Transcript, Episode 113: Crediting Choreography and the Politics of Hair in Ballet

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. Happy almost International Dance Day, everybody—that’s coming up tomorrow.

In this episode, we’re going to start things off with our usual headline rundown, with news from all parts of the dance world. Then we will discuss a many faceted story from Dance Magazine, looking at how to handle crediting when a piece of choreography is created in collaboration with the dancers, something that happens increasingly frequently these days. And finally, we’ll talk about hair in ballet, as prompted by two different stories from Pointe magazine about the powerful ways hair is used on stage, and also about the hair politics that dancers of color are often forced to navigate in the ballet world.

So, lots to talk about. Before we start the episode, though, here is a quick plug for the new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our premium audio interview series, which comes out this Saturday on Apple Podcasts. This time we have choreographer Stephen Petronio, whose company is about a kickoff its new season at the Joyce theater in New York City. And we had this really wide ranging conversation, but the through line was how to be creative in a time of crisis. We talked about the ideas and the collaborators that kept Stephen going through lockdowns. He’s never not collaborating. We also talked about why, even in the midst of war and plague—and it sounds dramatic to say that, but it’s quite literal—even in the midst of these catastrophic events, he still finds great meaning in making dance and watching dance.

So I hope you can listen to that. Again, it’ll be out this Saturday, April 30th on Apple Podcasts. You can search for The Dance Edit Extra there, or you can follow the direct link in this episode’s show notes.

Okay. Moving on now to our headline rundown. Let’s do it.

Courtney Escoyne:
Okay, so the founder of and several teachers at dance competition company Break The Floor, allegedly sexually assaulted, harassed and manipulated dancers, according to a joint investigation by the Associated Press and the Toronto Star. Founder Gil Stroming sold the company and stepped down as CEO in January after allegations regarding Break The Floor instructors were first reported in the Toronto Star in October. We’re going to link to that further coverage in the show notes; as always, please do practice care if you are following the story further.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, please do. It is a major story.

Here’s another heavy story: An Egyptian court has sentenced a woman to three years in prison and a fine of more than $10,000 in a case involving TikTok dance videos. The social media influencer Haneen Hossam was accused of promoting human trafficking by allegedly exploiting minor girls to gain material benefits with dance videos. It’s not clear how the videos were related to human trafficking. Her case has been seen by critics as part of a crackdown on self expression by government officials in conservative Egypt. It’s a omplicated one; we have a link to the Associated Press coverage of that story in the show notes.

Courtney Escoyne:
And the Tony Awards have extended the eligibility period and pushed back the nominations announcement due largely to COVID cases among casts delaying openings, canceling shows or making it difficult for voters to see eligible actors due to understudies and swings stepping in. Shout out to all understudies and swings who collectively deserve a special Tony Award for making this season even happen, in my humble opinion.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Seriously.

Courtney Escoyne:
So the eligibility deadline has been pushed from April 28th—that’s today, as you’re listening—to May 4th, which might give some late opening shows a bit of breathing room in case of a COVID complication. And the nominations will now be announced May 9th, rather than May 3rd. The ceremony is still set for June 12th.

And then bonus, as we were preparing to record the Drama Desk Awards, which covers Broadway, off Broadway and off off Broadway, announced that its nominations announcement has been pushed back two weeks to May 16th, though the eligibility deadline is still May 1st, and the date for that ceremony is still to be announced.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is the spring of 2022 and we are somehow still here, still doing this. Oh man.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And I think there’s definitely—I know I was hearing from various critics and journalists who cover Broadway that, well, maybe this deadline should have been pushed back like way sooner, because this isn’t going to like dramatically change anyone’s plans there, aren’t any shows that are planned to open in this like new window, but hopefully it gives some breathing room.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oof. Big mess.

Miami City Ballet has announced its 2022–23 season, which will include world premieres by Amy Hall Garner, Pontus Lidberg and Durante Verzola, and also the company premiere of Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels, which is the first gram work to enter the company’s repertory. Shout out to Amy Hall Garner, by the way—she has commissions everywhere next season, and it’s so well deserved.

Courtney Escoyne:
She’s just getting all the things that it’s so exciting to watch happen.

And on the topic of season announcements: Sarasota Ballet announced its 2022–23 season, which will include the premiere of half a dozen new works, four of which will be created by company members—love to see that—and several company premieres, including works by Johan Kobborg and of course, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. The company also announced two new dancers would be joining its ranks as principals: Macarena Gimenez and Maximiliano Iglesias, who both joined from Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, which recently saw the departure of its star director of Paloma Herrera.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It feels like the entire ballet world is in flux at the moment, for various reasons—between like artistic directors coming and going, the Ukraine crisis creating all kinds of upheaval…it’s just constant change.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think it’s going to be a few years before things feel settled again, if then, because also we’re seeing a lot of retirements come about as a result of the pandemic or just company moves.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

This summer Lincoln Center is staging a festival around themes of rejoicing, reclaiming, and remembering across 10 outdoor and three indoor spaces on its campus. The festival’s called Summer of the City, and it will include a reimagined dance version of Mozart’s Requiem choreographed by Kyle Abraham, which sounds fantastic. Also the return of the BAAND Together Dance Festival, which was so wonderful last year, and also big dance parties held under a 10 foot disco ball that’s going to be installed in the center’s main plaza. This is the first festival under Lincoln Center’s new chief artistic officer Shanta Thake, who joined last year with a mission of broadening the center’s appeal beyond classical genres. And it sounds like that’s what she’s doing.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m just so excited for the BAAND Together festival to be back. That was such a special highlight last year for me.

And British ballet company Ballet Black, which was founded in response to the lack of diversity at the UK’s ballet companies, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. We’re mentioning this now, not only because they’re a company you really should be following if you’re not already, but also because the New York Times did a lovely piece talking to founding artistic director Cassa Pancho, which we’re linking in the show notes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, we’ve got that, and we also have included a Dance Magazine piece from a little farther back about the important work that Ballet Black is doing. I hope you can read them both.

Congratulations to this year’s Youth America Grand Prix winners, who were announced last week after the final round of competition in Tampa. We have a story by our own Amy Brandt, who was on hand in Florida—that’s linked in the show notes, and that piece includes the full winner’s list. The event’s accompanying gala performance was dedicated to YAGP’s ongoing Ukrainian relief effort. We’ve talked before about how the competition’s organizers have been helping place Ukrainian ballet students at ballet schools in Europe and the US. So, hopeful news all around there.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. You love to see it.

And Apple Fitness Plus is adding new dance based workouts to its offerings, timed to, hey, International Dance Day, which is tomorrow. Some of which involve tutorials on choreography from BTS music videos. Can we get Lydia to test this for us?

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think she’s already on it, is my guess. [laughter] Yeah, actually, I mean, Fitness Plus has mostly featured music by English language artists, mostly from the US, up to this point, so the addition of BTS, that’s a pretty big deal. And given how central dance is to K-pop, as we have talked about at some length, definitely makes sense. BTS continues to take over the entire world.

Courtney Escoyne:
And we love to see it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. As it rightfully should.

So we’re closing out the headline rundown this week with an obituary for Robert Morse, the Tony winning Broadway and television star who died last Wednesday at age 90. Morse was probably best known as, first of all, the original lead in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying on Broadway back in 1961, and then more recently as Bert Cooper on “Mad Men.” Vulture ran a tribute from one of the dancers who worked with Morris on that lovely “Mad Men” dream ballet set to “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” which was Bert Cooper’s sendoff after his death on the show, and of course it feels even more poignant now. We have that linked for you so you can read it.

Okay. So, moving on to our first longer discussion segment today. We’d like to talk about choreographic crediting, which is sort of a perennially sensitive issue, but a new Dance Magazine story looks at an aspect of it that’s become increasingly urgent as the boundaries between choreographers and dancers have blurred. When a dance work is created collaboratively, with everyone in the room contributing in some way, how does, and how should, crediting work? When the old hierarchy of choreographer and associate choreographer and dancer doesn’t reflect what’s happening in practice, how can we make sure that everyone’s contributions are recognized? Which, that’s important, because figuring out that issue, finding more clarity around terminology and titles in the rehearsal studio, is an important part of building an inclusive dance space.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And I think it’s all about valuing the work and the time and the contributions of everyone in the room, right? And I think it’s not a secret that choreographers draw on dancers, right? Like, it is very rare in my experience to talk to any given choreographer and not have them just showering praise on the dancers in their process who make the process possible and who contribute in a lot of ways. But I do think that formal recognition of those contributions and how intensive they may or may not have been is a different thing entirely.

Like for example, when someone who is primarily known as a dancer decides to choreograph, I think there’s frequently this attitude towards that, which is kind of like, “Oh, good for them. Let’s see what they do on their first attempt.” And in a lot of ways that doesn’t acknowledge what they may have already directly contributed in processes with choreographers they’ve worked with, or how collaborative those creations might have been. And when having a track record that you can point to and document is key for securing funding, grant applications, getting commissions, all of that, and you don’t have that formal recognition, in some ways it’s like being back at square one.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and it does seem like that sort of collaborative model is becoming more and more common, which I think in a lot of ways, that’s a really positive development, that we’re moving away from this old school model of the dictator at the front of the room directing a bunch of passive dancers. So it’s like a crediting issue that’s borne of progress in a way, but for that progress to be complete, to continue to its logical conclusion, we have to then give proper credit to the dancers who are now thoroughly enmeshed in the creative process.

Again, as you said, Courtney, this piece is not a hit job on choreographers. It’s not a problem with any one artist or group of artists. The issues are structural as opposed to personal. And in some ways larger industry structures are starting to change. I guess the most notable example of that is probably the 2019 agreement between Equity and The Broadway League that now it gives a percentage of a show’s profits to the dancers and the actors and the stage managers who are involved in the show’s developmental labs.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which is a pretty big deal.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is a pretty big deal.

Courtney Escoyne:
And admittedly, because of these specific wording of it, it is going to be the shows that manage to earn out, to actually turn a profit and continue going for a while. But for those shows that are really successful—like Hamilton, for example, which I think was one of the first shows to actually implement this—that could be a really significant source of income.

I also learned from this piece that AIM by Kyle Abraham offers ongoing royalties to the dancers who create and premiere a piece, even if they move on and other dancers take on the role. Which, of course, it’s Kyle who’s doing this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to say, of course Kyle!

Courtney Escoyne:
And then another facet of this that gets beyond just the like dancers, the performers in the room, was brought up by Brinda Guha, who’s a New York City based South Asian dance artist who frequently, in addition to doing her own choreographic work, is brought on to projects as a cultural consultant in order to help artists deal with issues of potential cultural appropriation, dealing with various cultural issues in a sensitive way. But something that she’s noticed is that while she has this cultural consultant like tag and credit, whenever she actually makes work that ends up—like makes movement that ends up in the final piece, she’s not necessarily acknowledged as a co-choreographer or someone who contributed choreography. Which then translates to those same issues I brought up at the beginning about applying for funding, grants, et cetera, et cetera.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. Obviously this is a complicated issue. It’s a thorny issue. I really hope you have time to read the whole Dance Magazine piece, because it does a good job teasing out all of the various facets. We’ve linked to that in the show notes.

Okay. Last up today, we want to talk about hair in ballet, one of those topics that maybe sounds straightforward, but absolutely is not. Pointe magazine recently ran two different stories about ballet hair. The newest, out last week, talks to several dancers about how they handle one of the most iconic hairography moments in ballet, when the waltz girl in Balanchine’s Serenade has to let her hair down onstage. And that piece connects in some really direct ways to another Pointe article from a couple months back about why we need to diversify hair in ballet. Because the ballet bun and the sort of flowing loose hair that’s supposed to create a very particular look in works like Serenade, those are styles for white hair textures. And up until very recently ballet dancers of color have often been asked to alter their appearance to conform to that Eurocentric aesthetic. That is a significant issue because, I mean, as Serenade itself proves, hair is powerful, and it’s powerfully symbolic.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And I mean, I know like—talking about Serenade, I can remember seeing that for the first time, like I saw City Ballet do it up at Saratoga as a teenager. And I want to say it was Janie Taylor who did waltz girl, can’t entirely remember, with that long, long hair that she has.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Epic hair. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it is such a striking moment and I don’t know that I necessarily thought twice about the fact that this was very much created for someone who has a hair texture similar to mine. I didn’t have to think about it. And that kind of points to this like core issue of the Eurocentric styles that oftentimes aren’t thought twice about in ballet, and that luckily have become much more talked about in recent years. And hopefully there’s some momentum towards change.

Oftentimes when you look at dress codes, for example, for ballet classes in training environments, the kind of notes about hair will be very simple, but also very much assuming that we are speaking to white dancers when we’re writing this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, for years, many Black dancers have been expected to relax their hair so that they can do these ballet hairstyles that were created for white dancers, which requires, first of all, a lot of effort and money on their part. And then also it’s just the whole idea that “you must eliminate a part of yourself to fit in here,” which is an unfortunately common theme in ballet.

Also, I mean, hair can make a big impact in any type of dance, but in ballet it feels especially fraught partly because the ballet bun has become synonymous with the ballerina. And that’s one of the reasons why hair-down moments in ballet like in Serenade hold so much power.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I was just thinking about how Amy sent us a Instagram post by Chyrstyn Fentroy, who’s a former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer now at Boston Ballet—absolutely killing it there, oh my gosh. But she posted this really emotional post about getting to do the Suzanne Farrell role in Chaconne, which is a Balanchine ballet with hair down, and she did it with her natural hair. And there’s this gorgeous, like from the wing shot of her performing. And she talks like, very—this beautiful emotional piece about the freedom of getting to step onto the ballet stage in the wholeness of who she is. And it was so moving and just, it’s so beautiful. And I want that for all dancers, everyone should get to have that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I also wanted to call out Daphne Lee from Dance Theatre of Harlem, who’s featured in the Pointe story, because while getting her MFA at Hollins University, she wrote a research paper tying the legacies of African royalty to the monarchies of the ballet cannon. And the paper had the most brilliant title—it was called “Le Corsaire to La Coarse Hair,” which is just so good.

Courtney Escoyne:
So good!

Margaret Fuhrer:
But the point is also that hairstyles that have connections to sovereign African lineages, like the Afro—there’s a logical case to be made for them on ballet stages. And beyond that, of course, just the idea of letting ballet dancers simply be who they are.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and like reflecting that lineage and that heritage and that culture because we want ballet to stop being so aggressively Eurocentric—that extends in a lot of different directions. And this is one of the directions it can extend in to more accurately reflect the world in which ballet is now being performed.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. In the show notes, we have links to the two Pointe stories that we mentioned about hair and ballet. I hope you can give them both a read.

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.