Physician-Choreographer Brings Health Care Workers' Pandemic Realities to the Screen

Full Circle dancer Misty Yackshaw is both a choreographer and a physician. This dual identity led to the creation of DISSONANCE, a dance work for film that makes vivid the early pandemic experiences of health care workers. Faced with an unknown enemy and working within a system unprepared, doctors and nurses fought to save lives under extreme conditions and surrounded by tragedy. Yackshaw interviewed doctors and nurses around the country about those extraordinary first months and about the lingering impacts they feel. Embodied by Full Circle dancers, their words come to life, helping viewers more fully perceive and understand experiences that will have lasting consequences. Created with a physician's knowledge and an artist's heart, DISSONANCE is dedicated to our health care workers, heroes but also humans.

Photo Credit: Aster Lobel

Behind the Work with Choreographer Misty Yackshaw MD

It was hard to get excited about anything in 2020, but by early November I felt settled enough with the pandemic and life felt stable on that front. It was Thursday and the season opener of Grey’s Anatomy was finally upon us! (I am a physician and medical shows are a guilty pleasure of mine – ER, Chicago Med, Grey’s Anatomy, you get the picture.) I grabbed a cat and a glass of wine and got cozy. The opening showed “APRIL 2020” in bold letters and the audience was thrust into the chaos and fear of a hospital where everything felt threatening and unknown. Within 30 minutes I was crying and felt incredibly anxious.

Before the hour ended, the premise for DISSONANCE was established in my brain and I was thinking about what steps to take to make it happen. Every once in a while, an idea arrives from somewhere and it feels important. You get a gut feeling about it and you know it’s right. I felt that level of compulsion about this project. There was no choice about it. It was happening.

Over the following month, I interviewed 9 doctors and nurses from across the country about their experiences living and working during the pandemic. All of them work in hospitals and several of them work on critical care units, often transformed into “COVID units”. Some experienced racial slurs related to the pandemic, many were quickly becoming depressed and anxious, and most were experiencing frustration, fear, heartbreak and loneliness. (For those starting to lose sleep and develop anxiety, how were they realistically and quickly supposed to find someone to treat them so they could continue working effectively? That can take months when you aren’t working 14+ hour days.) Another almost universal sentiment expressed was that it felt good to talk about it. I knew going into this project that validation was at the core of what I hoped to accomplish. Acknowledging what is happening and thereby validating someone’s experience can be critical to moving through it. And truthfully, I worry about the future mental health of our frontline workers and healthcare providers. Nothing about the past year has been normal and trauma abounds.

Once the interviews were done, choreography and filming came easily enough. The cast and crew made safety allowances for COVID. I taught all choreography virtually and the dancers and I exchanged videos for rehearsing. There were no large group sections and partnering was done through a barrier. Editing was done over email. In short, we followed the spirit of 2020 where there were new methods and protocols for doing almost everything. What didn’t change was the joy I took in creating something with like-minded people. It was like finding home again. Something normal in the chaos.

My hope for DISSONANCE is that as many frontline workers and healthcare providers as possible see it, with the goal of giving them even just a little validation. I also hope it serves as a reminder of what we’ve come through thus far. The workers need to know that we still see them, long after the cheering has stopped and the vaccines have been distributed. Even when COVID feels like it is gone, some of them will carry this trauma with them. And we need to be there for them in whatever way we can. And as with any art, I hope you t