Transcript, Episode 114: Compassionate COVID Protocols and the Problem with Balletcore

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. In today’s episode, we’re going to begin as usual with our headline rundown, which will include both Ukraine related-stories and also news from other parts of the dance world. Then we will discuss a fantastic essay by choreographer and educator ​​Sydnie Mosley about what COVID-safe dance actually looks like right now, and how dance organizations can implement compassionate protocols. And finally, we’ll talk about fashion’s embrace of the ballet aesthetic—balletcore just continues to be everywhere—and how the trend ignores some of the less pretty realities of the art form.

That’s a lot of meaty topics, so let’s get right into our also quite substantive headline rundown.

Amy Brandt:
The opera house in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv has started performances again. The ballet company performed Giselle earlier this month with a limited audience of 300, because of limited space in the theater’s bomb shelter. Even so, the performance was sold out. So, signs of hope. Although, I have also heard that there have been a few attacks in Lviv recently. But you’ve got to give those dancers and directors credit for keeping the lights on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I just wanted to read this one quote from the opera’s artistic director: “We understand that light must defeat darkness, that life must defeat death, and the mission of the theater is to assert this.” And making that assertion is sometimes an act of real courage.

Speaking of acts of great courage: Nazar Shashkov, a ballroom dance instructor in Mariupol, has transported nearly 100 of his students and others in need out of the besieged city in recent weeks, using the van he formerly used to ferry dancers to competitions. He says he’s had some scary encounters with pro-Russia soldiers, and has dodged shrapnel while going behind enemy lines. But nevertheless, he’s made more than nine trips in and out of the city.

Amy Brandt:
Wow.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Pretty incredible.

Amy Brandt:
The Associated Press reports that foreign-born dancers who have fled Russia since its invasion of Ukraine say the war is pulling Russian ballet back to the isolation of the Soviet era. The story talks to American dancer Adrian Blake Mitchell and Slovakian dancer Andrea Lassakova, who both recently left Russia’s Mikhailovsky Ballet. They say most of their international friends have left, and that many Russian dancers want to leave.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Did you want to talk about your involvement?

Amy Brandt:
I am quoted in this article, yes. Yes, I did speak to the writer about how many foreign dancers were in Russia at the time. I kind of guesstimated. I wasn’t really sure, I just kind of guesstimated a hundred or less, specifically from western Europe, North and South America, countries like Japan—as opposed to…I know there are a lot of Eastern Bloc countries, dancers from Eastern Bloc countries have been dancing in Russia for a very long time. I’m really unsure of how many of them there are and if they are leaving as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, complicated questions there. It’s always good to see your name and to see Pointe‘s name in news stories, though!

Amy Brandt:
Thanks.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here is another story on the theme of art’s political power. The Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, which is based outside of Philadelphia, is working to counter Russian disinformation campaigns by showing Ukraine in a positive light. Through their performances—which by the way include some political satire and politically-charged allegorical storytelling—they aim to teach US audiences about Ukrainian history and culture. So, dance as diplomacy, once again.

Amy Brandt:
Mm-hmm.

An appellate court has ruled that New York City Ballet will have to face dancer Alexandra Waterbury’s claims that the company failed to protect her during a photo sharing scandal, reversing a 2020 ruling dismissing the charges against the company. The court found that Waterbury had, in fact, sufficiently alleged that New York City Ballet knew of its employees’ harmful propensities, failed to take appropriate action and caused her harm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, this is major news. We have a link to a Jezebel story about it in the show notes so you can find more information.

Final Bow for Yellowface, the organization dedicated to eliminating Asian caricature and orientalism from the stage, has launched the Gold Standard Arts Foundation. The new endeavor aims to support Asian creatives who want to collaborate in dance in the broader performing arts. One of the foundation’s first priorities is this survey on racial representation in professional ballet that it recently launched. Asian American perspectives are a focus of the survey, but not the exclusive focus. So we have a link to that survey as well as to Dance Magazine‘s story about the Gold Standard Arts Foundation in the show notes.

Amy Brandt:
The National Ballet of Canada’s 2022–23 season, Hope Muir’s first as artistic director, will feature world premieres by Wayne McGregor and Rena Butler, as well as Canadian premieres by David Dawson and Alonzo King. McGregor’s new work, in particular, sounds interesting: MaddAddam, which is a collaboration with author Margaret Atwood and is based on her trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yet another leadership transition is underway in the dance world. Aaron Mattocks, the director of programming at New York City’s Joyce Theater for the past four years, will be stepping down this July. Mattocks helped diversify the Joyce’s programming—diversify in multiple senses—during his tenure. He’s really well liked and respected in the dance community. The search for his replacement is now underway.

Amy Brandt:
I will be interested to see where he ends up.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, same.

Amy Brandt:
Here’s some distressing news. A statue of ballerina Marjorie Tallchief, was stolen from museum grounds of Tulsa’s Historical Society & Museum, hacked apart and sold for scrap. The sculpture was one of five depicting Oklahoma’s five moons, or the five Native American ballerinas that originated in the state. According to the New York Times, the statue was valued at $120,000. Parts of it were sold at a recycling center for $266.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s just…why?

Amy Brandt:
I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Why? There’s no sense or logic to this story. I’m so baffled by it.

Here’s another sort of mystifying story. Many cast members of the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella were angry and frustrated after finding out on social media that the show’s run was ending. Though current cast members of the show were told about its early closure following a performance, the story began to appear on Twitter and in the press before all performers had heard the news. That included members of an incoming cast who were due to start in a few weeks and now will not have a chance to perform at all. The show’s production company said in a statement that “every effort was made” to inform performers prior to public announcements. But clearly not quite enough effort.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Not good.

Scottish Ballet has launched a new dance initiative in the Orkney Islands to help those with multiple sclerosis improve their physical and mental health. The Orkney Islands, which I’ve actually had the pleasure of visiting, are kind of on the northern most coast of Scotland. They have the highest prevalence of MS in the world. Studies have shown that dance classes can help with balance, fatigue, gait, coordination, lower limb strength and cognitive performance. So it’s a really great initiative Scottish Ballet is starting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah.

Here’s a little more good news for this week, where we’re really in need of good news: The British company Pavilion Dance South West has helped create a vibrotactile dance floor that allows audiences to feel the dance they’re watching. It was initially conceived as a way to sort of bridge the gap between the live dance experience and the screen dance experience that we were limited to during shutdowns. The idea is even if you’re watching a film of a dance, this floor will allow you to sense the vibrations that would accompany jumping and footballs during a live performance. It’s also sort of a beautiful technology in terms of accessibility, allowing, for example, deaf audience members and artists to respectively experience and create dance in this augmented way. It’s so cool.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, that sounds really neat.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. Moving on to our discussion segments. First up today, we want to get into an essay that ran in Dance Magazine recently that grapples with how dance organizations are and should be navigating the pandemic at this point. Because it hasn’t ended, it truly might never end, so we can’t keep waiting for a return to some former normal. So friend of the pod ​​Sydnie Mosley, who’s an artist-activist, an educator and founder of the collective SLMDances, she wrote this piece, which is characteristically insightful and deeply humane. In it, she talks about the guidelines that she and her collective have established to help them resume studio practice—guidelines that recognize not only the risks they’re taking themselves, but also their responsibility to protect the most vulnerable people in their communities. It’s really a collective care approach to COVID safety.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I feel like I’m reminded every day that this pandemic is really not over.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Nope.

Amy Brandt:
But yeah, she really beautifully illuminates how her dance organization has had to accept ways in which to live with the virus in order to continue creating and collaborating. And really, what I got out of it was really this responsibility to communicate really clearly and effectively and immediately when it comes to COVID health protocols. At the end of her essay, she kind of lays out some advice for people in different positions in the art industries. I feel like one thing that just kind of comes across is having a really clear plan and policies in place that you put out there right away, so that there’s no issues that arise later. Because she was sort of saying there is a lot of vague … every place has a different type of policy, and they’re somewhat vague about it at times, and how that just makes things more difficult.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the fact that we as a society have not really arrived at a medical or a legal agreement as to what “COVID safe” actually means—yeah, it puts the burden of figuring that out on individuals, on organizations, smaller organizations like SLMDances. Which is frustrating and sad, but it’s also, as Sydnie says, an opportunity for us to think critically about what we really want from our COVID guidelines, what our goals are. Because while science is obviously an important part of the process when you’re determining protocols, there are other aspects, too. Safety and health are not limited to physical safety and physical health.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Different people value different things and feel safe at different risk levels. That’s another thing that makes that continuous communication so important, is you have to know at all times how the people you’re interacting with are feeling about, what their mental state is in addition to what their physical health needs might be.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. There’s a great quote I highlighted, says, “We know that what is allowed legally, what an individual feels comfortable with, and the actual calculated risks that a person takes in order to attend to whatever is essential in their own lives does not equal what is actually scientifically safest.” So that was kind of illuminating.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Another part of the essay that I liked was when Sydnie mentioned that she’s encouraged members of her collective not to talk about “strict” protocols, but instead to use the phrases “abundance of caution” or “abundance of care.” Because it’s not that we’re being denied something, as “strict” implies; it’s that we’re trying to extend as much protection as possible to as many people as possible. It’s actually a generous act. I thought that was a really important way of framing the process.

Amy Brandt:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Anyway. Yeah. We all have to think carefully about how we navigate the world as it exists now, instead of just muddling through and banking on an eventual virus-free future. Sydnie’s thinking about that is so useful and so helpful. Obviously we have this story linked for you in the show notes. I hope you can give it a read.

Finally today, we’d like to discuss an article that ran in Jezebel this week about the problem with balletcore. Because the fashion world has, once again—honestly, this seems to happen every few years—but it’s once again embraced ballet flats and leg warmers and leotards and tulle. They’re all over the place. What the article points out is that the fashion world’s vision of ballet elevates a kind of upper-class white femininity that’s stereotypically associated with the art form—which, that’s a problem in itself—and then it also ignores the reckonings that real world ballet is having now with issues including sexism and racism and fatphobia.

None of those problems are new to anyone listening to this podcast. We’ve talked about them all extensively. But what we’d like to discuss today is what good balletcore might look like. Because what the fashion world is ultimately responding to, and what it has responded to repeatedly for decades, is the beauty of ballet. Is there an ethical way for it to pay homage to that very real beauty? What responsibility do fashion brands have here?

Amy Brandt:
There are two issues that the writer really illuminates in this article. One is that a lot of fashion brands really don’t bother to hire dancers to represent their ballet-inspired lines, but instead kind of stick skinny models in pointe shoes and awkward poses and … That in itself just tells you that they’re not paying attention to the dance industry. And then there’s also this question of how it borrows the aesthetic, but doesn’t acknowledge the uglier sides, which has really been in a lot of the dance news in recent years.

Part of me wonders how realistic it is to expect high-end fashion to follow the dance industry that closely or care that much. But athleisurewear and athleticwear companies seem to be a lot more in touch with who dancers are, what they’re doing, what they stand for, et cetera, than some of the higher fashion.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I agree with you—I mean, I had similar thoughts in terms of, ll right, but really, what is the fashion world’s responsibility here and how much should they be expected to know about these reckonings happening in ballet? And then I thought, frankly, a lot of these issues, lack of diversity, extremely thin bodies, these are issues that have also plagued fashion as a whole for decades.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And it does seem like the fashion world is, I mean, slowly, very slowly, but starting to move away from those perspectives itself. So, what if we explored balletcore from that angle, too, instead of using it as a cover to revert to those outdated aesthetic “ideals”?

Amy Brandt:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Let’s offer a vision that celebrates the inherent beauty of ballet technique without propping up those negative stereotypes.

Amy Brandt:
The article did include a great example of a recent Michael Kors campaign that featured Alicia Graf Mack with her daughter.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that campaign. I love it. Her daughter, by the way, is a born dancer. You have to go to Alicia’s Instagram account and see the videos she’s posted. She’s just like made to do this.

Amy Brandt:
I’ve also seen, like, India Bradley at New York City Ballet has done quite a bit of modeling. I think she’s done something recently for Victoria’s Secret for their more, kind of athleisure line. And then Michaela DePrince, and I believe a few other dancers, were in Nike’s Own the Floor campaign. These are, of course, more like athletic lines, though, as opposed to high fashion …

Margaret Fuhrer:
…takes on ballet.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. You know, kind of stressing the athleticism behind the dancer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Amy Brandt:
I did see a recent spread with Francesca Hayward of the Royal Ballet in Harper’s Bazaar UK that was quite nice.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We’ve also seen Harper Watters from Houston Ballet do some great campaigns that play with femininity, that play with gender a little bit. I mean, can you imagine how great a campaign with a nonbinary dancer, like a Maxfield Haynes or an Ashton Edwards, having them en pointe? I mean, so many creative possibilities there that seem sort of in line with the types of experimenting that are happening elsewhere in the fashion world.

Honestly, it seems like featuring dancers with larger bodies will probably be the last barrier to fall in fashion. But I do hope that someday in the not too distant future, we start seeing people like Colleen Werner modeling not just for dance brands, but for fashion brands too. That would be such an important step forward.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

The creative directors of these fashion houses, if they don’t do their research or don’t care to do their research, I think it shows, personally, in some of these very awkward ad campaigns with non-dancers in particular.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Which is so strange because high level ballet dancers have never been more visible just everywhere. They’re all over social media. It would not be hard to find a brilliant ballet model for your balletcore campaign.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Yeah. If you go to the Instagram account @modelsdoingballet, you can really see this in action. You can really see the very white, idealized femininity, as well as the lack of professional dancers used in these creative campaigns.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We’ll link that in the show notes. Long story short, let’s work our way towards a more thoughtful take on balletcore. We have the link to the Jezebel story in the show notes as well.

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.