A Choreographer Who Bridges the Worlds of Dance and Nursing

In the opening scene of the film “deadbird,” the choreographer Devynn Emory assembles a mannequin on the floor of an empty studio, carefully slotting body parts together: arms into torso, lower legs into thighs. As this process unfolds, Emory and the mannequin, in a voice-over, introduce themselves. They converse as equals, no hierarchy between human and object.

“If I was a structure, I’d be a bridge,” Emory says after finishing the assembly, lying side by side with the mannequin and gazing up at the ceiling. Seen from above, the two are mirror images.

In “deadbird,” which will be presented online by Danspace Project from March 31 to April 3, Emory (who uses the pronouns they and them) bridges dimensions of their work that might seem to have little in common: as a dancer and choreographer, and as a registered nurse who often cares for dying patients. But Emory, 40, sees nursing as “not so far away from dancing,” they said in a video interview. “It’s really just another understanding of how the body works.”

Inspired in part by the medical mannequins that Emory encountered in nursing school — lifelike robots that simulate real patients — “deadbird” envisions, in Emory’s words, “an ideal care team for a body who’s passing.”

Last spring, working in the medical-surgical unit of a Manhattan hospital, Emory was thrust onto the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. But even before that period of crisis, the process of creating “deadbird” had become a way of tending to grief outside the pressures of the hospital.

“It’s really been a container for me, even before Covid, to hold space and grieve the lives of the folks that have passed under my care as a nurse,” Emory said. “When Covid hit and everything shut down, I was really unwilling to let the work go.”

Emory had been developing “deadbird” as a live performance with two other dancers for an April 2020 premiere at Danspace. Around the time it was canceled, they began seeing Covid-19 patients, and for a few months, their work as a nurse was all-consuming. Their grandmother, whom they call “the most important person in my life,” died of Covid-19 in May.

In July, Emory finally took a sustained break, spending 10 days at an artist residency in Maine. There, “deadbird” evolved into a film with a smaller cast — “a duet for me and the mannequin,” they said.

For Emory, dance and caring for bodies have long gone hand-in-hand. Alongside a busy career as a choreographer and performer — with artists including Tere O’Connor, Yanira Castro and the Philadelphia group Headlong Dance Theater — they have also practiced massage therapy for the past 20 years, specializing in work with queer and transgender clients. They enrolled in nursing school in 2016 partly for greater financial stability (and Health Insurance).

It was there that Emory became intrigued by patient-simulating mannequins: breathing, blinking, talking machines used for practicing medical procedures. (Emory recalls delivering “a screaming robot baby” from one.) As the only transgender person in the nursing program, they began using the mannequins to lead simulation labs for fellow students, focused on transgender health.

“I found immediate kindredship with them,” Emory said, “because they are these kind of in-between bodies.”

That affinity also related to a less tangible aspect of Emory’s work. “I do a lot of ceremony and ritual work and communicate with the spirit world,” Emory said, explaining that from a young age, they have experienced seeing, hearing and talking to spirits. They found the mannequins “to be closest to that work in a way. Their bodies are really vibrant and resonant and feel quite similar to how it feels when a body is dying and they’re slowly transitioning into another plane.”

In “deadbird,” the mannequin (a simpler model than what Emory used in school) embodies three characters, all of whom are nearing the end of life in some way. Emory alternates between a talk-show host who interviews the characters and a caretaker who offers what each one needs. Sometimes this offering takes shape as a dance, or what Emory calls a “bathing ritual”: a series of swiping, folding, reaching gestures performed over the mannequin’s supine body.

In another kind of bridging, “deadbird” extends offscreen and into outdoor public spaces. At the end of the film, viewers are invited to visit a companion work, titled “can anybody help me hold this body,” a public grief altar that will be set up in four cities, starting with New York (in Prospect Park) and followed by Philadelphia; Portland, Ore; and Los Angeles. Each contains objects connected to a main character in the film.

For people in other areas, the website deadbird.land lists instructions for making an altar of your own. Emory, whose heritage as a mixed-race Indigenous person also informs their work, has conceived of the altars as spaces not only for grieving but also for giving thanks to the land and “to yourself as a resilient living being.”

Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace’s executive director, said the multicity project has led to fruitful dialogue with the institutions and artists involved, a testament to Emory’s guidance.

“Incredible empathy and groundedness and generosity — that’s what interests me about working with Devynn,” Hussie-Taylor said. “I think their capacity for bringing all kinds of people into community is extraordinary.”

In two interviews, Emory spoke about their work leading up to “deadbird,” communicating with spirits and their new job administering vaccines. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

What has it been like to work on “deadbird” during the pandemic?

In August I injured myself pretty badly from lifting so many Covid patients. I’m one of the only nurses on the unit who didn’t get Covid, and we were so short-staffed.

So I’ve been out on leave. The gift of that is I’ve been able to continue working on this show.

Now my performance work is my nursing work is my healing work. They’ve all kind of collapsed into one in this time, which, I can’t believe I’m saying it, but has been a gift of Covid. I was pulled in a lot of different directions before.

Can you talk a bit about your dance background?

I grew up dancing in Philly and went to University of the Arts for my B.F.A. At the time, I hated every minute of it. It was Graham and Horton and Taylor and ballet, ballet, ballet, ballet.

I really didn’t fit into classical dance. I was a ratty little punk, and I was just resistant or something. It’s silly looking back on it, because I’m so grateful for all that formal training.

What do you bring from dance into nursing?

When you come from being really sweaty and gross with other people in a rehearsal process, for an incubated amount of time, you create these little bubbles of intimacy. You’re really getting to know each other’s exact weight and mannerisms and habits.

It creates this heightened understanding of the body that translates quite a bit to nursing for me. I think I have a skill set of really intuiting body language and energetics.

This comes from massage therapy, too. Part of my intake is: Tell me a bit about yourself — your body experiences, any surgeries, injuries, medical conditions. But also spiritually, where are you at? Emotionally where do you hold tension? There’s not really time for that in nursing, but I try to build it in.

Last year at Danspace, before everything shut down, you shared a project called “movement meditation memorials” — pairings of writing and movement that honor people who have died in your care. How did these come about?

That was really the precursor to “deadbird.” When I went into nursing, I wasn’t prepared for how much it would impact me to work with death so often. As someone who has, my entire life, been in communication with spirit, I developed a practice with that — to invite folks into the room or clear folks out of the room. People invite me all the time to do cleansings for their house or talk to loved ones who have passed.

I didn’t understand when I went into Western medicine that this ability would follow me into the hospital.

What did that look like?

I was struck when patients would pass under my care, and then I would come home and suddenly they’d be with me in my house. Or doing post-mortem care, I’d really experience them leaving their body.

I was pretty devastated by how quickly someone would pass, and how I’d have like five more patients to tend to. I wouldn’t be able to take the time I wanted with their body or spirit or family system. So I created “movement meditation memorials,” or “mmm,” to honor the person who had passed.

I first saw the memorials when you posted some on Instagram, back in 2018. I was really moved by them. Why did you want to share them publicly?

In northern America death is a really isolated, siloed experience. And as I’ve learned in the hospital setting, it’s usually one of crisis. People rush to the bedside, and it’s the first time they’ve thought about this person passing away, even if the person has been ill for 15 to 20 years.

So I think “mmm” is a way to be un-alone and start introducing the topic of death way before the moment of crisis. This is maybe why I landed in nursing. I feel like I’ve been put on this planet to help myself and other people learn about our bodies decaying before the moment of crisis, where we are surprised and then dishonored at the end of our lives.

You recently started working at a vaccine center. How is that going?

I can’t believe I’m now part of potentially making some progress on this virus. Yesterday I vaccinated two 99-year-olds. They’re a couple and had never had any vaccine in their whole life. They didn’t believe in vaccines, but they wanted to be part of the solution.

With the previous work I was doing in the hospital, there’s a lot of sorrow. But with this, people are in outfits, they’re so excited. They’re in tears of joy.

Outfits — you mean people dress up?

People have full gowns on, fancy hats. It’s like the first time they’ve left their house since March. It’s a little challenging, because I have to do a whole undressing and unveiling of their arm, but it’s very worth it.

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