Transcript, Episode 115: Pas de Deux Politics and How Social Media Affects Creativity

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 this episode, we’re going to begin with an absolutely packed headline rundown, including major news from several different corners of the dance world. Then we will discuss a deeply thoughtful essay by New York City Ballet principal Russell Janzen about the politics of the pas de deux, and what it means to be a ballet “gentleman” in 2022. Finally, we’ll talk about another really insightful piece in which the dance artist Rosie Herrera considers her intimate relationship with social media and how it has affected her creative practice.

First, though, here is just a brief plug for the new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our premium audio interview series, which will be out this Saturday on Apple Podcasts. This time around, I talked to the brilliant dancer and choreographer PeiJu Chien-Pott, who is probably best known for her work as a performer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. But now she has a new role as one of the leaders of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, following Nai-Ni Chen’s tragic death last December. I talked to PeiJu about how being a keeper of the flame is sort of a through line in her career, and also about how crucial the work of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company feels right now, as violence and hate against Asian Americans is on the rise. So, I hope you can listen to the interview. Again, it’ll be out this Saturday, May 14th 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, now it’s time for our very substantial headline rundown.

Lydia Murray:
First up, American Ballet Theatre has announced that Susan Jaffe will be its next artistic director. Jaffe received international acclaim during her 22-year career with the company and was appointed Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s artistic director in July 2020, after serving as the Dean of Dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts for eight years. She will take the helm of ABT from Kevin McKenzie, who has spent 30 years in the position, in December. Huge congratulations to her.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, big congrats to Susan. That is major news, long-awaited news. It is pretty encouraging that, as of the end of this year, three of the top 10 ballet companies in the country, by budget, will have female leaders, as our friends at Dance Data Project noted. That number was formerly just one, Lourdes Lopez at Miami City Ballet. So, change is slow, but it’s happening.

The 2022 Tony Award nominees were announced on Monday, and there are dance folks all over the list, but particularly notable are two choreographer/directors who received nods for both best direction and best choreography. That’s Camille A. Brown for her work on for colored girls… and Christopher Wheeldon for MJ. The best choreography category is also, as usual, absolutely stacked. It includes not just Brown and Wheeldon, but also Warren Carlyle, Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, and Bill T. Jones. Then tap genius Jared Grimes also got a best featured actor nomination for Funny Girl, and breakout star Myles Frost got a best leading actor nom for MJ.

Lydia Murray:
And continuing the Tony-related news, fresh off her best supporting actress Oscar win for Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, Ariana DeBose will host the Tony Awards this year on Sunday, June 12th at Radio City Music Hall.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s so great. We saw Ariana bring all this awesome theater-kid energy when she hosted “SNL.” Now, she’ll bring that same energy to theater kid prom. I can’t wait.

Here is some sadder Broadway news with a silver lining, although that lining also has an asterisk appended. The Camille A. Brown-directed revival of for colored girls… announced that it will close early later on this month after struggling to attract audiences. That’s the sad news. The silver lining is that theater journalist Ayanna Prescod and publicist Lisa Goldberg have, since that announcement, been leading a Twitter campaign to help save the show, tweeting out free pairs of tickets for women or nonbinary people of color. Those tickets have been sponsored by all kinds of Broadway legends, including Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth and choreographer Lorin Latarro. So, that’s the silver lining, now here’s the asterisk: Some people were upset about a NY1 segment about the campaign that did not credit Prescod, who is Black, but did call out Goldberg, who is white. It seems that since that segment aired, though, the Broadway community and some other press outlets have really rallied around Prescod. And the big news is that the campaign has led to more than $15,000 worth of donated tickets. So, it is making a real difference.

Lydia Murray:
I was so excited to see Prescod’s efforts around this when this started on Twitter. To see what it’s growing into is just really, really great.

Several former dancers have called for Patricia Barker, the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director, to resign after multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior were made against her husband, who is ballet master Michael Auer. According to the news outlet TVNZ, Auer has been dismissed as ballet master, but the company has thus far declined to confirm that. New Zealand’s Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister said in an emailed statement that she had been given assurances that, “a robust and appropriate process” had been conducted.

Margaret Fuhrer:
A complicated story. We have a link to a news piece about it in the show notes so you can learn more.

More ballet leadership news: Two months after resigning as director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, French ballet star Laurent Hilaire has been named artistic director of Germany’s Bavarian State Ballet. Hilaire is replacing former director Igor Zelensky, the Russian dance artist who left in April, citing personal reasons. More musical chairs.

Lydia Murray:
Former New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford Lillo recently spoke to the New York Times about the end of her time at the company, including feeling body shamed and feeling ignored in casting decisions.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that seems very messy. We have a link to the New York Times story in the show notes.

And speaking of messy, oh my gosh…

Lydia Murray:
Oh my goodness.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Last week, The Cut published an in-depth article about the allegations that the talent agency 7M, which represents a bunch of TikTok-famous dancers, is a religious “cult”. The piece not only explains the many complicated facets of the 7M story, but also connects it to stories from several years ago about Street Kingdom, a group of krump dancers that seemed to have had a similar kind of religion-based hold on its members. This is one that I simply can’t do justice to in a three-sentence summary. Please do go read the whole Cut article, which we, of course, have linked for you.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, that story was just absolutely wild, to say the least.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is a roller coaster.

Lydia Murray:
But on a completely different note, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has elected 261 new members, including Kyle Abraham, Miguel Gutierrez and Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And more congrats are in order. The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU has also announced its 2022-23 fellows. They are scholar Anurima Banerji, choreographer Hope Boykin, historian Brooke Holmes and musicologist Kara Yoo Leaman. Their projects sound fascinating. Please go check out the NYU release in the show notes to learn a little bit more about them.

Lydia Murray:
The new home of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy is officially up and running. It is housed inside the Rhimes Performing Arts Center, which was a gift from Shonda Rhimes. The space features five dance studios, a 200-seat performance area and classrooms for the Debbie Allen Middle School of the Performing Arts. There are also a studio theater and art gallery, which Allen wants to become a gathering space for performers and creatives. The new center held its grand opening in March then had a ceremony on April 10th, and Dance Academy classes began earlier this month.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know that Debbie Allen and Shonda Rhimes are great friends who work together all the time on “Grey’s Anatomy,” but do you also have a hard time even just imagining them together in the same room, because they’re both such intense forces of nature?

Lydia Murray:
They seem like just a dynamic duo. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Anyway, that sounds like a fantastic development for the L.A. dance scene.

Across the country in New York City, a New York City street has officially been named in honor of ballet icon and National Dance Institute founder Jacques d’Amboise. The northwest corner of West 64th street and Columbus Avenue, which is right in front of Lincoln Center, is now Jacques d’Amboise Place. The new sign was revealed just before New York City Ballet’s gala last week. At the dedication ceremony, some of the children from NDI paid tribute to d’Amboise with a couple of performances.

Lydia Murray:
Remember the viral dancing baby gif from the nineties?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, do I. [laughter]

Lydia Murray:
Well, it’s getting a new look, with boosted color tones and a sharper image quality. It’ll be released in different forms, recreated by various artists, as a collection of NFTs. Because of course it is. The overhaul is being led by its original creators, Michael Girard, Robert Lurye and John Chadwick, in collaboration with the Vienna-based creative group HFA-Studio.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here is a different bit of nostalgia-driven news: Dance Dance Revolution has been inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame. The game was first seen in Japan in 1998, and it of course went on to basically take over the world.

I don’t know, I love DDR, but Lydia, maybe you had these same experiences: My most vivid memories are of friends expecting me to be an excellent DDR player because I was a dancer, and me being like, “No, those skills are entirely unrelated.”

Lydia Murray:
Very, very different. Yeah. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. So, that’s our last headline item, but before we move on from headlines, I wanted to note that while our roundup catches most of the big dance news stories each week, there are tons of noteworthy performances and events going on that we don’t have time to get to. Which, it feels really good to say that after all these months of dance drought! To make sure that you’re not missing out on any upcoming shows or auditions or other dancy stuff that’s happening in your area, please do check out the Dance Media Events Calendar, which is super handy. You can actually add your own events to the list, it’s also a great way to promote them. You can find the Events Calendar at dancemediacalendar.com. There are some great auditions on there right now, actually.

Okay. In our first discussion segment today, we’d like to discuss an essay that Russell Janzen, who’s one of New York City Ballet’s standout principal dancers, wrote for the New York Times. It’s kind of a tortured piece, there’s a lot of struggle in it, but it’s rooted in deep reflection. It does a beautiful job articulating complicated feelings that I think a lot of us have been dealing with recently.

In the essay, Janzen considers the politics of ballet partnering. What does it mean to be a ballet “gentleman” on stage as a queer person in 2022, as the ballet world grapples with questions of representation and your own company grapples with accusations of sexual misconduct? How do you find space for yourself in an environment that doesn’t always align with the way that you think about the world?

Lydia Murray:
One thing Janzen addresses in this piece is that there’s something of a power imbalance in the way pas de deux has traditionally been done, where the man supports, but also leads and is very much the strong, traditionally masculine figure, exerting a great deal of control. In the central pas de deux in Agon, for example, there was that iconic moment where the male dancer stretches his partners’ working leg in attitude, and Janzen talks about how that felt kind of cruel to execute, despite his female partners being comfortable with the movement, because it essentially required him to push the ballerina into this unnatural shape.

That section was only a small piece of choreography, but it reflects the broader question of what it means to be a gentleman and what it means to be a supportive male partner in ballet today. So much of partnering in ballet comes from those traditional gender roles and the idea of this delicate kind of femininity, of a performance of fragility that belies a great strength, and where the man kind of shows deference to the woman in a sense and to her ability to embody that ideal, but he retains much of the power. That’s true not only of roles in choreography in ballet, but also often ballet workplaces.

In connection with these outmoded gender roles, Janzen also discussed the way the dynamic between a male and female dancer in pas de deux is often romantically or sexually charged. As a queer male dancer, there can be an opportunity to move beyond that, being just two equal dancing artists. He talks about how, when he was younger, he thought that the romantic chemistry between two dancers made for a better performance. But now, when he’s felt like he was dancing his best, he’s felt, in his words, unbound. Like he was released from that pressure of being, as he put, regal or manly or of needing to articulate himself as anything specific. He said he could just move his body and feel like himself, “a queer person who loves to dance and who loves to dance with a partner.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I actually wanted to read a passage of his from the essay about how he wrapped his mind around all of that—or rather of the conclusion that he came to after thinking about all of this extensively.

He says, “The role of the cavalier—ballet’s “gentleman”—has been described as an attendant to a queen. But to attend can mean more than just to serve. To attend is to be attentive. As dancers we always have to be attentive to the moment and to the music. Attentive to one another. And dancing attentively need not rely only on romance or sexuality. It’s the care that is essential.”

I thought that was sort of beautiful, because there, he’s distilled down what is most important and valuable to him as a partner, and a way to prioritize those values, even inside these old-fashioned roles—so that he’s always dancing with integrity and conviction, because he’s always being true to himself.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I mean, it ultimately does boil down to care and trust.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I also liked, I mean, a lot of this piece, as you mentioned, focuses on Agon. Which, by the way, I just saw the company perform Agon last night—I saw Unity Phelan make her debut, she was incredible. Watching that pas de deux feels very different after reading this story. But Russell talks about how he and his partner Tess Reichlen both felt uncomfortable inside the choreography, and so instead decided to look for new ways of being inside of it. Russell mentioned that he remembered hearing Arthur Mitchell, from the original cast, describe the pas de deux as two kittens playing. In that image, they found their way of approaching the ballet. They found new possibilities that allowed for that mutual care.

I mean, I think it’s beautiful that dancers like Russell are thinking deeply about these questions and finding their own paths through ballet repertoire. I do hope that more of this kind of thinking makes its way into ballet training and coaching, so it’s not all left to the dancers to figure out, you know?

Lydia Murray:
I wonder if this could be part of the work of intimacy coaches in the future. Even though it’s not solely intimacy work, but it does touch on that. Would be interesting to see.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That does seem closely connected, for sure.

Basically, all that we’re saying here is that we think you should go read this essay, which is wonderful. We’ve linked to it, of course, in the show notes.

Last up today, we wanted to discuss a great recent piece from Dance Magazine in which the choreographer and artistic director Rosie Herrera thinks about what her relationship with social media and other online technologies has become, and what impact that relationship has had on her work as an artist. Like Russell’s essay, this is a really well-considered treatment of some questions that we’ve basically all been asking ourselves over the past few years. But it was spurred by Rosie deciding to take what turned out to be several months-long breaks from social media—which started back in August 2020, she was doing that. What she discovered was that her time online had been filling every potential moment her mind might have to wander. It was sort of eliminating the quiet spaces in which creativity usually thrives. Then she also started thinking about the performative aspect of social media, the difference between the persona she’d curated online and her in-person identity. There’s lots to unpack here.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Herrera came to notice that she was disassociating from the world, and she said that she wasn’t engaging in social media in a way that was meaningful or sincere. She never, as Margaret said, really had a chance for her mind to wander, for that experience to bear fruit creatively. Something meaningful would happen in rehearsal and she’d think, “Well, let me put this on social media so people can see it.” Who hasn’t really had that experience? All of these are things many dancers can relate to, I think. It’s about being mindful of how you relate to technology. For some dancers, there might be more of a symbiotic relationship, but for others it can more easily become damaging.

Then, she talked about integrating your digital persona with who you are physically, because the two can easily become disconnected, and what that means for a dancer. It’s an age-old question—people have been crafting their images and experiencing the tension between who they are and how they present themselves for generations. But, I loved how she phrased it: that, in dancing, what you think and feel becomes visible to the audience when you’re together. It’s something that’s felt and understood deeply. As technology evolves, it keeps raising new forms and extensions of these longer-standing challenges, like the relationship between self-knowledge and self-expression, whether you’re listening to your own inner voice as opposed to the voices of the outside world and what you learn in the process.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah, I also thought it was so cool that she’s using this thinking that she’s been doing now as a creative prompt, essentially. The integration of her online identity and her physical self in dance—because that’s a place where, yeah, dance is conducive to that kind of exploration.

She jokes at one point that she and her phone are in couples’ counseling, because their relationship is so messed up. I was thinking, this kind of creative process actually feels like it could be a productive couples’ counseling exercise, a way to work through what’s bothering her about that relationship and maybe, in the process, exorcise some demons.

Lydia Murray:
Very true.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I also thought it was interesting that, when she was talking about how social media has led her to disassociate from the world—this thing of constantly engaging with everybody, but only superficially, with no real, deep intimacy—the idea that that then prevented her from having the time for real dissociation…or actually, dissociation is not quite the right word, but for her to really disconnect from reality in the way that we do when we daydream, when our minds are free to roam.

Lydia Murray:
In that really intentional way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, exactly. Social media was making her feel at once less connected to the world in a meaningful way and less connected to her own creative mind in a meaningful way. Two different effects of the same thing. Which I thought was fascinating. The way that she articulated that I thought was great.

Anyway, this is another great article. We’ve got the link for you in our notes. Please give it 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.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.