Transcript, Episode 106: How Dance Institutions Are Supporting Ukraine

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

Lydia Murray:
And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we are once again going to deviate a bit from our typical format to talk about how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues to create ripple effects throughout the performing arts world. So, like last week, we’re going to start with a headline rundown of non-Ukraine-related news, just to make sure we do address other noteworthy dance stories from the past week. Then we’ll do a second Ukraine-specific headline rundown. After we address all of those top stories, we’ll take a closer look at how art and politics are colliding as cultural institutions try to figure out how to address the crisis. And then we’ll conclude by discussing a Washington Post story remembering how, in 1932, a Ukrainian performance group used dance to help convince people that Ukraine should be free of the Soviet Union—evidence of the real power of “soft power.”

That’s all going to be a lot to talk about. So, let’s get right into our first dance headline rundown, which, reminder, is all the dance news that is not connected to the invasion of Ukraine.

Lydia Murray:
So, for the first time in its history, Scottish Ballet is bringing in intimacy coaches to support dancers performing violent and erotically charged scenes. The move comes ahead of their world premiere of The Scandal at Mayerling, which features themes of violence and sexual obsession.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, Dance Magazine did that fantastic piece last year about how intimacy coordinators could help the dance world, and it’s great to see companies actually bringing them in now. I think I heard that The National Ballet of Canada also hired an intimacy coach for its for production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Hopefully the trend continues.

The Hallmark Channel has greenlit A Holiday Spectacular, which is a new Christmas film featuring the Radio City Rockettes. The story is set in 1958 and follows an heiress who puts her high-society wedding plans on hold to join the Rockettes. And the real-life Rockettes will be featured throughout the film in various performance numbers and speaking roles. I would be remiss not to note that this film also stars Ann-Margaret, although it’s not clear what role she’ll be playing.

Lydia Murray:
I love Ann-Margaret.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep. The best.

Lydia Murray:
Channing Tatum’s production company Free Association is launching a new division, FA Live, which will focus on creating, producing, and distributing live entertainment. The company’s first project will be in partnership with Lionsgate on a high concept dance show inspired by Step Up, which is the studio’s global dance franchise.

Margaret Fuhrer:
A live Step Up show? Color me intrigued. And it sounds like the new live show is going to be choreographed by the same team that did the whole Magic Mike franchise, Alison Faulk and Luke Broadlick. Very curious to see what that turns out to be.

Lydia Murray:
Sounds exciting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, Fox has officially confirmed that “So You Think You Can Dance” will be back this summer, with auditions currently underway. But the season’s judging panel will not include show co-creator Nigel Lythgoe. Lythgoe said on Twitter that he had “not been asked” to judge. It sounds like it was not his choice. And there’s also no word yet on whether longtime host Cat Deeley will be returning, so it’s shaping up to be a very different kind of “So You Think” season

Lydia Murray:
It’s like shades of “Dancing with the Stars,” I feel, in terms of this hosting controversy.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Totally.

Lydia Murray:
KPOP, The Musical is eyeing a fall Broadway run. The show is now expected for fall 2022 according to an Equity casting notice.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Finally, it’s coming to Broadway! Because this musical had its first performances in what, 2017? Is that right?

Lydia Murray:
It’s been a while.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s been a while. Excited to see that.

Lydia Murray:
And of course I am. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
The Vail Dance Festival has announced its artists in residence for this summer—and yes, that’s “artists,” plural. Dancer and choreographer Caili Quan, formerly of BalletX, and New York City Ballet soloist Roman Mejia will duo in the position. Both will be involved in a few new works at the festival, including a dance that Quan will create for Mejia.

Lydia Murray:
Two incredible artists.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lydia Murray:
And the Denver-based dance organization Cleo Parker Robinson Dance has received a $4 million grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. It’ll allow the company to expand from its current headquarters.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s fantastic news. I’m excited to hear more details about that, which they’ve promised soon.

Big Broadway casting news,: Pamela Anderson, who’s best own for her work on “Baywatch,” will make her Broadway debut in the revival of Chicago next month. She’ll be playing Roxie Hart. She said that she’s been a fan of Bob Fosse’s work for a long time, and that this role is a dream of hers. Very curious to see what she will bring to it.

Lydia Murray:
Tony Walton, the prolific Broadway and film production designer who collaborated frequently with Bob Fosse, has died. Walton won three Tony awards and then also an Oscar for his work on All That Jazz. He was 87 years old.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. That concludes our non-Ukraine headline rundown. Now we’re on to Ukraine-related dance news.

Lydia Murray:
Several non-Russian dancers have recently departed Russian companies due to the war in Ukraine. One is the British dancer Xander Parish, who had been a principal with the Mariinsky Ballet since 2017, and became the company’s first British dancer when he joined in 2010. The Italian dancer Jacopo Tissi left his position as a principal with the Bolshoi following the invasion.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, there are a few other departures too, and that’s especially significant and especially sad news because it was only recently that Russian companies even began welcoming non-Russian dancers. It feels like a big setback to that progress.

The independent Russian television outlet TV Rain went dark last week under intense pressure and scrutiny from the Kremlin. But before going off the air, the station aired a recording of Swan Lake in a pointed reference to Russian history. Back in 1991, Soviet state TV broadcast Swan Lake on a loop, while the coup that helped bring on the end of the Soviet Union was underway. Swan Lake had also been aired on repeat following the deaths of previous Soviet party leaders, while new party leaders were being selected. So, Soviet citizens knew that Swan Lake meant turmoil. And referencing that history, that’s a bold and kind of a brilliant move on TV Rain’s part.

Lydia Murray:
Indeed.

Russian Ballet Theatre is dedicating its performances to peace, but still receiving online backlash due to its name. Its dancers come from nine countries, including both Russia and Ukraine, and the company’s name refers to the Vaganova technique and the tradition of Russian ballet, not nationalist sentiment. Still, they’ve received negative online feedback. And as a result, they’re now using the name RBTheatre.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, using “Russian” in your stage name, that used to be a kind of marketing tactic in the ballet world. But now it’s created these complicated situations for multiple dance organizations.

A Ukrainian dance group in Chicago is leading virtual dance classes for children in hiding in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities under Russian attack. Teachers at Chicago’s Ukrainian Cultural Center started hosting the classes on Zoom after being contacted by the humanitarian aid group U-Care. So, a little ray of light in all that darkness.

Lydia Murray:
Every ray of light here is more than welcome.

Ukrainian dancers are finding refuge in Bucharest and other theaters across Europe. Six ballet dancers who recently fled Ukraine are now dancing with the Romanian National Opera. And theaters and companies and several other countries, including France, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, for example, are supporting Ukrainian refugee dancers by offering shelter, company class or practice space.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, like the Kyiv City Ballet, which was on tour when the war broke out. And now, Théâtre du Châtelet has actually offered them a temporary residency in Paris. It’s really moving. We were talking about small rays of light—those are some larger rays.

Lydia Murray:
So powerful. I just can’t imagine what it must be like to be on tour and then to find out that your country is under attack.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s difficult to wrap your head around.

So, there ends our second headline rundown. And as several of its items show, cultural organizations that have any kind of connection to this crisis are facing some big questions right now. So, last week we talked about how artists themselves were responding to the invasion of Ukraine. In our first discussion segment today, we’d like to talk about how, as the global condemnation of Russia’s actions grows, arts organizations have been responding.

Many dance institutions in the United States have issued statements of support for Ukraine and put out lists of resources for those looking to help. As we mentioned, several companies and schools, particularly in Europe, have offered housing or employment to Ukrainian dancers. Then, in a different vein, some institutions have also begun asking Russian artists to formally distance themselves from Putin as a prerequisite for performing. There was a story about this last week in The New York Times, and to clarify it focused primarily on the worlds of classical music and opera, but there are implications here for the dance world as well.

All of these actions are even more remarkable when you consider that many of these organizations have previously tried to sort of stay above the political fray. So, what should be expected of the arts institutions who find themselves in the middle of this politically charged situation?

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, first of all, it’s wonderful to see the dance world coming together to help dancers in need at this time. But yes, the situation in Ukraine is a stark reminder that politics and art are intertwined despite continued arguments from some fans and patrons to keep them separate.

So, Russians face serious risks for speaking out against the regime or for even referring to the war as a war or as an invasion. And some of the consequences include years long-prison sentences and being banned from their professions and possibly worse. Human Rights Watch has published a detailed explanation of the laws that were recently enacted to suppress dissent, and predictably, it is grim.

One of the challenges for arts administrators outside Russia is determining what to expect of Russian artists right now, as Margaret introduced this with. Some are asking them to denounce the war in order to perform while others are not. In one example from the Times piece, a 20-year-old Russian pianist named Alexander Malofeev had a recital performance in Vancouver canceled. He had made no statements about the war at that time and had no known ties to Putin. The founder of the recital series released a statement essentially saying she didn’t want to present any Russian artist unless they were prepared to publicly speak out against the invasion. And she also framed it as concern for the artist’s safety in anticipation of protests in or around the concert hall.

And the issue of concern for the artist’s safety also arose with regard to the Russian violinist Vadim Repin, who had been scheduled to perform with the Annapolis Symphony in Maryland. The Orchestra’s executive director, Edgar Herrera, mentioned wanting to avoid putting the artist in an uncomfortable position since he was choosing to remain apolitical. But Herrera also admitted that the Symphony was concerned that hosting a Russian artist might hurt their image and alienate donors.

So, some questions being raised are, should artists be required to denounce the war? Should only the artists with known close ties to Putin, like Anna Netrebko, be asked to speak out? Is it the organization’s place to judge artists on their political allegiances? And if so, where does it end? Some people have expressed concern that this could descend into modern-day McCarthyism. And if organizations are largely concerned about optics and money here, are there better ways to protect those things without pushing artists to jeopardize their safety, their careers, and potentially those of their loved ones?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I thought it was interesting that The Times piece also talked about another institution, the Cliburn in Fort Worth, that sort of did the opposite of the institutions you just cited, Lydia: it decided to pointedly invite 15 Russian-born pianists to audition for its 2022 Cliburn Competition. It cited explicitly this Cold War tradition of cultural exchange during a time of political crisis, which is rooted in the idea that art has a unique power to transcend deep political divides. In the 1960s, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre were going to Russia, the Bolshoi was coming to the United States. Multiple books have been written about those exchanges and the real power of that kind of cultural diplomacy.

So yeah, what are we risking when we artists and companies to take sides, especially when, as you said, Russian artists could face very real repercussions for doing so? Those are really complicated questions. I know it sounds like I’m taking a side here, but I don’t mean to take a side—I’m very conflicted about all this too.

I also think it’s important to say once again, as you started to say too, Lydia, that arts administrators are facing enormous pressures coming from various directions, and leaders of these organizations are not geopolitical experts. Most of them have no experience to draw on here. So, essentially, everyone is in agreement that Putin’s acts should be condemned. It’s just a question of, yeah, what should that look like in the art world?

We’ve linked to the New York Times piece, which is excellent. Pointe magazine also did a really good story about the ways both companies and artists have been affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we’ve got that for you in the show notes too.

Okay. Finally today, we wanted to highlight a piece that ran in the Washington Post recently, remembering a historical moment that feels particularly resonant right now. In 1932, the Ukrainian Chorus and Ballet toured the United States. And one of the things the group was trying to do on that tour was to convince Americans that Ukraine, which had fallen to the Soviets in 1921, should in fact be an independent country—it used music and dance as evidence of the uniqueness of Ukrainian culture. So, we’ve talked a lot about the contemporary use of dance as activism and protest, but here’s an example from the more distant past illustrating dance’s power to address injustice.

Lydia Murray:
So, 1932 was the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, and commemorative events were held all year throughout the U.S. And one was a multi-city tour by the Ukrainian Chorus and Ballet. And the goal was to use Ukrainian folk dance and choral music to make American politicians and the American public aware of Ukraine’s culture and movement for independent statehood. The two artists who led this tour were Alexander Koshetz and Vasile Avramenko. Koshetz was a choir director and arranger, and Avramenko was a choreographer. They had very different personalities and eventually found themselves at odds with each other. Koshetz was highly trained and disciplined while Avramenko was self-taught and maybe not quite so disciplined. But they both wanted to convince North Americans that Ukraine was an independent nation that should not be under Soviet rule.

And the work they produced together was successful. Critics and audiences were impressed by the music and the dancing, and the effort was instrumental in spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture. And broadly, their work was also to reinforce a sense of cultural pride among Ukrainians. Both of these men led fascinating lives and are revered for spreading Ukrainian art throughout the world. Avramenko had some difficulty in managing finances, but he choreographed and taught for years, even branching into film. He produced Natalka Poltavka, which was the first Ukrainian language film produced in the United States.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, there’s a ton of color in this story, mostly thanks to those two very colorful characters, as you were saying, Lydia. I love that the two of them ended up essentially inspiring the establishment of Ukrainian choirs and folk dance schools across North America, many of which are still around, that is so wonderful.

I don’t have a ton more to add, but the story is just a great reminder of art’s ability not only to transcend and unite, but also to convince, to make an argument. I really hope you can read the whole thing, which, of course, is in the show notes.

All right. 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.

Lydia Murray:
Bye, everyone.