Transcript, Episode 110: Cold War Echoes, Innovative TikTok Dance, and Storyboard P

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. In today’s episode, we’re going to do a headline rundown that includes yet more significant Ukraine-related dance news, as well as items from other parts of the dance world. We will discuss how innovative creators on TikTok are making compelling dance that transcends the whole dance challenge aesthetic that’s helped make the app so popular. And we will talk about a recent New York Times profile of the extraordinary street dance artist Storyboard P, which asks why the dance world is so inhospitable to dancers like Storyboard.

Lots to talk about as always, and today’s headline rundown is particularly epic, so let’s get right into it.

Courtney Escoyne:
Okay. So a Bolshoi Ballet performance of Spartacus last weekend became a benefit event aimed at raising funds to support Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine. I don’t have anything more to say to that other than it’s a very stark contrast to Western dance organizations pretty uniformly denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s like an alternate reality. I mean, sort of echoes of the Soviet Union. We’ve got a link to the AFP story about that in the show notes that has a few more details.

Here is a complicated piece of news that may or may not have a connection to the Ukraine crisis—it’s not exactly clear. Igor Zelensky, the Russian artist who was formerly a star of the Mariinsky Ballet, has stepped down as director of the Bavarian State Ballet. The company said that Zelensky is leaving for private family reasons; Zelensky in an interview said that “family circumstances require my full attention and time, and it is impossible for me to reconcile those circumstances with running a ballet company.” But also last month, the German Ministry of Science and the Arts said that Zelensky had been summoned to answer questions about his Bavarian State Ballet job for Russia’s National Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is close to Putin. So we may not know the complete story here, but the search for a new director for the company is currently underway.

Courtney Escoyne:
Italian dancer Jacopo Tissi, who recently left the Bolshoi shortly after being promoted to principal in response to the invasion of Ukraine, has returned to Milan’s La Scala Ballet, where he’ll be a guest principal for the 2022 through 23 season. And he’s slated to perform in the company’s July performances of Giselle.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Russia’s loss is Italy’s gain, or regain, I guess. Such a beautiful dancer.

London’s National Gallery has changed the name of an Edgar Degas ballet drawing in its collection from “Russian Dancers” to “Ukrainian Dancers.” In the circa 1899 work, which is not currently on display, the yellow and blue of Ukraine’s national colors are visible in what appear to be the dancers’ hair ribbons and in garlands they’re carrying. For that reason, the accuracy of the original title has been a subject of debate for some time. But calls to rename the work intensified on social media following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The change is part of a larger push for institutions to be more precise and thoughtful in their characterizations of Ukrainian and Russian culture.

Courtney Escoyne:
Now pivoting away from Ukraine-related news. Here in the US, native Hawaiian hula teacher Edith Kanaka’ole and Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief will be featured on US quarters that will be minted in 2023. They’re being honored as part of the US Mint’s American Women Quarters Program, a four-year initiative to feature women from a diverse array of backgrounds in fields including abolition, government, women’s suffrage, civil rights, science and the arts. I don’t know that I’ve ever particularly wanted to collect a quarter—

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want those.

Courtney Escoyne:
—in my adult life, but I want them. I want to see the designs yesterday. I want them.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So stinking cool. Yeah, just like a spot of pure joy in this headline roundup.

Now back to less happy news, unfortunately. The prominent commercial choreographer Kyle Hanagami is suing Epic Games for allegedly using his choreography in its Fortnite Battle Royale game. The dance in question is from 2017. It’s Hanagami’s routine to Charlie Puth’s “How Long.” And, you know, actually—I’m realizing as I’m talking this through—this news isn’t entirely unhappy. Kyle has some real legal leverage here, because he owns the copyright to this work, and has in fact been quietly copywriting nearly all of his choreography for a while now. He’s also being represented by David L. Hecht, the lawyer who has handled other Fortnite-related dance cases and who’s also advising choreographer JaQuel Knight in JaQuel’s mission to copyright commercial choreography. So, I don’t know: An instance in which a choreographer has some significant power and significant allies and an ownership dispute? That feels like progress, actually.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and could potentially be precedent setting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here’s hoping.

Courtney Escoyne:
Ohio dance teacher Desmond Beasley has been sentenced to 15 years in prison after confessing to sexually assaulting dozens of his students, with the earliest known offenses dating back to 2013. I believe we’re going to be linking to some coverage on this in the episode description. So please do practice care if you are going to follow this story further.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, please.

Swinging the pendulum back again to positive news. “So You Think You Can Dance” has announced that its return season will premiere May 18th, and that it will feature returning judge Stephen “tWitch” Boss, who judged previously on Season 15, alongside new judges Matthew Morrison and JoJo Siwa. And host Cat Deeley will also, thank goodness, be returning. I mean, those three judges—we were talking about this on Slack earlier—they feel like three Paula Abduls to me. They’re all such sweethearts.

Courtney Escoyne:
Every one of their names just makes me smile instinctively. I feel like the collective energy at that table is going to be just so overwhelmingly excited about everything that I’m kind of delighted by it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, it might be wonderful. Maybe they’re counting on JoJo to bring a little saltiness to the table, or maybe it’ll just be a very lovey-dovey season.

Courtney Escoyne:
And also just like, good for tWitch.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All the things for tWitch.

Courtney Escoyne:
Always.

And the musical KPOP is officially making a run at Broadway after a 2017 off-Broadway run, and then some pandemic induced stops and starts. 16 members of the company will reportedly be making their Broadway debuts with the show, including K-pop star Luna, who is headlining. The choreography will be by Jennifer Weber. KPOP is set to begin previews at Circle in the Square theater on October 13th with an official opening slated for November 20th. Is it too early for us to figure out when we’re taking Lydia? Because I feel like we’re just going to do a group trip and take Lydia, right?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, I was going to say, has she already made plans? Because I would not underestimate her in that regard. [laughter] No, I mean, at long last, love to see that finally coming to Broadway.

So The Kennedy Center just announced a jam-packed 2022–2023 dance season. Highlights include the East Coast premiere of Mark Morris’s The Look of Love, set to the music of Burt Bacharach, and also the East Coast premiere of Helen Pickett’s The Crucible, danced by the Scottish Ballet, and the Kennedy Center Debut of the Canadian Indigenous contemporary company Red Sky Performance. There’s also the return of the center’s local dance commissioning project, fostering new work by local choreographers. So, lots to look forward to.

Courtney Escoyne:
For sure.

American Dance Festival announced its performance lineup for its first full season since 2019. Over two dozen companies are slated to perform between June 3rd and July 20th, among them ADF-commissioned works from Pilobilus, A.I.M. By Kyle Abraham, Ragamala, Limón Dance Company and a quartet of North Carolina-based artists, plus Micaela Taylor’s TL Collective making its ADF debut and a whole host of beloved artists returning to the festival. Also of note, Shen Wei is finally being awarded his Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement after being the intended honoree at 2020s canceled festival. Heartening news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. It’s so good to see these summer festivals back to full power, full operation…I say, crossing all my fingers and toes.

Courtney Escoyne:
Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
New York City Ballet has announced that artist Eva LeWitt, who designed the set for Justin Peck’s work Partita last year, will create an installation of ten sculptures for the company’s ninth annual Art Series event on April 29th. So that night you’ll be able to see LeWitt’s work both on and off stage, since the evening’s program will include Partita. And her sculptures will actually hang in the theater’s promenade through the entirety of the company’s spring season, so plenty more time to see them if you can’t make it on the 29th. I mean, that Partita set, I have to say, I just want to live inside it. It’s so gorgeous.

Courtney Escoyne:
And now you can go have a drink inside something similar to it in between ballets.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Exactly—live my dream.

Courtney Escoyne:
Ending on a bit more of a somber note. British cultural historian Margaret McGowan died at age 90. Her interdisciplinary approach to dance history expanded the field, in particular her study of the collision of politics and the arts which resulted in the French court dances of the late Renaissance and early Baroque era. She continued to write and publish through the end of her life, with her final book having been completed just three weeks prior to her death.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She had such a fascinating life. We have the link to her obituary, written by Alastair Macaulay, in the show notes.

All right. So in our first discussion segment today, I am once again going to force Courtney to talk about TikTok, even though she’s still refuses to download TikTok. Thank you for being a good sport.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s going to take over my life, Margaret. We know this to be true. I can’t. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, well, here’s the thing, is that even if you don’t have the app, it’s still going to take over your life. It’s been almost impossible to escape the TikTok dance challenge, in particular, over the past couple of years. The format has bled into other social platforms; it’s shaped the way a whole generation of dancers move. But a great Dance Magazine story that went up last week looks at TikTok choreography beyond the dance challenge, at the creators who’ve sidestepped that whole way of moving and instead found different ways to make dance for this super-specific platform. For these artists, the app’s constrictions—the vertical format, the short time limit—and also its unique culture have prompted many different kinds of choreographic creativity.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, I think it’s coming back to that topic that we’ve returned to again and again here, which is the idea of limitations fostering creativity. I think there is something really fascinating about the way that the specificity of TikTok’s format I think does create a really interesting choreographic prompt, especially for artists who are kind of thinking in terms of like, “What can I do that isn’t just the formulaic thing we’re always seeing?” And the example from the story that I just adore is Jack Ferver and their Little Lad character, which had already made a comeback on TikTok prior to Jack Ferver joining the app and just kind of showing up and deciding to reclaim this character from way earlier in their career, which is just delightful and strange in all the best ways.

But the thing that kind of got me at the very end of this article was they had a quote that I would love to read, talking about their goals when creating content. Jack said, “As a queer kid who grew up in rural Wisconsin, an important part of my practice as an artist is questioning, How do I get through to the child who suffers? Especially having a character like the Little Lad, I try to think, where could kids who might feel like they’re an outlier feel like they have a mirror, someone to play with or someone to feel less alone with? My main goal is to make people feel less alone.” And I just, I love that so much. I didn’t think a TikTok story was going to make me want to cry, but Jack Ferver did that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know! Didn’t see that one coming, right?

For Jack Ferver and the Little Lad account, I feel like it’s all about connection—which is what all of their art is about. But TikTok is singularly good at encouraging that kind of personal connection, partly because it’s so specific. The algorithm is feeding you things that are tailored to your very niche interests. And so if you stumble upon the Little Lad, it’s likely that the Little Lad is speaking directly to you in a very personal-feeling way.

I also think TikTok runs on specificity, like especially when it comes to humor—jokes that are weird or odd or that you have to know like 15 other related references to fully understand. That is its bread and butter. And Jack is so good, so good at that kind of thing. Even like the way that the Little Lad relates to the TikTok dance challenge, the fact that the Lad has an utterly singular way of approaching it, and it’s almost more about the approach than about the actual steps. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant.

Courtney Escoyne:
Love everything about it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m also so glad that this article featured Hollywood—the choreographer Jose Ramos, known as Hollywood—because I think his work is so innovative compositionally. Like, most people, as you said, Courtney, see the vertical TikTok frame—tall and narrow—and respond with very vertical movement. But he instead sees it as a vertical stage that you can move in and out of, and he’s been playing with all of these incredibly creative ways for groups of dancers to move on and off that stage, in and out of frame, to play with the boundaries of the frame, to suddenly appear and disappear. And it’s funny because all of his videos are really sophisticated compositions, but they still feel like playtime. They still have that casual, playful feel that is endemic to TikTok. It feels right for this environment.

I think, yeah, for all of the artists featured in this story, the quality their content does share with more traditional dance challenge content is that idea of play—of, “come play with me, come watch me play.” I don’t mean to wax too poetic about TikTok, because I know there are very real and well-founded concerns about this app, but that essential playfulness I think is a big part of what draws people in, because it’s so lacking in our lives otherwise, especially right now.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Especially in this weird stage in the pandemic where we’re at, where oftentimes we are finding connection digitally, I think an app that is actually encouraging that, at least some semblance of connectivity, that’s part of why it’s so successful: connectivity and play. It’s something that feels social but doesn’t feel super depressing and draining in the way that other social media sites right now sometimes or often feel.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Absolutely. Yeah. We have of course linked the excellent Dance Magazine story by our colleague Nyamekye Smith, shout out to Nyamekye, in the show notes.

Okay. So finally today we’d like to get into a New York Times piece that ran a few days ago about Storyboard P. Storyboard is a genius of street dance, which is something I’m not just saying because it’s something I personally believe, it’s in fact straight-up the headline of the piece, that he is a genius. That assertion is just inarguable once you have seen him. He’s about to perform at Performance Space New York—that’s why the article is happening now. He’s also had some big viral moments in the past. He’s not new to the scene. But generally speaking, Storyboard has not found the kind of success in the dance world that might be expected given the level of his talent. So, why is that? What is it about the way the dance world is constructed—what is it about its limitations and its blind spots—that have made it so unfriendly to this type of visionary?

Courtney Escoyne:
So I think something that was very well put in this story was, they spoke with Arthur Jafa, who’s a filmmaker who has worked frequently with Storyboard. Something that Jafa said was he’s “taken Black dance to unprecedented heights. But the conundrum is how impossible it is to imagine an infrastructure around him that can allow him to sustain it.” I think that exists, as the story kind of tries to illustrate in some ways, for a number of reasons. Among them, Storyboard is inherently uncategorizable. What he does fits in—or doesn’t quite fit in it, it does and it doesn’t—with commercial dance, with non-commercial dance, with the broader visual art world that tends to kind of look down on dance. All of which are spaces which, financially space-wise, time-wise, et cetera, tend to actually devalue dance in a lot of ways, monetarily, fiscally and all these other ways.

But also because the dance world and the entertainment world and generally the way our society is structured is inherently deeply ableist and in a lot of ways, not very hospitable to people who are neurodivergent, which, Storyboard has been very open about being bipolar and schizophrenic. Oftentimes, the way that our funding structures are set up in the dance world, say, for grant writing or whatever, already is asking a level of code-switching that has to happen. Dancers are artists who work largely outside of language. And you know we, Margaret and I, make a living out of trying to describe dance with words, knowing that’s a very difficult specific thing. So things like grant applications, for example, are asking artists to code-switch in this very specific way to perform and explain their work in this very specific way that you have to perform in order to fit into the box of to be able to get this funding, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to maintain these relationships.

That’s difficult enough to begin with. Once you start adding in neurodivergence and the ways that is not allowed for or accounted, and accessibility is not created for, it creates a very inhospitable, near impossible environment for someone to thrive in.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, the writer of the piece, Brian Seibert, talks about how Storyboard answers questions with free-associative poetry, so talking with him was like trying to decipher a code. Which reflects both his unique genius and also the fact that, as Storyboard has said, he is neurodivergent. In the comments of the story, someone said that Storyboard’s answers reminded them of interviews with Bob Dylan. I kept thinking about how Storyboard would be treated or thought of differently if he were in a more commercially viable field, like rock music—if he were a rock star instead of a dance artist, if he were a white rock star instead of a Black dance artist. Because we glamorize and even glorify—I mean, super heavy quotation marks, “difficult” artists when their art is lucrative. When it’s not lucrative, we give up on them really quickly.

Which is especially heartbreaking because an artist whose work is rooted in improvisation, who is attuned to and virtuosic in multiple styles, that sounds like exactly the kind of artist we should be championing in dance specifically, and also the kind of artist that some other fields have rewarded, have found room for. But dance doesn’t have a lane for him, and that’s a big problem.

That’s a super depressing note to end on, but please do go read the piece, and please especially watch the beautiful videos that accompany it because their storytelling is just as compelling, and much more uplifting.

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.