The Dance Edit

Transcript, Episode 41: Olympic Dance, “Black Swan” at 10, and Christy Bolingbroke

[Jump to Christy Bolingbroke interview.]

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

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Cadence Neenan:
And I’m Cadence Neenan.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about the fact that breaking is now officially an Olympic sport, and the implications of that news. We’ll take a look at the film Black Swan as it marks its 10th anniversary, and get into why it still provokes such intense reactions in the dance world. We’ll discuss the searching interview that David Hallberg gave recently about how the lowest moment of his career ultimately led to his new position as artistic director of The Australian Ballet. Then we’ll have our interview with Christy Bolingbroke, who is the executive and artistic director of The National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron. She’s helping dance artists and dance organizations reimagine their approach to business and administration. It’s this incredibly important work that often goes uncovered. So, we’re really excited for you to hear her perspective.

But before we get started, here is your usual friendly reminder to subscribe to this podcast on your listening platform of choice, and to give us a rating and a review if you have a minute. Good reviews, bad reviews, whatever your genuine feelings are about the podcast, we’d love to hear them. And you can also, of course, send your feedback via social media. We’re on Instagram @the.dance.edit and Twitter @dance_edit. So give us a follow and a shout.

Now, it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is relatively upbeat this time—I say as I knock on all of the wood. Courtney, go for it.

Courtney Escoyne:
The Dance Magazine Awards took place Monday night, and it was, as always, a star-studded affair. William Forsythe presented to Alonzo King, Ben Stevenson to Carlos Acosta, Theresa Ruth Howard to Camille A. Brown, George Faison to Debbie Allen, and Brian Friedman to Laurieann Gibson. Joan Finkelstein was on hand to present Harkness Promise Awards to Marjani Forté-Saunders and Kyle Marshall, and Lourdes Lopez kicked off a tribute with messages from across the dance world to Chairman’s Award recipient, Darren Walker. If you missed the event, it’s still available to watch on demand. I’m imagining we’re going to link it in the episode description.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We will absolutely do that. It is very much worth watching.

Cadence Neenan:
Choreographer Faye Driscoll is the next recipient of New York Live Arts’ biennial residency award, which includes two years of full-time salary and healthcare benefits, as well as a commissioning fee, a technical residency and a fully produced production.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s a residency that does it right.

Courtney Escoyne:
The track record of the people who go through it is just absolutely incredible. In less cheerful news, despite over 100 employees of the Bolshoi Theater testing positive for COVID-19, the Bolshoi Ballet is continuing to perform in Moscow. They are playing to a house at 25 percent capacity and temperature checks are required at the door for audience members, but whether dancers and musicians wear masks is apparently left to individual discretion.

Cadence Neenan:
Big sigh. Film reels in the archives of the Royal Academy of Dance were found to contain never before seen footage from 1972 of none other than Dame Margot Fonteyn, and ballet lovers around the world are thrilled. The footage shows Fonteyn providing commentary while watching a class of young ballet students instructing proper technique and discussing the RAD syllabus.

Courtney Escoyne:
As an Anglophile and a dance history nerd, it just makes my heart so happy. 101-year-old folklórico dancer Alta Regalado is the subject of a new mural at Pan American Park in Long Beach, California. She began learning to dance at age 69 after her husband passed away and she’s still going. Just an all around heartwarming story.

Cadence Neenan:
The iconic photography project Dancers and Dogs recently took a series of Nutcracker-themed photos of St. Louis Ballet dancers posing with animals from the Stray Rescue of St. Louis to help raise awareness about pet adoption. This is another thing I think we’ll be linking because the photos will make your day.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, if you need a shot of pure happiness, we will link that for you.

Courtney Escoyne:
Don’t we all. Michael Trusnovec and Kristin Draucker created a very 2020 version of Hilary Harris’s 1966 dance film, 9 Variations on a Dance Theme, which started longtime Taylor dancer, Bettie de Jong. For 9 New Variations, they recruited nine incredible dancers, all women to respond to the original. Sara Mearns, Margie Gillis, Tamisha A. Guy, Annmaria Mazzini, Xin Ying, Andrea Miller, Akua Noni Parker, Christine Flores, and Caitlin Scranton. You can watch the 10-minute film on YouTube.

Cadence Neenan:
Warner Bros. recently announced that the In the Heights movie and the rest of its 2021 film slate will be available on HBO Max the same day that the films are released in theaters. After a one month stay on the streaming service, the films will leave the platform, but continue playing in theaters. So that means for all of you HBO Max subscribers, In the Heights should be available come June 18th, 2021.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The fact that, as you mentioned, it’s not just In the Heights but actually their entire 2021 slate of movies, that is huge news—

Cadence Neenan:
Major.

Margaret Fuhrer:
… but I guess a discussion for another podcast.

Courtney Escoyne:
Definitely a different podcast, because I have thoughts.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll save that one away. There was actually another major piece of news this week that we’re going to discuss in more depth in our next segment. On Monday, the International Olympic Committee announced that breaking would become an Olympic sport. Breaking—which is sometimes referred to as breakdancing usually by people outside its community—will make its Olympic debut at the 2024 games in Paris. For the record, it was actually provisionally added to the 2024 lineup back in the summer of 2019, but Monday’s IOC vote actually made things official. The change is part of the committee’s campaign to attract younger viewers, which is interesting, and there are of course questions about how Olympic breaking competition will be conducted, how it will be evaluated. But this news also touches on some longstanding debates about whether dance should be considered a sport, and on the forms of dance that are afforded respect and recognition in the mainstream.

Courtney Escoyne:
So first of all, this is just wildly exciting, in my opinion. I think it’s going to be so incredibly cool for breaking to have this massive platform that… Everyone tunes into the Olympics. I feel like it’s just kind of a thing that collectively, we all do every four years or every two years, depending if you’re into winter and summer. I think it’s worth noting that the USA Breaking Committee has already been working on creating a rule book, a uniform way of scoring, coming up with ways to bring everyone through the whole Olympic system the same way as any other sport, essentially trying to make sure that because breaking originated here, that US breakers have an impact on how this is actually formally brought in.

Something I’m personally extremely curious about is to see what the scoring system ultimately ends up looking like. My going theory is that we’re going to end up with something rather akin to how figure skating is scored, because of course, figure skating, like breaking, is not something that every single routine is exactly the same. It’s not like you’re doing a race and whoever gets to the end of it in the certain style first wins. It’s much more complicated than that. So if you look at the figure skating scoring system, there’s a technical score, which is determined by the difficulty level of all the elements in a program. Then the skater is graded on execution of each completed element. Then that’s added to a component score, which includes things like skating skills, musicality, program composition, transitions, performance, so the more artistic side of it. Then those scores are combined in order to figure out who ranks where. And of course, there are issues and debates around how all these things work and the rules are constantly revisited and revised, but I think something similar to that for breaking could make a lot of sense and could make it so that we aren’t losing the incredible artistry of breaking while also coming up with a way to score it that seems somewhat more scientific, I suppose.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I guess I just want to note that I’ve seen some sort of mixed reactions to the announcement on social. In addition to the excitement, there was a little anxiety around, How are we going to be judging this inherently subjective art form, where competition is part of the point, but not the entire point? But it is encouraging that the USA Breaking Committee has been vocal about their interest in participating in the development of the scoring system to make sure that yes, the integrity of the form is maintained—that it doesn’t sort of lose its soul. There are big well-regarded breaking competitions like Red Bull BC One that provide good models here that can be incorporated, I’m sure.

I want to talk to about this bigger-picture idea of dance as a sport, just because it seems like pretty much everyone agrees that dancers are athletes, that the work that they’re doing matches or exceeds the physical accomplishments of competitive athletes. And dance is often inherently competitive. But because there is so much more to dance than the competitive aspect, I think there is a lot of anxiety here around the competitive side overshadowing the artistic side, even kind of hollowing out the artistry of breaking. I do think that’s a real danger. I think, as you were saying, Courtney, figure skating is an interesting example, gymnastics, also an interesting example, to look at how, when you have something that’s fundamentally a hybrid practice, how the emphasis on the competitive side can shape the way that it evolves.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, absolutely. Again, to bring another figure skating point into it, if you go back 10 years, the number of quads, for example, that were attempted in competition were nearly non-existent. Now, not only can male skaters only be competitive if they’re pulling quads, we’re probably, next winter Olympics, going to be seeing women skaters trying to pull quads. So it’s been this constant technical evolution and the question then becomes, Well, are we losing some of the things that make figure skating so beautiful and so moving to watch? Are we losing the Kristi Yamaguchis, the Michelle Kwans?

Cadence Neenan:
I will say I do think that even in the dance world, not even the competition dance world, those are conversations that I feel like we’ve been having. Is flexibility being driven to such an extreme that we’re losing artistry? Are we so focused on doing tricks that are we losing artistry? So I do think that while those concerns for breaking, as it enters the Olympics, are obviously valid, those are conversations that I think arise just with the evolution development of most art forms.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, absolutely. I also think that dance people have a big old chip on their shoulder, too, because, especially in the United States, sports frequently are seen as more valuable than the arts because they’re more lucrative than the arts, and that’s a big thing to unpack.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and it’s very much, if you look at funding priorities all the way from a federal level down to very, very local, that dichotomy absolutely exists.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Sidebar, too: If you’re going to add dance to the Olympics, it’s interesting that breaking was the first choice, since the ballroom dance community has a pretty well-established, very Olympic-friendly format, and members of that community had been pushing hard for it to become an Olympic sport for years, for decades. Competitive ballroom dance is known as DanceSport, and I think they first started using that term in an effort to help ballroom dance gain Olympic recognition. That was back in like 1990. So maybe the thought was that ballroom would attract an older crowd, whereas breaking would attract a slightly younger crowd? Or maybe breaking will prove to be a really popular Olympic event and kind of pave the way for ballroom, which clearly, there’ll be more to discuss if that happens

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think it’s also worth noting they did kind of debut breaking at the 2018 Youth Olympics, and that went off extremely well. So I think it’s definitely an argument to be made that breaking could make major inroads here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, excited to see how that all plays out. In our next segment, we’re going to travel to a different corner of the dance world, and also 10 years back in time. Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan just turned, believe it or not, one decade old. Of course, back when the film first premiered, it was sort of a lightning rod for controversy because of the way it sensationalized the ballet world, and it leaned really hard into a lot of harmful stereotypes. This past week, there were a few different stories that came out about the anniversary of Black Swan. But Thrillist, in particular, did a tribute that was noteworthy because it asked members of the ballet community how they felt about the film 10 years out. And unsurprisingly, people are still feeling a lot of feelings.

Cadence Neenan:
I have to confess upfront that I have never seen Black Swan, in part because I was a diehard bunhead growing up and I had heard so many negative things about it from all the primas that I loved.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Which is interesting in itself.

Cadence Neenan:
But definitely in a much larger part because I do not watch scary movies, I get nightmares easily, and my imagination tends to run rampant. So my ideas surrounding Black Swan will be limited to what I typically read online, including this really interesting Thrillist article that they did. In particular, I think this article stood out because it was speaking with really significant members of the ballet community about what they thought about the film. They interviewed Sara Mearns, who said that when she first saw the film, she wanted to walk out of the theater. They interviewed Michele Gifford, a repetiteur for The Balanchine Trust, who said that she believes there is a touch of truth to the behind-the-scenes politics described in the film. There was a lot of discussion about how we’ve seen controversy and scandal arise in the ballet world since that movie first came out and how, potentially, those controversies do lend some weight to the portrayals of the film.

Courtney Escoyne:
Here’s where I stand and kind of have always stood with Black Swan: It’s a Darren Aronofsky film, guys. And two, we are looking at a film with the most unreliable narrator. Even though film as a medium gives you a sense of the third person—a sense of remove, what I am seeing is what is happening—we’re looking at it through Natalie Portman’s character’s eyes, Nina, and she is such an unreliable narrator. So everything is taken to this… Because it’s Darren Aronofsky, everything’s taken to this really, really extreme extreme. Then on top of that, we have a narrator who is not necessarily seeing things in a true or clear way. So I think there is a grain of salt that has to happen here, of—this wasn’t trying to be an accurate portrayal of the ballet world, I don’t think, because that’s just not what Aronofsky does.

That being said, yeah, just every problematic trope in the book not handled in nuanced ways, really just there for titillation. And honestly, I think I would probably have even less strong feelings about it had there not been the whole thing where—there was a whole, like, “Natalie Portman did all of her own dancing for this film.” It’s like, yes. Okay. She took classes for a year and she was coached and she was trained. Natalie Portman was actually very nice for a non dancer. And her port de bras was really impressive…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, shout out to Natalie Portman’s port de bras!

Courtney Escoyne:
…but we all know Sarah Lane did the dance doubling. They used CGI to put Natalie’s face over Sarah’s when she was doing those fouettés. Hello, there’s a reason the fouettés are to the left. Maria Riccetto also was a dance double in it…

Margaret Fuhrer:
For Mila Kunis.

Courtney Escoyne:
…and all that stuff of trying to erase the actual work that is required to be that level of a dancer, essentially, so that Portman and the film could campaign for Oscars—which Natalie Portman did get, and her acting performance deserved it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. The issue that I have is the deliberate confusion created by the way that film was marketed, because it seemed clear after watching it that—as you said, Courtney—Aronofsky, as he always does, was creating a fantastical version of the ballet world. The intention wasn’t for it to be, This is reality. But the way that the film was marketed, especially the confusion around, “Oh, was Natalie Portman actually doing all her own dancing?” It took things to a place where a lot of people were coming into this film assuming this is what ballet really is. I think it’s not even that the issues the movie chose are the wrong issues. The behind-the-scenes politics of casting, the mistreatment of female dancers by male directors, the larger problems of ballet’s fundamentally patriarchal system, those problems are very real in the ballet world. Even the story of Swan Lake itself, this ballet about men possessing and manipulating and exploiting women’s bodies and women’s trust, that’s great movie fodder. If Black Swan had dug into those things in a way that showed an interest in and a respect for ballet’s real-life artists, even as it created this fantasy, it could have been something really remarkable. But I think it became clear that Aronofsky didn’t actually care all that much about ballet as it actually exists, even as people were saying, “Natalie Portman became a real ballerina.” So that dissonance is one of the things that dancers were responding to as they watched this film, and as they absorbed the promotional machine around it.

Courtney Escoyne:
I just remembered this as we were discussing it. I went to go see the movie with my mom because I was in high school at the time, and I remember my mom was just so quiet afterward. Then in the car on the way home, she was like, “Courtney, if that’s what the ballet world is really like, I don’t know. I’m worried. I’m concerned,” and I was like, “Mom, it’s an Aronofsky film. That’s not…No.” I remember just sending her all the dancer reactions to it and being like, “See?”

Cadence Neenan:
To this day, anytime I mention that I grew up doing ballet or that I do ballet or even the word, “ballet,” to a non-dancer, they’re like, “Oh, ballerinas are all crazy like in Black Swan.” I’m like, “Thank you for telling me about the art form that I have studied and participated in since you saw one movie about it.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
And that’s the immediate point of reference. It is frustrating. I guess the sort of rose-colored-glasses conclusion here is that at least there has been some real change in the ballet world over the past decade. Black Swan portrayed ballet dancers, especially ballet’s women, as voiceless, but ballet is slowly becoming a better and more equitable place thanks to the courage of dancers using their voices to call out abuse and inequity as it does actually occur in the ballet world. Increasingly, they’re being heard. The fact that Peter Martins, who is perhaps the closest analogue to the artistic director portrayed in Black Swan, is no longer leading New York City Ballet—I can genuinely say that in 2010, I couldn’t have imagined that. And it happened.

So our next segment is actually a bit of a full-circle moment for the podcast. In our very first episode, back in March, we talked about the announcement that world-renowned dancer David Hallberg would become artistic director of The Australian Ballet. Now, several months and one pandemic later, Hallberg is officially an Oz and officially at the helm of the company. The Sydney Morning Herald did a couple of big stories about Hallberg recently. One was a more general look at his plans for the company and how rehearsals are currently proceeding, but the other explored Hallberg’s journey to this new position. That journey actually started back in 2015 when he was struggling with a really traumatic injury and sought both treatment and refuge in Australia. It’s that second story we want to get into here because it reveals these deep truths about what goes into a dancer’s sense of their own identity, which is something that many dancers are struggling with during the pandemic.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. So I think even reading that story, I kind of went all the way back to when Hallberg first visited Australia in 2010, he went to perform in the company’s production of The Nutcracker. I think getting to hear Hallberg’s genuine deep appreciation for Australia and its culture and its people, I think even on his first visit, he described it as feeling so just immediately welcomed by the warm character of the people there. Maybe it’s just a line, but reading it, it felt so real, like he truly loved all of the people that he met and just immediately felt at home. So I guess after his really serious ankle injury in 2013, he’d had some surgeries that hadn’t gone particularly well.

Courtney Escoyne:
If you read his description of that period of time in his memoir, Body of Work, it is—

Margaret Fuhrer:
Harrowing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Absolutely.

Cadence Neenan:
Yes. He says he saw it kind of as a last-ditch effort, the physiotherapy team at The Australian Ballet, because the take a different approach than a lot of American doctors and American medicine. So the physiotherapy team, including Sue Mays, I think he really credits a lot of the work to her, brought him back to life and he’s felt sort of indebted to the company ever since and has continued to return and return and return. Now, he will be leading that company that saved his career. I don’t know, reading it, it just was a really amazing story and it felt like you really got to understand how deeply he cares for this company.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and The Australian Ballet physical therapy team is, dare I say, it. Like, there are some incredible dance medicine specialists in the world. But particularly since David did his comeback performance in 2016 with American Ballet Theatre and talked to Dance Magazine for our cover story a lot about that process and what they did for him, they have become, even more so than before, a world-renowned physio expert for, How do you actually take care of dancers, looking at it from a sports medicine perspective? So I think it’s super cool that the person heading the company is someone who benefited so immensely from their expertise, this team that helped him rebuild his technique from the ground up. It means that the person who’s leading the artistic direction of the company and is going to be the person that the dancers are going to, if they have an injury, if they have a problem going on, is going to be someone very supportive, is going to make sure that that team has all the resources they need, and make sure that the dancers are in a safe space to deal with these injuries. That’s huge.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There’s this incredible quote in the story from Megan Connelly, who’s one of their ballet rehab specialists. She says, “Sometimes I joke that a dancer’s identity is completely expressed in their turnout. It’s like they say, ‘This is how I feel my turnout. Therefore, that is who I am.'” And that just gets at the heart of it. Hallberg has this sense of indebtedness to this company for bringing him back to life and not just physically, but also mentally. It’s either Connelly or Hayes who talks in the story about, after one really intense therapy session, following him home in her car because she was worried that he might hurt himself. They cared for him in this complete way that transformed him as a dancer and as a person. It feels so Australian to me that The Sydney Morning Herald literally said in its story, “Look, the Australian ballet is great, but it’s no Royal Ballet or Paris Opera. Why is Hallberg here? What’s he getting out of this deal?” And that’s what he’s getting. It’s the sense of gratitude, of giving back to this company that reconfirmed his dancer identity.

Cadence Neenan:
I think also, there was one other thing that stood out to me. Hallberg says that he sees a belief system at The Australian Ballet that he hasn’t seen elsewhere. He says the dancers believe in bettering both the company and themselves every single day. He says in his experience, it’s unique to that company.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Obviously, these feelings, the feelings of sudden and complete loss that are described in the story, are very familiar to a lot of dancers right now—and dancers with far fewer resources and far smaller support networks than David Hallberg has. I’m going to be bitter. One of the most remarkable things about the newsier story that The Sydney Morning Herald ran is that Hallberg is in the studio with the dancers right now, because the Australian government was much more proactive and aggressive about stopping COVID. They’re dancing. God, we have to get dancers dancing again here. We have to actually take action. That went really dark. Sorry.

Courtney Escoyne:
Listen, you said what we were all feeling.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, let’s end on a high note, which is that the Australians—again, the most Australian thing ever—they’ve nicknamed him “Bergsie.”

Courtney Escoyne:
Which is the most charming tweet I’ve seen this month.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He’s fully embraced it. It’s lovely, and we’re very happy that he’s happy there.

Courtney Escoyne:
And he’s looking for a house!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah! We’re rooting for him.

Cadence Neenan:
All the good things.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Christy Bolingbroke So stay tuned.

[pause]


CHRISTY BOLINGBROKE INTERVIEW

Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. Our guest on the podcast this week is Christy Bolingbroke, the founding executive and artistic director of the National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron. So she is providing both artistic and administrative leadership for NCCAkron—that’s no mean feat. Christy was previously deputy director for advancement at ODC in San Francisco and director of marketing at the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn. She has a BA in dance from UCLA, a master’s in performance curation from Wesleyan, and she’s also a graduate of the Kennedy Center’s prestigious arts management fellowship program. Basically, she’s one of the most influential people in dance today. That’s something that Dance Magazine actually formally recognized back in 2017, when it put her on its list of the most influential people in dance. So, welcome, Christy! Thank you for joining on the podcast today.

Christy Bolingbroke:
Thanks, Margaret. I’m so excited to be here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know I just gave the Cliff’s Notes version of your bio, but can you start by telling us the more personal version of how you came to arts administration? What drew you to the field?

Christy Bolingbroke:
Sure. This is something that, hindsight being what it is, I think it’s only become more clear to me what that path was. Because I like to say it’s both a blessing and a curse in our field that there is no one way forward, and so you sort of find your way and improvise. I was actually a competition kid way back in the day. Shout out to the Rowland/Ballard School of Dance in Kingwood, Texas, just north of Houston. And that was non-profit arts administration. We were fundraising for costumes and competition fees or selling carnations with the parents’ guild at Nutcracker intermission. When I think of it now—I, of course, was all jazzed about the dance opportunities, but I was always fundraising. I was always doing that kind of event planning. And it’s something that I found more opportunities in when I got through college. When I had an injury or when there weren’t enough performing opportunities for the school of dance then we self-produced. We went ahead and made our own opportunities happen, writing grants across campus or doing fundraisers, selling merchandise, but also putting together the program as a whole.

So other than dance teaching, the requisite food service jobs, my first non-dance, non-food service job was actually working in the box office for the UCLA Central Ticket Office. And that was amazing market research. So it’s something—I’ve always been a very pragmatic person, and business-based, and I kept finding these opportunities that felt right and I continued to accumulate them over time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that you called that your comp-kid past because we talk so much about the versatility of competition dancers from a technique perspective, but that versatility extends beyond technique. They really end up doing everything.

Christy Bolingbroke:
Oh, my God. I mean, I’m a big believer that artists and especially dancers make the best administrators. And when I also think of the opportunities that Kingwood Jazz and Company afforded me at that point in my life—I was a 13 year old, and they were letting me choreograph the production number, which anyone in the comp world knows—

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s a circus!

Christy Bolingbroke:
—it’s anywhere from 30 to 40 people onstage. And I was recreating these Broadway shows and different things in four minutes. And that gave me the leadership skills to be able to stand in front of the room and to direct people and keep track of many moving parts, in addition to the discipline and the rigor to be in that field as well, and be a part of the training—not just physically, but mentally.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk a little about the path that led you to NCCAkron specifically? How did you end up there?

Christy Bolingbroke:
It also was not a straight path. What stood out for me when I was dancing and would have anywhere from eight to 12 part-time jobs…when I was ready to commit full-time to arts administration, I remember having to complete an essay for the Kennedy Center opportunity. And I said, “You know what? I don’t want to run my own dance company. I want to find a platform where I can support as many artists as possible, because I enjoy the variety of that.” You recalled my bio a little bit, and I definitely went back and forth across the country. But when the opportunity for Akron came up, it was really exciting because, one, it didn’t even exist when I entered the workforce. The first National Center for Choreography, MANCC, down at Florida State University—it didn’t exist when I entered the workforce. So the idea that I could be a part of building something from scratch and also that without… I like to say building it from scratch, we have fewer bad habits. So it’s like, instead of undoing, we’re trying new things out. That was really exciting to me. And it was exactly that platform of being able to support as many artists as possible. It’ll be just our fifth anniversary, kicking off in mid-December, and we’ve supported 160 artists coming through Akron, which is a lot of people in five years.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s pretty incredible. This is a huge question, but how would you describe the mission of NCCAkron? And then how would you describe the way that you help the organization fulfill that mission?

Christy Bolingbroke:
We had an epiphany about a year and a half in, and that was the first time that we did a board retreat. And in reflection, we realized our mission statement declares that we will be a space for research and development and a major anchor in the national dance landscape. Nowhere in our mission statement does the word “residency” come up. And that was so freeing. It was this idea—because a lot of people will think about the transactional. They’re like, “Great, I want to make work. Will you give me a residency please?” And I’m like, well, that may be one of the ways that we support artists. But when we stop our thinking to just say, “We’re a residency center,” that’s very limiting. So research and development opened up that we could experiment with dance audiences.

I describe myself as a recovering marketer from my time at Mark Morris Dance Group. And I’m always thinking, like, How are we going to bridge or translate or share this with an audience? And so we’ve done that kind of work on a small scale here. We’ve also explored what technology in terms of audience engagement would look like. And we have the permission to explore that, because we aren’t focused so much on, “I have to sell X number of seats this year, and that’s all I have to prioritize first.” But we can play “what if,” and put some resources behind it to discover that.

It was also with that same spirit of…we can make new work all the time, but if we aren’t actually supporting and developing the infrastructure to support that work—meaning audiences, meaning more dance writing, what it used to be…I’ve done research before. The only actual publication that I’ve been able to find on some artists was in the calendar listings of Dance Magazine back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That’s archive now. So as more arts journalism has gone by the wayside, how do we bring that up, to make sure that today’s artists stories are getting told? So we’ve explored some things with dance writing and are building out a partnership with the University of Akron Press, so that we can publish more books on dance writing.

But I think as far as how we realize this, the mission/vision of it has been that we continue to harvest and then plant more seeds. And I think that in itself, subverting that transactional relationship of residencies and making them more transformational, is really important, and that’s also been—one of our core programs as a dancing lab. And this is not forced collaboration. There actually might be a lot more talking and reflecting than people expect to happen in the creative process. And we bring together artists with shared lines of inquiry: “Oh, you’re interested in dance and technology. And this other person is interested in dance and technology.” And maybe you never would have the space or proximity together. Well, we can create that environment where they come, they have unstructured time to explore, to question, to look at each other’s work. And then they go back to their home communities informed by that exchange. Maybe they’ll bring some of those artists to their communities. Maybe they’ll just bring the knowledge and share that with their artists and colleagues at home. But being able to expand in that way has been really exciting for us to realize—it subverts the lottery system of support. The idea that, “You six artists are going to get the residency this year.” Well, what’s going to sustain them the year after that? Or if we just keep cycling people through people with six awards a year? So being able to embrace the collectivity and the exchange of knowledge has become more and more at the forefront of our work.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I love this idea of helping as many dance artists as possible by improving the whole ecosystem of the dance world. And leads into the next question, which is: Clearly an important part of strengthening that dance ecosystem is better accommodating the needs of dancers and dance organizations from a business perspective. What would you say is broken in the current dance business model? Why don’t the existing set of “best practices” there actually work for choreographers and for dance organizations?

Christy Bolingbroke:
Yeah. I would say that what’s coming up for us is that we know there isn’t one way of making dance. So why should there be only one way of supporting dance, one way of doing the administration work? And best practices come with some knowledge and experience, but we can’t just assume them as gospel. It’s what I call the “shoulding.” You should create a board. You should have bricks and mortar. You should have this on hand. Those may work, but they make a lot of assumptions about the kind of work that you make, your value system in place. And so we know—because of the New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project report in 2016, Moving Dance Forward—that 80 percent of the field, minimum, is working on a project basis. Yet we were still expecting the same sort of output and workflow that we do of huge institutional organizations like New York City Ballet or Washington Ballet or Ailey even. And that also prescribes a certain scale as a definition of success, of satisfaction, of what sustainability may be, which is a whole other question. And so we’re really proposing that we have to evolve that thinking. We have to make more space for the nuances of what makes sense for one particular artist’s point of view and their vision of success.

Margaret Fuhrer:
One of the reasons we’re talking at this particular moment is that you recently received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to build out your new Creative Administration Research program, which is speaking to all these issues. Congratulations on that.

Christy Bolingbroke:
Thank you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk a little about the CAR program and the problems that it’s aiming to resolve—aside from the ones that, of course, you just touched on?

Christy Bolingbroke:
Yeah. It’s something that started even in my graduate studies. You mentioned my master’s program. And I think a lot of people are like, “Well, what’s the value of that?” I found it really helpful to pull over to the side of life from time to time. It was a low-residency program. And one of the results of that research was this idea of, how could we embrace curatorial interventions? And by my definition, those are artist-centered solutions to business questions. So that’s really at the heart of encouraging our artists that we are working with. We’re building out a think tank of 18 to 20 over the next two and a half years. And each of them will have a different approach, because they’re very different aesthetically and geographically and racially and demographically. So we expect that they’ll come up with unique solutions that really put their practice, their creative practice, at the center of it. But we’re here to help support them, to coach them over time and create space for them to develop administrative habits that mirror their artistic habits.

These are artists who’ve been making work for eight to 10 years minimum. And not that the work is the same every time they produce a new piece or program, but they know what they need to be truly excellent artists. Can we help them reflect that in their administrative development? So it’s not such a disparate idea—”Well, I’m going to do my creative work and then the administrative work is this whole separate chore.” We know people have a visceral response to contracts or things when it feels that it’s being thrust upon you as opposed to an invitation. So, all right: How is this budget an example of your artistic values? And it doesn’t mean you always have more money, but with the money and available resources that you do have, let’s choreograph the numbers! Let’s put that where it makes the most sense to support your artistic vision.

At the end of this, too—I just want to say a big part of the grant from Mellon is that they support our vision to document these case studies, both the successes and, I’m hoping, some spectacular failures, so we can make that work visible in our future publications and textbooks and the future evolution of the field. When we think about how many organizations have 50th anniversaries this year, we know it hasn’t always been great. We know it probably also isn’t any easier than it was for them 20 or 30 years ago. So how has the work happened over time? Where were they at certain moments that they had pivot to evolve and develop? Those stories aren’t visible enough in our field.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love this idea of choreographing the numbers, of approaching it as you would your artistry. Because I think all too often, there’s this barrier—and it’s kind of an artificial barrier—between “what I’m doing as an artist,” and “what I’m doing as a business person.” Because as a choreographer, as a director, you are running a business. And I think also, historically, artists have been discouraged, even, from thinking that way. Can you talk a little about the roots of that?

Christy Bolingbroke:
I think some of it comes up with how they’re introduced to the requests made of them administratively. A lot of artists are doing all the work themselves to begin with. So that could be quite schizophrenic: You’re trying to produce the work, you’re trying to produce the grants—and we don’t teach these things in school. So there’s certainly that component of it too. And then at the same time, if you do find that you’re able to hire someone or engage a consultant, not all, but some come with their own preconceived ideas of how things are supposed to be done. And so it becomes more prescriptive, more, “OK, well, you have to have a website and it has to do this. And it has to do that.” There’s a lot of “has to,” without saying, like, “What do you want it to do?”

And I believe that artists—especially with a lot today that are working much more collaboratively, much more in a devised sense, they’re calling upon their dancers to give them some feedback, or they’ll initiate some phrase work and the dancers make something of it and it comes back in—that building of trust. We’re not reinventing all of arts administration. Instead, a lot of it, and some of the feedback that we’ve gotten so far is coaching artists to say, like, “You know how to lead this room, you know how you devise a cast and an experience. That should be no different if you choose to have a board, and how you bring your board along in terms of leadership.” So I can’t say that I understand how it became so conflicted with that tension, but we can recognize the habits when we see them now. And that’s what we’re trying to sort of open out a little bit and say, “Okay, so maybe when you started, you didn’t have a great first introduction to arts administration. Can we undo that? Can we make space for some other positive experiences?”

Margaret Fuhrer:
And it seems like, as strange as this pandemic time is, it’s almost an ideal moment to be doing that, starting from scratch.

Christy Bolingbroke:
It’s that moment of it. It’s also the space for some—I think that it’s not about that wishlist of things. “I wish I had time to do that.” But now you have the time. Do you still want to do it? So there’s that as a question. And it was one of the things too, I think it’s important to me that we share: This was not a response to COVID. We were on this track anyways. I so appreciate, maybe a month or two into COVID, Mellon, when we were in the middle of this discussion, they were like, “Is this still this way forward? Is this still what you want to look at?” And we were like, “Yes.” And we’re confident if we end up being virtual and working remotely with artists for the next year and a half, we could still begin this work because now is the time. Compounded by the fact that the field, I think everyone is asking the same questions of, “What do I even want to do? Do I want to make work if I feel it has to be online? Why do I even do this to begin with at all?” Which isn’t just something that dance artists are asking. Presenting venues, funders, all types of arts and culture warriors are just like, “Wait a minute. If we are operating beyond time, space and place, where do we really want to put our energy?”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was hoping you could talk to a little about how you chose the artists teams and the thought partners also for CAR, because we mentioned that all these artists have years of experience, so they know what they need. But beyond that, I mean, it’s an extraordinary list. How did you put it together?

Christy Bolingbroke:
Thank you. A couple of different ways. And I’ll start with the definitions. We call them “investigative artists,” and then what would be conceived as maybe a mentor-like position, but we’re calling “thought partners” so that we don’t perpetuate hierarchy. And with the artists, the idea is every six months we will add a cohort of four to six artists. And we’re curating the first three cohorts. The first group is all people that we had been in conversation with even before the Mellon grant. So there was a long track record to set that up. This kind of work, building from scratch, requires so much trust and vulnerability, not only for the artist part, but for our part as hosts and facilitators in this environment. We don’t know everything that we’re doing. And some of it, we’re going to have to figure out along the way.

So continuing that in the first cohort, that included Brian Brooks Moving Company, Raja Feather Kelly/feath3r theory, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko from Kosoko Projects, Ron K. Brown Evidence, and Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell from Rashaun + Silas. And we were like, “Okay, so we’ve been having these discussions.” And then you hold up a mirror and you go, “Wait a minute. These are all male-identified artists from the New York area. That’s not okay.” Part of our curatorial values is geographic reach and representation. And so we consciously curated the second group that we announced as all female identifying artists, many of them splitting their time between two different cities. So we have Abby Zbikowski from Illinois in Urbana Champagne. We have Bebe Miller from Columbus, Ohio. We have Marjani Forté-Saunders and 7 Names out of Pasadena, California. Kate Wallich, out of Seattle, with The YC in the Pacific Northwest, and Banning Bouldin and New Dialect in Nashville, Tennessee.

And so that as a whole—because we are going to be able to convene eventually every one of these artists at the same time—that’s going to be a special mix to have them in this space. We haven’t announced or firmly decided the third cohort yet, but we’re also doubling down on relationships in Knight resident cities. We here in Akron are a Knight resident city, and that’s where our initial endowment and seed funding for NCCAkron began. So making visible that highway system for dance outside of New York, we think a lot about, What is it to be a national center for dance that is neither in the physical center of the country nor the perceived center of the dance universe? So the more that we can shine a light and highlight those relationships…but all three of those rounds, as far as the doing the curation, we’re figuring out what makes an ideal candidate, what do you need to be ready for this work or open for this kind of work, and ideally hoping that for the fourth round, it’ll be by open application. So we’ll see how much broader we can reach and include even more people with that too. But we didn’t want to start with the application because we needed to figure out what we were doing first.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, speaking of which, you’ve done this CAR prototype. What discoveries from that have been most surprising or illuminating? Have there been spectacular failures that have been useful?

Christy Bolingbroke:
No spectacular failures yet. But I would say one of the other challenges in scaling up this program is, in the prototypes, I was the one doing that work solely with the artists. Whereas when we build up to have 18 or 20 teams, I can not be the only person doing that work. So the Mellon Award also enabled us to hire our second full-time employee, Kat Wentz, as a programs manager. That has been tremendous. And she’s just jumped in full steam ahead since September. And then the other thing is why we’re doing the thought partners. So we’ve identified the thought partners in a couple of different ways. One, we started with the people that I know, that we’ve had colleagues, maybe they’ve come through, maybe I’ve worked with them in my own career. And then over the summer, we actually did what we called a WIP series, or a work in process series. Because if you’re making a dance, you would have a little showing and people would come in and we’d sit with our backs to the mirror. And the choreographer would say a little something and the dancers would do a little dance and then there’d be some sort of facilitated conversation. We decided to embrace that and do a virtual work in process showing for the program. So we invited people in with some advance reading. We said, “Look, check this out beforehand. This is what we’re going to talk about.” They came in, they got to know each other all on the Zoom space. They had a discussion. We asked them to define curatorial interventions. We asked them to talk about like, “How would you define success in this scenario as well?” And then we presented the program to them as we foresaw it. And we asked them to complete a survey at the end of it, to record their responses, and also to let us know if they were interested in being a thought partner. That was super exciting because we talked to 41 people through that process of work-in-process showings, and it expanded who was in our group. So being able to cultivate even more participants in that regard and match them up was super helpful. We learned so much more out of the first five that we had identified, half of whom I didn’t even know before that process. That’s a small victory.

Two of the other things that have come up—when we called artists, particularly in the first group and said, “We got the grant. Let’s do this,” there were some tears. And that I think is also amplified by COVID certainly. But the other thing that came out with so many artists who said, “Okay, I’m in. What do I have to produce for it? What do you need me to show you at the end of this?” And that—just reframing that and saying, “If you want to build a strategic plan, we’ll build a strategic plan, but I’m paying you to do this thinking.” We are happy to provide a $7,000 stipend on an annual basis just to engage with this, just to think outside of the studio, how it’s going to inform whatever projects and other artistic projects that you’re taking on. And that small discovery also revealed, because 80 percent of the field is working on a project basis, they have no room for error. There’s no general operating support. And we changed the language when we then put it forward in all of our subsequent materials, it was, This is general operating funds. It’s at your discretion if you want to use it to pay yourself, to buy a computer, if you want to use it to pay other people that are working with you… but really empowering the artists to think about it in that way and not just in that transactional… Artists, they’re only paying themselves if they get a project grant. That’s what we learned, Margaret.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep.

Christy Bolingbroke:
We need to break that. Let’s disrupt that system. The other thing that’s very tightly related to it and I don’t think we have any solutions yet, but the question of, what is sustainable, that’s coming up for us now. So this idea when someone says, “I just want to be sustainable.” Well, is that some sort of jargony shorthand? Does that mean that you want to own and operate your own space? Does that mean full-time employment? These things are different for everyone. And we’re going to have to delve into that a little bit further on an individual basis and then come up with what the nuanced solutions or ideas to realize those goals are.

I saw this even when I worked for organizations that had been around for 40 or 50 years. Boards that would say, “We need to be sustainable.” And that was becoming code for stasis, for static. “Sustainable is 50 percent earned and 50 percent contributed income.” Does that also create a ceiling, that you will always be this budget size because that’s what we can sustain? So I’m excited about the possibility of how we could kind of wrestle with that, because we specifically have artists who have been doing this at least eight to 10 years. But artists like Bebe Miller and Ron K Brown, the fact that they’re still asking, “What’s next? And how do I support this next endeavor?” That’s really exciting to us.

I mentioned artists who’ve done big anniversaries of like 50 years. I don’t know that today’s artists are going to celebrate a 50th anniversary. And I don’t mean that in a doomsday kind of way. I mean it because they may have a decade where they make performances in galleries. And then they may pull a Trey McIntyre Project and say, “I still make work. I just don’t want to run a company anymore.” And that’s okay too. So how do we help them create a strategic plan, a way forward through their administrative goals, that will allow them to be nimble and evolve as their artistic goals evolve too.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It doesn’t have to fit into any kind of box, it is tailored to the artist. Yeah. We need so much more of that, generally speaking, in the dance world. Can you talk a little too about how this program dovetails with the wider dance world movement toward equity and toward inclusiveness?

Christy Bolingbroke:
I think a big part of it is dovetailing with our own curatorial values about diversity of aesthetic, culture, race, geography—that’s something that I hope is at the foundation of the program’s thinking. The WIP series, in terms of identifying our thought partners. Because one of the other things on that survey at the end of the WIP, was we asked them to nominate anyone they thought would be interested in hearing more and maybe a future thought partner. That’s another 100 people that we collected and they just weren’t able to engage with us in the time that we reached out to them. But that doesn’t mean we won’t still do so. And it is creating the more equitable and inclusive representation.

The other thing—and it was actually Jaamil Kosoko who pointed this out to me when I called him with the news of the Mellon grant. He said, “Okay, this is what dismantling white supremacy looks like.” Because a lot of those best practices that we questioned, how are they generated as best? It is years and years of—that’s how our arts and cultural institutions were built, on these systems of white supremacy. And that—I didn’t think of it in that way. I needed to receive that feedback and hear that from the artist. But that also is giving us more direction as far as where to lean, how do we create more space for the artists so that we don’t fall in line and jump into a prescriptive role. Everything from how we might create the agendas for investigative retreats, to how we might think about—one of the other big summit convenings and activities in the program is that convening all of the artists together. And in bringing them together, hopefully in the summer of 2022, we want to also engage academia, so that we can improve the training for future arts administrators that might engage with artists. And just by choosing to say, “Okay, how could we bring in academia,” we’re now confronted with all those systems of oppression and perpetuated hierarchy. And I think that, that’s the challenge, but we’re up to it—to not shy away from those things. To recognize, “Okay, speed bump ahead.” When Waze or Google Maps takes you down that path, sometimes there are no alternate routes. You have to just confront it and go through it. So much as it’s very artist-centric, NCCAkron I think as the holder of such a program is actively looking for, how do we not just protect that artists-thinking-in-a-bubble, but also break it out and help it engage in the field.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Christy, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your perspective. I want to encourage everyone listening, if you’d like to learn more about Christy and her work at NCCAkron, please be sure to visit nccakron.org, and also to give the organization a follow on Instagram—they’re @NCCAkron. Thank you again for joining us Christy.

Christy Bolingbroke:
Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it too. And I’m glad that we’re talking about the business of dance as well as the beauty.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Something that is so undercovered, and needs more coverage because it is critical to the success of dance. There is no dance unless there is dance business.

Christy Bolingbroke:
And vice versa.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep, exactly.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again, Christy. We have to have her back on sometime in the near future because as much ground as we covered in that interview, she’s doing so much more potentially game-changing work at NCCAkron. Also, we mentioned the program’s Instagram handle, but you should also follow Christy herself on Instagram. She’s @christybolingbroke.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week 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.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye, everyone.