An interview with Jaleesa Johnston and Sophia Wright Emigh
Scrolling through Instagram one evening, I came upon a link to a short film co-created by Jaleesa Johnston, a multi-disciplinary artist whom I follow. I watched the film — a meditation on our isolation and connection during the pandemic, explored through movement — and burst into tears. It evoked every emotion I’d been feeling over the past many months. I immediately emailed Jaleesa to ask for an interview. She told me that the film was the second in a series of three — a triptych titled “Bodies Apart, Moving Together” (the third has yet to be made) — the brainchild of her collaborator Sophia Wright Emigh. I invited them both for remote chat and what follows is an edited, condensed version of that interview (you can watch the full interview here).
JR: Sophia, how and when did this [series] start for you?
SWE: When lockdown started, I started doing these nighttime walks and listening to music in my earbuds, and there was this real apocalyptic feeling that nobody was in the street at that time. I have a background as both a dancer and performer, so I’m always kind of perceiving the world through the lens of the body and I just had this feeling like this massive change is upon us and I don’t know what it means. I don’t know why it’s here, I don’t know how long it’s going to last or how it will affect me or my family or the community or the world but I did feel: start making something in that space because if you don’t you might get lost in the undertow of this huge wave.
So, I put this call out to movers and dancers that I knew and some people that I follow on Instagram and said, ‘Hey, I’m making this thing. I don’t really know what it is but here’s the song — [Tuur mang Welten by Niklas Paschburg] — that I’ve been taking these night walks to and it’s been keeping me afloat. Can you go film yourself?”
JR: So, Jaleesa, from your end, what was the call? What were the instructions?
JJ: For the first video, I remember Sophia was very clear with direction: this is the song. I would like you to set up a camera this way. I would like you to be in the middle of a road or street or pathway and I think, at that point in time, I was on the verge of potentially losing my job because of the pandemic and I was in such a weird space that I was like I can’t do this. I’m sorry, I can’t participate. And then I don’t know how long passed but Sophia was like “ I really want you in this. Can I just come and film you? You don’t even have to do anything.”
SWE: I was like, ‘Okay, cool, I get it, except I’m gonna come stalk you and you will be in my film.’
JJ: As long as you realize I’m going to lay there, which is exactly what I did, and she was totally supportive of that as an expression of how I was feeling in that moment. That’s the point of a movement practice, is to be true to the moment. So, if I’m going to lay down, that’s all that there is. That’s all I need to do. I don’t have to do anything else.
SWE: And that quality of movement ended up, I feel, being this pole through the film, holding stillness and a just the authenticity of: “No I don’t have this huge thing to express for other people, I am just here in my internal experience.” And it was so beautiful to have that in the film. It needed that stillness and that silence.
JR: What made you decide that you wanted everyone to do it in a road?
SWE: Well that came very directly out of those night walks. It was just so eerie to be in this common space, this space where people are generally passing by each other. I was alone on these barren streets and feeling like, how strange that this space, this crossroads where people meet each other and encounter each other and say hello as they pass, is empty. It felt just like this apt metaphor for this larger experience. So, it felt like having everyone film in some kind of [thoroughfare] where people would normally be moving — but be for the most part the only people in that space — and then encounter each other through the layering and the editing process.
JR: There’s a moment in that first film that I have watched over and over that I can’t figure out, and now I’m wondering if it isn’t Jaleesa lying down and you putting your hand on her. First, I thought it was the road rising up. And I just kept rewinding it and rewinding it because you can’t really make a human form out of it, and then I’m like, I think that’s a person.
SWE: Yes! You get a million points for noticing that, also that is my heart moment in the whole film because I get to reach across time and space and just hold my friend, you know, and just feel each other across the experience and say, ‘I’m still here. We can’t be in space together, but I am here with you.’
JR: Jaleesa, how did you feel during the experience of filming and after?
JJ: When we started, I felt lost and maybe even slightly resentful, like I don’t want to do anything creative, I don’t want to be here. But then, I saw Sophia, and being around Sophia is always a really grounding experience and I just kind of had a feeling of it’s okay and I can just settle into myself. And so, at first, there are still those moments when I get into the mindset of: you start to skip ahead and plan what you should do. And I have to actively work against that, I have to push that aside and focus on breathing so I can just let my body do whatever it needs to do in the moment. So that initial voice came in Okay Jaleesa, you need to do this and that, and then I had a moment where I just let it go and then I just sort of let my body sink. And that felt nice. You know that feeling when you want to cry, you want to cry so bad but nothing comes out? It was like that. I had got onto the ground and I had that feeling. Sophia and I kept distance but I think back on that moment and I felt embraced. I felt held. That was healing for me [wells up a bit]. Sorry, I didn’t think I was going to get emotional.
JR: Each person in that opening sequence before anyone starts moving — there are just these frames of them standing there — feels so embodied and so self-possessed and so true and so embracing of whatever is going on with them. Some of them feel angry, upset, sad, bereft, powerful…everything. And not only is it okay, it felt like giving us, as viewers, permission to feel whatever we’re feeling. It felt like [we] were peering into their soul in those first frames.
SWE: I asked people to just express what they needed to in that moment, whatever needed to move through them and I asked very specifically that it not be a performance and that it not be for the camera, that it be for themselves. One of the most important things about the first film is that, at the time, there’s lot of people saying, “This is the great unifier experience.” But it’s not the great unifier. It’s the great revealer. People are not having a unified experience in the pandemic and there would be so much privilege in saying “Oh, we’re all united by this, we’re all together now.” I wanted to make sure that the prompt was not directing people into, “express your grief,” or “express your joy,” or “express the thing that I’m assuming that we’re all experiencing here.” Asking for it to be an experience, almost a ritual for each mover to do for themselves and to just have those five minutes for themselves. I just want to see where you are and I trust that something will come out of that collection of experiences being woven together. And that, to me, feels so much more meaningful than trying to put together a message ahead of time and then match that somehow with movement.
JR: So then how did the second film happen?
SWE: When I finished the first film, that was a snapshot in time of the early moments. I just knew that there could be another point where we would need to take another snapshot. This current moment — there’s pandemic fatigue, there’s the profound burnout of the experience continuing, there’s massive societal upheaval — it’s just a different moment now than it was almost a year ago. Not just with the pandemic but with society and social justice and most people I know have had these profound clarifying processes about What am I doing in my life? and Am I doing the thing I want to do? and Am I in the place that I need to be?
I had this dream track — the track that we used — which is by Odetta. She is a truly legendary civil rights activist and folk singer who was a huge figure in the folk revival in the 50s and 60s and was the inspiration for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, all the greats. She was their great. She is emblematic of all these themes that people liked to think had been put to rest with the civil rights movements but were just buried and are erupting and being seen and being reckoned with now. My gut said I need to use this song; this is the song of this particular moment. I was also reaching out to a couple other musicians, ’cause I was thinking No way we’re gonna get licensing to use Odetta’s work. But that was another instance [when] I just reached out to her record company and it turns out that the person who wrote back to me was her daughter. She had read my letter about the project and just said, “We would love to offer this track to you.”
JR: This is a really important moment to say to anyone, especially artists: always ask.
SWE: Always ask.
JR: Sometimes what you think of as someone’s doing you a favor is actually a gift to them. So, always ask. The worst thing anyone can say is Fuck off, no. But that didn’t happen here.
SWE: It didn’t happen. So really this second piece is from her spirit, her profound strength. I felt this mantle to carry her song, which is called “One Grain of Sand.” It was the perfect lyrics for the moment because, you know, we’re all having these individual experiences that feel so overwhelming and we’re all trying to orient in this world. But I personally find a lot of peace in zooming way, way out and saying, “Okay I’m just one of billions and we’re all just floating out in the cosmos and we’re just this little speck, so no matter how intense it feels in this moment, we’re just part of this much bigger story.”
JJ: I know for me, knowing that you’re just a small piece of a much larger web, really rose to the surface for me when I was listening to the song. I just felt like that song made me want to move in a way where I could feel that I was a small person on the surface of a large planet sitting in a vast universe surrounded by many other planets and stars. And something that came to mind for me for the prompt: why don’t we just ask people to go somewhere where they feel like they are a small piece of something much bigger?
JR: They’re very related, these two films — they’re sisters — but they do evoke, at least for me, different feelings. The first one had a lot of isolation and feelings of being alone, which was beautiful because that’s how we’re all feeling. The second has a different, almost maternal, quality, like people being wrapped up together and held and taken care of and nurtured in the same space. How do you do that? How do you co-direct remotely?
JJ: It was a struggle in that we couldn’t just sit in front of the same screen and look at the same thing together at the same time.
SWE: But luckily every choice that Jaleesa made I was like, Yes, that’s the one I feel connected to. So the struggle was never about unity of vision it was just like How do we navigate technological limitations. I love to make work where I set parameters and then I ensure that I’m not going to have control over the finished piece and then to follow wherever the work wants to go. I think the film showed itself to us. It’s just amazing because everyone was dancing to the song so you would see people in these unexpected duets and all different forms of intimacy, from the most maternal to seeming like there was a relationship or a memory in time and they just showed themselves. It was just a slow process of letting go of control.
JR: Jaleesa, in setting up this interview, you mentioned that working on this [project] really shifted something for you.
JJ: When we’re looking at the footage, seeing everyone moving, it was, like, contagious. I submitted footage for this [film] as well but even when I made my footage I didn’t feel fully there. But then going through everyone else’s work, seeing everyone really being there for themselves in those moments, sinking into it. There was one morning when I woke up and was like I’m just gonna move for myself this morning because I felt like it was being drawn out of me, like I needed it after seeing so many other bodies in motion and reaching very vulnerable places. And that morning (I actually chose the Odetta track that morning) when I was moving, I just had this profound moment where I looked at my hands — this is going to sound crazy — and I realized that these are not my hands. These are hands that are full of so many others. And it was like if you could feel in your body all of the blood that’s running through you, all of the other people that are running through you, all the people you come from, all the people you’ve interacted with, it was like in that moment it felt so strong and I just had another crying moment. I just started breaking down in tears and in my movement in being like this — this — is what it means to feel like a grain of sand, to be in your single body, but to feel that your single body contains so many others. Is connected to so many others. And it feels extremely loving and beautiful and also extremely painful all at once. So, that was a transformative moment for me and I haven’t moved the same in my practice since.
It remains to be seen when Sophia will decide to take the next snapshot of our shared human experience, or what the soundtrack to it will be. In the meantime, she is raising funds to support the effort, to be able to compensate the artists involved. Whenever it happens, I have no doubt that it will embody a new phase of the pandemic and will capture, in movement, what many of us are feeling but are unable to express.
Sophia Wright Emigh is a director, director of photography, editor, and movement-maker.
Jaleesa Johnston is an educator and cross-disciplinary artist.