New York, NY
Death is not an equalizer. It signals and expands inequalities. This is the sentiment that began the livestream of devynn emory’s deadbird.
deadbird + can anybody help me hold this body? is a three-pronged project involving a film, an online archive, and a series of public grief altars accompanying each screening. The entire venture is a reflection on emory’s time as a COVID-19 hospice nurse and the American aversion to grief, death, and bodies in transition. emory, whose previous work skews experimental and niche, has quickly become one of the dance world’s most discussed artists.
Perhaps it is the way emory brings their whole self into the piece. deadbird draws on every aspect of emory’s identity: nurse, ceremonial guide, dancer, bodyworker. Their transness, their indigenous ancestry, their relationship with their late grandmother—all of these elements are present throughout. emory does not have a neat brand. They insist, subtly, on being seen for all their parts. Maybe after a year of isolation, deprived of the luxury to compartmentalize ourselves, we are ready to hold emory’s complexities.
Before the screening of the piece in March, Danspace hosted a conversation between emory and Okwui Okpokwasili. The tone of the pre-show talk was somber and gracious; both performers are artistically invested in grief, and their conversation wandered from the spirit realm to structural racism, all with the same earnest tone.
So I was surprised when the film began with a very different kind of conversation between emory and Manny the Mannequin. Manny, we learned, is a nursing school dummy made of plastic, with detachable parts. They think being a nursing dummy is alright (better than standing still in a retail window for days), but if they could choose, they would rather be a folding chair. “I want to hold bodies,” they say, as emory carries the jumble of limbs that constitute Manny’s form.
Watching emory move with this mannequin reminds us that dance is not limited to the stage or studio. In another scene, Manny lies fully assembled on a steel table as emory makes a series of gestures and swipes across their form. It's a mesmerizing mix, reminiscent of reiki and Trisha Brown’s Primary Accumulation (1972)—floaty and weighted, precise and swinging. Maybe at its best, dance is simply care for the body.
As much as deadbird is about death, it is also about survival. Musing on their background in the pre-show talk, emory mentioned their multiple degrees in bodywork and nursing. This is the financial reality of dance artists everywhere: piecing together a quilt of jobs over a lifetime. Some would call these survival jobs, but for emory, they are simply another facet of their movement through the world. Still, watching the film, it is impossible to forget that dance performance alone cannot sustain a life.
The rest of the film alternates between vignettes contrasting emory and Manny’s bodies, and series of parody talk show interviews. The first and second interviews cover people who have had near-death experiences—one was a man who had been resuscitated after an aneurysm and the other was a woman with a terminal diagnosis of dementia. Both took comfort in their respective visions or delusions of the other side. This pleasure is what Western medicine wants us to fear. Pathologized bodies—trans, queer, sick, dying—are not supposed to enjoy their ‘disease.’ emory’s talk show is by turns voyeuristic and loving, but it digs into the transitions we don’t want to see.
The last conversation starts like the others, then takes a turn in the middle of the introduction. The mannequin gives nothing away, but emory’s attitude signals a shift: something is gravely wrong. They wave their hands at the camera as it clatters to the floor, then rush to kneel by the figure’s chair.
“Aren’t you a little young to be here by yourself?” they ask, and suddenly the mannequin is someone I know. The final guest, voiced by Calvin Stalvig, is cagey, queer, and evidently dying. They begin a heartbreaking monologue in voiceover. “Macaroons, found pieces of leather, cherry cough drops, lavender, peppermint shampoo, bodega shots of whiskey, pink tutus …” It’s a long, looping list of things they like: “Ring Pops, Pop Rocks, the way you’re looking at me, attention, attention, attention.”
“Keep talking,” emory prompts, and the person repeats with wavering stamina. emory continues to listen, attentive but keeping their distance. Doom sets in—the strange suspense of knowing someone will die and not knowing when. But when you want to look away, emory is still there, waiting.
When the end finally comes, it is not an ending. The guest’s death is one transition among many, as emory carries their body through various backgrounds and out into the forest.