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Variable West What does care mean to you, and how does it factor into your practice as a performer and choreographer?
devynn emory Care has almost become an overused word hasn’t it? I’m grateful for the question as I believe the word keeps on insisting on being re-defined as the structures most of us are living within are screaming out for change. In a westernized understanding, care has become a word for the provision of what is absolutely necessary for one to maintain basic needs of health, stability, and protection. In Northern America, this care is not extended to all and this basic birth right is not often given to those who need it most. In capitalism, the framing of care is given to people “who deserve it” which forces people to labor harder to “earn” care, deepening who is idealized as the privileged ones.
Care is what we humans are made of. Water, land to rest on with the knowledge of whose land it is, space to make a relationship with that land and those trees outside our homes. A home. A sensation of security and safety for our bodies and those we love. Time. Time to take care of our bodies and those we love in a preventative model, so that the time of crisis of a deteriorating body devastated by racism, sexism, classism and capitalism entering a hospital isn’t the only time we have to tend to our bodies. Care is tending to our bodies and each others’ in a non-urgent and consistent and steady way. Care is building skill sets amongst us to do so, uncovering this capability within us all. Care is returning home to our own bodies and extending that care to another. Care within my performance and choreography is challenged by the same conundrum—feeling my and our bodies’ deep desire for slow and curious and steady while operating inside of a fast and sometimes extractive and product-centered dance industry.
Care factors into my dance work in that it asks the same question I find in healthcare: how can I build dance community with people who honor the necessity of preventative care, communication, and non-urgency? How can we uncover the capability within us all to stop and extend care to each other, even and especially when it feels impossible to do so?
VW You’ve said that deadbird turned into a way for you to process the grief you experienced as a nurse working on the frontlines of the pandemic. How does your experience as a healthcare worker and an artist connect, collide, or differ?
de I became a full-time registered nurse to support myself as an artist and a healer. I am not an artist who comes from wealth or any external financial support, which is a common way for artists to maintain their practices. It’s important for me to maintain an independent steady income and health insurance to keep myself secure so that I can continue creating my work in an industry with fluctuating support. My creative and healing practices are my lifeline to connection to my own care. My healing work as a massage therapist, medium, and ritual/ceremonial guide has me connected to my body and belief systems for how I imagine care. My work in these realms is an imaginative space for empowerment and education with tools exchanged for understanding one’s own body, dismantling the dichotomy of the healer in a hierarchical expert role.
In the lineage of my Indigeneity, being a healer is an honor, and I hold this with me as I offer care to others. This way of practicing offering spiritual medicine to others helps me balance the care I provide in a hospital setting, which is not often as supportive as one needs, and sometimes is reflective only of the strength of their insurance. It’s also important for me to say that being a nurse is also an incredible honor. I began studying this form of medicine and got this science degree because I believe, when utilized appropriately, it can be exactly what a body needs. I believe in the balance of the multiple forms and both my healing and nursing practices and performance work strive to find this balance. Understanding how the body works and how to care for its resilience and deterioration, as well as offer support during big bodily transition, is my calling as a person who lives in an in-between space within my own body as a trans and mixed-race person.
VW In a scene in deadbird, you tell the medical mannequin “if I was a structure, I’d be a bridge.” Can you elaborate on why that structure resonates with you?
de Since I was a child, I have had the ability to communicate with multiple planes. I haven’t always understood this to be unique. This space in between earth-side and another is exquisite. I’m grateful to sense, hear, and see this liminal space as it allows me to support those who are transitioning into another existence in hospice care or call in peoples’ guides. It offers me direct communication with my ancestors, and my own guides. As a transgender person, I live with an embodiment of a multitude of energies, and as a mixed-race person I experience the stretch of my body within another binary. I’m not surprised end of life care and mediumship is where I’ve landed. This bridge between locations is a familiar home for me.
VW How does physical touch and contact factor into your work, and how has that changed in the pandemic?
de Physical touch is a huge part of my private practice, sage massage. This practice utilizes dual degrees in “western” massage and “eastern” bodywork. I shut down this practice in the pandemic, and have yet to re-open it as I want the practice to remain as safe as possible. Because I’m a massage therapist, therapeutic touch has always been naturally incorporated into my nursing care, as most of my patients are struggling with poor diagnostics and declining comorbidities (having multiple ailments at the same time). Touch is, of course, quite valuable in hospice care. This care is not taught in nursing school however, and limited time keeps we nurses moving fast without much space to slow down enough for touch. Hospice care increased when my unit became a COVID unit and we all worked to offer as much supportive care as possible to the patients (with the absence of their families due to visitor restrictions). As challenging as this work is, I often hear from others that having no touch due to complete isolation is also very challenging. In this way, I’m grateful for the physical care I have been able to offer to people at the end of their life in this time.
VW You’ve said that you think your life purpose, or one of them, is to help people learn about what our bodies go through when they die, but before we’re near death. Why do you think that lesson is so important?
de Yes, this is a big calling in my work. I think it’s an important practice because in the hospital, I witness—head-on and nonstop—that the western medical field and most people in the United States do not prepare for the process of death and dying until we are in the crisis of it. I invite us all to prepare together for our end of life experience and honor our bodies and one another’s as we transform back into the elements and other planes.
My work invites us to honor deathways (culturally sensitive pathways to navigate the realities of physical death) as much as we pay attention to anti-racism work, gender equity, wealth redistribution, and the debt disaster because radical death work actively dismantles these other oppressions as a way to validate cultural and social life among marginalized groups.
I am called to analyze how mourning and burial rituals have changed over time along the lines of race, class, gender, ability/disability, religion, and sexuality. As a hospice nurse and end of life medium I want my performance work to serve as a tool for consciousness-raising around death so that we may have more grounded knowledge for how to tend to each other. I see my performances as facilitation; I aim to de-center the “healer as hero” archetype, and to instead doula the re-centering of each of us as a healer for one another. Focusing on preventative care, honesty, touch, proximity, listening, reciprocity, ceremony, chemically responsible burials, and ancestry, we work towards being in right-relation to each other and the earth. I’m invoking a life practice to approach death. I’d like to both respect my multiple degrees and certificates and also utilize them to be in the movement of each of us finding our way back to our bodies outside of the systems that govern them so that we may all hold each other as we transition from this plane.
VW How does your body work practice integrate with your art practice?
de I can’t talk about integration without mentioning that the intersection and layering of oppressions and traumas in this pandemic have required me to integrate. Pandemics are caused by socioeconomic disparities, racism, and fear, causing segregation and hierarchy. As an Indigenous person, when I place my ear on the earth to listen, these truths are loud. As an antidote to my own internal separations, I integrate myself to indigenize our cultured approach to death and dying, like a braid: I bring my ceremony into my nursing, I bring my nursing into my dancing, my dancing into my bodywork, my bodywork into my ceremony. I grieve oppression by bringing dignity into the hospital; I dance about death to call us all forward; I dance with other bodies because I cannot do this work alone. I will, at some point, myself, die. I weave ceremony into everything because everything I choose now must be ceremony.
VW What can visitors expect from can anyone help me hold this body when it’s performed in at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA)?
Participants of the tour of deadbird and can anybody help me hold this body to PICA can expect (1) an invitation to self-stream the dance film, deadbird, and an archived conversation between me and a dear kindred Okwui Okpokwasili to deepen their context around the dance piece; (2) an invitation to visit the in-person can anybody help me hold this body public grief altar in the back lot of PICA to make an offering for all we’ve lost in these layered pandemics, or make an altar at home; and (3) an invitation to document their offering to our online archive so that everyone has access to this grief practice, from wherever they are. Participants can expect to take slow time with this project, to engage with its parts and be present to what comes up in their body as they do. They can expect to engage with grief in many forms, and be in community with others who need to grieve right now, too. deadbird is a dance film, but really neither deadbird nor can anybody help me hold this body are “performances.” They are both invitations. First, a shared question: how can we talk about and feel about death before the moment of crisis? Then, a shared grief space: how can we take our time together now to find honorable ways to transition and grieve?
Sponsored by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA).
Each Sponsored Connection is a pairing of two interviews. Read the interview with Ori Gallery co-founder Maya Vivas.