Transcript, Episode 125: Advocating for Choreographers, and How War Affects the Dancing Body

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 a headline rundown that gets into the best choreography winners from both VMAs and the Emmys; a legal case that demonstrates the need for the new Choreographers Guild, the new union that’s in the process of forming” and news about the upcoming season of “Dancing With The Stars,” which is looking to be quite different now that it has moved to Disney Plus. Then we’ll have a longer discussion unpacking how the war in Ukraine has affected the country’s dancers, both those who’ve stayed and those who’ve left, and about the practical and the therapeutic applications of dance in a time of war.

First, though, we have as usual a reminder to subscribe to The Dance Edit Extra, our premiere audio interview series, out every other Saturday on Apple Podcasts. I hope you were able to catch our most recent episode, which features two arts world disruptors talking about the pros and cons of for- and non0profit business models. That’s choreographer Daniel Ezralow and The 7 Fingers’ co-founder Gypsy Snider. They had a fantastic conversation about that, because they’ve both had careers that span both sectors for profit and nonprofits. They have a ton of valuable insight to share. That episode was actually our first one in partnership with Jacob Jonas The Company’s platform, The Thought. So a big shout out to them. 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’s headline rundown time, beginning with some significant awards show updates.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yes. So we are starting off with some rounds of congratulations for choreographers Ryan Heffington and Parris Goebel, who both took home Creative Arts Emmys over the weekend. Heffington’s work on “Euphoria” was recognized in the outstanding choreography for scripted programming category, while Goebel’s opening number for the Savage X Fenty show, volume three, on Prime Video was recognized in the variety or reality programming category. Two very different dance makers, and we can only be excited to see them both celebrated.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yes. And those were absolutely stacked choreography fields, both of them.

It is a busy time for award shows. MTV’s Video Music Awards happened the weekend before the Creative Arts Emmys. Highlights there included BlackPink’s first ever VMAs performance, highly choreographed of course, as is their wont. Bad Bunny also made headlines for kissing two of his backup dancers during his performance. And the best choreography win went to Fullout Courtland for Doja Cat’s “Woman” video. Congratulations to him.

By the way, the names of the choreography nominees for these award shows are notoriously and infuriatingly hard to find. Often, nominee announcements just include the names of the projects, not the people. So I wanted to give a shout out to @creditthecreator on Instagram, that’s an account run by the dance artist Claire Ross, for identifying these choreography nominees for all of these award shows. Kudos to them.

Courtney Escoyne:

Good stuff. On the Broadway front, a new musical loosely based on the 1977 Martin Scorsese film New York, New York is headed to the Great White Way. It will feature music from the film by legendary songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb, some new lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda, and, most exciting for us dancer people, Susan Stroman is attached to direct and choreograph. Deadline reports that it will feature little of the film’s storyline and a more inclusive cast. Plans are to preview in March and open in April, dates in theater to be announced.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Kander and Ebb and Miranda and Stroman, oh my.

Courtney Escoyne:

They’re screaming for Tony nominations, not just from the timing of this, but just generally.

Margaret Fuhrer:

There are yet more leadership changes happening in the dance world. ‘Tis the season for that. Nashville Ballet artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling will step down at the end of the 2022 to ’23 season following a multi-decade tenure. But there’s no big search for his replacement happening. The company has already announced that current associate artistic director Nick Mullikin will succeed Vasterling. In fact, Mullikin has already assumed CEO duties. He’ll become artistic director at the end of the season.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah, it looks like it’ll be a pretty seamless transition there.

Baryshnikov Arts Center has announced that Sonja Kostich will take over as executive director in October. Now, she’s currently the chief executive and artistic officer at Kaatsbaan, and with Stella Abrera having already departed for ABT’s JKO School, I know I’m very curious to see what happens with leadership at the Cultural Park.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, for sure, because Sonja and Stella did so much to elevate Kaatsbaan’s profile during their time there.

Courtney Escoyne:

And they did so much to make sure that they were able to still produce and support artists during the pandemic when everything was shut down.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, absolutely.

Here’s yet another ballet roster update. Xander Parish, the British dancer who was a principal with the Mariinsky Ballet but left the company after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has joined Norwegian National Ballet as a principal. I am very excited about the fact that at Norwegian National, he’s been paired up with Whitney Jensen for a run of performances of Giselle. I feel like there is so much artistic potential in that partnership, not to mention that between the two of them, they have approximately six miles of limbs.

Courtney Escoyne:

Give or take.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Give or take. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:

Come here, let us see you dance together, please.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Please. Tour time.

Courtney Escoyne:

London dance presenter Sadler’s Wells has launched a new international prize for dance. The Rose International Dance Prize will award a 40,000 pound prize to one full length work, and a 15,000 pound prize to one shorter piece by a choreographer with maximum five years experience. It’s being likened to the Booker Prize for literature or the Olivier Awards for theater. And the plan is for it to be a biennial prize for new dance works in any style.

The first edition will consider works that have premiered between October 2021 and February 2023. A short list of six will present their work live at Sadler’s Wells in Spring 2025, at which point the winners will be selected and audiences will have a chance to vote for an audience choice prize. So a little convoluted, a little far out there right now, but sounds like it could potentially be very interesting once it gets in a rhythm.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, there just aren’t that many dance prizes on that scale, so it’s big news.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Also, the Financial Times story about it was saying it’s underwritten by a mysterious anonymous donor, which…intrigue! What is that about?

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah, the name Rose Prize was selected by the anonymous donor, not to make anyone confused that we’re looking for someone with a surname Rose, unless we are and it’s a whole reverse psychology thing…

Margaret Fuhrer:

Sounds like the premise of a novel.

This weekend marks the return of the Five Moons Dance Festival to Oklahoma City. The festival, which had its inaugural edition last year, honors Oklahoma’s five renowned Native American ballerinas: Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin, and Yvonne Chouteau. This year’s edition will highlight Larkin’s legacy in particular; she co-founded Tulsa Ballet with her husband in 1956. We have a link in the show notes with more information about the festival and it’s programming.

Courtney Escoyne:

Incredibly cool.

American Ballet Theatre’s relatively newly appointed executive director, Janet Rollé, was recently profiled in Sports Illustrated as part of its series Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports. She talked mostly about wanting to help bridge the gap between ABT and its audiences, as well as about how her professional dance career has informed her career on the business side of the arts and entertainment. Well worth a read, and really cool seeing her profiled in that particular space.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Totally. We have a link to that in the show notes, and yeah, I was going to say, not to reignite the eternal “is dance a sport?” debate, but seeing a ballet company executive on a Sports Illustrated list is pretty cool.

Here is some less happy news. Choreographer Kyle Hanagami’s lawsuit over a Fortnite dance has been thrown out. Hanagami alleged that the video game’s “It’s Complicated” dance copied moves that he created back in 2017. And significantly, Hanagami actually copyrighted that piece of choreography. He is one of the rare commercial choreographers who has copyrighted most of his work. Despite all of that, a judge decided that the two dances were not sufficiently similar and throughout the case.

This is just further evidence that when it comes to dance, the legal system is so murky and so far behind that even the best protected choreographers, like Kyle, are still at risk of having their work ripped off or not properly credited. Which is why the development of the Choreographers Guild, the union for commercial choreographers, is so important and so necessary.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah. We just had a Q&A with Kathryn Burns, who was, along with Hanagami, one of the choreographers who was really behind the impetus to get this guild started. She’s also been named president of the guild that’s being formed, and we talked to her about why it’s so important for this to exist, why it needs to exist, because at the end of the day, for choreographers in Hollywood, they tend to be the least protected and oftentimes only non-unionized creative crew on set.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Which is so wild.

Courtney Escoyne:

Dance Data Project released its 2022 dance venue leadership and programming report, which examined 73 ballet or classically inspired dance performance venues in the United States. It found that only 35% of the choreographers programmed at these venues from October 2021 to July 2022 were female, and that women make up only 34% of venue leadership. Compared to its 2020 report, which looked at 50 of those venues, that’s a slight increase in female leadership and a slight decrease in programming of female choreographers. There’s lots more numbers to sort through and crunch here, as always, and the data can be found in the full report, which we will link to in the episode description.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, yeah. Not necessarily surprising. Still disheartening. Still important.

So, two storied New York City arts institutions are about to share one roof, at least temporarily. The experimental nonprofit art center The Kitchen will move to Westbeth Artist Housing—current home of the Martha Graham Dance Company, former longtime home of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—while The Kitchen’s Chelsea venue undergoes renovations. Both The Kitchen and Westbeth were founded in the early 1970s; both have been crucial in the shaping of New York City’s art scene since then. The Kitchen is going to occupy the fourth floor loft space at Westbeth, and it sounds like the space itself will help determine the organization’s coming programming, which is fascinating.

Courtney Escoyne:

It’s also just really cool because the Westbeth space is gorgeous and cool to be in and around. So happy news all around there.

Tis the season for “Dancing With The Stars” casting news.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Sure ’tis.

Courtney Escoyne:

So first up, both Charli D’Amelio and her mom Heidi are slated to compete on the upcoming season. I’m still not on TikTok, but when I checked, Charli is closing in on 80 million followers there, which I’m guessing means she’s one of the most followed dancers on the app. Am I off base?

Margaret Fuhrer:

You’re not off base, although I also have not checked the numbers recently, but she’s up there. I mean, I feel like TikTok celebrity is a genre of celebrity that is overdue in making its debut on “Dancing with the Stars,” so that should be interesting to see.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah. Also always interesting when you have someone who actually has dance training showing up.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yep. Yep.

As updates about the latest “Dancing with the Stars” celebrity cast trickle out, two of the show’s longtime pro dancers have announced that they are opting out this season. Lindsay Arnold and Sharna Burgess will not be in the ballroom for Season 31, and both cited family obligations as factors in their decisions. So this streaming Disney+ ballroom is going to look pretty different from the ABC ballroom.

Courtney Escoyne:

We are finishing out this rundown recognizing two notable deaths in the theater world. Bob LuPone, a Juilliard trained dancer and Tony nominated actor for the role of Zach in A Chorus Line, as well as founder of Off Broadway venue MCC Theater and brother to the inimitable Patti LuPone, died at 76 after a three year battle with pancreatic cancer.

Ron Logan, the Disney executive who, among many, many, many, many other things, led the team that pitched the idea of bringing Beauty and the Beast to Broadway and then led Walt Disney theatrical productions through the early years of Disney on Broadway, died on August 30th at age 84.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I don’t know how I’m just now putting it together that Bob LuPone, the original Zach in A Chorus Line, is Patti LuPone’s brother. Wow.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

So yes, that marks the end of our official headline rundown, but if you are looking for even more details on this very busy upcoming fall dance season, please be sure to check out the Dance Media Events Calendar, which has fully updated listings for all kinds of performances and events. 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.

Okay. Moving on now to our longer segment. We are more than six months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and there have been a few articles recently talking about how the war has transformed Ukraine’s dancers. Obviously, it’s had an enormous impact on their daily lives, on their physical wellbeing and safety at a very fundamental level, but it has also changed some dancers ways’ of thinking about their bodies and about their approach to art.

A New York Times piece talked to some of the independent and contemporary dance artists who have remained in Ukraine about how they’re using dance to help the military deal with the mental strain of war and to process their own trauma, how living through war has altered them as artists and people. A couple of other stories spoke with the artists of the United Ukrainian Ballet, the company of refugee dancers working together in the Netherlands, about how their Ukrainian identity has become central to their art in a way that it wasn’t before.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah. So what was really interesting in the Times piece that was speaking to the contemporary dancers in Ukraine was the author made a point of saying that they’re all individuals who are individually experiencing this mass event of war in their home country. But something that struck me across the board of those artists, as well as the ballet dancers who spoke from United Ukrainian Ballet in those other articles, the throughline was they weren’t talking about dance so much as an escape, which is oftentimes how we’ll hear dance in the arts referred to, especially in times of strife, but as a way of holding onto reality or of their understanding of their bodies as they take on this trauma, or of understanding themselves as Ukrainians, as they face, as this country often has in its history, attempts to erase that identity. And whether that means making a performing dance or teaching it or using somatic skills to assist soldiers and civilians with processing the trauma of what’s happening and moving safely and efficiently.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. I wanted to mention that story was also refreshing because the dance coverage related to the war has so far been very ballet-focused. There’s been a ton written about Ukraine’s ballet dancers and also about how the war has affected Russia’s ballet dancers, so it was enlightening to hear about the dance artists working in other styles and scenes in Ukraine. That’s a community that’s not often written about at all.

But yeah, it was interesting to see how they’re grappling with these questions of, how can I be useful in a meaningful way? What can dance do in the face of violence, beyond offer an escape, as you said? Some of the pragmatic answers to those questions that some of these artists have found—I was especially struck by the story of Krystyna Shyshkareva, the director of a contemporary dance school in Kyiv, who is developing a system she calls “tactical choreography” designed to help people learn how to manage weapons, how to move efficiently in ways that will minimize even simple bodily traumas that can actually have a larger impact than you might expect.

But then there’s also another less “practical” side of this, which is how the war has affected dance as art. You started talking about this too, Courtney: One theme that ran through not just this story about non-ballet artists, but then also the pieces about the United Ukrainian Ballet, was the need to either identify or establish what is Ukrainian about Ukrainian dance.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah. I was particularly struck by… There was a choreographer in Kyiv talking about producing a video series of contemporary choreographers who are… those who are still in Ukraine, those who are abroad, and just recording this moment of what does it mean to make a dance now and what does it mean to be Ukrainian making dance now, and being devoted to continuing that as long as this invasion goes on.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Then from the ballet perspective, Alexei Ratmansky talked about this in a couple of these articles, how in his new Giselle that he’s making, or he has made, for United Ukrainian Ballet, that there is a quality specific to Ukrainian ballet dancers as distinct from Russian ballet dancers that he wants to celebrate. There’s this sense of urgency to protect and to nurture a very particular culture that is under threat. And not one that is often celebrated necessarily in the ballet world, because it is so often so fully in the shadow of Russian ballet.

Courtney Escoyne:

Well, it’s also often conflated with Russian ballet and there is so much… Historically, so many Ukrainian dancers have ended up training and or performing in Russia, to the point where the two are almost used interchangeably in a way that now feels extremely loaded. But I love that Ratmansky has been so involved in all of this and the way he’s talked about—because also, if anyone is in a position to really understand and be able to unearth those subtle differences, it is him.

Margaret Fuhrer:

He’s pretty much the expert. Yeah. One of the United Ukrainian ballet dancers even said in the story, “I didn’t even realize Ratmansky had connections to Ukraine until now.” It’s like, yeah, actually, yes, he does have pretty deep connections—but again, he was seen mostly as a Russian artist.

In the show notes, we of course have links to all of these recent stories about how Ukrainian dance and dancers have been affected by war. They are hard reads, but they are very much worthwhile reads.

Courtney Escoyne:

Yeah, hard reads, but also in a lot of ways actually rather heartening.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Yeah. There’s good stuff in there.

All right. That’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining. 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.

Courtney Escoyne:

Mind how you go, friends.