Transcript, Episode 120: College vs Conservatory vs Career, and Forgotten Dance History

Margaret Fuhrer:

Hi dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:

I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Lydia Murray:

I’m Lydia Murray.

Amy Brandt:

And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:

We are editors at Dance Media. And we are at full strength today: We have all four of us here, which is such a treat, honestly. I miss you guys.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah, I know!

Margaret Fuhrer:

So, this is our third mailbag episode, third in our ongoing series of mailbag episodes. And just a quick refresher on what a mailbag episode is: Over the past few weeks, you all have been sending in your suggestions for dance-world discussion topics that you’d like us to dig into. And today we’ve chosen two of those topics to talk about.

The first is a look at the pros and cons of the college dance route versus the conservatory dance route versus going straight into a professional career, which is a choice that a whole lot of dancers struggle with, including some of us here. And then the second topic is a personal favorite of mine. It’s overlooked moments in dance history, and I think we all have some things to talk about/rant about here. I am very excited for that portion.

If your topic didn’t make the cut this episode, never fear: We’re going to be doing more mailbags very soon, and we’re keeping a running list of all your suggestions. And if you have not yet sent your ideas, or if you have new ones for us, please do give us a shout on social media. You can find us @the.dance.edit on Instagram and @dance_edit on Twitter. We love hearing from you all.

All right. So first up today, we have the college versus conservatory versus career choice, which was suggested by Maile Narkon on Instagram. Thanks Maile. This is one of those issues that is just perpetually a source of concern and worry for dance students, because I mean, each of these routes of course has its own positives and negatives. Each sort of sets you up for your dance future in a different way. And actually, within this group of hosts, I think we have a pretty good mix of experiences. So maybe we can start by talking a little about our own post-high school dance choices. Who wants to go first?

Lydia Murray:

I’ll go first. Why not?

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yay!

Lydia Murray:

So, I enrolled in the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory’s two year program during my senior year of high school. So, I only spent one year there after high school. And then the rest was studying on my own at various schools and training centers. But that was just because I sustained a bad injury in my final year at Nutmeg. I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen the training path that I did.

I think the most important thing when you make this college versus company versus conservatory decision is goal-setting. I think so much of it is about getting as clear as possible about what you want as early as possible.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah, but I think it’s also important to note—and this is going to be super reflective in what my experience was—you don’t have to know right away exactly what you want every single step of your dance career to look like. And I think it’s also good to be a little bit open to change.

To the deep puzzlement of literally everyone who has ever been in an academic class with me or talked with me about virtually anything, tends to be very shocked to hear that I did not want to go to college. I, coming out of my senior year of high school, did a number of auditions for traineeships and apprenticeships, and kind of across the board, even when I would get positive feedback, it was, “Hey, we don’t have room for you this year. Why don’t you come back in a year.” As a result of that, I ended up matriculating to NYU as just a purely academic student and was keeping up my own training, taking open classes.

And then I was in London, I saw Cedar Lake on tour at Sadler’s Wells. I was thumbing through the program at intermission and I realized that Ida Saki was on a leave of absence from NYU Tisch, and was like, “Oh, I didn’t know NYU had a really good dance program. I had no idea of this.” This also has a lot to do with being from Louisiana. [laughter] I super didn’t know that there were good college conservatory dance programs, guys. And I ended up transferring into a BFA conservatory program.

None of that route is what I thought that I would be doing at any point when I was in high school. And I think I ended up getting a ton out of it just by virtue of like… it was super unexpected. And so, I didn’t take any of it for granted. And it really opened up my eyes to a lot of different possibilities of what a career in dance could look like.

Amy Brandt:

I remember agonizing over this, my junior and senior year of high school, and my parents and I, the arguments we would have. Because I really wanted to… I was torn, because I wanted to dance professionally after high school. I wanted to go that route. I felt I had a good chance based on a relationship I had sort of built at the Milwaukee Ballet School. They had asked if I was interested in joining their trainee program the year prior. And I wanted to do that so badly. And I also knew that I had academic interests and that if I wanted to go to college, I really wanted to focus on academics. So, I was trying to explain to my mom and dad that, “I can go to school part-time while I dance, or I can always go back to school,” that argument, which they weren’t really into that.

So, we did do a lot of college visits, and I ended up enrolling at Butler University in their dance program. And I think I was going to double major in English or something like that. And I was going to go to the Milwaukee Ballet summer program, and if I got the traineeship, I would stay in Milwaukee. If I didn’t, I would go to Butler. That was sort of the deal I had made with my parents.

And I remember having all this anxiety. One of the reasons why I was sort of questioning colleges, I had all this anxiety that if I miss out on this opportunity, I may not ever get another one, because of how competitive the professional dance world is.

And so anyway, it all worked out and I decided to go the professional route, I got the traineeship and everything. But at the same time in my early career, I felt very uncomfortable with the fact that I wasn’t in college, that I wasn’t getting an education. There was sort of deep-seated discomfort. And I would go to museums and take notes on things. And I read all these big, fat, long, heavy novels and books to keep my mind stimulated. And it was really important to me to make friends who were in college, who were not dancers. And I made a group of friends that were just kind of normal folk, and eventually started to go to school part-time while I was dancing. It took me forever to get my degree. It really took a long time.

So, I think it’s important to understand that there are definitely different ways you can go about this. I kind of was very clear about what I wanted at the time when I was 18, but I don’t think it would’ve been the end of the world if I had gone to Butler and not gone to Milwaukee either. I think it would’ve worked out.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I mean, my only advice in terms of what I did is don’t do what I did, which is—I thought I was just going to sidestep this choice entirely. I was like, “Well, I’m not a good enough dancer to get into the top-tier ballet companies, so I’m done with dance. That’s it, I’m all done.” I was also getting injured a lot. It was just miserable. And so, I was like, “I’m going to go to a really good college. I’m going to study medieval history. And just—my dance chapter is over.” Which, clearly it wasn’t. That was ridiculous of me to think that I could just sort of put that part of me aside.

But I do wish I’d been more open-minded about what a dance trajectory could or should look like, generally speaking. Ultimately, I ended up performing in and choreographing for, and then running a student led company on campus at my college, which I would highly recommend even if you do choose a dance degree program or a dance conservatory program, because it teaches you so much about all these different sides of not just dance performance, but also dance administration.

But I also wish… I don’t know. I wish for “the youth of today” that they have a better-rounded education leading up to having to make that choice, that shows them all the different possibilities out there. And I’m talking about professional opportunities, not just college conservatory or career as well. You can be training as a serious pre-professional ballet student, but hopefully your teachers are showing you that there are options beyond ABT or City Ballet or whatever your local regional ballet program is. Blinders are never a good thing. And I think they’re actually encouraged in a lot of dance training environments.

It does seems like that is changing now, and kids are just a lot better informed than they used to be. But yeah, don’t do what I did.

Lydia Murray:

Yeah. I feel like you should also have an open mind about possibilities outside of dance altogether. I feel like that’s still somewhat taboo to say, to encourage people to think that way. It’s changing now, I think, but I think that’s important. For one thing, it’s good because it’ll help you to prepare for your post-dance future, or for any just difficult times during your dance journey. If you study something that’s a little bit more stable and marketable than dance, you’re not only going to be learning, but it can help you if the unthinkable happens, like what we just experienced with COVID. But also it can kind of enhance your artistry by helping you to think in ways that you might not typically dance. So, that’s something that I think would be…

Courtney Escoyne:

Well, and I think one of the things that I value the most about my weird college experience is that because I spent that year doing… I spent my first year just doing academics. When I rolled up into my BFA program, I already had all the gen-eds I needed technically to get my degree, but I was like, “Well, I have these credit hours I’m paying for anyway. What else can I take?” And you wouldn’t think a class about the life and times of Niccolo Machiavelli would in any way impact the dance that I was making, but somehow it was. You can find inspiration and useful information everywhere. And also just meeting people who aren’t blinders-on dancers, it’s important, guys.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. I was going to say the people you meet are almost as important as the classes you take in a lot of ways.

Courtney Escoyne:

If not more so.

Lydia Murray:

Yeah. And you don’t even realize how much you’ve been in a ballet bubble sometimes until you meet people who are completely outside of it. And you’re like, “Oh wow. We’ve got some weird habits going on.” But yeah. It’s just interesting to hear different people’s perspectives and viewpoints and just getting to know different kinds of people.

Margaret Fuhrer:

So by the way, we would be remiss not to note that the Dance Magazine College Guide is actually a really good resource for those of you who are trying to either decide between the college or the conservatory path or trying to figure out which specific school might be the best fit for you, which is a whole other thing. We’ll include a link in the show notes to the College Guide. Please do check it out.

All right. So our second topic today is overlooked moments or overlooked people in dance history, which was submitted by Katie Williams on Twitter. This is not ABT’s Katie Williams, just for the record. This Katie specified that she’s a non-dancer who is just very curious about dance history. And you know what, Katie? We are happy to indulge that curiosity, all of us. I’m actually really excited to hear you all go off here. Courtney, I know you especially are raring to go. What’s your neglected dance history moment?

Courtney Escoyne:

What I think is funny about this was I was like, “Can we narrow down the scope of this segment? I just have this one thing that I always talk about.” And Margaret was like, “No, Courtney, go with that.”

Margaret Fuhrer:

You’ve got to talk about it! Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah. So Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, it is the ballet that made me personally fall in love with ballet. It is today regularly performed by American Ballet Theatre and The Royal Ballet, and it premiered in February 1965 in London. The opening night cast was Margo Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. Contemporary reports say that people camped out for three days to get tickets to it. There were 43 curtain calls. It was this rousing success.

What is kind of less known, although I think it is more known these days than it maybe used to be, is that that ballet was not created on the two of them. It was actually created for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, who were both fellow principals, though more junior at The Royal Ballet at the time. They worked very closely with Kenneth MacMillan on creating the characters and the nuances and the direction of this full length ballet. However, the company was getting ready to go on one of its then very, fairly common, massive US tours that April, and Sol Hurok, the American impresario, insisted that Fonteyn and Nureyev needed to dance the opening night in London to drum up publicity, or else he wasn’t going to let them bring Romeo and Juliet to the states. The Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Sir Frederick Ashton, complied with this request, MacMillan didn’t really fight against it. And so, Fonteyn and Nureyev ended up dancing the opening night. Seymour and Gable were actually originally cast as the fourth cast, despite having, being the people that it was created upon.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Wait, who were the casts in between? Who were the second and third? Pop quiz!

Courtney Escoyne:

It was… hang on. I do have this, if you give me a second. [laughter] Yes. Annette Page was supposed to be the second cast and then Merle Park was going to be third. Lynn Seymour, coming fourth. It was done purely off of seniority. However, Page was dealing with injuries. And so ultimately, Seymour and Gable danced the second cast of performances. Unfortunately, there is basically no real surviving archival documentation of what they were like in these roles. And there’s also a lot of contemporaneous reports that Nureyev overdid the virtuosity in the balcony scene in a way that wasn’t intended and that they kind of played the roles as themselves. And ironically, that is the version that is preserved on video, because there was a film version produced in 1966 that MacMillan had literally nothing to do with, starring Fonteyn and Nureyev, but it is the closest to contemporaneous production that exists.

So, I often think that if I had a time machine, I would go back in time and see Christopher Gable and Lynn Seymour dance Romeo and Juliet, because I want to see it on the people it was made on. I just think it’s weird and messed up.

Margaret Fuhrer:

There’s really no footage of that anywhere? Paging Alastair Macaulay. If there is some, I bet he knows where it is.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah. Actually, if anyone hearing this knows if there is footage of it somewhere, please. There is some of Lynn Seymour actually dancing it a little bit later in her career on YouTube, like certain sections of it. I think there’s of the bedroom pas, but it’s not with Christopher Gable. Anyway, this is one of my just personal, “Why don’t we have documentation of this?”

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh, wow.

Courtney Escoyne:

Listen. I can rant about this all damn day.

Lydia Murray:

Okay. So I’m up next. Now I’m realizing how long winded I’m in danger of being…

Courtney Escoyne:

Lydia, you just listened to me! [laughter]

Lydia Murray:

So, the person I want to highlight is Zelda Wynn Valdes. She’s not entirely overlooked, but she’s still not among the most widely discussed figures in dance. So, if anyone out there is unfamiliar, Valdes was a groundbreaking Black fashion designer, and you ultimately have her to thank for flesh-toned tights. Not just her, of course, but she spearheaded that, and I’ll get to that.

So, going all the way back to the beginning of her life. She was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on June 18th, 1905. We love a Gemini. And she was trained as a classical pianist, but she showed exceptional passion and talent for sewing and pattern making from a very young age. She was already making dresses for her family members by the time she was 13.

And when she graduated from high school, she moved to White Plains. She took a job as a stockroom worker at an upscale boutique, which of course was the kind of job that conveniently kept her hidden from the wealthy white clientele. But she was so good as a seamstress that she was eventually able to have her work shown at the front of the store. And she later opened her own boutique, called Chez Zelda, in 1948, which made her the first Black person to own a store on Broadway in New York City.

Artistically, she had an incredible eye, and she had a signature style that was glamorous and bold and elegant. And her garments seemed to have this unique ability to bring out the best in the person wearing them. And she was skilled at creating beautiful gowns for people of all sizes. She worked with some of the top celebrities of the day, including other dance world icons, like Eartha Kitt and Josephine Baker. And she’s widely known for having sewn, but not necessarily designed, the Playboy Bunny uniform.

But the part that’s most relevant to this podcast, her strongest connection to the dance world, is that she became Dance Theatre of Harlem’s head costume designer in 1970. And she remained there for more than 20 years. And during her time there, she spearheaded the practice of dyeing the dancer’s tights to match their complexion, which is continuing to revolutionize the dance world.

Amy Brandt:

Wow.

Lydia Murray:

And lastly, I just want to mention, she was actually one of the subjects of a New York Times story in 2019, that was literally titled Overlooked, which highlighted prominent Black people whose deaths had gone unreported by the Times. And I recommend checking that out.

Amy Brandt:

All right. Is it my turn? Okay. So this is more of a grim moment in US dance history, as opposed to… I mean, it does focus on four people, but… Many of us know that back in the mid-19th century, the materials that ballerinas wore, the tutus, the gauzy materials that they wore, was quite flammable under the stage lights because of the gas lighting that they used at the time. Probably the most famous ballerina that we know of that went up in flames on stage is Emma Livry, a former Paris Opera Ballet dancer and a protégé of Marie Taglioni. What’s sad is that there had been efforts made to fireproof these costumes, because this had happened a few too many times. So, they would be dipped in a fire retardant that would make the tutus kind of dingy and heavy. And Emma Livry refused to wear it, and paid for that choice.

But where I’m going with this is that, a year before Emma Livry’s death in… or at least a year before her tutu caught fire, in 1862, there was a very tragic incident that happened right here in the United States, in Philadelphia, concerning a very famous quartet of ballerina sisters. So, on September 14th, 1861, there was a theatrical performance of The Tempest at the Continental Theater on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, produced by one William Wheatley. And he hired a chorus of ballet dancers to be in this production.

And one of the highlights was that he had hired the Gale Sisters, who were four sisters from England were quite well known, kind of as a family act. And they had been touring the country to rave reviews, et cetera. So it was Ruth, Adeline, Hannah and Cecilia, or Zela as she was better known, were the Gale Sisters, and they were hired to perform in this production of The Tempest.

So, just to set the scene. There’s the stage, the dancers’ dressing rooms were on the second floor above the stage, and they were doing a quick change, the ballerinas. So, they were all upstairs. The dressing rooms had pegs where the costumes hung. They also had mirrors and on either side of the mirror was a gas jet, lighting the room.

Courtney Escoyne:

Oh no.

Amy Brandt:

So, while the dancers were changing their costumes, Ruth Gale got up, which I think she stood on a chair or something, she reached up to grab her costume that was hanging on the peg and caught her hem on the gas jet. And of course, she instantly went up in flames. And in her horror, she started to run around the dressing room towards her sisters, who were trying to help her. But of course, also in turn caught on fire. So, these four young women, I think they were all under the age of 23, panic ensued. They’re running around the dressing room, more dancers catch on fire. The fire spread. Several ended up jumping out of the window of the theater onto the street below. Another ran on stage, screaming, on fire, and fell into the orchestra pit. And stage hands were trying to put her out. Hannah Gale, in her panic, ran into a glass mirror, shattering it and severely lacerating herself. And so the cast and crew were scrambling to help these poor dancers. Meanwhile, the producer lowered the curtain, kind of like, “Nothing to see here, folks.” And eventually told the audience to please leave, since there was screaming and yelling and things happening.

I’m not sure of the totals, I’ve read conflicting numbers. But I think between seven and nine of the ballerinas died that day, including all four of the Gale sisters, over the course of the next four or five days. They were sort of taken to various hotels and inns and eventually made their way to hospitals, but they all succumbed to their wounds. But the Gale sisters are actually buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. And there’s a big monument there that the producer of the show, William Wheatley, erected in their honor.

So, if you are from the Philadelphia area and you are interested in taking a tour, you can visit this monument. And there is a poem written in their honor. It says, “IN MEMORIAM: Stranger, who through the city of the dead With thoughtful soul and feeling heart may tread, Pause here a moment – those who sleep below With careless ear ne’er heard a tale of woe: Four sisters fair and young together rest In saddest slumber on earth’s kindly breast; Torn out of life in one disastrous hour, The rose unfolded and the budding flower: Life did not part them – Death might not divide They lived – they loved – they perished, side by side. O’er doom like theatre let gentle pity shed The softest tears that mourn the early fled, For whom – lost children of another land! This marble raised by weeping friendship’s hand To us, to future time remains to tell How even in death they loved each other well.”

Courtney Escoyne:

All I can think is: Darren Aronofsky could never.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I was just going to say!

Amy Brandt:

I know it’s a horrible, awful story. I stumbled upon it. I was editing a tutu history story and was looking up Emma Livry and stumbled upon… there’s a bunch of articles online that you can find. Some of them have the original newspaper article. It’s very dramatically written and very detailed on how it all went down.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Let’s make this a series. Let’s make overlooked dance moments a series. I want to hear more of these stories. I need more of them in my life. Yes? Are we on board?

Amy Brandt:

Sure!

Lydia Murray:

Sure.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Let’s do it.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Alrighty. That brings our third mailbag episode to a close. Thank you everyone for joining us. We will be back soon with 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.

Amy Brandt:

See you later, everybody.

Lydia Murray:

Bye everyone.