Transcript, Episode 127: A Dance “Matrix,” USC’s Majorette Team, and the Solange Effect

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 today we’ll start things off with our headline rundown, which this week includes the Biden administration’s reestablishment of an arts committee that dissolved under Trump; a complicated debate involving USC’s new majorette team; and a just-announced immersive dance version of The Matrix. And then we’ll do a discussion segment on New York City Ballet’s fall fashion gala, talking in particular about the debut of Solange’s first ever ballet score, and about how that premiere—and also the premiere of Kyle Abraham’s latest work for the company—helped bring a different kind of audience and a different kind of energy to the ballet.

Before we get started though, we actually have some news of our own. Very soon we’ll be returning to a weekly format here at The Dance Edit podcast, with new episodes dropping each Thursday. So, our headline focused episodes like this one will continue to air every other week, and then on the alternating weeks, we’ll have interview-based episodes, longer form conversations with the artists who are shaping dance world headlines. We are super excited to start sharing those conversations with all of you. The first one will drop next Thursday, and it is a good one. You do not want to miss it.

If you are already a subscriber to this podcast, keep an eye out for those new episodes, which should start to pop right up in your feed each Thursday. And if you are not yet a subscriber, this is yet another reason to hit that subscribe button on your listening platform of choice.

Okay, now it is headline rundown time, starting with some big news out of Washington DC.

Amy Brandt:

Yes. President Biden has signed an executive order reestablishing the president’s committee on the arts and humanities, which you may recall was disbanded in 2017 under President Trump. The board had resigned in response to President Trump’s response to the Unite the Right rally. The reestablished board will advise Biden on initiatives related to the arts, humanities, and of course, museums, and committee members will include the heads of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Glad we’re back on track with that.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. The Biden administration’s cultural repair efforts continue. By the way, did you know that October is National Arts and Humanities Month?

Amy Brandt:

I did not.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I was unaware of that until I started reading news stories about the restoration of this committee. So, Happy National Arts and Humanities Month, everybody.

Here is some news kind of out of left field. Danny Boyle, the film director known for Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, will be staging a live immersive dance version of the 1999 movie The Matrix. Titled Free Your Mind, the show will feature choreography by Kenrick H2O Sandy and will debut next fall at Manchester England’s massive new arts venue, The Factory. When this news broke, our Slack channel conversation was all about, “What is it going to mean for this show to be immersive?” I think I cracked some lame joke about dancers as bullets flying in slow-motion all-around audience members. Like…what are they going to do?

Amy Brandt:

Yeah, I know. I wish we could see this or access this. I don’t think I’ll be anywhere near Manchester next year, but this sounds pretty wild.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella musical is getting a new name and coming to Broadway. Now called Bad Cinderella, the show will start previews at the Imperial Theater on February 17th, which just happens to be the night before Webber’s Phantom of the Opera closes. An official opening is slated for March 23rd as of today. The contemporary twist on the classic fairytale features Webber’s music with lyrics by David Zippel, and choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter. The musical previously had a short-lived run in London’s West End, under the name Cinderella.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Naturally, as soon as the news about the new title dropped, everyone on Twitter started quoting the Into the Woods prologue: “Nice Cinderella. Good Cinderella. Nice good good nice.” Anyway, since this show starts its performances on February 17th, as you said, one day before Phantom closes, that does mean that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s streak on Broadway will continue unbroken. He’s had at least one musical onstage since 1979.

Amy Brandt:

Wow. Very crafty.

Margaret Fuhrer:

He is a crafty one.

Elsewhere in musical theater, Hocus Pocus film producer David Kirschner has confirmed that a stage musical adaptation of the 1993 movie is in development. That news, of course, came right as Hocus Pocus 2 began streaming last week. We don’t know anything about the creative team for the stage version yet, so stay tuned. But I hadn’t realized that Kenny Ortega directed the original film.

Amy Brandt:

Oh, wow. I didn’t either.

Margaret Fuhrer:

So many of his musical films ended up these cult classics.

Amy Brandt:

Wow.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah.

Amy Brandt:

Here’s some exciting news out of Seattle, Washington. Pacific Northwest Ballet has finally appointed its first Black principal dancer since the company’s founding 50 years ago. That dancer, of course, would be Jonathan Batista, a native of Rio De Janeiro, who joined the company in 2021 after dancing as a principal with Oklahoma City Ballet. Of course, he was not the only one promoted a few weeks ago. Longtime company member Cecilia Iliesiu, and James Kirby Rogers, who also joined PNB last year, were also promoted to principal. It happened after the company’s opening night performance of Carmina Burana in September.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh, congratulations to everyone. That’s good news all around.

A new award from the National Center for Choreography-Akron and the Knight Foundation will give $50,000 to a living choreographer each year. Every fall, the night dance award will honor an artist “whose body of work is distinguished not only for its artistry, but also for its originality of thought and impact.” And it’s noteworthy that $30,000 of that $50,000 prize will be unrestricted funds, money the artist can use however they wish. The other $20,000 will go toward the artist’s engagement with NCCAkron. So, exciting news.

Amy Brandt:

That’s a pretty significant gift.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. It’s great news.

Amy Brandt:

Dayton Ballet artistic director Karen Russo Burke has announced that she will be stepping down at the end of the 2022-23 season. She’s led the company for 10 years and has been associated with it since 1993. Her husband, actually, Dermot Burke, was the previous artistic director. She helped lead the company through a merger with the Dayton Philharmonic and the Dayton Opera, which is now called the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. And a search committee has been formed to help find a new director for the company, which is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year. The school is actually celebrating its 95th anniversary. Big milestone.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I don’t realize that. Wow.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah, it is interesting. I’ve seen a lot of anniversary celebrations, and I always think of ballet as a somewhat new art form in the United States, but to see these major milestones, 75 years, 85 years is pretty exciting.

Margaret Fuhrer:

So, our next story is a complicated one. Princess Isis Lang, a student at the University of Southern California, has founded the school’s first all-Black majorette team. It’s called the Cardinal Divas. The team specializes in j-setting, a dance style traditionally only found at HBCUs. Lang wanted to build a majorette team at USC in part to create a safe space for the school’s Black dancers, and a lot of people have been really supportive of the new team. Some, however, have criticized it as offensive to the traditions and legacies of HBCUs. So, in the show notes, we have links to a few different articles that explain the nuances of the story. The Washington Post just put out a really good one. Essence has some good coverage, a good interview with Princess herself as well.

Amy Brandt:

Designer Anthony Vaccarello’s latest collection for Yves Saint Laurent is inspired by none other than modern dance great Martha Graham. Tube dresses and hoods were the star of the runway during the collections recent debut in Paris. Cool.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I love that. And by the way, I’m not a fashion person, but I thought the designs themselves were really beautiful, and that’s not always the case with these dance-design overlaps.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah, very sophisticated. And it’s not just that you can see the influence of Martha Graham, like he’s acknowledged that he was influenced by her.

Margaret Fuhrer:

It’s very explicit, yeah.

Over in the entertainment world, the music video for the Britney Spears and Elton John collaboration “Hold Me Closer” dropped last week, and while it did not feature either Britney or Elton, it did feature choreography by Jacob Jonas. And an incredible cast of dancers, including Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theater!

Amy Brandt:

I know! I saw that.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I literally gasped when he first appeared in the video. That is really cool.

Amy Brandt:

I know, and he’s dancing alongside a young child so, you see this juxtaposition of old and young…

Margaret Fuhrer:

They have a good dance off.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. I love that the dancers were the star of that video.

Margaret Fuhrer:

It’s great. We have that linked to the show notes.

Amy Brandt:

And then we have some sad news about dancers who have left us. Clara Gravy Stanley, a former ballerina with Harkness Ballet and Ballet de Caracas and the longtime head of the Houston Ballet Academy, has died at the age of 72. She also served as president of the National Association of Schools of Dance, and in 2010, she was appointed associate professor of the school of dance at the University of Oklahoma, later becoming associate director. So, she has a long and established history in dance education.

And it has also been reported that former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal Stephanie Dabney has passed away. She joined the company at age 16 in the 1970s. I think she’s best known for the title role in John Taras’ Firebird. DTH posted some beautiful film footage of her in that role on their Instagram page, and I think some footage from Fall River Legend as well. So, please check it out. She was really just a beautiful, stunning artist.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Oh, those iconic Martha Swope photos of her as Firebird, just gorgeous.

So, that’s the end of our headline run down this episode, but here is your friendly reminder to check out the Dance Media Events Calendar, which has even more information about upcoming performances and auditions, and other dance world events we maybe didn’t get to hear on the podcast. To see the full list of goings on, and to add your own events, head to dancemediacalendar.com.

All right. So, now we’re going to slow down a little bit for a discussion of New York City Ballet’s fashion gala. Amy’s already dancing in her seat. Amy and I were both there last week. This is not a review, we’re not here as critics, though we can talk a bit about our reactions to the two premieres that were on the program, in particular. But we also want to talk about the atmosphere out in the audience.

The big headline event of the gala was, of course, the debut of Solange Knowles’ first-ever ballet score. That ballet, called Play Time, was choreographed by Gianna Reisen and costumed by Alejandro Gomez Palomo, and we’ll talk about their contributions too. But Knowles is music royalty, and only the second Black woman to create a piece of music for the company. And a lot of people at the gala were clearly there for her. The ovations made that pretty obvious: They were there for Solange. Which is noteworthy because it was a markedly younger, markedly more diverse group than your typical City Ballet gala crowd. And Kyle Abraham also had a premiere on the program, and he definitely helps bring in that kind of fan base too.

That’s a really exciting development for this art form that, as we always say, urgently needs to cultivate younger and more diverse audiences, partly because greater inclusivity is just an important goal in general, but also because that’s the only way ballet is going to survive. So, I guess one of the big questions is, can companies like City Ballet keep young people and people of color coming back to other performances too? We’ll talk about that, but let’s actually start by talking about the two premieres themselves.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. So, the show opened with Symphony in C, the fourth movement of Symphony in C of course. So, it gave the audience its usual classical Balanchine and its best. But the first premiere on the program was Gianna Reisen’s Play Time, which featured a very, I would say, jazzy score by Solange. A lot of piano, a lot of percussion and horns.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, I feel like I want to go back and listen to the score independently, just because there was a lot happening on stage, and there was also so much happening in the score itself. All these layered jazz rhythms, actually really interesting orchestrations. The way that she used percussion I thought was so cool. Very different than what we typically hear out of the orchestra pit.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. And I believe some of her frequent collaborators were in the orchestra pit with the New York City Ballet orchestra playing along. And then the costumes were this fun take on the ’80s pinstripe power suit, very pointed shoulder pads, and hip lines, and lots and lots and lots of crystals.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah, just doused in Swarovski crystals. I don’t know—I loved them! I was all about them. I just feel like it’s the fashion gala, let’s go all out, and he went totally all out. And I also feel the piece is called Play Time, it was extremely playful, and also the way that it played, very thoughtfully played with ideas of gender—more of that at the ballet, please.

Amy Brandt:

I thought this description in Pitchfork was pretty funny. It said they were splitting the difference between cartoon finance bro villain and high fashion Teletubby.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yep. That’s it. In the best way. [laughter]

Did you feel like, Amy—I felt like Gianna let the other two collaborators take the lead, so that in some ways her choreography ended up being the least memorable part of the premiere?

Amy Brandt:

I would say, so. I would say, so. Yes, there’s certain aspects of her choreography that stuck with me, particularly some of the solo work for Chun Wai Chan, which he’s always great.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Always good.

Amy Brandt:

But yeah, what you really remember are these costumes and the score.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Although I do—those tableaux that Gianna put together at the beginning and the end of the piece, those do stick in my brain, sort of Vogue portraits.

Okay. So, let’s talk about Kyle Abraham’s premiere, too.

Amy Brandt:

Okay.

Margaret Fuhrer:

First of all, all choreographers seemed to be in love with James Blake right now.

Amy Brandt:

I know. I was going to say.

Margaret Fuhrer:

William Forsythe has his Blake Works series, and now Kyle and James Blake, he’s on that train.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. It makes sense to me because there’s something very cool and moody about it, but also very melodic and beautiful as well. So, it doesn’t surprise me that that choreographers are attracted to his music.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. It’s like movie music. It’s very atmospheric. Yeah.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. He’s everywhere now. It’s funny. He’s the new Arvo Pärt.

Can we talk about Jonathan Fahoury?

Margaret Fuhrer:

Oh, my gosh, please, yes. That was one of my main takeaways from this piece, that he’s a star.

Amy Brandt:

Oh, my gosh. So, in Kyle’s previous work for the fashion gala, Runaway, where he created this beautiful solo on Taylor Stanley that when you watch it, you were like, “I can’t imagine any other dancer in the company performing this.” It was the same situation. So, like Jonathan—and he’s in the corps, but he clearly has a background in other styles of dance.

Margaret Fuhrer:

He’s a comp kid.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah, and just a really beautiful mover. And I’ve seen him do some other things. I believe he had a nice, featured role in Jamar Roberts’ piece last year for City Ballet—

Margaret Fuhrer:

Emanon.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. He had a moment where I was like, “Who is that?” Just a very beautiful mover, very fluid. So, anyway, yeah, it was just a wonderful opportunity for him. It’s also just great to see someone in the corps get that moment on stage, and again where you’re like, “Who else could do this? I don’t know.”

Margaret Fuhrer:

Actually, it’s interesting you say that because—and I think Kyle and Jamar are similar in this way—in each of their pieces, there sometimes seems to be a dancer who’s a proxy for them. The only other person you can imagine doing the choreography is the creator of the choreography. And that was Jonathan in this piece, and it was Taylor in Runaway. So, that’s interesting.

And I also want to give a shout-out to the dancers who start out in the jazz competition dance world, and then turn their focus to ballet. Because inevitably they end up as some of the most compelling performers around, because they don’t lose the versatility that they gained through the competition dance scene, but then they acquire a different type of polish, and a different relationship to music that’s maybe, I don’t want to say more sophisticated, but just it’s different. I love seeing that. That makes me so happy. I’ll never forget Jonathan’s solos at New York City Dance Alliance back when he was 10, 11, 12 years old, and already so gifted.

I also loved, loved the pas de deux that he did with Harrison Ball…

Amy Brandt:

With Harrison. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

… at the end of the piece.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah, I agree.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Just so quietly lovely and really deeply romantic. We don’t get a lot of that in ballet duets like that for two people of the same gender.

Amy Brandt:

No, no. And two radically different dancers as well. They were definitely two individuals. Jonathan didn’t lose his special quality that he brought in with his solo. We didn’t all of a sudden turn into this super classical dancer for this pas de deux with Harrison. I liked that you could see their two differences as dancers as they came together for this pas de deux.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. I was also chuckling a little bit to myself because—I think we talked about this on the previous podcast episode, that Harrison is engaged to Zac Posen, and Jonathan very much has a Zac Posen look to him. Art imitating life. That’s so sweet.

All right. So, in terms of what’s going on bigger-picture here, Amy, you were saying when we were talking earlier that the ballet discussion boards—which, man, only in the ballet world are discussion boards still this big a thing—but anyway, the ballet discussion boards have made note of the fact that the subsequent performance of the program, the same program that debuted at the gala, the audience felt just as different, just as enlivened as it did at the gala itself, which is certainly promising.

Amy Brandt:

Yeah. But also, there’s that article in Jezebel as well where the writer sat in the fourth ring, in the third ring, amongst not your usual patron/celebrity sitting down in the orchestra section, and spoke to a lot of people in there. And a lot of them had never been to the ballet before and came specifically to see Solange’s score or hear Solange’s—they came for Solange, a lot of them, and they seemed to really respond to the program.

It kind of killed me. The writer referred to Symphony in C as “fine”—

Margaret Fuhrer:

I got one word.

Amy Brandt:

Just sort of old-fashioned stuffy stuff, but that the people that the writer was speaking to outside in the lobby and amongst the balcony seats really seemed to enjoy and respond the program and respond to ballet. But does that mean they’ll come back again? Will they come back to see a more traditional like…

Margaret Fuhrer:

To see Symphony in C?

Amy Brandt:

…Balanchine program and feel the same way? Will they feel that same energy or will they feel like they don’t fit in, or they feel unseen or that it’s too conservative or whatnot? I’m not sure. I’m not. Is something like the fall fashion gala, is it enough to bring in new audiences on a consistent basis? And then, if you look at some of the comments on New York City Ballet’s Facebook page, we have some people of other generations who really don’t like this kind of programming, who bemoan classical ballet and bemoan Balanchine and feel things are going in too avant-garde a direction.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Actually…you’re never going to please everybody, but I liked that it seemed like very deliberately they opened with Symphony in C before leading into all of these newer works—kind of “where we’ve been, where we’re going.” Not that where we’ve been is disappearing necessarily, but to set those two directly side-by-side and say, “All of these things make up who we are and what we do,” and introducing people on both sides of the equation to the other side of the equation.

Amy Brandt:

I liked that.

Margaret Fuhrer:

I also thought it was a beautiful performance of Symphony in C, which helps advocate for that kind of choreography.

The shift that’s happening, of course, it’s flawed. Any big step forward is going to have some hitch in it. But the idea that people who once felt ballet wasn’t for them are now being explicitly invited to the ballet, that seems like that’s what matters. It’s the welcoming that’s important, and it certainly felt like that was happening.

Amy Brandt:

Yes. Something to keep in mind is that the fashion galas do tend to be a little gimmicky sometimes, and a lot of the works do not last. Maybe one or two will actually get put into the long-term repertoire here and there, but that’s—

Margaret Fuhrer:

It’s pretty rare.

Amy Brandt:

The fall fashion gala is often of just a very unique experience. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. I know. It’s funny. I remember so many of the fashion gala costumes and relatively little of the dancing that happened, for better or for worse, I guess.

Anyway, in the show notes, we have links to that story from Jezebel, and also to a little bit of other coverage of the galas so you can read more about the works that premiered there.

All right. That’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining. We’ll be back in two weeks from our discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world but tune in next week for the first in our interview series on this platform. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Amy Brandt:

Bye everyone.