Transcript, Episode 126: “Phantom”‘s Closure, Labor Agreements, and Dance Magazine Awards

Margaret Fuhrer:

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

Lydia Murray:

And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:

We are editors at Dance Media, and in this episode we will start, as usual, with a great big headline rundown, touching on everything from the major leadership transition at Dance Theatre of Harlem, to news about dance world labor negotiations and fair employment practices, to Dance Data Project’s just-announced gender equity index. And then we’ll slow down a bit for a longer discussion about the news that The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest-running show, will be closing in February, and what that reveals about COVID era comebacks and the future of Broadway more generally.

But before we get into all of that, here is your reminder to check out The Dance Edit Extra, our premium audio interview series, which is available on Apple Podcasts. Our newest episode, created in partnership with the talent agency McDonald Selznick Associates, is such a good one. We’ve got entertainment industry titans, Marguerite Derricks and John Carrafa, talking about the very specific challenges and opportunities that come with choreographing for television. Because on a TV set, choreographers are often wearing many, many different hats at the same time, and nobody knows that better than Marguerite and John, who’ve worked all over that scene. If you’ve turned on a TV anytime in the past decade or decade and a half, odds are you’ve seen their work. So you can find their episode by searching for The Dance Edit Extra on Apple Podcasts, or by following the direct link in this episodes show notes.

All right, now it is headline rundown time, and we’re starting this week with two really difficult losses for the dance community.

Lydia Murray:

Yes. The Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleksandr Shapoval has been killed in combat. Shapoval was the principal dancer with the National Opera of Ukraine. And he passed away in the battle of Majorsk in the Donetsk region of the country. He was 47.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Sarah Kaufman wrote a piece in the Washington Post about how his death crystallizes the costs of this war; we have that story linked in the show notes.

The US dance world also lost a legend recently. Tina Ramirez, who founded Ballet Hispánico in 1970 to help address structural inequities in the arts, and then helped it grow into the country’s leading Hispanic dance performance and educational organization, passed away last Tuesday. Ramirez was 92 years old. And her influence was profound.

Lydia Murray:

It’s such a loss, such a loss. But she left behind an incredible legacy.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yes.

Lydia Murray:

Dance Theatre of Harlem recently announced that Virginia Johnson, its artistic director since 2009, is retiring from the role next year. She will be succeeded by Robert Garland, the company’s resident choreographer and the director of its school. Two living legends, but very big change there.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Yeah, I was also excited to hear that Tai Jimenez would be coming back to Dance Theatre of Harlem to direct its school. That feels very right, as does Robert Garland becoming the next leader of the company. That also feels like destiny. But kind of a bittersweet announcement too. I just—it’s hard to imagine DTH without Virginia there in some capacity. I wonder what her next chapter will be.

Lydia Murray:

I know, I know. She’s so much a part of that legacy, and obviously they both are, but yes, it’ll be very exciting to see what her next move is.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Well, here’s news about a new chapter for Misty Copeland. She has launched The Misty Copeland Foundation, a nonprofit organization aiming to increase diversity in dance, and to pursue social justice through arts activism. The foundation has a new initiative called Be Bold that will offer a free 12 week program for children 8 to 10 years old, beginning this month at two Boys & Girls Clubs in New York City. And part of the goal there is to help more students have the experience that Copeland herself had: She enrolled in her very first dance class at a Boys & Girls Club when she was 13 and that, of course, ended up transforming her world. So it’s really inspiring to see Misty’s commitment to this kind of work, especially work that creates pipelines for young students who might not otherwise find ballet.

Lydia Murray:

Yes, absolutely. And I went to the launch event last week and it was just so moving and so beautiful to see those young dancers demonstrating and the teachers and the passion that was in that room. It was just really, really inspiring and uplifting.

This year’s Dance Magazine Award honorees have been announced. Congratulations to Kyle Abraham, Lucinda Childs, Herman Cornejo, Brendan Dixon Gottschild, and Dianne McIntyre. And congratulations also to Chairman’s Award winner Jim Herbert and Harkness Promise awardees Johnnie Cruise Mercer and Kayla Farrish.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh, such a great list. Lydia and I were both lucky enough to be on the selection committee this year. And even just like being in the Zoom room with the other members of that group was an honor. So yes…

Lydia Murray:

Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:

…congratulations all around.

Lydia Murray:

Such an honor.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Here, for a change, is some happy Broadway news. A revival of Sweeney Todd is coming to Broadway this spring, with Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford leading the cast, and Steven Hoggett, who is absolutely everywhere these days, doing the choreography. Actually the revival was a very poorly kept secret, rumors have been swirling for a bit now, but it’s great to see the news officially confirmed.

Lydia Murray:

And the upcoming play White Girl in Danger, by Michael R. Jackson, will have its world premiere in the spring of 2023. Jackson is the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning writer of A Strange Loop, and White Girl in Danger will feature choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, who also choreographed A Strange Loop. Exciting stuff.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yes. Yes please, to all of that. I’m so glad we don’t have to wait another like, three years for the next Michael R. Jackson musical.

Lydia Murray:

I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Since that sometimes happens in the theater world.

Lydia Murray:

I know, very exciting.

Margaret Fuhrer:

All right, back to ballet now: World Ballet Day is back. The international celebration, featuring live streams of classes and rehearsals from companies around the globe, will return for its ninth year on November 2nd. This is actually the first time it’s happening in November rather than October. As has become usual, the Royal Ballet and the Australian Ballet will anchor the event, but other participating companies have yet to be announced. And it’s worth noting that in the past, the Bolshoi has been a significant contributor. Given the current geopolitical circumstances, that seems unlikely this year, but stay tuned.

Lydia Murray:

Ballet Hispanico director Eduardo Vilaro and Calpulli Mexican Dance Company director Alberto Lopez have been named two Crain’s 2022 List of Notable Hispanic Leaders. Congratulations there as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yes. And yet more congratulations are in order, because the 12th annual Clive Barnes award finalists have also been announced. The awards honor excellence in both theater and dance. This year’s dance finalists are Zimmi Coker and Erica Lall of American Ballet Theatre, Mira Nadon of New York City Ballet, and Jake Tribus of Gibney Company. A lot of New York favorites there.

Lydia Murray:

Yes. Continuing with New York City based dance news, New York City Ballet and its dancers have reached a new labor agreement to help offset the losses of the earlier part of the pandemic. As part of the three year agreement, which was ratified by the union AGMA earlier this year, City Ballet will raise salaries for dancers and restore some benefits that were halted due to COVID, including vacation pay and contributions to retirement accounts. Sam Wheeler, AGMA’s national executive director, said in a statement that the contract was “a great example of what can be achieved when management and unions work together.”

And though this next story doesn’t involve unions, per se, that idea of an organization helping management better serve dancers was kind of a through-line in Pointe‘s recent piece about CODA, which is a pioneering talent agency for ballet dancers, founded by Rebecca Haw, and it plans to eventually represent artists from other classical disciplines as well, including music.

Margaret Fuhrer:

It is exciting to see more and more of the dance world and particularly the ballet world begin to acknowledge that, hey, dancers deserve the same kinds of employment protections that pretty much all other workers get. And I know that there’s, of course, a lot of labor organizing and advocating going on beyond the ballet world, and City Ballet’s negotiations, for example, do seem informed by that. But advocating for and getting dance specific protections—like intimacy coordinators, part of that City Ballet contract—that is really encouraging stuff. So in the show notes, we have links to Pointe‘s excellent story on the ballet talent agency, which Lydia edited, shout out to Lydia, and also to the New York Times piece on the City Ballet contract.

Here’s some more encouraging news: Dance Data Project announced that it will launch a gender equity index for the dance industry. The index is modeled on the Bloomberg and Equileap indices, among others. DDP plans to score the largest 50 ballet companies in the US based on their advancement of gender equity. So, how are they going to do that? This fall, the organization will send those companies a survey with questions about the commissioning of female creators, women in leadership positions and other factors that contribute to a more equitable workplace, like, does the company have mechanisms for reporting sexual assault? Or do they offer lactation rooms? Or child or elder care options? So DDP will then use an algorithm that combines those responses with other findings from their research, generating an overall equity score for each company. And it will issue its official list of rankings in early 2023. So stay tuned, that is a potentially game changing development.

Lydia Murray:

Yeah, I can’t wait to read the results of that.

New York City Center has announced its new leader. Michael S. Rosenberg, the managing director of the McCarter Theater Center, will succeed Arlene Shuler as the City Center president and chief executive, starting November 1st. Shuler had spent 19 years at the organization.

Margaret Fuhrer:

So many leadership transitions. Okay, heading to TV land now. Since our last episode of this podcast, “Dancing With The Stars” has announced its complete season 31 cast, premiered the season on Disney+, and actually sent one cast member home. They’re not messing around. The star casting for this first season on the streaming platform is remarkably starry. It includes Selma Blair and Wayne Brady and Jordin Sparks and Shangela, who is the show’s first drag queen contestant, as well as the previously announced Charli and Heidi D’Amelio of TikTok fame. The season also features the return of pros Mark Ballas and Louis Van Amstel. And the first elimination, which happened in the premiere episode—just brutal—sent “Sex and The City” actor Jason Lewis home. I’m just going to call it now, Wayne Brady’s going to win this thing.

Lydia Murray:

Interesting. I could see that. It’s quite a cast they have this season.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. I mean I’m basing it on a single performance…but also a lifetime’s worth of other performances. [laughter]

Lydia Murray:

Fair enough. [laughter]

A Disney Original documentary on Anthony Madu is in the works. Madu is the Nigerian ballet student who went viral in 2020 in a video that showed him dancing barefoot on a rainy street outside Legos. He was subsequently awarded a scholarship to Elmhurst Ballet School in the UK, where he now trains. And the documentary will follow his journey. Another very exciting new project in the works.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Very curious to see that.

Last week was fashion week here in New York, and the big Vogue World Show, which was described as “a runway show and fashion experience,” basically turned its catwalk, also known as New York’s West 13th Street, into a giant dance party. The models included Mikhail Baryshnikov, who added his own choreography of course, and American Ballet Theatre’s Gabe Stone Shayer, who looked fabulous as per usual. The show also featured performances by Howard University’s Ooh La La Dancers and Lil Nas X, with choreography by Sean Bankhead. It was a great big fashion-y dance circus. And I mean that mostly as a compliment.

Lydia Murray:

And now for something completely different: the Colorado congresswoman Lauren Boebert recently took aim at Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. She told Fox News that it was, “robbing hardworking Americans to pay for Karen’s daughter’s degree in lesbian dance theory.” But Twitter users aptly pointed out how interesting and cool that very degree would be.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yep. Actually, as that started trending, the number of people in our Twitter feed saying, “I teach lesbian dance theory,” or, “I am lesbian dance theory”— that was pretty fantastic. Just…

Lydia Murray:

Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:

… shout out to all the brilliant queer dance scholars out there.

Lydia Murray:

Yes. And that is exactly what my Twitter feed also looked like at the time.

Margaret Fuhrer:

And we have one late breaking addition to our rundown, which is a happy addition. Kiyon Ross has been named Pacific Northwest Ballet’s first ever associate artistic director. Ross has been with PNB for more than two decades as a dancer and a choreographer and a teacher and, most recently, director of company operations. Now he’ll be helping artistic director Peter Boal with programming, hiring and casting, among other duties. Ross could not be better qualified for this job. And it’s also really heartening to see a Black artist in this kind of leadership role at a major ballet company.

Lydia Murray:

Yes. A huge congratulations.

Margaret Fuhrer:

So that marks the end of the official headline rundown. But if, like us, you are a dance news fiend, please make sure to check out the Dance Media Events Calendar. It has even more fully updated listings for all kinds of performances and events and also auditions. So to stay up to date on the things we maybe didn’t get to here on the podcast, or to add your own events to the calendar, because you can do that too, head to dancemediacalendar.com.

Alrighty. Moving now into our longer discussion segment: There was a surreal kind of feeling in the air late last week when the news broke that The Phantom of the Opera would close on Broadway on February 18th. On the one hand, that wasn’t a big surprise. It is a massively expensive show, and because it’s played for so long in New York City, it relies heavily on tourists, who’ve been slow to return after COVID shutdowns. But on the other hand, Phantom has been on Broadway for almost 35 years. What even is Broadway without this show? And I guess the scarier question there is, if a juggernaut like Phantom can’t make it in this pandemic-altered landscape, what show can make it?

Phantom is far from the only long-running and/or Tony winning production to close or announce plans to close recently. Dear Evan Hansen just closed, Come From Away‘s last show is October 2nd, The Music Man is going to close on January 1st. Beetlejuice just announced, right before we started recording, that it’s closing, even after it’s big, dramatic resurrection at a new theater this spring which, I think, a lot of people had hoped would give the show new momentum.

So what do all these closures tell us about the health of Broadway right now, and about what its future might hold as it continues to navigate COVID fallout, among other issues?

Lydia Murray:

It clearly remains an uncertain time. Going back to the pieces on Phantom, it was even surreal just to read that Phantom on Broadway has been losing about a million dollars per month since it reopened last October, just…

Margaret Fuhrer:

Right.

Lydia Murray:

That show is such an institution. And the Post article pointed out that we might see a slimmed down version of Phantom in a few years. Its producer Cameron Mackintosh did just that with Les Mis in London, which is now at the Sondheim Theater with a new director and a more modest set. And in the meantime, Phantom‘s Broadway closure will free up its home of the Majestic Theater for the first time in about 35 years, and that’s the best musical house on Broadway. And Shubert chair, Bob Wankel had originally wanted to house the upcoming musical, Some Like It Hot, in the Majestic, but didn’t want to displace Phantom. So that could be a possibility in the future. Though, if the controversy around that particular musical has generated…

Margaret Fuhrer:

Wait, what’s the controversy around Some Like It Hot? I’ve missed this entirely.

Lydia Murray:

I believe the controversy is about gender roles, because it’s all about very outdated portrayal of drag and that sort of issue.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Got it. Okay.

Lydia Murray:

So that one might lead to some low ticket sales, it might not end up warranting at theater of that size. But, of course, time will tell. And it was also interesting to hear Mackintosh talk about the climate in which this is happening, with the global inflation, international tourism being on the decline and so forth.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, it was interesting to hear him actually cite global politics—in particular, the west’s relationships with Russia and China as having, I think he said, “changed the whole order” in a way that’s affected theater. That felt a tad melodramatic, but at the same time he’s not wrong. And that sure sounds ominous. Right?

Lydia Murray:

I agree. What does that mean going forward? Especially in contrast to these less prosperous times that we’re in right now and how Phantom, in its current form, is such a product of that 1980s kind of spectacle and excess.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Right. It’s interesting because in some ways, letting go of 80s-style excess feels good from an artistic perspective. I like the idea often of sort of “slimmed down” productions, because that often requires a different type of creativity on the part of directors and choreographers, how to make less feel like more, how not to rely too heavily on spectacular sets and effects to sell your show. But at the same time, nobody is excited about the idea of constant contraction of things getting ever smaller.

Lydia Murray:

Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I guess it is worth noting that these shows that are closing, they’re not all disappearing just because they’re closing on Broadway. I think almost all of them are touring or about to tour. And Phantom is still running in the West End, there’s a new production now in Australia, there’s a Mandarin language production scheduled to open in China next year. I didn’t know until this coverage happened that Antonio Banderas is apparently working on a Spanish language production.

Lydia Murray:

Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:

So it’s very much still out there.

I just kept thinking back to almost exactly a year ago, when Andrew Lloyd Webber was DJing the Phantom comeback party after personally overseeing the show’s reopening, and there was all this hope and momentum around Phantom‘s big comeback. And it wasn’t that it didn’t get a COVID rebound, it sounds like actually ticket sales were okay for the first few months. It’s just that rebound wasn’t as big as hoped and it hasn’t lasted, so…

Lydia Murray:

Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:

…yeah. Is this the new normal? Are we going to see numbers go back up as new boosters roll out? As tourism revs all the way back up? What does the future hold?

Lydia Murray:

Yeah, I wonder what will happen as COVID kind of continues to become normalized and precautions continue to be dropped, and audiences begin to gather in groups more often.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Do you mean the delicate balance of alienating people versus bringing them into the theater when it comes to COVID precautions and regulations, or…?

Lydia Murray:

That’s essentially it, I guess. I guess I’m thinking about how right now we’re kind of living in a way that alienates a large group of people who are immunocompromised or disabled. And that number is probably, it sounds so morbid to say, but at the rate we’re going, it’s only going to grow. And how will that affect people’s perceptions of going to the theater if the theater becomes a place where people by and large aren’t really masked? I know right now, I think the entertainment industry at large is pretty strict, at least compared to a lot of other fields, about following COVID guidelines or protecting against COVID. How will that take shape going forward? And what will that mean, I guess, for productions and for audiences?

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. We’ve reached this kind of strange inflection point where, there have never been any clear answers, but it feels like especially right now, there are no clear answers. In the show notes we have links to a couple of stories that talk about these recent closures and what they mean for the future of theater. I hope you can check them out.

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.

Lydia Murray:

Bye everyone.