Transcript, Episode 124: New Leaders, Solange’s Ballet, and Audience Anxieties

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, and in this episode we will start, as always, with a great big headline rundown, getting into everything from National Dance Day celebrations, to Solange’s entry into the ballet world, to several leadership changes happening at dance organizations around the country and the world. Then we will slow down for a longer segment, discussing how audience attendance at live performances remains well below pre-pandemic levels and what that might mean for the dance community in both the short term and the long term.

First though, here is your reminder to subscribe to The Dance Edit Extra, our premiere audio interview series. It’s out every other Saturday on Apple Podcasts. And I just have to shout out our most recent episode, which is actually a special partnership episode with The Kennedy Center. It features Martha Graham Dance Company artistic director Janet Eilber and Paul Taylor Dance Company artistic director Michael Novak in conversation, discussing what it actually means to lead a legacy modern dance company circa right now. How do you balance preservation and innovation? They had such brilliant things to say about all of that. So I hope you can check it out. You can find the episode by searching for The Dance Edit Extra on Apple Podcasts, or by following the direct link in our show notes.

Okay, now it is headline rundown time, beginning with some major ballet leadership news.

Amy Brandt:

English National Ballet has announced that Aaron Watkin will become its next artistic director starting in August 2023. Watkin, who has led Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany for the last 16 years, replaces Tamara Rojo, who is leaving ENB to take the helm of San Francisco Ballet in November, I believe.

Margaret Fuhrer:

The game of ballet director musical chairs continues.

Amy Brandt:

Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, I think there’s going to be some disappointment that ENB didn’t choose another woman to follow Tamara, but that said, he seems really committed to the progressive programming model that she’s established. And I was also wondering—because at Dresden, he built that relationship with William Forsythe, and I wonder if that will be part of his work at ENB, especially now that Forsythe is coming to the end of that association with Boston Ballet, I think.

Amy Brandt:

Right. That’s an interesting point, I didn’t think of that. I’m not sure. He also used to dance with English National Ballet a long time ago. So he has some experience with the company already.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, not a stranger.

So, from the other side of the world, another big ballet director announcement: Los Angeles Ballet has appointed choreographer Melissa Barak its new artistic director. Barak is a familiar face in Los Angeles, just as Watkin is at English National: She was one of the company’s leading dancers for its first five seasons. Since 2013, she has led her own company, Barak Ballet, which will go on hold as she focuses on this new position. And she will be Los Angeles Ballet’s first solo leader since its founding in 2006 by Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary. It’s worth noting that Los Angeles Ballet’s board has declined to comment on the circumstances of Christensen and Neri’s departure. It’s also worth noting that the release said that Barak would transition works in progress for Barak Ballet to Los Angeles Ballet for this coming season, which is interesting.

Amy Brandt:

It is interesting. Yeah, I believe a board member was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying that they were looking to take the company in a different direction. So I think that’s all we’re going to get as far as an explanation.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. We’ll see what that direction is.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. A 12 year old ballet student was killed along with her grandmother and ballet teacher when a missile struck the city of Donetsk in Ukraine’s Donbass region earlier this month. The child, Ekaterina Kutubaeva, had just completed a private lesson with celebrated teacher Galina Volodina, who was walking with her outside to meet her grandmother when they became caught in the shelling. The young dancer was apparently going to study at the Vaganova Academy at the end of the month and was working with Volodina in the meantime privately. It’s unclear if the missile came from Ukraine or Russia.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Such a tragedy. We have Classic FM‘s report on that in the show notes with a little more information.

And here’s another story from this week showing how the war in Ukraine continues to reverberate through the arts world. I know a lot of us are looking forward to Kyiv City Ballet’s upcoming US tour, it’s their first ever US tour, but a producer for that tour told Newsweek that two of the male dancers who were supposed to be coming on the tour decided to return to Ukraine to fight. And the producer also said that company members have unsurprisingly been continually on edge during their preparations for the tour, just perpetually awaiting the arrival of bad news from home.

Amy Brandt:

It’s just so tragic all around.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah.

Amy Brandt:

Meanwhile, Sergei Polunin is in the news again, this time for adding two more tattoos of Vladimir Putin to his body. According to Gramilano, Putin’s face now flanks both Polunin’s right and left shoulders, in addition to the large tattoo that he has long had in the center of his chest, which he announced last year he was getting removed. So, here we go again.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, it was supposed to be going. Instead, now there are two more.

Amy Brandt:

Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I mean, we usually try to keep from letting our personal opinions color our reporting too much, but I’m done with Polunin. Full stop.

Before we start getting too angry about that, here is a story from a different political arena. After videos of the young Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin dancing at a party sparked criticism, a #SolidarityWithSanna movement began on social media. Women have been showing their support of Marin by posting videos of themselves dancing, and just generally calling out the sexist treatment of young female politicians. Because the fact that a 36 year old woman dances at parties does not make her unprofessional or unfit to lead, good grief.

Amy Brandt:

Right? I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Let’s talk about happier things!

Amy Brandt:

National Dance Day is on Saturday, September 17th, and the dance community is getting ready with all kinds of events. The Kennedy Center in Washington DC is throwing a three day celebration starting on Thursday, September 15th, which includes free performances on its Millennium Stage, local dance films, and a chance to learn the official National Dance Day routine from the latest “So You Think You Can Dance” winner, which Margaret will tell you about in a minute. They are not the only venue hosting National Dance Day celebrations; you can also celebrate at The Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills, and the Westfield Century City in Los Angeles.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yes, mark your calendars for those. And then, international friends, also mark your calendars for April 29th, 2023, which is International Dance Day. I feel like there is inevitably a bit of confusion there.

But yes, over in TV land, as Amy mentioned, “So You Think You Can Dance” recently crowned the winner of its comeback season, its first season since 2019. 22-year-old ballroom specialist Alexis Warr from Highland, UT, earned the title and the $100,000 prize. So congratulations to her. She, by the way, has already toured with Derek Hough and “Dancing with the Stars Live,” so big things likely ahead for this one.

Amy Brandt:

Has a ballroom dancer ever won “So You Think You Can Dance”?

Margaret Fuhrer:

Ooooh, you’re going to test my “So You Think” knowledge now! I think the first female ballroom dancer—because Benji Schwimmer won back in…season two?

Amy Brandt:

Okay.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I think it was season two. But yeah, it’s been a while.

Amy Brandt:

So here’s some fun news, again. Pop artist Solange has been tapped to create an original score for a world premier by Gianna Reisen at New York City Ballet. This will be part of City Ballet’s very glamorous fall fashion gala on September 28th. It’s Solange’s first commission for a ballet, according to the New York Times. The score is composed for a chamber ensemble that will be made up of some of her musical collaborators and members of the City Ballet orchestra. I’m very much looking forward to that.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I am so curious to see what that all means. It’s tantalizing that people from her ensemble are going to be joining the orchestra. She works with everybody, so who are we talking about? It could be many different bold-faced names.

Amy Brandt:

I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Okay. The leadership news this week is not limited to the ballet world. New York City’s Joyce Theater, which is dedicated entirely to dance, has named Danny Gee it’s new director of programming. Gee is a former Alvin Ailey and Philadanco dancer, and the longtime dance curator for Central Park’s SummerStage Festival. And she actually performed at the Joyce as a member of Philadanco. She says she plans to feature both dance world “rock stars” and up-and-comers in her programming. And she succeeds Aaron Mattocks in that position.

Amy Brandt:

She sounds like a great fit for the Joyce to me.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah.

Amy Brandt:

The Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago has announced a brand new trainee program for contemporary ballet. The full-time program for dancers 17 and up will have a contemporary focus, with coursework in ballet technique, partnering, and pointe work, but also improvisation, floor work, hip hop, modern dance and West African dance. It’s kind of an unusual move for a classical ballet school to start a full time contemporary focus program.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, very cool.

In Los Angeles, dancers at the Star Garden Strip Club have filed to unionize with Actors’ Equity, the organization that represents thousands of theatrical performers. And if the Star Garden dancers win the election and the results are certified by the National Labor Relations Board, they will become the only exotic dancers in the country represented by a union.

Amy Brandt:

Hope Mohr Dance has changed its name to Bridge Live Arts. The change reflects the organization’s ongoing move away from a founder-led, hierarchical structure and towards an emerging new model. Mohr founded the company in 2007, but in 2020, she, along with Cherie Hill and Karla Quintero, became co-leaders, holding equal weight in all of their artistic, financial and strategic decision making. The board is also made up of 100% working artists, and there’s like a pay equity scale across the organization. So I think this is another step in the whole complete restructuring of the company itself, the name change.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, and this feels like part of a larger shift that’s happening in pockets of the dance world, giving more dance artists more agency, more power, and then making activism an explicit part of a company’s mission. Gibney recently underwent a similar transition.

Here is a happy update on a relationship that I think some of us didn’t even realize was a thing, I didn’t.

Amy Brandt:

I did not either!

Margaret Fuhrer:

New York City Ballet principal Harrison Ball and designer Zac Posen are engaged. Congratulations! And we don’t know exactly how they met, but Posen has designed for City Ballet’s fashion gala before, so they’re from interconnected worlds. That is quite a glamorous couple.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah, that’s for sure.

And some sad news. Barbara Crockett, founder of Sacramento Ballet, died last week at the age of 101. She trained at the San Francisco Ballet School where she met her husband, Dean Crockett. The pair moved to Sacramento and founded Sacramento Ballet in 1954. They also founded Regional Dance America. So it’s quite a loss for the California’s Ballet community, I would say.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, that’s a major loss. We have the Sacramento Bee‘s obituary for Crockett in the show notes, too.

All right. That marks the end of the headline rundown. But you might have noticed that we did not include any fall season announcements this time around, and that’s not because there weren’t any—quite the opposite, there was a veritable deluge of announcements, just too many for us to do justice to here. So if you are looking for details on the upcoming fall dance season, please check out the Dance Media Events Calendar, which has fully updated listings for all kinds of performances and events. So to see all the stuff we maybe didn’t get to here on the podcast, or to add your own events to the calendar, head to dancemediacalendar.com.

Alrighty, so now let’s get into our longer discussion segment, which concerns something that I think those of us who see a lot of shows have been worried about for some time now, and that is lackluster audience attendance. Live performance is pretty much fully back—all of Broadway and nearly all of the major dance companies are mounting almost normal seasons—but audiences have been slower to return. There hasn’t been the big rebound that a lot of presenters and companies were hoping for. And a story that ran in the New York Times earlier this week includes some pretty grim charts illustrating those drops in attendance at Broadway shows specifically, but they’re happening throughout the performing arts. The article also talked about how some fear that the pandemic has accelerated problems that have troubled arts organizations for a while now, that this might be a protracted or even a permanent change.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. This is something I have definitely noticed this past summer at the ballet particularly, and especially during the week. If I go to a Wednesday night performance or Thursday night or Tuesday night performance, it can get pretty scarce.

Margaret Fuhrer:

It’s noticeable, yeah.

Amy Brandt:

And especially for a venue as large as, say, the Metropolitan Opera House—they have almost 4,000 seats. When that’s not full, even though there’s probably a lot of people still there, it just feels eerie, and concerning.

The New York Times article spoke with Jeremy Blocker, who’s the managing director at New York Theater Workshop, and he said people have just gotten used to not going anywhere anymore. And I think that, yeah, there’s some truth to that. I see it in my own behavior: I’m not going to the movie theater, even though I don’t want the movie theaters to close. But, for whatever reason, I’ve just gotten used to not going out anymore.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. And it’s funny, I kind of hope that he’s right, that it’s just an inertia issue, that it’ll take a couple of seasons to build that momentum up again and get people used to coming back into theaters. Or if people are still concerned about getting sick—or, I guess on the other hand, are unwilling to take precautionary measures like mask-wearing—if that’s dampening attendance, that that will be a temporary thing that then will, after one or two more seasons, hopefully, crossing fingers and toes, go away.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I guess the scary idea is that this is just the earlier-than-expected fulfillment of these dire prophecies that some performing arts folks have been making for years now. Is this about aging audiences and the decline of the subscription model and the increasing tendency to buy tickets last minute? Is that what’s going on here? And just the pandemic made that happen more rapidly…

Amy Brandt:

Accelerated.

Margaret Fuhrer:

… than people were expecting? Yeah.

Amy Brandt:

I also think there’s some truth to the whole working remote phenomenon. We all work remotely here at Dance Media now. I don’t live in the city anymore, I don’t live right there where I can easily jump on the train and go to a show after work. I live in the suburbs, where it’s more expensive to travel in and more time consuming, and it means getting home very, very late and being kind of beholden to certain trains and bus times and things like that. It has made me much more selective about which performances I go to, what nights I go. And I think that might have a lot to do with it as well, people just kind of moving away and changing the way that they do go out now. Tourism is down, that might have something to do with it as well. I think it’s just kind of interesting. And I think it’s expensive.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. It is expensive.

I know, going back to the transit thing—I was just chuckling to myself because you and I are in the same New Jersey Transit nightmare boat. Sometimes literally—have we ever been on a ferry together? I guess we haven’t been on a ferry together.

Amy Brandt:

I have not done the ferry thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Well, metaphorically in the same boat. [laughter]

And I guess that that sort of “correct” answer to these questions is that it’s some combination of all of these things. What that makes me anxious about is that this downturn will end up affecting programming, the way that dance institutions think about programming. This whole, “Oh, audiences are shrinking. We have to get people in no matter what.” I think I’m worried that’ll lead to some really conservative, backward-looking, all-the-greatest-hits kind of lineups.

Amy Brandt:

Swan Lake everything.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. And I don’t think that’s necessarily happened yet. The season announcements we’ve seen so far have been maybe slightly less ambitious than usual, but not markedly so. But if soft ticket sales continue through the next year or two years, which frankly they seem likely to do, we might see more of that.

Amy Brandt:

And then, not only programming, but organizations having to whittle down their seasons, maybe they get rid of a program, shorten their contracts, offer less performances or change their programming, doing things in maybe smaller venues or changing their venues around. And then what will that do to rosters and employment opportunities for dancers? It’s just kind of…

Margaret Fuhrer:

Domino effect, yeah.

Amy Brandt:

I remember in 2008, when the financial crisis happened in 2008, and I remember how that affected my life—but not right away. It was like two years later, when all of that trickled down, how much work dried up, because I was freelancing at the time. Like, I noticed a huge change. So I’m wondering if it’s kind of going to be somewhat similar.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah.

Amy Brandt:

A few seasons where it’s going to be a little challenging.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Is this is an eye of the storm moment?

Amy Brandt:

Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Okay. Let’s head in a more hopeful direction before we get too doom and gloom and start crying.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. At the same time, I also feel like I’m much more conscious of going to see performances, because I don’t ever want to take them for granted again.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Totally.

Amy Brandt:

After not going to performances for two years, I find myself getting very excited about things.

Margaret Fuhrer:

It does feel different that way, yeah. I think there’s also been this spread of this idea in the performing arts industry of, “Hey, you might have to do something different to attract audiences in these unusual times.” That was sort of a pandemic silver lining that we’ve talked about before. And I said that I was worried about conservative programming, but pushing back against that current will be this new realization or, new for more traditional organizations, that, yeah, business as usual is not going to cut it. So yeah, a protracted drop in audience attendance, it’s kind of forced dance companies to rethink who their audiences are and who they want them to be, and what they might be doing that drives people away, and what they could be doing to attract new and different types of crowds.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. Renewed creativity is often kind of the result of these kinds of hardships.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, crisis breeding innovation is the optimistic spin on this story.

The Times article will not make you feel optimistic, but it is very thorough and very detailed and we, of course, have it for you in the show notes.

All right, that’s it for this week. Thanks everyone for joining us. We’ll be back in two weeks for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Amy Brandt:

Bye, everybody.