Transcript, Episode 116: The Missing Ensemble Tony and the Women Leading Ballet Forward

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. And in this episode, we will begin with our usual dance headline rundown, going over the news highlights of the past week. Then, since theater award season is now in very full swing, we will lay out the argument for a Tony Award for best ensemble, a case made extremely persuasively by critic Laura Collins-Hughes in a recent article. And finally, we will talk about the remarkable women who are either about to take on or have recently taken on artistic leadership positions at ballet companies, what their plans are, and how they could fundamentally reshape the ballet world.

I think this is going to be a good episode, so let’s get started right away with our headlines.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest concluded over the weekend with Kalush Orchestra, the folk rap group representing Ukraine, winning by an overwhelming margin. The group included breaker Danyil Chernov, who performed in a jumpsuit patterned like a traditional rug. The performer who usually fills that role, Vlad Kurochka, elected to remain in Ukraine, where he’s been helping to defend Kyiv. And I think the group kind of expressed a hope that, as is tradition, Ukraine, having won Eurovision this year, will hopefully be able to host next year as is traditionally the case. So…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, fingers crossed. A victory at a moment where Ukraine needs more victories.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Nominations for the 2022 Drama Desk Awards, which honor on- and off-Broadway theater, were announced earlier this week. It’s worth noting, given our upcoming discussion segment, that the cast of Six will receive an ensemble award. Other highlights include an outstanding actor nomination for MJ dancer/actor Myles Frost and an incredibly competitive choreography category. So, check the link we’ve got in the show notes for the full list.

Courtney Escoyne:
And continuing the nomination spiel, the 2022 Chita Rivera Awards, which recognize outstanding dance and choreography on Broadway, off Broadway, and in the movies, have also been announced. So the nomination list for outstanding choreography in a Broadway show is full of very familiar names: Annie-B Parson for American Utopia, Camille A. Brown for for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, Christopher Wheeldon for MJ: The Musical, Sonya Tayeh for Moulin Rouge, Bill T. Jones, Garrett Coleman, and Jason Oremus for Paradise Square, and Warren Carlyle for The Music Man. Something I found particularly interesting is that those shows were, across the board, also nominated for outstanding ensemble in a Broadway show, which I think might hint at why us dancer folk, in particular, find ensemble awards so important. There are other nominations I could shout out, but I will just hold myself to congratulating Josh Prince for receiving a special recognition for outstanding choreography in an 0ff-Broadway show for his work on Trevor and the cast of The Wrong Man for their outstanding ensemble in an 0ff-Broadway show recognition. All of the awards will be presented on June 20th, and you can peek at the full nomination list at the link in the description.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Over in the TV world, National Geographic’s new slate of television shows includes “Dance the World,” starring “Dancing with the Stars” alum Derek Hough. Hough will team up with celebrity guests to explore the cultural roots of popular dance styles and trends. And the information we have about this show is pretty spotty—we don’t know what dance styles we’re talking about;we don’t know exactly what is meant by “cultural roots”—but there does seem to be potential here.

Courtney Escoyne:
And Boston Ballet has announced its 2022 through ’23 season. Of particular note are yet another premiere from William Forsythe, continuing the long-term partnership he entered into with the company back in 2017, which artistic director Mikko Nissinen told The Boston Globe would be set to John Cage’s compositions for prepared piano, and a new roughly 50 minute work by Dutch choreographer Nanine Linning, who created a well-received dance film with the company last year. Mixed bills with works by Balanchine, Helen Pickett, Stephen Galloway, and Justin Peck are also on tap, plus runs of Don Q, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty.

Margaret Fuhrer:
San Francisco Ballet has also announced its new season. This is its 90th anniversary season, and its first under new artistic director Tamara Rojo, although it was not programmed by Rojo. Notably, it will open with the next@90 festival featuring nine world premieres. Those will be choreographed by Nicolas Blanc, Bridget Breiner, Robert Garland, Benjamin Millepied, Yuka Oishi, Yuri Possokhov, Jamar Roberts, Danielle Rowe, and Claudia Schreier.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, I think those festivals, it’s always interesting to see what comes of them and it always generates a lot of interesting buzz, I think, choreographically. So very curious to receive word from the west coast early next year.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Courtney Escoyne:
And Fire Island Dance Festival, which benefits Dancers Responding to AIDS, is back this summer for the first time since 2019. Some early programming details are beginning to trickle in. New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin will reprise Sweet Gwen Suite, a collection of dances originally co-created and performed by Gwen Verdon. Caleb Teicher is crafting a non-binary duet with former Martha Graham principal Abdiel Jacobsen. National Ballet of Canada principals Harrison James and Ben Rudisin will dance a pas by Joshua Beamish. And Buglisi Dance Theatre will present an excerpt of its Requiem. The festival will take place July 15th through 17th. Further programming details are to be announced in the coming months.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I can’t tell you how excited I am about… I mean, all the programming sounds great, but particularly about Abdiel and Caleb doing a non-binary hustle. That’s like an absolute dream. And also, stay tuned, because Abdiel will be on an upcoming Dance Edit Extra episode to talk about their work exploring gender-neutral partnering in social dance and in ballroom dance. And it was just the best interview. So keep eye out for that one.

Sad news this week from Paris. The Lido, a famous Parisian cabaret known for its dancers, may soon no longer be a cabaret. Back in December, it was purchased by a hotel group. That group has now decided that they want to turn the venue into a simple performance hall as opposed to a cabaret. The plan would result in dismissal of nearly all of the cabaret’s current employees. So a huge loss for the cabaret scene.

Courtney Escoyne:
And to mark the end of a four-day conference at the European Parliament, a group of dancers performed choreography by French dance maker Angelin Preljocaj among the MEPs, largely to the bafflement of folks who saw clips on social media. I don’t necessarily have more to add here. It’s just quite curious and interesting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You know what? I have more to add. I thought the Twitter reaction to this, the social media reaction, was so gross. Nigel Farage, in particular, was just characteristically awful.

Courtney Escoyne:
I mean, anytime you see Nigel Farage being like [grumble grumble], it’s just like, “Oh, okay, we should take a second look at this.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
[laughter] Sure. Yeah. But I think I’m just over snarky reactions to dance happening in unexpected or unconventional spaces. And I’m also over calling any kind of dance that’s even remotely mysterious to anyone “interpretive dance”…

Courtney Escoyne:
“Interpretive dance!”

Margaret Fuhrer:
…in this dismissive, demeaning way. So let’s stop all of that, please. And that’s the end of my TED Talk.

Thus concludes our headline rundown as well. But before we get into our discussion segments, I wanted to give a shout out, once again, to the Dance Media Events Calendar, which has listings for tons of newsworthy performances and events, including some things we just don’t have time to get to on the podcast. So to make sure that you’re not missing out on any upcoming shows or auditions, or if you’d like to add your own events to the calendar, head to dancemediacalendar.com.

All right. So in our first discussion segment today, we’re going to talk about something that I know is a special pet peeve of Courtney’s, as she has been hinting most of this episode. That is the fact that there’s no Tony Award for Best Ensemble. In the New York Times this week, theater critic Laura Collins-Hughes argued that the current Broadway season, with all of its COVID substitutions and swaps, just made it abundantly clear that theater is a team sport, and that the Tonys should recognize those who play that sport well. And I mean, COVID aside, there’s also a special magic to a show that doesn’t rely on one or a few big name stars to carry it. I mean, a show whose brilliance is spread evenly throughout the whole cast? How fantastic. Go, Courtney, do your thing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh, there are just so many arguments here that I love. Okay. So one argument is that some shows are quite simply not designed with the conceit of leading versus supporting versus ensemble players in mind. So Six, an ostensible singing competition between the wives of Henry VIII, obvious example. So is this season’s revival of for colored girls…. I think it’s even true of A Strange Loop, which is leading the Tony nominations, which has a lead role, and then a six-person ensemble of the main character’s thoughts, each of whom have their moments of, arguably, being in featured role territory.

And across the board, there are standouts in all of these casts. Absolutely. But I think the magic of these shows is in how all these different roles play together. It’s not the fact of one person being the star, someone else being the supportive, and someone else being the ensemble. It’s how they all work together in these shows.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think that’s special and gets tricky when it comes to awards season recognition.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Totally. And in fact, if, in any of those shows, one performer is sort of eclipsing the others, the show can’t tell the story that it wants to tell effectively. You don’t want a star of that kind.

Courtney Escoyne:
Exactly. And I think it’s a different kind of show that we want to see more of on Broadway, outside of just those big—we know the headliner marquee hits, which are special and important and have their place. But I think we want more types of stories being told on Broadway, and this is one way to do it.

And also, it’s worth noting, award show recognition, it’s easy to kind of brush off, but they do tend to have real financial consequences for shows. Getting a best musical Tony can genuinely make a difference as to whether or not a show continues on for years to come or closes within a few months of opening.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And emphasizing the ensemble as something significant and award-worthy could also shape the types of shows that get produced in the first place.

Courtney Escoyne:
Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The idea of bringing the focus back to the community feel of theater, to that uniquely amazing thing that happens when a team of strong players create this symbiotic energy on stage—Laura Collins-Hughes compared it to sports teams that are star-oriented, that rely on one big name player, versus teams that are team-oriented. The latter are so much more exciting to watch. And that is often true on stage as well.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mm-hmm. Well, and that’s true even in shows where big names are headlining.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Courtney Escoyne:
For example, two of the big examples this season are… The Music Man has Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. Company is led by Katrina Lenk, and there’s Patti LuPone and this whole list of incredible actors in that show. And the alchemy of a fantastic ensemble can make or break a show. And sometimes you see a musical that, it’s not going to win best musical, but boy, do you wish you could throw some accolades on the whole cast doing what they do. And not to mention, as we’ve alluded to, the chorus is oftentimes where you find the most dancers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s where the dancers are.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I had my issues with the West Side Story revival back in early 2020, but no one could deny the caliber of dancing we were seeing in that huge ensemble.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Courtney Escoyne:
So I think it’s something that deserves to be recognized. And then just adding another layer to this, this season, with the way that swings and understudies have been the ones making Broadway actually happen—if ever there were a year to be recognizing ensembles, this is it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep. Yeah. That delicate, complicated kind of harmony that all these shows have had to sustain through all of these last-minute COVID cast changes, that is work that should be recognized, and the ensemble award would be a good way to do it.

This whole conversation makes me miss The Ensemblist podcast, by the way. They were constantly pushing for better awards recognition for theatrical ensembles, and also doing their own awards for ensemble members. So, RIP, The Ensemblist.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So we love the awards that do recognize best ensembles. I believe the Lucille Lortel Awards just added that this season, which is great to see. So get with it, Tony Awards.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, please. We have the link to Collins-Hughes’s whole essay in the show notes. Please give it a read.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So finally today, we wanted to dig a little deeper into all the headlines we’ve seen recently about women finally getting artistic director jobs at major ballet companies. The highest profile of those appointments from this past year have been Hope Muir at National Ballet of Canada, Tamara Rojo at San Francisco Ballet, and Susan Jaffe at American Ballet Theatre. But in a recent post to his site, the critic Alastair Macaulay—with some help from others, including Liza Yntema and the Dance Data Project team, shout out to them—they put together this remarkably comprehensive list of all the women appointed to ballet’s top directorial positions over the past 10 years. And I have rarely felt so hopeful as I did reading that list. Which, by the way, Alistair kept adding to over the course of a few days, as more people sent in more names! It is significant.

So it seems like a real transformation is underway. What we wanted to talk about is how these women might change ballet. What have they said are their goals and values and priorities? And since artistic directors tend to have pretty long tenures, what might ballet look like five or 10 or 20 years down the line, thanks to their vision?

Courtney Escoyne:
There is so much to unpack here. And obviously, we don’t have a crystal ball, but I do think, in the case of Tamara Rojo taking over at San Francisco Ballet, we do have the last decade of the English National Ballet to look at as a sort of template.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Courtney Escoyne:
And something that she has really done there is champion new choreography, and champion taking a hard look at the classics and figuring out, what is worth preserving here? What is the story that needs to be told here? How can we carry this into the 21st century? I think, most arguably successfully, the commission of Akram Khan’s Giselle, which, I think in a lot of ways completely recontextualized that ballet. Perhaps less successfully with her own Raymonda, which premiered in January. But the openness to experimentation is something that seems encouraging.

And I think that she and Susan Jaffe both have talked a lot about commissioning women choreographers as something that should just be happening. Not something that’s an afterthought, not something that should just be on a special set-aside program, but something that should just be part of programming and part of how you put together a season.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, that is one encouraging trend that I sure hope continues, is that when women become directors of ballet companies, they tend to commission ballets from more women, which we saw Tamara do at the English National Ballet, we’ve seen several of these incoming directors do at other companies. And several of them, as you said, have said they plan to do that as well.

It’s interesting—we do have a fair amount of data to look at here in terms of what these new directors might do, because most of them have such extensive leadership experience already.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And that’s something that Alastair actually pointed out in his essay. And this is an echo of a refrain that’s heard not just in the ballet world or the dance world, but throughout the world of business leadership generally: Most of these women are incredibly well-qualified for their positions. They have a depth of experience that very few men have upon assuming directorship positions, because, generally speaking, women only get these top jobs if they are distinctly overqualified for them.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Which is sort of a disheartening fact, but the experience that these women do have bodes well for the companies they’re about to lead. They are prepared for these jobs. They are ready for them.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it bodes well for, I think, just arts administration in general, because I think, for a very long time, there was a trend of, “Oh, you were a star dancer with this company, now we’re going to hand you the directorship,” even if that person didn’t necessarily have as much behind-the-scenes acumen or knowledge.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Courtney Escoyne:
And so I think it can only be a good thing for women, people in general, but women who are actually really overtly qualified to take on the multifaceted role that is an artistic directorship.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah, either you were a star dancer or you were a star choreographer, which, that was the model for such a long time, choreographers being tapped to lead dance companies and to shape those companies with their choreographic vision and make work for them. Which, I think it’s interesting that relatively few of these women who have been appointed to these director jobs seem interested in making their own choreography a priority during their tenures…

Courtney Escoyne:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Even though many of them have choreographed.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think that is something that’s particularly interesting for American Ballet Theatre, with Susan Jaffe, is that, actually historically speaking, the people leading that company have not themselves been choreographers. Largely because the company was founded on this idea of being a repertory company that was just taking, almost magpie-like, a lot of different ideas of what ballet could be in presenting it. This gets into a larger discussion about the identity of American Ballet Theatre and how it has morphed over the last 90 years and what it even is now as Susan Jaffe is inheriting it at this strange inflection point.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Go to Alastair’s essay for that.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s a whole thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All of these directors are arriving at this incredibly difficult moment in ballet history, in dance history generally, the performing arts generally. They have these really steep hills to climb. So I hope that they all get not just all of the congratulations that they all so richly deserve, but also the help and support that they need to be successful as they navigate all these difficulties. No glass cliffs, please.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Which is something that we’ve talked about repeatedly as some of these appointments have come through, is like, okay, I hope you guys are backing them and aren’t just throwing them in, not acknowledging what an incredibly difficult job they’re being asked to take on given the moment we are in in dance in general.

And also, I am hopeful, but also feeling a touch of caution in that, yes, these women are incredibly qualified. They also, by and large, have had careers through directorships led by men, directorships that may or may not have had the best interest of dancers always at front of mind—a lot of things that we’ve been reevaluating and reanalyzing about the dance world and that have been more openly talked about, best practices just across the board in a lot of different issues. And so my hope is that we are going to see these directors take that experience and evolve and learn from it and listen, and not just be history repeating with a different face.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We’re rooting for them as they reevaluate those conventions.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. That’s it for us 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.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.