Transcript, Episode 111: Art as Collateral Damage, Patterns of Abuse, and Demystifying NFTs

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi everyone. Before we get started today, just wanted to let you know that this episode features a discussion of sexual abuse in dance that could be disturbing or upsetting. That segment runs from about the 12 minute mark to about the 18 minute mark, in case you’d like to skip it. 

[pause/theme song]

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 follow the format we’ve been using for the past few episodes. We’ll start with a headline rundown, opening with significant Ukraine-related dance news, and then moving on to news from other parts of the dance world. We will then talk about a powerful article from Cosmopolitan magazine that features four of the plaintiffs in the suit against dance artists Mitchell Taylor Button and Dusty Button speaking about abuse in dance. And finally, we’ll discuss a really great story from Dance Magazine about the unlikely, and odd, and not entirely positive relationship between dance and NFTs.

First though, just a little shout out for the new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our premium audio interview series, which is coming out this Saturday on Apple Podcasts. We’ve got an interview with the just terrifically versatile Ebony Williams, who has worked all over both the concert and commercial dance worlds. She’s now choreographing her first opera, which will debut at this Spoleto Festival next month. It’s a many-layered new production that looks at the crusades from an Arab-American point of view. And Williams’ perspective as a Black woman is crucial to its storytelling. She has really fascinating things to say about what this choreographic experience been like.

Again, that episode is out this Saturday, April 16th, on Apple Podcasts. You can search for The Dance Edit Extra there, or you can follow the direct link that’s in this episode’s show notes.

Okay. Now it’s headline rundown time. Let’s go.

Amy Brandt:
A historic villa that once housed famous Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky in the Northeast Ukrainian city of Trostyanets has been destroyed by Russian forces. It was here, in this house, that Tchaikovsky composed his first symphonic work, “The Storm,” in 1864. The city, ironically enough, was once part of the Russian empire, and is quite proud of its famous resident. I think there’s also a museum and a music school named after him. I just kind of find it really sad and very baffling and self-destructive that Russian military would destroy a historic house of a very famous Russian composer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So much culture, so much history becoming collateral damage in this war.

And the talent drain from Russia continues, too. Several former Bolshoi dancers have joined Staatsballett Berlin. David Motta Soares has become a principal dancer with the German company. Bruna Fernanda Cantanhede Gaglianone has joined as a demi-soloist, and Erick Swolkin has joined the corps de ballet. So Russia’s loss is Berlin’s gain.

Amy Brandt:
Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza, led by former New York City ballet principlal Joaquin de Luz, has taken six Ukrainian dancers into its emerging talent program. A very famous Ukrainian dance couple, Anastasia and Denis Matvienko, they helped to assist in placing these six young women, whose careers and lives were abruptly interrupted by the war. And coincidentally, the Compañía Nacional de Danza is in New York City right now, they’re performing Carmen at the Joyce Theater.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, Amy and I have a date to see that Carmen production tonight, the night before you’re hearing this. Eager to see what that looks like.

Here is a hopeful sign of ballet-world unity in the midst of the Ukraine crisis: Last week, the Russian ballet star Olga Smirnova, who recently left the Bolshoi for Dutch National Ballet, danced on the same program with the Ukrainian ballet star Anastasya Gurskaya, who recently fled the fighting in Kyiv. They performed together at a benefit for Ukraine that took place in Naples, Italy. Although, actually, the moment was not without controversy: A few protestors demonstrated outside the theater before the show, because they were unhappy that Russian dancers were participating at all. So…ugh.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, lots of feelings.

And just as another example of how dancers are coming together and helping each other, the directors of a Florida dance school, the We Dance Ballet and Ballroom Studios have taken in a Ukrainian dancer refugee as one of their teachers at the school. Her name is Julija Kichigina, and she was dancing with a touring company here in the United States when the war broke out, and is now unable to return home. She reached out to this couple on Instagram, in hopes of securing a job to support her parents back home in Ukraine. The studio owners are a Russian couple named Artem Yachmennikov and Ekaterina Vaganova Yachmennikov. A little bit of a fun fact: Ekaterina Vaganova Yachmennikov, if her name sounds familiar, that is because she is the great granddaughter of Agrippina Vaganova. Interesting turn of history there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Very cool.

Okay. Moving on to non Ukraine-related news now. Charlotte Ballet has announced that its next artistic director will be Alejandro Cerrudo, who until recently was resident choreographer for Pacific Northwest Ballet. The company was previously led by Hope Muir, who of course, left that position to become Artistic Director of National Ballet of Canada. And I mean, I guess I kind of wish they could have found a woman to lead the company forward, but we’ll see.

Amy Brandt:
Lots of director changes. I mean, we still have quite a few artistic director openings in this country, with ABT, Oklahoma City Ballet, I think, is searching for a director, English National Ballet—I mean, it’s just an interesting time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So much change happening.

Amy Brandt:
The Royal Ballet announced its 2022-23 season. It includes world premieres by Pam Tanowitz, Crystal Pite, as well as a ballet version of the 1980s movie classic The Dark Crystal, choreographed by Wayne McGregor—which, as a child of the ’80s and a Jim Henson fan, really excites me. But I also wonder how on earth this will look as a ballet. What the skeksis costumes will look like?

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know, for serious. Our Slack conversation after this announcement was like just a bunch of us beseeching Wayne McGregor to not mess up Dark Crystal.

Amy Brandt:
It’s a very large responsibility, Wayne! [laughter] Of course this is not all that they have on tap next season. They’re going to be reviving Sir Kenneth McMillan’s Mayerling, to honor the 30th anniversary of McMillan’s death. And they’re also mounting a sparkly new production of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella. So …

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, we have some pretty big news from the TV dance realm. After 16 years and 30 seasons on network TV—wow, it is wild to say those numbers out loud—16 years and 30 seasons, “Dancing with the Stars” is moving to Disney Plus. This show has received a two season renewal on the streaming platform, with the new season debuting this fall. And it will be the first live series to stream on Disney Plus.

I guess the optimistic spin on this is that maybe it’ll help new audiences discover the show, but guess what’s taking its place Monday nights on ABC? Football. So, that of course makes me all kinds of grumbly.

Amy Brandt:
This makes me upset because it’s my mother’s favorite show. My mother is 83. She does not do streaming. I mean, she does in a very limited capacity, but you know, I’m kind of annoyed that they took it off network TV, personally. I, for one, still watch live television on network TV. Maybe I’m aging myself.

And just when we thought we were safe from COVID, we are hearing about some show cancellations of several productions on Broadway recently. A Strange Loop, a new show, has pushed back its opening to April 14th due to positive COVID tests within the company, and the New York Times reports that the new Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick play Plaza Suite, as well as Paradise Square, a new musical, and Macbeth, which is starring Daniel Craig, have all had to face show cancellations in the last few weeks.

Also interesting is that a lot of productions postponed their openings to the spring. There are a ton of new shows opening on Broadway right now, just as this new variant is taking hold in the Northeast. So …

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, insert teeth-clenching emoji. Yikes.

In happier news, the 2022 class of Guggenheim Fellows has been announced, honoring 180 scientists, and writers, and scholars, and artists across 51 fields. On the list are the choreographers Gary Abbott, Anne Bluethenthal, Silvana Cardell, Moriah Evans, Ishmael Houston-Jones and Cynthia Oliver. So, congratulations to everyone.

Amy Brandt:
Yay. Congrats. That’s a huge honor.

There is a new pointe shoe company in the universe called Act’ble. It is a German-based startup that uses 3D printer technology, which enables them to make customized shoes for each individual dancer. They’re also modular and interchangeable. So, you can swap things in and out. Specifically, the soles are made from a material called TPU, which translates to thermoplastic polyurethane. This means they come ready to wear, you don’t need to break them in and they are long lasting. So, I’d love to see a sample because this all sounds so interesting. I do believe the price point for these point shoes is higher because of the technology, and probably also the customization of them. But it’s kind of interesting to see how 3D printer technology is entering the pointe shoe arena.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. Yeah, I think it’s really natural to be skeptical about any new pointe shoe technology, because pointe shoes are so personal. On the other hand, apparently this process reduces the environmental impact of the production process significantly, which is great because currently pointe shoes, as they’re currently made, are really wasteful. I also thought the design sounded so interesting. It has cuts along the bottom of the shank that allow for greater flexibility through the shoe, but they close and lock when the dancer’s standing on pointe. Interesting stuff.

All right. We’re ending our headline run down today with two obituaries. The first is for Dr. William Hamilton, the dance medicine pioneer who served on Dance Magazine‘s advisory board, and helped scores of dancers heal and return to the stage. He passed away on March 29th.

The second is for Nan Melville, the esteemed dance photographer who is known for her elegant photos of prominent dancers and dance companies in many genres. Melville was 72 years old.

Amy Brandt:
Huge losses for the dance industry. I personally was a patient of Dr. Hamilton’s.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Aww.

Amy Brandt:
I could look back on a couple of instances where he really helped me continue my career and everything. I’m very thankful and glad to have known him. So I was sad to hear that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He helped so many people.

So, for our first discussion segment today, we have a really powerful dance story from a rather unlikely source, Cosmopolitan magazine. It centers on the ongoing legal case against the former dance instructor Mitchell Taylor Button and the former Boston ballet star, Dusty Button, who are accused of sexually abusing young dancers within their sphere of influence. And we’ve talked some about this lawsuit on the podcast already. The allegations against the Buttons are terrifying.

The Cosmopolitan story features interviews with four of the plaintiffs in that case. And these interviews are very personal, and they also reveal the dance world’s all too common patterns of grooming. By the way, the dancer plaintiffs are identified only by their first names in the story; though their full names are in the lawsuit, we’re going to refer to them by their first names in this segment as well.

Amy Brandt:
One thing that I really appreciate about how this article was written was that when the writer was telling individual dancer’s stories, she chose to leave out some of the more lurid details and focused more on them as people, as opposed to kind of defining them by what had happened to them. And also, after telling each individual story, at the end of the piece, what Cosmo did was they just took phrases from the lawsuit, without really referring to who, which plaintiff, they were referring to, and just highlighted all of these different quotes from the lawsuit. And it was just like, it could have been any of them.

You know … just, as you’re reading these statements, you see this pattern of predatory behavior, and manipulative grooming behavior, and how it was a pattern repeated over and over with these young women who were, I think, three of them were under 18 at the time. It’s stomach turning, honestly, to see this pattern of behavior—from befriending and praising the dancer, to giving them lots of attention, and then seeing it progress from there, sending a lot of confusing messages, claiming that, “I alone can make your career, if you just turn over everything to me.” Gifts, isolating the dancers—mainly with Mitchell Taylor Button—so they’re alone with the perpetrators, but also isolating them from their family and friends, where they don’t feel like they can talk to anybody, or really socialize with anybody else. And then seeing that gradually move to sexually explicit or inappropriate language and conversations, to then behavior. I mean, you just see everything building, and building, and building.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Some of the other thematic elements that sort of connected the four dancers’ stories were the ways that the dance world had made them particularly vulnerable to this type of abuse, the way they’d been raised and socialized in the dance world. One theme that struck me in particular was the fact that dancers might be less likely to speak out about their experiences with abuse, because they’re taught to turn off their instincts, and sort of soldier through pain or discomfort. Rosie and Gina both talked about this, that dancers are taught not to listen to what their mind is telling them. Like, “that hurts,” “that’s wrong,” “you need a break”—nope. Ignore that. And when the ability to ignore your instincts, your sense of what’s okay and what’s not okay, is actually prized and cultivated, that creates an environment that’s ripe for abuse.

And like you were saying too, Amy, I mean, dancers are taught to both seek approval and to respect dance authority figures in this absolute way. And yeah, throughout these accounts, there’s this theme of, this abuser is your artistic mentor. You should trust them. They hold a special power over your body. They hold a special power over your future career in dance.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And when you’re young, and you want a dance career, and you want it so badly, that type of influence really means a lot to you. If there is someone who can help you, who claims to see something in you, that makes it harder to start to question their behavior, then, when it becomes inappropriate.

Another thing I thought that came up several times in this article, was the importance of educating young people on grooming behavior. I know this was something … we did an article about grooming for Pointe, and that we interviewed Sage for, and that was something she said in that story as well, that there just needs to be more information offered to young dancers, and to parents, and teachers, so that they can identify these signs, which can be easy to miss. I mean, it’s clear here. But it happened under everyone’s nose at this dance studio for several years. And I think that’s a question for the dance world to think about, is, how do you help young dancers understand what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior from authority figures?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So that they’re then empowered to take action.

Amy Brandt:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Teachers and studio owners have a huge responsibility in this as well—to do background checks, to listen to people when they come forward telling them that these things are happening, or that these things are suspected.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It can’t all be on the students.

Amy Brandt:
Of course, this is all easier said than done.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, this story is of course, very sensitive and potentially disturbing content, but if you’re able, I hope you will give it a read. We have the link for you in the show notes.

Okay. Taking a deep breath for a minute here, before we transition into a very different type of topic.

Last up today, we have a story from Dance Magazine written by dance and emerging technologies expert Sydney Skybetter. It’s about the interesting and frankly confusing relationship between dance and NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. And if there’s anyone we trust to guide us through that mess, it’s Sydney. We’ve actually done a few podcast segments on dance NFTs, but this article does a great job answering some of the questions that we’ve touched on only in passing—or, if not answering them, at least further unpacking them. Those questions include: Are NFTs a viable source of income for dance artists, particularly those who are not already famous? Are they a way for dancers to assert ownership over their notoriously ephemeral product? And could they give rise to interesting works of dance art? I mean, lots to talk about.

Amy Brandt:
I have to say I’m very grateful to Sydney for writing this, because I’ve been very confused about NFTs for a very long time. So this article did help me kind of understand what they are a little bit more. But just to get this straight, an NFT is like, it’s like a digital file, but one that can’t be mass reproduced or shared, like a JPEG? Or…I know it has some sort of cryptocurrency blockchain code.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m going to go ahead and just read most of a paragraph from the story, because it does such a good job explaining what’s going on. “NFTs are digital items that despite the fundamental unlimited duplicability of virtual media, can notionally be owned by a single individual. The ownership is documented by a cryptocurrency proof of purchase enabled by a technology called blockchain, a public digital ledger that documents online transaction data. NFTs are thus digital objects defined by artificial scarcity. In contrast to the JPEGs and video files, they are virtually indistinguishable from, NFT art is supposedly scarce making it ostensibly collectible and valuable.”

You can hear the skepticism in every sentence of that paragraph. Which yeah, I mean, Sydney also says, it’s honestly not clear that any of this actually makes sense, we don’t actually know if they really have the enormous value they’re sometimes assigned, or if they’re just the latest trendy permutation of, as Sydney puts it, “tech-bro capitalism.”

Amy Brandt:
Right? Yeah. And he talks about how some famous dancers have dabbled in NFT sales, like Savion Glover, and Natalia Osipova, and points out that selling stuff that’s connected to famous dancers has long been a thing. He points to Marie Taglioni and stuff like that. So it’s not a totally crazy idea that people would clamor to kind of do the same with NFTs. But, he does bring up the point of, they’re world famous dance stars. So would this be a viable way to make money as your average run of the mill dancer? You know, I don’t know the answer to that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. They’re probably not going to be an ordinary dancer’s way out of economic precarity.

I actually thought the most interesting part of this story, or one of the most interesting parts of the story, was the discussion of how choreographers have used NFTs as creative prompts.

Amy Brandt:
Yes!

Margaret Fuhrer:
My favorite example is Michelle Ellsworth, who minted NFTs that are “owned” by a fake rock that she made and left in the desert. So basically ownership of her work is unable to be transferred. It’s like using NFTs to reject the whole premise of the NFT. That made me literally laugh out loud. I thought that was great.

Amy Brandt:
I thought that was super clever. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Basically, the answer to the question, “are NFTs a net positive or a net negative for the dance field?” The answer to that question is, “it’s complicated.” That’s the TL;DR version. But the article itself is not too long, and I hope you do read it! It is of course linked in the show notes.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Like I said, I’m very grateful he wrote it, because I keep seeing headlines that include dance and NFTs, and I’m like, “Huh. I don’t really know what that is.” So this was a nice tutorial.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you, Sydney, as always.

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

Amy Brandt:
Bye everyone.