Transcript, Episode 108: Ballet as a Political Football and Size-Inclusive Dancewear

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 continue our pattern of doing not one but two headline rundowns. Rundown one will address the top dance stories that are not connected to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And then in rundown two, we’ll get into the dance world news that is related to the Ukraine crisis. So, two headline rundowns. Then we’ll move on to our longer discussion segments, two of them this week; the first we’ll build on our Ukraine-related headlines by looking at the history of dance’s use in international diplomacy—the roles that dancers and dance companies have played in east-west relations over the years in particular. And then the second discussion segment will move away from the war and look at a perennially important topic that Pointe magazine just did a great story about. That’s dancewear’s size-inclusivity problem, and why it’s so crucial that dancewear brands offer sizes for all kinds of bodies.

A lot of substance to this episode, so let’s get right into our first dance headline rundown—which, reminder, this first one is all of our non-Ukraine related news.

Amy Brandt:
Broadway performer Sharron Lynn died unexpectedly this month. Tributes to Lynn, who was a cast member of The Lion King on Broadway and also danced on film and for television, have been pouring in on social media and on her Instagram page. She’s also authored a book, Soul Healing, a guided journal for Black women. Very sad.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So very tragic. We’ve linked The Lion King show’s official tribute in the show notes, which is very touching.

Former New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette has been named Paul Taylor Dance Company’s first resident choreographer. So, a ballerina taking up residence at a modern dance institution—kind of a big deal. And her first work for the company, Pentimento, is actually just about to premiere at New York City Center. So very soon we’ll have a better sense of the dynamic between Lauren and the company’s dancers, which I’m very curious to see in action.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I was so surprised to hear that news, honestly. Had she ever worked with the company before, do you know?

Margaret Fuhrer:
I don’t think so. I believe this is her first piece for them. Although, in some ways, it makes a certain degree of sense. I feel like they both have—Lauren as a dancer and then the Paul Taylor dancers have a similar openness, and that seems to apply to Lauren’s way of working as a choreographer too.

Amy Brandt:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Very interesting.

Wisconsin’s Madison Ballet has named New York City based choreographer Ja’ Malik as its new artistic director. He’s currently director of Ballet Boy Productions, a company he founded in New York, and he recently created work for Charlotte Ballet and Festival Ballet Providence. So this is some nice wind in his sails, I would say.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah! Big congrats.

Amy Brandt:
Back in 2020, he wrote a powerful essay for Dance Magazine called “My Life as an Invisible Black Choreographer,” where he talked about the implicit bias he faces in the classical dance landscape. So this is really great news for him and I’m excited to see where he takes the company.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, same. And we’ll link that essay in the show notes too.

NBC’s new dance reality show, “Dancing with Myself,” has announced—and then re-announced—its group of celebrity judges and dance creators. So, Shakira has been on board the show since it was first announced a few months ago, but last week NBC said that Shaquille O’Neal and Liza Koshy would be joining her. Then a few days later, it said that Nick Jonas would replace Shaq after some technical difficulties changed the production schedule. And as a quick refresher, because there are a lot of new dance TV shows happening, “Dancing with Myself” is the one where contestants learn dance routines while isolated in their own pods. And notably the routines will not just be judged by these celebrities but actually choreographed by them, which I did not realize was part of the deal when I first heard about the show. It’s fascinating to me.

Amy Brandt:
Disney has issued an apology after a Texas high school group performed a racist dance routine during a parade at Walt Disney World in Florida. On March 15th, the Port Neches-Grove high school drill team, called the Indianettes, appeared to do several stereotypical native American poses, including a war whoop and references to scalping. It’s crazy to me that this is what they brought to a theme park.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh.

Amy Brandt:
But Disney says that the dance did not match the team’s audition tape.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s almost inconceivable that that type of performance is seen as acceptable anywhere.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And we’re ending this first headline rundown with an obituary for Nina Novak, the Polish ballerina who was a leading dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1940s and fifties. She later helped bring classical ballet to Venezuela—which, what a life.

Amy Brandt:
I know. I have a couple of friends who posted very touching tributes to her on their social media, friends of mine from Venezuela, so I know she had a huge influence there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. So that concludes the first headline rundown. Now it’s onto the dance news that is connected to Ukraine.

Amy Brandt:
Artem Datsyshyn, a former soloist with the Ukrainian National Ballet, has died in a Kyiv hospital three weeks after sustaining injuries from a shelling attack by Russian forces. He was 43 years old. And it’s just a chilling example of how close this war is to the dance community.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That feels utterly senseless.

Amy Brandt:
So tragic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here is some blessedly more hopeful news: Kyiv City Ballet, the Ukrainian company that was on tour in France when war broke out, will be touring North America in late 2022 and early 2023. This tour is happening in partnership with the arts management firm Rhizome Consulting. We don’t know much more about it yet. But Amy, you were saying, this feels like the Ballet Russe during World War II.

Amy Brandt:
Totally. I know, forced from their homeland so, let’s tour. I’m excited to see them. I hope they come to the New York City area.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, please!

Amy Brandt:
Ukrainians are mourning the loss of both life and cultural heritage as Russian bombs damage the country’s theaters. And they are fortifying Odesa’s beloved opera house to protect it from a similar fate. According to The Washington Post, the barricades to the theater, which is Ukraine’s oldest opera, house start three blocks away. It has enormous cultural significance there so it’s no wonder why they’re taking such great care to protect it. Other theaters in Mariupol and Kharkiv have been destroyed.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think a lot of us consider theaters metaphorical safe places. Here they’re literally intended to be safe havens. That illusion is so fragile and here has actually been shattered. Oh, it makes me a little teary.

Amy Brandt:
I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Maksim Chmerkovskiy, the Ukraine-born “Dancing With the Stars” alum who documented his recent escape from Kyiv on Instagram, has returned to Poland to help with humanitarian efforts. Maksim is working on the ground in Poland to organize and distribute aid. And he and his family—including his brother, Val, who’s also been on “Dancing With the Stars”—have started a charitable organization called Baranova27, named for their former address in Odesa, for those looking to contribute to their relief work in Ukraine. And we’ve got that link in the show notes for you.

Amy Brandt:
Mikhail Baryshnikov told The Guardian that Russian artists should not have to pay the price of Putin’s invasion. He says, “An open exchange in the arts is always a good thing. I don’t think it’s right to put the weight of a country’s political decisions on the backs of artists or athletes who may have vulnerable family members in their home country. For people in those exposed positions, neutrality is a powerful statement.” He also voiced concern for Russia’s young generation of artists, who he fears will be locked out and left behind as the world continues to sanction Russian culture. And he’s joined a network of other artists who are critical of the Kremlin, they’ve set up a GoFundMe page called True Russia to help spread better understanding of Russian culture and to raise money for refugees.

However, the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who is both Russian and Ukrainian, responded to Baryshnikov’s quotes on social media. He wanted to make sure to praise Baryshnikov’s support of Ukraine, but he disagreed that artists shouldn’t have some responsibility or shouldn’t take a stand, and pointed to several high profile dance figures in Russia who have prominently supported Putin’s annexation of Crimea, for example. He also mentioned that many celebrities serve in the state Duma. What he said is, “It is precisely because of the support of the most visible figures of Russian culture that Putin gained his unlimited power and now is using it against humanity in this bloody war.” So, a little back and forth by two huge dance figures.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Who are also friends and mutual admirers. Oh, it’s so complicated.

So actually, that ends our double headline rundown. But our first discussion segment today relates pretty directly to that debate happening between Baryshnikov and Ratmansky, about what role dance organizations and dancers should play in this kind of politically charged scenario. Today, as prompted by a recent article in The Guardian, we’d like to talk about the roles that they have played in these kinds of scenarios in the past. And it’s not that this Guardian story offers any clear answers, but it does provide some helpful context. The piece looks specifically at how dance has been both a diplomatic tool and a political football in the relationship between Russia—or, going back in time, the Soviet Union—and the west, particularly Europe and the United States.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. It’s a great article by Lyndsey Winship. She starts off with TV Rain, that independent Russian television channel where they all signed off in protest and played Swan Lake. And that was a direct reference to the nineties, when there was a coup against Gorbachev and the Russian state media just played the ballet Swan Lake on a loop over and over again to make sure that the Russian people didn’t know it was happening. Kind of a statement on censorship there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I love the cultural historian Simon Morrison calling that the ultimate troll. Such a troll! That’s exactly it.

Amy Brandt:
That’s a very clever move there. And then she goes back to like the Cold War tours, which was fascinating. I just find that whole part of history so fascinating, that in the 1959, in 1960, that the US and Russia established this cultural exchange between two of our American dance companies, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, and the Bolshoi, and they toured each other’s countries. And then when New York City Ballet and Balanchine were over in Russia and the Bolshoi was in the US at the same exact time the Cuban Missile Crisis was going on, and all of the fears that were happening—will the dancers get stuck in these other countries and everything. Sol Hurok said, “As long as they keep dancing and the diplomats keep talking, we’ll have no war.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And I think actually, he helped fund both of those tours. So he had sort of an interesting perspective as the impresario in the middle of it all.

Amy Brandt:
Oh, I didn’t realize that!

Margaret Fuhrer:
I also thought it was interesting—the story talked about audience reactions to those performances, about how they were, even with the Soviet government sort of discouraging enthusiastic responses, the audiences did get increasingly enthusiastic. And as soon as the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, JFK was in the audience of the Bolshoi Ballet clapping louder than anybody else. The idea that these performances really did aid cultural understanding by humanizing the enemy—that’s a real impact.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. That’s like, on the other end of the spectrum, for so many US presidents who’ve gone to Russia, that’s the first thing they do is take them to the Bolshoi. You could see that as a gesture of, “Here is our cultural superiority,” or a gesture of friendship. But either way, there’s definitely some political stuff going on there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And that’s all tied up in this fact that ballet in particular, holds this revered place in Russian culture and society, which we don’t really need to tell any of the listeners of this podcast. But Russian ballets and companies themselves have often been shaped by political ideology, with the most famous examples of that being like the big Soviet-era Grigorovich ballets, Spartacus and Ivan the Terrible—pretty bald allegories for Soviet power. So when Westerners think of Russia, they often think of ballet. It’s that tied to their national identity, deliberately.

Amy Brandt:
And also these Western tours saw the defections of Russian artists like Nureyev and Makarova, Baryshnikov. And it’s not the same as a defection, but you can see that here with Olga Smirnova’s recent departure from the Bolshoi to join Dutch National Ballet—she was able to choose and to do that on her own, but who knows the kind of pressure she was under based on the public statement against the war that she made.

And that is one depressing thing to think about, is that during my childhood, with the USSR, Russia was very sequestered off. And with that all opening up and things being shared again and opening up, and to see that potentially closing off is very sad to me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It does seem like some big steps backward, very rapidly. So clearly this is all incredibly complicated, as we started out this segment saying. But given all this history it is, I guess, pretty difficult to argue that anyone can look at ballet as something totally independent of politics. It never has been, it probably never will be. We’ve got the link to that full Guardian piece by Lyndsey Winship in the show notes. It really is excellent. I hope you can take a look.

Okay. So finally, today we’re changing tack. We’re going to discuss a story that Pointe magazine recently published about size-inclusive dancewear, which is one of those topics that dancers are perpetually talking about, but it’s almost never reported on, so kudos to you and the Pointe team, Amy, for going there. It’s already difficult for dancers with larger bodies to just be in the dance world, particularly the ballet world. And for a long time, it’s been incredibly challenging for anyone bigger than a leotard size large—which by the way, is much smaller than a street clothing size large—to find dancewear that actually fits them. That is now beginning to change. And the story looked at where and how that change is happening, and why it’s important, and the challenges that remain.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I mean, like you said, it’s hard to feel like you belong when you can’t find appropriate dance wear to wear to class, if it’s not available to you, or if the one thing you can find is a 100% nylon high neck high back long sleeve leotard at the Halloween store. I mean, it’s hard! And now I’m taking adult recreational ballet classes, now that I’m long retired and all of that, and a lot of the women I take class with are postmenopausal and they may have curvaceous bodies. And very few of them, I have to say, are wearing traditional dancewear. And so I think it is something to talk about and to think about. Because I do think there is some element where that’s just hard to find or not available to them.

There’s also the logistical challenges. I mean, dance wear companies are niche industries and if there’s a very small market, it’s very hard for them to… There’s a supply and demand issue there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think, was it Colleen Werner? The dancer and therapist, Colleen Werner was saying in the story that the largest size most brands ever stock consistently is 3X, but of course there are certain dancers who need larger than three 3X. So true size inclusivity usually means a lot of customization—which is, as you said, expensive, and also really hard for smaller dance wear manufacturers to handle.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. But interestingly, a lot of the brands that the three dancers that are interviewed in the piece talk about are very small brands that do a lot of customization as part of their business, where you can mix and match colors and fabrics and all of that. So it is interesting how that works.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Smaller companies, where customization is built into the entire business model, everybody ordering a leotard is customizing something.

Amy Brandt:
Right. One of the things that the dancers bring up too, it’s not just about the size, it’s also about fashion and functionality, and how it’s not the same to have the same leotard in a bigger size—sometimes the straps need to be thicker, there needs to be more bust support. But they also need to look good and the dancer needs to feel pretty. I mean, everybody wants to feel good and their leotard wants to know that they have options.

So it’ll be interesting to see if this grows more as the dance industry continues to become more inclusive and dancers are using their voices more on social media. And we have influencers like Colleen Werner who are taking the lead.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I was going to ask you Amy—because there has been some incremental change, especially recently, in this area—what do you think the driving forces behind that are? I mean, the voice that dancers have on social media, for sure.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I do think that has a large part to do with it. I also think there’s some openness on the dancewear industry. I mean, I remember the first time I had learned about Colleen was through Gaynor Minden, because she applied to be a Gaynor Girl, and they gave her that opportunity. And I think it’s just grown from there, and I think she’s now also working with Discount Dance Supply, and then it builds.

Another dancer in this story, Júlia Del Bianco, has a similar platform in her native Brazil. I think she is working with a dancewear company where she’s featured frequently on their Instagram page, and she has her own Instagram page and following. So I think that’s how it begins a lot of times.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think the key quote from this story is the advice that Colleen had for dancers who can’t find dancewear in their size: “It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you as a dancer. It means there’s something wrong with the system.” But the system is starting to change, there are signs of progress, and hopefully that continues. We’ve got the link to the whole Pointe story, of course, in the show notes, so you can read it; it also includes some recommendations of brands that do make fashionable dancewear for larger dancers.

All right, that’s it for this week. Thanks everyone for joining us. 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.

Amy Brandt:
Bye, everyone.