Transcript, Episode 109: Dance at the Oscars and the Great Arts Worker Resignation

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 going to do an extended headline rundown featuring some complicated and consequential dance news items related to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. We will talk about the dance highlights of the Oscars, which may have been overshadowed by the slap heard ’round the world, but are absolutely worth discussing, particularly Ariana DeBose’s history-making win. And we will get into an excellent Los Angeles Times piece about the great arts worker resignation—the fact that while performances have largely resumed now, following COVID shutdowns, many of the people who make the performing arts possible have chosen not to return to the field.

But, before we get into all that, I’ve got to flag the new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our exclusive audio interview series. It’s coming out this Saturday on Apple Podcasts, and it’s just a delightful conversation with Ellenore Scott, who’s having a major moment right now. This month, she’s making her Broadway lead choreography debut with not one but two shows opening: Funny Girl and Mr. Saturday Night. You might know Scott from “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 6, back in 2009; maybe you’re one of the million people who follow her TikTok account that combines dance and anime in the most brilliant way. If you know her at all, you know how joyful her work is. And she talks in her interview about how she tries to ensure that joy and humor are part of not just the finished product, but also the process of whatever project she’s working on. She’s one of my favorite interview subjects. I know I say that a lot, but it’s always true.

Again, that interview will be out this Saturday, April 2nd, on Apple Podcasts. And we of course have the direct link for you in the show notes.

Okay, now it’s time for our dance headline rundown, beginning with some news from Russia that completely shocked the performing arts world this week.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, to say the least. This was definitely one of many recent moments where you might ask yourself, what year is it? And is this really happening?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right?

Lydia Murray:
The Russian president Vladimir Putin has asked the conductor Valery Gergiev to consider merging the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters. Should Gergiev agree, it would be the first time both theaters were led by the same director since prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Gergiev is a known Putin loyalist of course, and has had concert appearances, canceled and positions with various orchestras and festivals severed due to his refusal to denounce the invasion of Ukraine. So there’s a lot that can be unpacked here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And Vladimir Urin, current leader of the Bolshoi, did denounce the invasion. So, as Lydia said, lots of complicated political maneuvering happening here, a lot of historical knowledge required to fully contextualize this news. We have a link to the Washington Post coverage in the show notes, which does a good job summarizing all of that. And then Simon Morrison, the Princeton professor and Bolshoi expert—we quoted him at some length last week in our conversation about ballet as a diplomatic tool—he’s been documenting this news on Twitter too. So he’s @simonm1 on Twitter.

More Ukraine-related news: Dancers who have fled both Ukraine and Russia due to the war are finding a temporary home at Staatsballett Berlin. About 200 dancers have come to the company seeking assistance, and it’s helping provide everything from pointe shoes to housing. Its acting director has also been contacting other European company directors to see if they can help find jobs for the refugees. Staatsballett principal Iana Salenko, who’s from Ukraine, has been a leader in these efforts. It’s heartening to see that however terrible the war is, it is uniting rather than dividing much of the ballet community.

Lydia Murray:
It is. Seeing dancers supporting each other during this tragedy has really been so uplifting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Lydia Murray:
The arts initiative iHeartDance NYC is holding a one night only benefit performance to raise humanitarian aid for Ukrainians. The event is happening April 9th at 7:00 PM at the Florence Gould Hall Theater; it will feature works by a wide range of choreographers, including Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Andrea Miller, plus performances by Isabella Boylston, Brooklyn Mack and Antonina Skobina and Denys Drozdyuk, to name only a few.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What a great lineup. We have information about the benefit in the show notes.

All right, moving on to non-Ukraine related stories, and we’re starting with kind of a doozy. New York City mayor Eric Adams has proposed cutting the city’s culture funding by $72 million, about a third of its total. And the suggested cuts were actually part of a preliminary budget for 2023 that was released back in February. But it’s in the news now because this month, the mayor put out a blueprint to rebuild the city’s economy after COVID, which included some big rhetoric about how the arts and culture are key to that economic recovery, and then some correspondingly big plans to support a cultural comeback. So, where will the funding for those plans come from, is the question.

Lydia Murray:
The big question, indeed.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ve got a story from Hyperallergic in the show notes that pulls together all the threads there.

Lydia Murray:
However, there will be a new summer event in New York City this year. Festival of New York will partner with over 200 diverse organizations from all sectors to serve all five boroughs in an effort to help New York city recover from the worst effects of the pandemic. It’ll last for a full three months, and will include a citywide dance party and the BAAND Together Dance Festival.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, there are just an incredible number of organizations involved in that. I don’t know, I’m really curious to see what the actual events will look like. Because it sounds like there’s a lot of latitude in the guidelines.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So over in the TV dance world, the celebrity Peloton instructor and Brooklyn Nets host Ally Love will host “Dance 100,” a new street dance competition series for Netflix, in which eight choreographer contestants will create original routines using 100 of the world’s top dancers. And those dancers, by the way, will be the judges on the show. I’m very into this idea of a competition for choreographers, first of all. And also a show that gives the dancers performing the work decision-making power—that does not happen often.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I think this is a really innovative and interesting format. I’m certainly going to add this to my Netflix watch list.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep.

Lydia Murray:
Deaf West Theatre is adapting the Oscar winning film CODA into a stage musical. In CODA, a hearing child of deaf parents faces the challenge of whether to pursue you a passion for singing. Deaf West productions often feature both deaf and hearing performers, blending American Sign Language with spoken word, and in adapting CODA for the stage, the company plans to take a similar approach to make it accessible for everyone in the audience. The company’s currently putting together a creative team for the production.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, and we’ll let you know more about that as we hear it, because that’s really exciting news.

So we know a little bit more now about this summer’s return of “So You Think You Can Dance.” The season will feature a solid 12 week run, that’s more weeks than in recent seasons. It’ll have a revamped set, and it will have new judges and choreographers. No word yet on exactly who those people will be, but Robert Roldan, the former all star, has come on as an associate producer, and executive producer Jeff Thacker also all but confirmed that host Cat Deeley would return—which thank goodness. I don’t know what that show would be without Cat Deeley at this point.

Lydia Murray:
Can’t imagine it, yeah.

The Vail Dance Festival has announced this year’s lineup. The artists in residence will be the dancer and choreographer Caili Quan and New York City Ballet soloist Roman Mejia. The festival will also feature new dances by Bobbi Jene Smith, Ephrat Asherie, Jodi Melnick, Justin Peck, Claudia Schreier and Pam Tanowitz.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is quite a list.

Here is some seemingly minor but actually rather major news from the Rockettes: The precision dance group has changed its notoriously stringent height requirement. Formerly dancers had to be between five feet, six inches and five feet, 10 and a half inches to audition. As of this year, the Rockettes will accept dancers between five foot five and five foot, 10 and a half. So one additional inch that will make many more Rockette hopefuls eligible, which I think people are having some big feelings about

Lydia Murray:
Skyler Maxey-Wert, a ballet dancer turned singer, recently auditioned for “American Idol” and left quite an impression on the judges, receiving the golden ticket to advance to the next round of competition in Hollywood. Maxey-Wert is originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has lived in Germany since he was 18, but he returned to the United States to take his shot at “Idol.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, I remember seeing Skylar with the ABT Studio Company back in, oh gosh, 2013, 2014? He’s such a talented dancer. Apparently also a very gifted singer.

Lydia Murray:
Must be amazing to have that many talents.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s almost unfair. [laughter]

Speaking of dancers making pop culture news, and actually speaking of double and triple threats: In our first longer discussion segment today, we wanted to talk about the dance highlights of Sunday night’s Academy Awards. Because you might not have known it from the news coverage, which was dominated by Will Smith’s altercation with Chris Rock, but dance and dancers did play an important role in the broadcast. We saw some great performances that were driven by choreography, which we’ll get to in a minute. First though, I want to dedicate some real time to Ariana DeBose—or, excuse me, Academy Award winner Ariana DeBose, which like it still gives me a little shiver to say that out loud.

Lydia Murray:
Applauding over here, but you can’t see it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She of course won best supporting actress for playing Anita in the West Side Story remake, which was a historic win for multiple reasons. And oh my gosh, what a moment! What a speech too.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, I think we’re all just utterly thrilled for her. This was so well deserved and it was such a historic achievement. DeBose is now only the second Latina ever to win an Oscar, with the first of course being Rita Moreno, who won 60 years ago for her portrayal of Anita in the original West Side Story film. DeBose and Marino are now the first women to win an Oscar for their portrayals of the same character. DeBose is also the first openly queer woman of color to win for acting. So pretty huge there.

And this also brings Hollywood’s room for growth into stark relief. A recent NPR article includes a quote from Brenda Victoria Castillo, who’s the president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. She said, “Our community deserves recognition for all its creative contributions, not just to be honored for the same role 60 years later.” Which kind of says it all. It’s such an important point.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. On the other hand, I loved seeing the dance and musical theater community rally around Ariana this whole awards season. And she’s handled every part of this West Side Story journey so brilliantly. I mean, that beautiful acceptance speech, every interview she did on the press circuit, like even her appearance on “SNL”—what a pro.

Lydia Murray:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She just understands exactly what it means to be this kind of role model. She has been incredibly thoughtful about the way she occupies this space on the world’s stage now.

Lydia Murray:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And also, a real dance-first artist who is now a true triple threat—that’s such a rare thing. And then that she’s sharing this milestone with another dance-first triple threat, Rita Moreno—I mean watching Rita watch Ariana accept that award made me sob.

Lydia Murray:
I know, I know. It’s just so incredible. And yes, she seems so prepared. She has been doing this for so many years. The preparation shows, she seems just fully formed as a star.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Lydia Murray:
Everything, all that work, all of that experience. You can just see it in everything she does, which is so great.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Now the question is, what will she do next?

Lydia Murray:
I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I absolutely cannot wait to see where she’s going.

All right, so now let’s come back to the performances, because there were a few in particular that really hinged on dance.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Beyoncé’s performance of her Oscar-nominated song “Be Alive” was predictably such a standout. The song is from King Richard, which is the biopic of the father of Venus and Serena Williams. The performance was choreographed by Fatima Robinson, Tia Rivera and Adrian Wiltshire. It took place inside a tennis court in Compton, California, where of course the Williams sisters are from. And from the tennis ball- yellow colors in the costumes and sets to the beads in the dancers’ hair to the dancing itself, it was a celebration of the Williams sisters’ talent, devotion to their craft, triumph over adversity, and pride in their Blackness.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love the way the choreography really personified the whole idea of sisterhood.

Lydia Murray:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It told so much of the story. That was such a great way to open the show.

Lydia Murray:
Yes. The movement was constructed in a way that expressed that so well, I thought.

And the performance of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Encanto was also memorable. In addition to the live performers, who were the cast of Encanto plus Megan Thee Stallion, Becky G and Luis Fonsi, there were 88 TikTok videos projected in the background, which was also a nod to how the song became so huge, because it took off significantly on TikTok.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I honestly had no idea what was happening for most of that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” performance, and I still loved every second of it. It was sort of a beautiful chaos. This was apparently TikTok’s Oscars debut, which is kind of interesting.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There’s also some really great dancing happening on stage at the end there, although neither Lydia nor I can figure out who choreographed it—which, classic problem, not crediting choreographers. Listeners, if you know, please let us know. We would like to know.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. And there is also a beautiful performance of “Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto. It was a duet danced by Kai Martinez and Cesar Augusto, with choreography by Eboni Nichols, Reina Hidalgo, and Leo Moctezuma.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I love that they had Kai Martinez, who helped with the choreography for the film, involved in the Oscars production. I thought that was great.

Lydia Murray:
Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Just going back to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” for a second—speaking of crediting choreographers, I wanted to close out this Oscar segment just by shouting out the choreographers behind some of the year’s biggest films, since there is still no Academy Award for best choreography. So the Instagram account @creditthecreator did a great roundup of all those artists. Shout outs to Justin Peck for West Side Story, Jamal Sims for Encanto, Ryan Huffington for tick, tick…BOOM, Aletta Collins for Belfast, Fatima Robinson for Coming 2 America, Adam Murray for Cruella, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for Cyrano, Michael Arnold for Licorice Pizza and Christopher Scott for Being the Ricardos. Congrats to all of them. Please go follow @creditthecreator on Instagram for more of that type of content.

All right, last up today, we wanted to discuss an L.A. Times piece from this past week about the arts workers who have chosen not to return to the field as performances resume. For many artists and administrators, the COVID pause offered time to reflect on what was missing from their pre-pandemic lives, and the issues they’ve been putting up with “for the sake of the art” that they were no longer willing to tolerate. This is, of course, part of the great resignation that’s affecting many professional sectors, and which has been much talked about. But, early on in the pandemic, some cultural critics actually predicted that this would happen in the arts specifically, where infrastructure was so thin, where salaries were so low, where everything was already so precarious, even without all these COVID stressors.

Lydia Murray:
Yes. And the piece in the L.A. Times profiles 10 artists who have chosen not to return to full-time employment in the arts, opting for other careers instead. They’ve gone in directions ranging from the corporate world to public policy and more. And some really import themes obviously emerged. One is that you don’t have to be an arts worker to have a life in the arts. You can be a patron, you can create your own work in your free time or find another option and still honor your commitment to your passion. If working in the arts is taking more from you than it is giving, finding an alternative not only helps you, it enables you to pour back into creative communities.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And while economic precarity is an overarching theme in this piece, the people profiled also cited a host of other issues that were pushing them away from arts work. Pressures to conform to certain body standards or gender presentations, which is obviously a huge part of dance, or the idea that performers are interchangeable and not deserving of basic professional considerations. Bennett Leeds, who is a swing and understudy, discussed that—he now has a more traditional desk job, where he says his supervisors actually care about him as a person. And then yeah, the other idea of, could I be doing more good in the world, or a different kind of good that helps people more directly?

Lydia Murray:
Right. And that struck me too. One of the Times‘ subjects also mentioned watching progressive rights get rolled back while working in Washington, DC for a theater fellowship, and how it made her aware of the limits of theater. I thought there was another interesting point, because in our sphere it’s common to hear about the power of the arts. We all believe in it. We often talk about it. But it’s also okay to acknowledge that it doesn’t necessarily have a direct impact on certain large scale problems. And if you do find yourself drawn toward a field where you can make a bit of a more direct contribution, that is okay too. You don’t need to suffer, or restrict yourself, or feel guilty if the time comes where you feel the need to make that kind of change.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And when we’re living through several simultaneous global emergencies, more people will probably be drawn in directions away from the arts.

Some of these people expressed an openness to returning to the arts when, or I guess rather if, the industry changes in a meaningful way, or if their personal circumstances permit in the future. And if they do return, they’ll bring these enriched perspectives from their other experiences, which is valuable. But some of them are never coming back, and that’s a really sobering loss. I hope that’s a wake-up-call kind of loss for the arts.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. So do I.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Please do read the whole L.A. Times piece, which of course we have for you in the show notes.

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.

Lydia Murray:
See you next time.