration. The melody is based on a rendition by Cantor Josef Rosenblatt. Recorded with the assistance of a Canada Council for the Arts Concept to Realization Grant. The video was directed by Johnny Spence, with choreography by Erin Poole. Performed by Erin Poole, Eric Cheng, Daniela Gesundheit. Cinematography by Caitlin Woelfle-O’Brien. Lighting by Noah Feaver.
Scent composed for the performance included hints of wet dirt, cut grass, rain, flash flood. The scent was created by Saskia Wilson-Brown (Institute for Art and Olfaction).
Daniela’s tallit garment was designed in collaboration with Horses Atelier in Toronto, sewn by Tala Kamea. Additional costumes also by Horses Atelier.