Transcript, Episode 107: Ukraine Headlines, Nonbinary Dancers, and Pandemic Policies

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

Courtney Escoyne:
And I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in this St. Patrick’s Day episode, we are going to, once again, do not one but two headline rundowns. In acknowledgement of the continued rippling impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, our first rundown will address dance-world stories that are related to the invasion. After that, we’ll have a second collection of news items that are not connected to Ukraine. And then we’ll move into two longer discussion segments. In the first we’ll talk about how nonbinary dance artists are looking beyond the dance world’s often rigid conceptions of gender, as prompted by a great Dance Magazine story that Courtney worked on. Excited to hear about that. In the second, we will grit our teeth and discuss the fact that cultural institutions are now facing questions about whether they should drop their COVID mitigation policies, and what might happen should they choose to do that, or should they choose not to do that—there will be some repercussions either way, it seems like. Already my stomach is churning thinking about this.

First, though, we wanted to give a shout out to the new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our premium audio interview series, which is dropping this Saturday, March 19th on Apple Podcasts. This time we’ve got Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who sat down with me to talk about her new evening-length ballet, Doña Perón, which Ballet Hispánico just premiered. It’s a great conversation. We get into why ballet needs more complicated female protagonists; we also get into Annabelle’s own experiences as one of the few female choreographers of color working in the ballet world. I really hope you can check it out. Again, it’ll be out this Saturday on Apple Podcasts. You can search for The Dance Edit Extra there, or you can follow the direct link that we have in the show notes.

Okay, so let’s get into our first dance headline rundown. And this week we are beginning with Ukraine-related news.

Courtney Escoyne:
Members of Kyiv’s Ukrainian National Ballet are among those who have taken up our arms. Images of Oleksii Potiomkin and Lesya Vorotnyk show them having swapped their tights and ballet shoes for fatigues and rifles. Those have been making the rounds on social media in what I can only describe as just surreal images, I think.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and they gave interviews to NBC News that are just devastating. We’ve linked that segment in the show notes so you can see them.

On a more hopeful note, the ballet competition Youth America Grand Prix is helping place Ukrainian dance students at ballet schools across Europe. These schools are offering them both shelter and training, in many cases. So far, the organization has found new homes for more than 60 dancers who were initially registered for the YAGP competition in Kyiv.

Courtney Escoyne:
And continuing the more positive news, former Royal Ballet stars Ivan Putrov and Alina Cojocaru are organizing a charity gala to raise humanitarian funds to aid in Ukraine. Stars from The Royal, English National Ballet and Paris Opéra Ballet are set to appear at the Dance for Ukraine Benefit Gala at the London Coliseum on Saturday, March 19th. That’s this weekend, as you’re listening. All of the artists involved are donating their time, and the English National Opera has waived its rental fee for the venue. Proceeds are set to go to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine humanitarian appeal.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So this next item is a reminder that Ukraine is not just a ballet but also a ballroom dance hub. Dance With Me, the dance studio of “Dancing with the Stars” alums Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy, is helping Ukrainian ballroom dancers relocate to the United States to escape the war. The organization is offering housing accommodations and visa assistance and financial aid to allow these dancers to bring their careers to the States.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s really amazing work they’re doing. Meanwhile, stateside, Russia’s Eifman Ballet, which is based in St. Petersburg, has canceled its upcoming tour to Chicago, which had been scheduled for May, citing both COVID 19 international travel restrictions and the “current geopolitical climate”.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, yet another of those cancellations.

Last week, we talked about the backlash that Russian Ballet Theatre, a multinational company with no connections to the Russian state had been getting online since the invasion of Ukraine. This week, we have a similar story. The Russian Ballet Orlando has been receiving threats, including a threat to burn down its building, despite the fact that the school and company are actually owned by a Ukrainian family. So just, PSA: in the ballet world, especially, when an organization has “Russia” or “Russian” in its name, that is often a reference to Russian technique, not the Russian state.

Courtney Escoyne:
Do your research!

And some late-breaking news from basically right before we started recording: Bolshoi Ballet principal Olga Smirnova and former Mariinsky Ballet soloist Victor Caixeta have joined Dutch National Ballet. They’re both expected to perform in the company’s new production of Raymonda, which opens April 3rd, in just a couple of weeks. Both dancers cited the invasion of Ukraine as the impetus behind their decision to leave their companies, joining the growing list of international artists who have at least temporarily stepped away from their positions with Russian ballet companies.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is, like, seismic news. I mean, it makes you wonder who might be next. It also makes you wonder who might want to leave, but not have the ability to do so, since both of these artists have big international profiles and lots of international connections. I don’t know. They feel like ’70s-era defections, almost.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, I was going to say, I’ve been seeing on Twitter, everyone talking about, like, this feels like we’re seeing, like, the Iron Curtain-era defections, but like sped up and condensed into the span of like a month.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah.

Okay. So, that concludes the first headline rundown. Now we’re going to talk about the dance news that is not connected to Ukraine.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So the Tony Awards are looking to get back to their usual rhythm, with this year’s ceremony set for June 12th and back at Radio City Music Hall. The 75th Tonys will honor shows that opened between February 20th, 2020 and April 28th, 2022, which is a huge eligibility window that includes both the 15-month Broadway shutdown and over a dozen shows that have yet to open. The show will be split once again with one hour streaming on Paramount+ followed by a three hour broadcast on CBS.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s going to be a massive show. How are they going to do that? My gosh.

Here is some of the happiest news of the week: On Sunday, triple threat Ariana DeBose won both a BAFTA award and the Critics Choice Award for her performance as Anita in West Side Story. So on a single day, double awards for a triple threat. I could not help myself. That was right there.

Courtney Escoyne:
It was. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Courtney, as you were saying in our planning emails, at this point, if this woman doesn’t get the Oscar, something’s wrong.

Courtney Escoyne:
Like, there’s no way she sweeps everything she swept and doesn’t get the Oscar. Like, come on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Just give it to her!

Courtney Escoyne:
Just give her the Oscar. It’s also just so cool—it’s like, she was The Bullet in Hamilton, and now she’s about to be an Oscar-winning actress. This is so cool.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The number of people just realizing on Twitter that she was The Bullet, after falling in love with her as Anita—it’s pretty great.

Courtney Escoyne:
And there was a doozy of a story in the New York Times this week detailing a showdown between Juilliard president Damian Woetzel and chairman Bruce Kovner. Kovner reportedly asked Woetzel to step down this June, a year before his contract with the school is set to end, after an internal evaluation anonymously surveying 43 of the school’s roughly 700 members of faculty and staff came back with majority negative evaluations of Woetzel’s leadership. Woetzel declined to step down and was able to rally support, and Julliard’s board declined to begin steps to ease Woetzel out of his position. Kovner on the other hand is the school’s biggest financial benefactor, and he is planning to step down from his position as chairman in June, though this was reportedly the plan prior to this whole showdown. Just lots of complicated behind the scenes stuff happening.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There is a lot going on in Juilliard’s drama department. Sorry, no, I’m stopping now for real—I won’t do that again. [laughter]

I mean, as you said, Courtney, this is a super complicated story. So we’ve included a link to the New York Times coverage of it in the show notes, which does a good job kind of untangling all the different threads.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Speaking of drama: so, a few episodes ago, we mentioned the controversy over the Prix de Lausanne’s all-white judging panel. This week, there was another outcry after another competition, the ADC IBC revealed its judging panel, also all-white. Theresa Ruth Howard and Final Bow for Yellowface were among those who called for the competition to do better. And Kansas City Ballet’s second company manager Christopher Ruud ended up withdrawing from the panel. In a statement on Instagram, he said, “I cannot take up further space in these arenas until an equal opportunity is extended to all races….This has taught me that more questions are to be asked moving forward about the equitable makeup of panels before accepting a role within them.”

Courtney Escoyne:
I mean, good for him, you know? Got to start somewhere.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s a step.

Courtney Escoyne:
In further “wow, this is very complicated” kind of drama: The family of TikTok star Miranda Derrick claimed in an Instagram video that she is being held hostage by a religious dance cult, referring to 7M Films, which is affiliated with an offshoot of an evangelical Pentecostal sect. According to Gawker, Derrick refuted these claims in subsequent Instagram stories, citing her reduced contact with her family being a result of disagreements over her relationship with fellow dancer, James Derrick, who she married last year. If this sounds complicated, I’m actually only scraping the surface here. There’s a whole rabbit hole you can get into. I…shrug emoji.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This was like an entire weekend for me when this story first broke, I could not escape this rabbit hole. It’s a lot. And, as you mentioned, Gawker did a story about it, but it’s a little bit, you know, Gawker-y. So we’ve included a link to The Independent‘s coverage of it, which is relatively measured, in the show notes, just so you can get a sense of all the different sides of the story.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Big news from the commercial dance world this week, too. Entertainment-industry choreographers are in the process of forming a union. These artists have been just bafflingly ill-treated for decades now—they’ve been underpaid, under credited, they’re often forced to literally sign away the rights to their work. In the past, they’ve tried unsuccessfully to join other unions several times, but this time they’re creating a labor organization of their own, the Choreographers Guild, which is already in a soft launch stage. And those efforts are in line with the larger movement to sort of force the entertainment industry to treat its choreographers with more respect. That movement includes, of course, JaQuel Knight’s work on copyright, which we’ve talked about before on the pod. I wanted to give a big shout out to choreographer Kat Burns, who’s a leader in the unionization efforts and also has been advocating on behalf of commercial choreographers for years. So, yay for her and for all the choreographers involved in this effort.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m so curious to see where this goes, one, and two, especially given the increasing blurring of the line between commercial choreographers and concert choreographers, and conversations that have come up over the years about unionizing for, you know, concert choreographers, independent choreographers, also freelance dance artists in general—I’m so curious to see how those efforts can either dovetail together or support each other. There’s potential here. And I really hope it goes well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I know. It’s interesting because in the nineties, commercial choreographers did try to join the union that protects a lot of concert dance choreographers, especially Broadway choreographers. And the reason it didn’t work, according to a few sources, was there was too much of a divide between the New York dance world and the LA dance world. They just couldn’t talk to each other. That seems less and less true. So, yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how that all plays out over time, especially now that they do have, they are about to have, their own union.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

And the folks over at Dance Data Project released a report looking at the leadership and programming at US dance festivals. There’s, of course, as always, much to sift through here, but perhaps the most striking finding is that festivals with female artistic directors programmed an average of 49% works by women, almost exactly equitable, against 38% at festivals with male artistic directors, which isn’t surprising really. But the statistic that there were 15% more works by women at 2021 festivals than at 2019 festivals was encouraging to see.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. A glimmer of hope. And we’ve got the full report for you in the show notes because, as Courtney said, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there.

The Joffrey Ballet has announced its 2022 to 2023 season, which will include world premieres by Chanel DaSilva and Amy Hall Garner, and also the long delayed Chicago premier of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. So, lots to look forward to.

Courtney Escoyne:
Also exciting that the Amy Hall Garner show is, like family friendly and also it’s premiering this summer outside, and I think a co-production of Miami City Ballet? I have many questions, but I’m delighted by all of it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It sounds wonderful.

Courtney Escoyne:
Famed auction house Christie’s will host an auction of a collection of items owned by Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire, including a Karinska costume and a portrait of Jeanmaire by Jean Cocteau. The online auction will run March 25th through April 6th. And I’m sure there’s plenty more treasures to be found.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, unrelated question, does anyone have a few thousand Euro I could borrow? Just curious.

Courtney Escoyne:
Just wondering. Just putting it out there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
No? Never mind. Man, I’m on a corn dog roll today, I’m so sorry.

Finally today, we have two obituaries. Patricia Sorrell, the renowned ballet performer and teacher and coach, died early last month. She was 86. And Yuriko Kikuchi, the modern dance legend known simply as Yuriko, passed away on March 8th. She was a muse to Martha Graham in the many years she danced in Graham’s company. Later, she was a keeper of the Graham Flame through her teaching and revivals. She was 102. An icon.

Okay. Thus ends our double headline rundown. So, in our first discussion segment today, we’d like to get into an excellent Dance Magazine story about how nonbinary dancers are rejecting some of dance’s structures and strictures. The piece talks to several nonbinary artists from different corners of the dance community who’ve all had very different experiences and who all have different ways of thinking about their dance practice and its relation to gender, which isn’t surprising. What they share, though, is a wariness of arbitrary boundaries, of the idea that any dance technique or culture “must be” gendered in a binary way.

Courtney Escoyne:
I have to say—so I worked as the editor on the story with the fabulous Jonathan Matthews-Guzmán, whom I’ve known for many years, and I think one of my favorite things about this process was us realizing we were a little spoiled for choice in terms of sources.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What a lovely problem!

Courtney Escoyne:
Because between the two of us, we came up with—it was kind of cool! It was like we came up with like a huge list of people that would’ve been interesting to speak with and was just like, okay, how do we narrow this down? And you know, ultimately acknowledging that, like we’re getting four different perspectives here from different corners of the dance world who were all socialized in different ways, who are all trained in different ways, and therefore have, like these intensely unique takes. And they are individualistic takes that then it kind of points to how broad experience of gender within dance can be just in a way that I think is really cool and exciting. And I love that this piece is like a window into that experience that is in no way a totality, just because no one experience of being nonbinary is going to be the same as another, just as no one person’s experience, anywhere in dance, is going to be identical to others. It’s a microcosm of a macro thing that I just think is neat.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is neat. As the piece noted too, when it comes to the dance world’s way of thinking about the gender binary, there has been small progress in parts of it. Like particularly in terms of, say, audition announcement language. Sometimes calls today won’t specify men or women, but rather say male- or female-identifying, to sort of make space for trans performers. Sometimes you’ll even see calls for nonbinary performers specifically. Although, as Jonathan notes, those roles can end up being tokenizing, that’s sort of a fine line.

But in terms of the dancing itself and different dance techniques’ approach to gender: I especially loved hearing Caleb Teicher talking about how Lindy Hop—which is literally a binary dance, it’s based around a leader and a follower—doesn’t have to have anything to do with gender. Like yes, historically leads have been male, followers have been female, but as Teicher says, “The lead-follow binary does little to illustrate the diversity of power balance and role performance in Lindy Hop.” And so many of their recent works have explored all of those shades of gray.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Which is fascinating.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And also, you know, talking to Maxfield Haynes—who is currently with the Trocks after being a standout for years at Complexions, also was a huge standout with Ballez when they did Giselle of Loneliness—they are a dancer who was like socialized as male and trained as male through much of their training, but was interested in working on pointe and interested in taking this approach to ballet technique and ballet performance that was inherently nonbinary. And one of the quotes that I loved from them was, “The entire lexicon of ballet steps has no defined gender. They’re just a means to an end.” And I love this because that’s really what technique is at the end of the day. It’s a means to an end. And you know, what happens when you take that idea of, it’s just tools in your toolkit, it’s just paints in your painting kit—what happens when you apply that further than just the technique? What if you apply it to the way we think about roles and the way that we think about interaction on stage? I could just go on about this for a very long time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Endless possibilities for creativity. It opens up so much when you start to think about technique that way.

I’m sorry to be ballet-focused—it’s just that yeah, ballet is one of the parts of the dance world where the gender binary is so firmly encoded into technique, as epitomized by the pointe shoe—but that quote about the lexicon of ballet steps having no defined gender, that actually connects pretty directly to an interview that William Forsythe did with The Guardian this week…

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
…in which he talked about, how do we make ballet more accessible? How do we make it more popular? And he what essentially said was, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the steps themselves, with the vocabulary. It’s the form’s conservative politics that are the problem. So if we can separate out the politics from the technique—which yes, easier said than done—but if we can do that, that will help resolve many of ballet’s issues.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Well, and one of his quotes that I loved that also gets at something that all of these nonbinary artists were talking about, he said, “You have to define your relationship to the traditions of craft.” Which really gets at the idea of intentionality. Like, these nonbinary artists are artists who have interrogated their own gender and their approach to it, whatever they found that to be, wherever it falls on that beautiful spectrum in an intentional way, and then extending from that approach as they approach dance and dance performance in an intentional way. And I think that’s like a wonderful challenge, whether you are nonbinary or trans or cis, like wherever you fall in that, approaching gender and approaching the way you perform it in an intentional way, I think can only enrich not only your knowledge of yourself, but by extension your art, what you do.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Absolutely. There’s a lot to think about in the Dance Magazine piece, and also in the Forsythe interview, so naturally we have linked both of them for you and hope you can give them a read.

Last up today—brace yourself, Courtney—we have an article that ran in the New York Times this week about pandemic policies at cultural institutions.

Courtney Escoyne:
[groans]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Cities and states are now easing or have already eased their COVID rules. Should arts organizations follow their lead and drop vaccine and mask requirements? And if they do, will that bring in more audience members, the people who are tired of COVID everything, or will it end up keeping away those who don’t yet feel comfortable in crowded indoor spaces without some precautions? There weren’t super clear guidelines for arts organizations going into the pandemic, and there aren’t as we begin to emerge from it—I say, knocking on all the wood and, like, keeping one eye on the BA.2 Omicron variant. But yeah, but I mean, it seems like there’s no right answer here.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and you know, as you pointed out, Margaret, there weren’t really clear guidelines necessarily, because I think planning for reopening for arts organizations had to, in some ways, start much further in advance of necessarily when governments were making calls about things. And I think as a part of that, a lot of places, I think particularly in New York as I’ve observed it, a lot of cultural institutions actually have rules and guidelines that are more stringent than what the city or state actually requires of them. Like, that is something that has already been in place.

However, it does slightly complicate matters when, you know, the city and state regulations are gone. If these cultural institutions are continuing to have them, are some people going to be looking at them going like, what are you doing? We’re done with this. And it was interesting reading this Times story because I think it illustrated a bit the way that the different demographics at various institutions might be influencing the way that the owners and the decision makers are thinking about this. There was at least one person who said, you know, we did a survey and an equal number of people said, if you ease restrictions, I’m not coming back versus a number of people who said, if you keep restrictions, I’m not coming back.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, I thought it was interesting that there was so little consensus even among the various arts leaders interviewed for this story—even if they were coming from similar types of environments. Some said they were getting pressure to ease precautions. Some said exactly the opposite. Some said, like that one source that you were citing, they were getting both, they were hearing all of the above. No matter what decision you make, you’re probably going to lose a chunk of your audience, which is what makes this such a high-stakes decision.

I do think that Broadway is a sort of natural leader here, that a lot out of performing arts organizations will follow its lead. And for what it’s worth, they have said they’re going to continue requiring both masks and proof of vaccination through April. So there’s that. Maybe at that point then we’ll see another sort of wave of reconsideration. I don’t know.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. It’s difficult to know. And I do think, you know, it is worth noting there is a financial consideration in terms of checking vaccination status. That is something that a lot of venues have had to add additional staff to be able to do. So there is obviously an economic consideration here.

I am personally of the opinion that it doesn’t actually make any sense to ease masking and vaccine mandate simultaneously because hello, you can, you can do things in a stepped process and that makes way more sense. But…yeah…ugh.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Ugh. I mean, it’s clear that both of us have a hard time sort of staying calm while talking about this subject. It’s a fraught group of questions. Please do go read the Times story, which we’ve got in the show notes, for a more levelheaded summary of the situation as it stands now.

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

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.