A transgenderqueer choreographer, dancer, and massage therapist, devynn emory is fluent in the language of the body. Well-versed in both classical and contemporary techniques, emory infuses traditional aesthetics of dance with the conceptual and enigmatic charm of performance art. emory’s choreography contemplates the presence and absence of space along with the various bodies that occupy it—awakening a heightened sense of weight as bodies fall and compile, extend and recoil, and flourish in transition.
In their latest piece, this horse is not a home, emory presents a dynamic confluence of movement based on their close relationships with three performers—Margot Bassett, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, and Meghan Milam—while bringing some newer elements to the table, including an 18-foot-long hair extension of their braided tail. I recently had the opportunity to see a rehearsal of this piece and later, to interview emory over tea. emory is currently in residence with New York Live Arts where they will be showing this horse is not a home on February 24th and 25th—find your tickets here.
Lori DeGolyer Do you consider yourself a modern dancer or a performance artist and how do you make the distinction between those classifications?
Devynn Emory This is a conversation topic that I have with a lot of my comrades … . how to define this form we partake in. There’s shifting language right now on how to name it. I suppose I would say I am a contemporary choreographer, if I had to hold an umbrella over me. Modern dance is really classic, which is what I was trained in, lots of Graham, Horton and Release. These are deep in my muscle memory and foundation. I imagine because of this, I hold onto a lot of formalist structures. Add a splash of “experimental dance scene,” “downtown choreographer,” and “performance artist” into the mix and I guess I would call myself a contemporary experimental performing artist? (laughter) The age-old downtown dance question.
LD I noticed in rehearsal last night that you’ll use classical elements like counting and synchronicity, but then you’ll also use contemporary elements like the giant hair extension and a lot of conceptual movement …
DE Yeah my work is often really conceptual, never narrative-based … but it’s never really abstract either. I often do a lot of writing, a lot of imaging. Usually there is a sensation, an element, a texture or a pattern I visualize. This has me exploring and using other mediums that I’m interested in and am influenced by. Most often it doesn’t show up in the work. This time the hair was a simple desire to have the tail that I’ve been growing for the last two years, become very long. It became 18-feet long to be exact. I started working with hair artist Hayden Dunham and she helped me make this vision tangible. Hair is a very new medium for me and it definitely has its challenges. Hayden has an incredible talent, which made things move smoothly.
LD You’re using a lot of different mediums in this piece. How did each of those come about?
DE The vocalization at the beginning that Margot and I create came out of the love and lust for a song that the artist Antony and the Johnsons covers. The song is called “All is Loneliness,” originally by the artist Moondog. The original song is quite complex, and I wanted to do this cover-of-a-cover some justice, so I got us a pedal and an amp and a mic and we played around for a bit. The use of bulky music equipment is also new for me in the context of my choreography. I’ve been in a few bands and messed around in basement shows, but Margot is the beautifully trained vocalist—she’s worked with Meredith Monk and has a wild range of sounds. My vocal training comes from singing in choirs growing up. I want our vocal trainings and music making histories to collide.
LD You’ve said this piece is based off the relationships that you have with your performers. How long have you been working with each of them?
DE I spent time with each of the performers individually trying to understand where our bodies met, and what they had to say to one another. Each relationship is quite rich and different from the other. Jaamil and I have been dancing together in a company called Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia for a few years. We also share a friendship that has fueled a movement vocabulary very specific to the way we interact, which has filtered through this piece. It really appeared in the piece More created by Headlong and the dancers. This is the first time we are exploring that relationship outside of the company context. This language still seems to be in our bodies together. It’s something we are still working out and perhaps working through. I’m curious to see how it changes over time. Margot was one of my first new friends that I met in New York when I moved here. We were both working for Daria Fain, which was also my first gig when I got to town. Margot and I have been pretty much attached at the hip ever since. She’s my New York rock. Meghan and I are friends through both the dance community and the queer community. She’s been in all of my work since I moved here as well—a captivating performer.
All photos courtesy of Christy Pessagno and Julie Mack.
LD So you are working individually with each person, developing separate pieces then meshing them together?
DE Yes, I have been working with each individual separately to find a common movement language and body understanding. I wanted to understand each person in relationship to myself, and how we connect or disconnect. Bodies become so isolated. I learn a lot about the fluid parts of myself through others I’m close to. I have a history of duet-making, but making three duets at once is new. Recently we have been smashing all the material together to understand what the environment is consisting of, what world these bodies belong to. In previous works, I started with structure first—patterns and grids, spatial concerns, construction, design, and mapping of the room. Then I would place the dancers on this map. The movement came last—it was a resonance of the space. I have pretty severe dyslexia, so it was a way for me to feel like I could control the environment—make a safe space that I learned and became familiar with first and foremost. There, my body could relax and finally tell me how it wanted to move within the learned confinements. For this horse is not a home, I turned this structure inside out. I started with the performers first and am still learning what the environment is. I’m pushing myself into deep discomfort, and finding it with the other performers, instead of with my spatial relationships.
LD A lot of the movement in this piece carries a serious feeling of weight—there’s a lot of clinging and pulling and a sense of desperation … . like a wounded horse.
DE A wounded horse?
LD That’s what I was … well let’s talk about the title, this horse is not a home.
DE Well which one do you want to talk about first? (laughter)
LD Well I guess I was putting them together. When I saw the movement, it seemed like this wounded, kind of exhausted horse … . and I put that together with that clinging, that weight of relationships and exhaustion of relationships. But this is obviously my interpretation so we might be going off topic. Just tell me what you’re thinking.
DE I mean I never aim to make work about something. I recently came up with the title after all the movement was generated, and for a while they didn’t seem all that connected; it just felt right. The weight-sharing … . we’ve been working a lot with projecting your body onto another body. Weight has been one way that idea physically manifested … . to see what the circumstances are when you put your body onto someone else’s or are trying to hold someone up. There’s nothing that’s really fake about anything that we do. We carry each other and lift each other. Bodies are heavy if you really give yourself over. Some of the thoughts that have come up from discussions about this weight-sharing are, If I push down, will you rise up to meet me? and, This head is so heavy, can you carry it? I’m interested in intercepting each other’s body states to see what happens. Andrew Simonet, one of the directors of Headlong who witnessed a run-through commented, “It’s as if you were asking someone to respond to your body by doing something to their body but there’s never a response … there’s never a consequence.” This is one truth in the piece, a through-line throughout the work. There’s a cause, and then the body just is.
LD And where did the horse come from?
DE A few years ago Headlong had a residency on farmland. There were these mystical horses with huge sad eyes. It sounds cliché, but I couldn’t bring myself to go to rehearsal because I was in desperate need to connect with these creatures. Most of them were ill, quite old or had been abandoned and rescued and relocated. Rejected.
LD They were still on the land?
DE Yes. I would have to drag myself away from them, and at night I would sneak in over the fence and feed them. I was going through a big transition at that time, and Headlong designed a role for me where I transition into this horse-person. I think I’ve been living inside the skin of that horse-person ever since. That was a really pivotal moment for me. Having a company fully support who I am in my fullness is a gift. The usual path is often, I want you to look like this which maybe looks like this other person which has nothing to do with you but this is the look. I’m pretty interested in trying on different states or versions of myself in performance that may or may not be me in the moment but that I can transform into, and allowing that for my dancers as well. All of this has propelled me to investigate my intrigue in these very specific relationships with these people. I’m curious to try on someone else’s energy for a moment and have them try on mine. This has mostly been my journey.
LD Do you see the movement created with each of these people as a sort of extension of yourself?
DE I think we are extensions of each other all the time. I think I went into rehearsals feeling out how my masculinity was in relationship to these people I’m close with. After one rehearsal, I realized I was exploring the feminine in myself in relation to these people. Soon after, I didn’t care … it was about where our bodies met.
LD So these interactions became a sort of exploration of your gender identity?
DE I mean, it’s one component of my daily interactions with any person. I wouldn’t go as far to say that’s what I’m up to with this work, although it seems like now that I’ve been more open to the public about my identity, people really want me to be making work about it. It’s not so interesting to me as a starting point. It’s an embedded detail that’s there whether I address it or not.
LD You’ve written that your company, devynn emory/beast productions, strives to create space for gender variant bodies on stage. How do you go about doing that?
DE We are in a moment in the timeline of dance-making where we—genderqueer and transgender and transsexual bodies—are carving out space and being more out about our desires and needs for it. We are told in our everyday lives to be ashamed of our bodies. We experience job discrimination, harassment and body dysmorphia. When you are a dancer, and have been honing your craft with the body as your main medium, and constantly in a state of discovery through training and performance, all of it can become quite confusing. For me, I have to trust, just like my body leads me through various styles of dancing, that my body is leading me through various stages of being. My body is leading me down a path of shifting, but aren’t we all shifting all the time? New York has a high concentration of gender non-conforming performers in the contemporary dance scene, one of the reasons I decided to move here, so we can all be close and support each other. It seems to be a topic of discussion as of late. All of my other communities—be it drag, burlesque, or just my every day queer communities—contain a wildly beautiful array of bodies and genders. It’s often unclear to me why contemporary dance is so behind. Check out a panel I was just on called, Transgender in Dance, hosted by New York Live Arts. You can listen to me and a few others talk about it.
LD Thanks for that. How are you feeling about this horse is not a home now?
DE Very ready to share what we have been up to. I’m more excited about this work than any other work I have made previously. I’m thankful to share its earliest form and look forward to gleaning some information from this showing at NYLA, so we can keep revealing and understanding the layers.
devynn emory will present this horse is not a home at New York Live Arts on February 24th and 25th.