Devynn Emory’s “deadbird” — a duet for Emory and a mannequin — deals with grief, envisioning “an ideal care team for a body who’s passing.”
By Siobhan Burke
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).
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