Emma Jayne Park – choreographer, dancer, orator, writer and associate artist of the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival – is a self-professed cultured mongrel, who ‘just likes to move’. If you haven't seen any of her work, you are in for a treat when you do! This radiant bundle of energy is no stranger to using the arts for the exploration of delicate and stigmatised issues, but this time, engaging in the art of conversation, she shared how her experience of living through cancer has shaped her thinking about the right to health. 

Emma lost the physical capacity to do what she lives and loves, dancing, moving and performing, to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015. ‘To deal with the stress’, she had to find alternative ways to identify, express herself and maintain some form of independence. Over the six months of chemotherapy, resulting in a low immune system and restricted visits from friends and family, her ‘motivation died’. ‘I couldn't dance six hours a day as therapy’, she said smiling, so to keep her sane she started to write stories, poetry and most prolifically haikus (one every day for the last two years in fact). She cheerily admit that looking back, some make no sense but no matter, as they were outlets that helped navigate the ‘isolation’. 

This haiku is constructed of verbatim quotes from Emma's experience:

Identity, gone.

Didn't feel like myself.

Do not trust my skin.

She spoke of the ‘exceptional’ level of care she received in treatment, contrasting with the allocated 18 months she was told she would recover in by following a ‘formula that worked for others’. Emma, described her experience of the personable specialists vs. the red tape of the overworked nursing and NHS staff who played crucial roles in validating or invalidating which stage she was meant to be at in her recovery. In remission, she was refused benefits due to a capability assessment which divulged that she was able to cross her legs! A born performer, whose whole identity has come into question by a potentially fatal disease, is expected to recover in 18 months because now she is physically ‘well’ but admits feeling the worst she’s ever felt. Why is it that we seem to separate physical and mental health when they are inextricably linked?

With this in mind, looking to the future, Emma seeks to bring performance to those who are alone and restricted due to their health. Using dance theatre as a vehicle for change, Emma plans to infiltrate the right to health by proving the right to art, even in times of isolation. Bringing the benefits of connecting with creativity into the homes of those who are suffering is a vital and invaluable way to enrich recovery and is a means of catharsis. Her mission is to communicate with people on their own terms regardless of circumstance, to empower people physically, mentally and emotionally. Watch this space!

by Rosalind Roux

 

Emma Jayne Park is the artistic director of Cultured Mongrel Dance Theatre, which acts to drive the dance theatre sector as a vehicle for social change through making uncompromising socio-political work and communicating with people on their terms, regardless of their circumstances.