Transcript, Episode 105: The Dance World Responds to the Ukraine Crisis

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in today’s episode, we’re going to depart from our usual format a bit. We wanted to devote some significant time to a discussion of, first of all, how the dance world is responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because the cultural response to this crisis has been huge and swift, and since ballet is one of Russia’s chief cultural exports, a lot of it has involved the dance world. And then we want to have a broader conversation about a perennial question that this moment has brought to the fore again, which is, what is the artist’s responsibility during a time of political crisis?

So the way this episode is going to go is we’ll begin with a regular headline rundown of non-Ukraine related dance news, just to make sure we address other noteworthy stories from the past week. Then we’ll have a second Ukraine-specific headline rundown, a look at all the ways this war has been impacting the dance community. And that will open up into a bigger discussion of the artist’s role at a moment like this. I hope that makes sense.

Actually, before we do that, I do want to quickly plug the new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our exclusive audio interview series, which is coming out this Saturday, March 5th on Apple Podcasts. It features the wonderful and incredibly knowledgeable dance historian Lynn Garafola, talking about her new biography of the choreographer and teacher Bronislava Nijinska, who is the sister of Nijinsky, and is one of dance history’s unsung heroes. I mean, unsung primarily because she was female, and Nijinsky’s sister. It’s a fascinating conversation. Lynn was generous enough to indulge all of my curiosities. I hope you’ll check it out on Apple Podcasts on Saturday. We have that link for you in the show notes as always. And by the way, Lynn recently wrote a piece for Arts Meme talking about Nijinska’s deep ties to Ukraine, which is an especially moving read right now. We have that for you in the show notes as well.

Okay, so now it’s time for our first dance headline rundown. We’re doing all of our non-Ukraine related news first. Here we go.

Amy Brandt:
An Asian-American dancer was attacked in an apparent hate crime in lower Manhattan while he was on his way to perform at an off-Broadway theater. He suffered a bruised eye and was kicked multiple times. The dancer has not been identified, but Deadline reports that he is a company member with Yip’s Dragon Style Kung Fu and Lion Dance, based in Chinatown.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s a horrifying story. The theater the dancer was heading to is the Public Theater, and we have linked to an article that includes their full statement about the attack in the show notes.

In much more hopeful news, last week saw the launch of the Great Dance Shoe Giveaway. The creative reuse center of Materials for the Arts worked with The Joyce Theater and Karen Brooks Hopkins, who’s the former president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to distribute 11,000 pairs of donated dance shoes to hundreds of New York City-based dancers, dance organizations, and public schools. The giveaway was celebrated last Tuesday in Long Island City, Queens with a “golden shoestring” cutting, followed by performances by flamenco and Mexican dance companies. And distribution of these shoes is actually ongoing, just until supplies run out. So we’ve included a link in the show notes where arts organizations and public schools with dance programming can schedule an appointment.

Amy Brandt:
That’s a lot of shoes!

Margaret Fuhrer:
A lot of shoes.

Amy Brandt:
Scottish Ballet has announced that it is cutting ties with oil company BP. It says their partnership with the oil giant, no longer “aligns with the company’s green action plan,” which is to be carbon neutral by 2030. This follows a protest outside the Theater Royal during COP26 in Glasgow. It’s one of several arts organizations shedding its relationship with fossil fuel companies in the UK.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I wonder if we’ll be seeing more of this kind of news. It does seem like the Ukraine crisis has made it even more clear that we as a species have to start prioritizing renewable energy.

There was more promotion news this week out of New York City Ballet: Harrison Ball, Jovani Furlan and Peter Walker were all made principal dancers. Those promotions came after the recent retirements of principals Ask la Cour and, just this past Sunday, Gonzalo Garcia. Amar Ramsar is also leaving for good in the spring, after being temporarily fired and then reinstated following that photo sharing scandal. So, congratulations to Harrison and Jovani and Peter; I’m eager to see this new generation of talent of the company get more opportunities.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, it is really a whole new company. By next year, it’ll look very different.

A.I.M executive director Sydnie Liggett-Dennis has been named to Crain’s Notable Black Leaders list. The list recognizes 105 talented and accomplished Black individuals whose professional and communal achievements enhanced New York city and the lives of its inhabitants. So, congratulations, Sydnie.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, big congrats! What a month it’s been for A.I.M, my goodness.

Amy Brandt:
Totally.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The new family dance competition series “Come Dance With Me” has set a premiere date. Created and executive produced by LL cool J and Chris O’Donnell, and featuring a judging panel that includes Jenna Dewan, Dexter Mayfield and Tricia Miranda—which, my gosh, what a team—the show will debut on CBS on Friday, April 15th. It follows young, talented dancers as they compete alongside their untrained family members, which—I’m all in for this show. I mean, especially with that judging panel.

Amy Brandt:
I feel like this is something that started during the pandemic. I could feel like I saw so many TikTok videos of kids and their families putting on amateur dance hour and stuff like that. Anyway.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The 15 year old on TikTok discovering that whenever they put their mom in the video, the video went viral. Yeah. [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
I’d be excited to see it. The Brooklyn Academy of Music has announced its spring season. The lineup, which is quite international in scope, includes Brazilian dance group Suave, which will perform Cria in March; the American premier of German choreographer Sasha Waltz’s In C in April; the annual Dance Africa festival in May; and English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle in June. Quite a lineup.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I feel like I’m the last dance writer alive who has yet to see Akram Khan’s Giselle. So I’m very curious to finally get to see that.

The Dancing Grannies, the senior dance group that suffered four casualties during the tragic attack on a holiday parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin last year, is preparing to make a comeback. The group, which has welcomed nearly 20 new “grannies in training,” will dance in the Milwaukee St. Patrick’s Day Parade. And the Grannies did walk in the Franklin Christmas Parade to honor those they had lost, but the St Patrick’s Day event will be their first performance since the Waukesha attack. It sounds like their St Patrick’s Day routines were actually choreographed by Virginia Sorenson, the group’s founder, who died at Waukesha. So it’ll be an especially poignant moment.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, that’s so sad, but I’m glad that they’re coming back.

Longtime San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten has announced she will be retiring from the company in April after 20 seasons. She will focus on her family and also pursue her leadership opportunities in the arts. Sarah is the founder and artistic director of Tahoe Dance Camp, a nonprofit that she created during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yet another ballerina retirement, yet another roster change as SFB says goodbye to one director and hello to a new one.

Amy Brandt:
Right? Seriously.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The end of an era. Speaking of end of an era, friends of Clement Crisp, the dance critic who wrote for The Financial Times for more than 60 years, are reporting that he has died. Crisp was unabashedly irreverent to the end. That’s a huge loss.

Amy Brandt:
Rounding out this first headline rundown is the news that the 2022 Dance Teacher Award nominations are now open. If you know an outstanding educator who deserves recognition, head to dance-teacher.com by March 31st to submit your nomination. We have that direct link in the show notes for you too.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. So now we’re going to move on to our second headline rundown. This one is for all of the dance news stories that are related to the Ukraine crisis.

Amy Brandt:
First up, former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Laurent Hilaire has resigned from his post as artistic director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He took the position five years ago, but told the AFP that, “I am departing with a heavy heart, but the context no longer allows me to work with peace of mind.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s major.

Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky left Moscow and the ballet he was in the process of creating for the Bolshoi Ballet last week, after Russia commenced its invasion of Ukraine. The ballet was supposed to have its premiere on March 30th, but has been postponed indefinitely. Ratmansky is of course a former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, but he grew up in Kyiv and danced there early in his career. Much of his family still lives there. He told the New York Times that he doubts he will return to Moscow while Putin remains president. Ratamansky has also been reposting many dance artists’ statements of support for Ukraine to his Facebook page.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, I was recently at a Miami City Ballet performance on Saturday night, actually, down in Fort Lauderdale, and the artistic director, Lourdes Lopez came out and asked for a moment of silence for his family, because it was his production of Swan Lake that they were putting on.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera House has announced that it is cutting ties with pro Putin artists, according to the New York Times. The Met has a longstanding relationship with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. So this would definitely affect that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Several British venues have also canceled upcoming performances by Russian dance companies. The Royal Opera House called off a planned summer residency by the Bolshoi Ballet; Dublin’s Helix Theater canceled a Swan Lake performance by the Royal Moscow Ballet; and the Northampton Theater canceled performances by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia. We also talked last week about the Kennedy Center’s cancellation of its upcoming Mariinsky Ballet engagement, which was attributed to “multiple factors, principally the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic related conditions.” The other factors do seem a lot clearer now.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Fathom Events, which screens Bolshoi Ballet in cinema throughout the U.S., announced that it has canceled upcoming screenings of Swan Lake and The Pharaoh’s Daughter in response to the invasion. So, cancellations all around.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Maksim Chmerkovskiy a ballroom dancer who is one of the veteran pros on “Dancing with the Stars,” documented his five-day odyssey to escape his native Ukraine for his millions of followers on Instagram. Chmerkovskiy is now an American citizen, but he had been in Kyiv working on the reality competition series “World of Dance UA.” And over the past week, his near-daily dispatches depicted a harrowing journey. He noted that he had witnessed Russian attacks on civilians. Thankfully, he’s now safely in Warsaw, but we’ve included a link to the Washington Post coverage of that story.

Amy Brandt:
Many dancers with ties to Russia are coming out against the invasion. If you’ve followed Alexei Ratmansky’s Facebook feed, or also Alastair Macaulay, the former New York Times arts critic, on Instagram, you can see a lot of these: Natalia Osipova, Mariinsky principal Vladimir Shklyarov, Baryshnikov, Boston Ballet principal Victorina Kapitonova, Nina Ananiashvili, who danced for the Bolshoi for years and is now the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia. The Royal Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov dedicated his performance in Swan Lake this week to the Ukrainian people as well, and made a statement on his Instagram stories. Diana Vishneva made a statement. It’s been interesting to see who’s come forward.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So opening the discussion out a little bit now: As you just heard, many dancers have been speaking out against the invasion. Some artists have also remained silent. And we wanted to talk about what is expected of dance world stars in times like these, especially those stars who do have ties to Russia or Ukraine, and so might be considered more directly related to this conflict. Because it’s true that culture has immense power. The words of cultural luminaries can have a profound impact. And we’ve become used to hearing from a lot of these big dance names regularly, thanks to social media. But some artists usually try to remain outside of politics. And it’s also true that this is a scenario in which speaking out might have severe repercussions for artists with family members or friends who are still living in Russia. So what is the artist’s responsibility at this kind of juncture? It’s such a complicated question.

Amy Brandt:
I know. And it’s been really—you look at the Instagram profiles of some dancers in Russia who are very well known, very famous pop culture celebrities. And I’ve seen a sudden halt to posts starting six or seven days ago, which makes you wonder, it’s unusual.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And what does that mean? And what pressures are they facing? Yeah, I mean, it does seem that many of the celebrities we’ve been hearing from, the ballet world celebrities in particular, are dancers who either are Russian or have danced in Russia, but are now performing elsewhere. They have an international presence. They’re not currently in the country. They have more freedom maybe to speak out. And I’m so grateful to them for doing that. I do think that it has a huge impact on this community.

I think there’s also this sense that yes, art has real power, dance has real power, but there’s also a feeling of hopelessness. Because expressing solidarity with Ukraine, beyond doing that, what can a dancer do? When do you hit the limitations of arts’ abilities? That’s a really difficult thing to reckon with.

Amy Brandt:
There’s an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer this week that interviews two dancers at the Philadelphia Ballet, Oksana Maslova and Aleksey Babayev. Oksana is Ukrainian, Aleksey is Russian; they’re close friends, their families are friends. And she talks about that, about, art can only go so far, it’s not going to save a missile crashing into the building of where my family lives.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I just want to read that quote because it absolutely gutted me. She said, “The art can help people to be more kind, more thoughtful. The art could change the way you act as a person. But the art cannot save my mom from the bomb that is falling right now. I was thinking, how can I help? I cannot. The art cannot help in this way now.” It makes you want to weep.

Amy Brandt:
It does. And I know we’re talking a lot about Russian dancers, but I think there are a lot of Ukrainian dancers, I think we should acknowledge, who are tirelessly putting out information.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes.

Amy Brandt:
Because there’s a lot of misinformation, I hear, happening, as well. English National Ballet’s Katja Khaniukova, I’ve been following her. She’s Ukrainian. She’s been posting a lot of information, news clips, where to donate, organizations. The company was in Chicago last weekend on tour, and she posted pictures from a demonstration in Chicago’s Ukrainian village, protesting the war. She’s doing what she can through her platform and spreading awareness and calling for solidarity. And I think at this point, that’s all you can do.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. What really struck me about that Philly Inquirer story was this idea that the spell of art had been broken. Like, the two dancers talking about how this tragedy is so all-consuming, that they can no longer find real refuge from it in the dance studio, which was formerly a place of solace for them.

I mean, especially those of us making and listening to this podcast, we often do look to, and even depend on, the arts to get us through difficulties. But art alone is just unable to fix crises of the magnitude of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And, I mean, to clarify, I’m not saying that absolves artists from participation in public discourse. Actually I’d argue that the opposite might be true, that when problems are this all consuming, there might be a moral imperative for them to express their views. And of course, it’s always important to fight to protect art and to protect artistic expression. But when it comes to the literal power of art, I mean, this is such a humbling and sobering moment.

Amy Brandt:
It is. It’s also frustrating because dance is so international. I mean, when I was dancing, a huge percentage of the company would be from other parts of the world: Europe, Asia, Russia. And you build those bonds and those friendships and the politics doesn’t matter. And I got that sense from the Philadelphia Inquirer article as well, that there’s just this bewildering—like Aleksey Babayev says, “It’s like fighting war with our own people. It makes no sense to me.” And it’s just tragic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That is one example of the power of art to transcend politics, which is worth thinking about. That is one way that art can be used to fight division in a meaningful way.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

The dancers at the Ukrainian National Ballet are in complete and utter limbo. They’re theater is closed. They are not rehearsing. They don’t know when they will dance again at this point. So when you see all these solidarity statements and everything, it’s wonderful, but we still have to remember that there are artists in that country whose lives have been completely turned up upside down and whose lives are in danger.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm. That’s a really somber note to end on, but we have a lot of links in the show notes to help you learn more about how the dance world is responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We hope you’ll seek those stories out.

That’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Amy Brandt:
Bye everyone.