Transcript, Episode 118: “SYT” Shakeup, a Cabaret in Crisis, and Queer Stories on Ballet Stages

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 before we talk about what we’re going to be talking about this episode, we wanted to take a minute to let you know that our format is actually going to be changing a little going forward.

Starting with this episode, The Dance Edit Podcast will be a biweekly podcast, out every other Thursday. We’ll still get you up to speed on all the news stories that are moving the dance world. We’ll still do more in-depth discussions of one or two of those stories each episode. And never fear, because on the alternating Saturdays, we’ll have new Dance Edit Extra episodes for you, featuring interviews with the artists and administrators who are shaping the headlines.

So just to clarify the schedule, you’re getting a new Dance Edit Podcast episode today, Thursday. Next Saturday, June 11th, a new Dance Edit Extra episode will drop on Apple Podcasts. The Thursday after that, the 16th, there will be a new Dance Edit Podcast episode out again. And the Saturday after that, a new Dance Edit Extra episode on Apple Podcasts. And so forth. The takeaway is that you’ll still have great Dance Edit audio content every single week.

All right, so back to this week’s episode. We’re starting with a very wide-ranging headline rundown, with stories from the worlds of Broadway and television and Parisian cabaret, to name just a few. And then as Pride month 2022 kicks off, we will talk about two recent articles that address the progress the ballet world both has and has not made when it comes to queer representation. Because in ballet, as in much of the performing arts, what’s happening off stage is not always reflected in what’s happening on stage.

Wow, that was rather an epic preamble. [laughter] So let’s now get into our headline rundown.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right, so the New York City Center’s Encores! production of Into the Woods will be transferring to Broadway later this month for what is planned to be an eight week limited run, with performances starting June 28th and opening night scheduled for July 10th. It’s an absurdly starry cast. Like, honestly, just go look it up. But did want to give snaps to choreographer Lorin Latarro who has been doing all the things lately.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So many things. And thank goodness this transfer actually became reality, because the City Center social media accounts have been dropping so many hints about it that I think there would’ve been a Broadway Twitter revolt if it had not actually happened.

Courtney Escoyne:
I just… Sara Bareilles, Phillipa Soo, Joshua Henry. Ah! I’m so excited.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so good! It’s so good.

Over in the TV corner of the dance world, “So You Think You Can Dance” judge Matthew Morrison left the show less than a week after its season premiere. An initial report from Us Weekly said that he departed after a “minor infraction.” A later story in People magazine alleged that Morrison was asked to leave after he sent inappropriate messages to a contestant on the show. So, not the kind of news that “So You Think You Can Dance” wanted in the first weeks of its big comeback season after nearly three years off air, that’s for sure.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I am curious to see—because they did hint at they’re going to look at getting a third judge to round things out with JoJo Siwa and tWitch, so, curious who they’re going to pull there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Stay tuned.

Courtney Escoyne:
And the Lido, an iconic cabaret venue in Paris, was the site of protests from dancers over the weekend. The venue’s new owners have announced plans to lay off 157 of the venue’s 184 permanent employees, and to get rid of the cabaret’s nightly dinner shows and review in favor of more traditional performances. The venue predates World War II and has historically attracted performers like Josephine Baker and Elton John, but it has struggled with declining attendance and financial issues over the last several years, which of course was not helped by the pandemic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We first talked about this story a couple weeks ago. The fact that the dancers themselves are out protesting now, it speaks to the significance of the Lido as an institution. It’s something worth saving. The quote from the AP story about this that got me was from one of those dancers, who said, “I am American and I really came to know French culture through its dance.” Cabaret is a crucial part of France’s cultural heritage.

Courtney Escoyne:
We can only hope for better news there soon.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Please.

Heading over to the ballet world now: Boston Ballet dancer Sage Humphries gave a powerful interview to “Good Morning America,” discussing her experience coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse against former Boston Ballet principal Dusty Button and Button’s husband, Mitchell Taylor Button. Humphries is one of seven plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Buttons, as we have discussed here before. This was her first time sharing her story on camera. It’s very upsetting, so please of course proceed with caution, but we do have the link to the interview in the show notes.

Humphries said she hopes to help others by speaking out, and she ended with this quote: “Healing is not linear. It’s a process, and you’ll always find moments where things come up and trigger you. But now I have the joy of dancing back.”

Courtney Escoyne:
A little ray of hope in what has been a deeply distressing story to follow.

And The Seattle Times recently caught up with Amanda Morgan, the Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member who was at one point the only Black woman in the company, and who was very active in Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, following the murder of George Floyd. The article noted that according to artistic director Peter Boal, “New hires next year will raise the overall number of dancers of color to about 50%.” And Morgan said the increasing diversity within the company over the last couple of years has lifted some of the pressure she feels, and allowed her to focus more on her dancing. Progress has also been made in terms of costuming and with the inclusion of two non-binary dancers on the company’s roster. But Morgan says she would still like to see more diversity at all levels of the organization, including in its creative collaborators.

There’s a lot more to unpack here. Morgan does a great deal outside of being a core member and even outside of the PNB umbrella. But overall, this story is a good reminder that efforts towards equity have to be continuous and ongoing, but it’s encouraging to see that they are happening.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. And we have the link to that story. Please do go read that Seattle Times story. It’s excellent.

Speaking of improving racial equity in the arts, the Wallace Foundation has announced the 18 organizations of color participating in the first phase of its new five year initiative to help foster equitable improvements in the arts. The selected organizations include Philadanco and Ragamala Dance Company. Each of the 18 groups will receive five years of funding, totaling from 900,000 to 3.75 million dollars approximately, to pursue individual projects. That is excellent news.

Courtney Escoyne:
For sure.

And after being canceled twice during the pandemic, the Helsinki International Ballet Competition returned this week, kicking off on Tuesday and continuing through this coming Monday. 19 of the 68 competitors are from the United States, and they’re a mix of pre-professional students and pros. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on this for ballet aficionados, when you consider that the likes of Daniil Simkin, Jeff Cirio and Brooklyn Mack all competed at Helsinki before they were international stars.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And Pointe magazine did a great piece talking to a bunch of the American dancers who are competing there. We have that in the show notes for you.

Back to TV land now: The new Disney Junior animated series “Eureka!,” which premieres June 22nd, features Misty Copeland and multiple Broadway stars among its voice actors. “Eureka!” is set in the prehistoric world of Rocky Falls, and follows its title character, a young girl who designs inventions that she hopes will make the world a better place. Copeland plays Rockanne, who’s a dance teacher, and then Tony winner Renee Elise Goldsberry voices Eureka’s mother Roxy, and Goldsberry’s fellow Hamilton cast member Javier Muñoz voices Eureka’s teacher Ohm. The trailer looks very sweet.

Courtney Escoyne:
Just hearing that list of names in the voice cast makes my heart so happy.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah!

Courtney Escoyne:
In other positive news, Coventry University Center for Dance Research is studying the role television dance competition show “Strictly Come Dancing” has played in diversifying representation on British television. The project, titled “Strictly Inclusive: Co-Creating the Past, Present, and Future,” will look at the representation of different genders, sexualities, and disabilities on the show and speak with dance enthusiasts from those communities to discuss the impact of that highly visible inclusion.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’d be interesting to see the results of that.

Yet more happy news. A new one-hour kid-friendly version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical CATS is now available for licensing to schools in North America. Actually, I think it’s been available since last fall. But a recent story in the New York Times looked at a Texas high school’s take on this shortened version, one of the first productions of it in the US. And predictably the teens involved knew of the musical mostly from that not-so-well–received 2019 film version, and were highly skeptical to say the least. But most were won over eventually by its very weirdness, it seems like. So now we’ve got Jellicle cats and also Jellicle kittens.

Courtney Escoyne:
Jellicle kittens is maybe my favorite phrase I’ve ever heard.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was very proud of that. I’m not going to lie. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
I was going to shout it out if you didn’t say it. [laughter]

And Dance Magazine recently caught up with Ethan Levy, the founder of Dork Dancing, an organization that encourages people to dance regardless of skill level, as a way to help them deal with mental health challenges like depression and anxiety. Dork Dancing parties first took off in Vietnam in the early stages of the pandemic, and Levy is now working to expand it to Denver, Colorado, where he’s currently based. And I was also delighted to find out that there is a weekly online Dork Dancing session that’s hosted on Zoom that anyone is encouraged to join, and I just… The whole thing is delightful as a concept.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. So many lovely aspects to that story.

Okay, finishing out our headline rundown, and continuing our happy news streak: Attendees at the 2022 National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale, Florida recently set a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest game of freeze dance. 1,308 people participated in the game, which was witnessed by a Guinness World Records adjudicator. And fun fact, the previous record was 1,079 freeze dancers. It was set more than 12 years ago at Finland’s annual children’s fair in Helsinki.

Courtney Escoyne:
Aww.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Big aww.

So, that’s our last headline item. If you are looking for even more up to the minute news, please also be sure to check out our Dance Media Events Calendar, which has updated listings for lots of newsworthy performances and events, including things we either missed or ran out of time for on the podcast. So to make sure you’re not missing out on any upcoming shows or auditions, or to add your own events to the calendar, which you can also do, head to dancemediacalendar.com.

Okay, so moving into our longer discussion segment today, which centers on queer representation in ballet. Unsurprisingly there are several articles out this week about Christopher Wheeldon’s new production of Like Water for Chocolate, which opens today, the day you’re hearing this, at London’s Royal Ballet. It’s based on Laura Esquivel’s magical realist novel, and it does not involve a queer love story. But Wheeldon and some of the other artistic players involved in the ballet are openly queer. So we want to talk in particular about a Guardian interview with Wheeldon, and then an Attitude magazine profile of dancer Marcelino Sambé, who plays one of the romantic leads, Pedro. Because taken together they reveal the ways that ballet has started to evolve in its treatment of the LGBTQ+ community off stage, and also how that evolution has yet to be reflected in most of the stories told on ballet stages.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So, starting with the Chris Wheeldon interview, which is fantastic, I think Lyndsey Winship did a really great job of weaving together a lot of different threads of things that Wheeldon has been involved in and is thinking about.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It goes into the Michael Jackson musical. That whole can of worms.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes. There’s so much in there. It’s a great read. But one of the things that was most striking in it was Wheeldon did talk about coming up at the Royal Ballet School when he did. And growing up, and he felt many of his classmates were very much in the closet about their sexuality, and he talked specifically about not feeling as though he was able to come into his own as a gay man and really accept himself and live his life in that way until he moved away, until he was away from home. Which is not an atypical story for queer folks even today. But something that is striking is that whenever you pivot to look at Marcelino’s interview, it’s really striking how different their experiences seem to be.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, because… Wheeldon talks about how he today has seen much more openness in ballet to conversations about diversity in many senses: sexuality, race, gender, to some extent body shape. And we’ve talked about all of those steps forward—small steps, but steps—we’ve talked about those here before. But it’s true, Marcelino’s interview, he’s basically a member of the next ballet generation, and in some senses he agrees with Wheeldon by saying that, yes, LGBTQ+ representation has reached even the highest levels of ballet organizations through choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon. And you can walk around backstage at the Royal Opera House, as Marcelino says, and see all kinds of queer representation. But that hasn’t made it to the stage yet. The stories being told, even by people like Wheeldon, are still very heteronormative.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And I think it’s really telling that I think even 20 or 30 years ago, a big name ballet dancer coming out as queer would be headline news. Today it is just one facet of who they are as artists. However, frequently they aren’t able to portray that side of themselves on stage, particularly in the ballet world, where the vast majority of the works that we see are very heteronormative, including the ones that are being newly created.

Has there been a rise in same sex partnering on stage? Yes, but frequently it’s abstract ballets. There’s no narrative attached to it. It can just be waved away by anyone who maybe does not want to see queer love stories on stage.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Do you remember Marcelo Gomes’ Out magazine cover?

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And how big a deal that was?

Courtney Escoyne:
“Romeo is gay.” It was huge.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And that was not that long ago.

Courtney Escoyne:
It wasn’t.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s wild to think about.

It’s interesting that…I mean, why is the stage, which is the place where, in many other types of dance and performance, people find freedom that they cannot find in their offstage lives—why is that the last place to see change in ballet? And what Sambé says, and I think this is at least partly true, is that it has to do with this fear of what audiences want or what audiences will think. But that’s also a recipe for driving your art form into the ground, programming to what you think your oldest and most conservative audience members are looking for.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. It’s very much a perspective that is, we’re going to keep mollifying the potentially more conservative, growing much older subscription base; at the same time, we’re trying to figure out how to court newer, younger audiences. When the answer is, you need to actually represent what is happening in the world.

I mean, I think it’s the same thing that we see, that I have complained about endless times, in Hollywood. Any inclusion of queer characters is always done in such a way that it can be very easily edited out for foreign markets where it might face censorship, because of the financial concerns of that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Financial considerations are playing a factor in the ballet world as well, because when we do see queer representation on stage in ballet, it’s mostly happening in smaller works, in shorter works. When we get to the biggest stages, the most lavishly produced, full-length ballets, those are the places you are least likely to see a queer story. Like Marcelino’s quote about, “I would love to see someone mega like Wheeldon or Wayne McGregor create a ballet where we actually have two men kissing. How much longer do we have to wait until we see it?” The wait is often about financial concerns.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and I find it fascinating that because, as you said, Margaret, when it does come up, it does tend to be these smaller works. And I remember it being so striking last year, seeing at American Ballet Theatre a pas de deux between two men that did involve an onstage kiss, and that was the first time I had seen that at a company on the scale of American Ballet Theatre, and that in and of itself was incredibly cool. But also it being the only example of that that I could point to, it puts a huge, huge onus on whenever a work like that is presented, whenever it’s created, whenever it is finally allowed to be on stage. If that work is not a smash runaway hit, it is all too easy for the powers that be, the people with the financial strings to pull, to say, “Well, that clearly didn’t work. Let’s go back to what we do that we know works.” Which, when you think about it conversely, if I watch a ballet that involves a heterosexual love story in it and the ballet itself isn’t that good and it’s shelved, the conclusion isn’t, “Well, we can’t present heterosexual love stories anymore.” Because there’s plenty more that you can point to that actually do work.

So it’s not just a matter of, let’s get this on stage. It’s, let’s have enough diversity of representation and a large enough quantity of it, done well enough so that not every single one needs to be a masterpiece, but that also it ceases to be news in and of itself that it’s even happening.

I was commenting to Margaret before we sat down to record this episode, I’m so tired of having to say this over and over and over again. I just want there to be a, like…particularly coming into this Pride month, I want there to be a panoply of queer stories with all these different perspectives and points of view and ways of telling and ways of seeing. I want it to be there and available, and then we can actually get to evaluating the work on the merit of the work.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Evaluating it outside of that very narrow context. Evaluating it within the larger context of the entire ballet canon, which is how we should be thinking about it.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, here’s hoping that change is only a matter of time. Which is such a cop out thing to say! But I do hope it’s true. Because it does seem to me that even creators like Christopher Wheeldon or Wayne McGregor, I don’t think they’re opposed to the idea of a non-heteronormative love story. It just seems like they’ve grown up inside this culture that’s taught them to think a certain way about what “ought” to be on stage. Or what audiences “want” to see on stage. And now they have to unlearn that, in a way that I hope current and future generations of dance artists just never do. I really hope that.

Courtney Escoyne:
Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, that’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining. We’ll be back in two weeks, remember, two weeks, 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. And happy Pride.