The Dance Edit

Transcript, Episode 43: The Best of 2020, Part 1

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to a special holiday episode of The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer, and it’s just me this week—my co-hosts are getting a much deserved break. Without them around, rather than doing our usual news roundtable discussion, for this episode and also for next week’s episode, I’ve put together a little Dance Edit “best of 2020” retrospective.

If you’ve been listening for the past few months, then you’re probably familiar with our voice memo series, which started back in April, just after the whole world shut down. From then until the beginning of November, we asked one dance artist each week to leave a message for the dance community—like a voice message for their friends, getting into the things they were thinking about and working on. Some of those memos were really funny. Some of them were very poignant. Many of them are worth revisiting, and that’s what we’re going to do in this episode and next week’s episode: We’re going to re-air a few of our favorite voice memos.

So the first that I’m going to play is from Omari Wiles, who is a legend of the ballroom scene, the creator of Les Ballet Afrik, and a widely respected teacher. His memo premiered in episode 19, which was back on July 9th. And Omari should really have his own podcast. His voice is powerful, and I mean that in every sense of the word. In his memo, he gets into the importance of intersectionality in all of our celebrations of the arts. Here’s Omari’s message.

Omari Wiles:
No shade, no tea. Hey, Dance Edit listeners. My name is Omari Wiles. I am one of the legendary children of the NYC ballroom scene. And now the founding father of the International Royal House of Nina Oricci. I am also the director of Les Ballet Afrik, a company that strives off of the diversity and identity that we show within our movement.

As a Black gay man, father, teacher, it is important for me to connect with my community on a more nurturing level. There’s not many fathers in our scene, parents in our scene, who care for our scene. People of color within the LGBT community have struggled with acceptance, tolerance, respect, and the lack of opportunities.

We are not seeing genuine allies speaking up for this community, specifically gay and transgender Black bodies. Over the years, trans and cisgender men and women who identify as anything other than heterosexual have been frequently portrayed as a joke, a stereotype, or another barrier on TV—a murder—instead of who we are truly, and what we have successfully accomplished as a gay Black artists. The ignorance from heterosexual men and women should not be overlooked and made into a norm. We are not a joke. Our lives do matter.

Our stories are told by those who look from the outside in. I believe with systematic racism comes ignorance. Systematic ignorance has been taught and passed down from generation to generation as many bad traits that we have seen over the years. We are judged, cast out, threatened, beaten, and killed for the stereotypes placed on the LGBT community.

Some may say we deserve this. Some judge us just because of our sexuality, and think it’s okay and make it okay for others to do the same. This has come in many phases. People of color, we have faced this, the same judgment, the same casting out, the same beatings, threats, the same killings. We shouldn’t be seeing it and receiving it from our own. We need to change the narrative, make a new norm, get people to see and understand our lifestyle, who we are. We are measured by our skin tone and still separated by our body parts. What is it about the letter G that gets the girls riled up? What is it about the letter T that is so hard to swallow? It is not hard for people of color who identify as LGBTQ to walk hand in hand with our black heterosexual counterparts. Why? Because Black lives matter.

As a Black gay artist, it is important that my work shows Black culture and holds it to a higher standard than what the film, dance, music and theater industries have consistently made us out to look like. We are not for just your entertainment. We are not just a joke, a kiki. The art that I’m creating with Les Ballet Afrik is going to help express true stories, feelings, emotions, and provide meaning to so many who misunderstand us. Who have been trained, who have been nurtured to see us as the enemy—when we stand in the same skin, and we’re riding the same ride.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Next, we have a memo from another prominent member of the underground dance scene, Ephrat Asherie. Ephrat is a breaker, a choreographer, the artistic director of Ephrat Asherie Dance, and one of the most formidable thinkers in the dance world. This memo premiered back in episode 15, which was on June 11th. It was the first memo recorded after the death of George Floyd. And you can hear that in Ephrat’s voice and in her message. Here it is.

Ephrat Asherie:
My name is Ephrat Asherie and I’m a New York City–based dancer and choreographer. Thank you for having me here today on Dance Edit.

Like many all over this nation, I find myself hoarse from raising my voice in support of the Black community that has shaped my life in art. Like many all over the country and throughout the world, I’m asking myself what I can do to support the movement for Black liberation. As a member of New York City’s underground dance community, being out in the street, seeing people pouring out of their homes, businesses, their cars, deeply echoes the ritual of the way we gather at the club. The protests are visual manifestation of the momentum that is growing and the push for real transformative change.

White folks like myself stand in support to help gird and guard the message. But still we have to question, what can we do to instantiate the systemic changes needed to end white supremacy and racial injustice in this country? I am swept up in the enormity of it all.

And then I pause. Where the hell was I before this moment? My work is rooted in Black vernacular dance. And I was fortunate enough to be in New York during hip-hop’s golden era, and eventually welcomed into breaking. And soon after, into New York City’s underground dance community, where I was introduced to a multitude of culturally reflective styles, like house, waacking, and vogue. But really what I was guided into—and I quote house dance pioneer Ejoe Wilson—was “freedom dancing,” the manifestation of movement that only the freedom of your mind, body and soul can create. Vernacular dancer and scholar LaTasha Barnes describes it as, “how freedom would dance if given the chance.” It’s not arbitrary that it was through these styles—reflective of the resilience, fortitude, pain, and joy of Black and Black LGBTQ communities’ lived experiences—that I fully discovered dance’s power to express, communicate, narrate and transmit seemingly unsayable thoughts and feelings. Everyone in EAD is from the underground community and from all different backgrounds with embodied connections to Senegal, Nigeria, France, China, Israel, Brazil, and of course, various parts of the US—a microcosm of New York City and the club community. We tour, teach and educate about our community’s roots and history, its legacy of pioneers and sages who have poured into us and continue to share with us their invaluable lived and embodied experiences.

But is this enough to truly be reciprocal? It is not a coincidence that the ethos of the club where the collective consciousness celebrates each unique individual is where I gained the confidence to be an artist, to create work and to speak up. The inclusivity and tolerance espoused in Chuck Roberts’ booming house anthem: “You may be Black, you may be white, you may be Jew or gentile. It doesn’t make a difference in our house.” But my question is now, have I really been speaking up? Have I really been taking care of our house? The underground dance community has been my dance family for almost two decades. There have been countless hours of dancing, laughing, conversing, and bread-breaking, but I’ve also witnessed repeated inequities as well as injustices in policing, healthcare, racial profiling, and erasure.

As an artist and friend, I always believed my purpose to have been aligned with the values of the Black community and towards uplifting Black voices to tell their own stories. But where was my concrete activism, and where were my actionable steps outside of the art world, outside of the club? I’m questioning if art-making as a white woman is enough. The paradox of being absolutely committed to the fight for Black liberation and simultaneously benefiting from the system that was created to continuously oppress the Black community—here is my privilege, live and direct. Here’s my complacency, unmasked.

The truth is that even for all of us white artists who have been doing the work and will continue to do the work in multiple ways—visibly, invisibly, interpersonally, institutionally, civically, and artistically—until our Black brothers and sisters can exist fully in their freedom in the underground and above ground, in club lights and in the sunlight, in cities and in the countryside worldwide, our work will never be done.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll have our epic joint voice memo from Stella Abrera and Sascha Radetsky. So stay tuned.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. Welcome back. Our last memo today is from one of the ballet world’s most recognizable couples. That’s ballerina Stella Abrera, a star of American Ballet Theatre, who’s now also artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in upstate New York, and Sascha Radetsky, former ABT soloist, and now director of the ABT Studio Company.

When we first started this series, we proposed to each artist that they leave about a five-minute memo. And Stella and Sasha sent, I think it was a total of 35 minutes, every one of them compelling. And we ultimately whittled it down to a 13 minute memo, which first aired in episode 13, on May 28th. It features the dramatic story of their entry into lockdown, and then some characteristically thoughtful reflections on the state of the dance world and the larger world. Here it is.

Stella Abrera:
Hi, there, Dance Edit listeners. This is Stella Abrera.

Sascha Radetsky:
And Sascha Radetsky.

Stella Abrera:
And we are greeting you all from upstate New York where Sascha and I have been sheltering in place since March 14th. So, picture it: I am in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s the middle of the night. I had just completed two weeks of work at the Mariinsky, where I had the immense honor of setting Seven Sonatas at the Mariinsky Ballet on the gorgeous Mariinsky company. I noticed my phone is ringing. It wakes me up in the middle of the night, 4:00 AM. And I realized there were like 10 missed calls from Sascha, because…

Sascha Radetsky:
So that afternoon I got a tip from one of my dancers, ABT Studio Company dancers, whose father works with the airline industry. And she messaged me and she said, “Look, I know that Stella is in Russia. And Trump is going to lock down flights coming in. He’s going to ban flights coming in from Europe tonight.” So I freaked out and I thought, “Okay, we’ve got to get Stella home before she gets stuck over there.”

Stella Abrera:
And so it was very Mission Impossible–like. Sascha was awesome. Got me another plane ticket home. I had—

Sascha Radetsky:
Six hours later.

Stella Abrera:
Six hours later. Anyway, so long story short, I’m able to get back home to New York City. It was very romantic, my knight in shining armor-slash-travel agent got me back home.

Sascha Radetsky:
Very selfish! I wanted her back. So, when did the pandemic first start to really hit home? I think it was then when all those travel bans started coming down and we realized that we were going to go have to start sheltering in place.

Stella Abrera:
Yeah, life and work as we knew it was going to end abruptly.

Sascha Radetsky:
And our tours started being canceled. The domino effect began shortly thereafter. But we rallied, we regrouped.

Stella Abrera:
As dancers do. Everyone just got creative and resourceful.

Sascha Radetsky:
And pretty quickly, the company mobilized to start offering classes through Zoom. As well, Cynthia Harvey, and I started offering classes to the upper level… Well, all of JKO and Studio Company with our staff. So I have to say, it’s been quite moving to see these dancers in their living rooms or in their bedrooms or in their kitchens. Or on a little patio somewhere, continuing to work hard and pursue their dreams and just make it work. I mean, they’re undaunted, and they keep plugging away and they’re not going to let these circumstances keep them from doing what they love to do.

And we talk about, how do we reconcile the disparity of risks between frontline workers and those of us who are at home safe? And we’ve just settled on continuing to try to create art, and not take these moments of safety for granted, not be idle, but to be grateful for each moment and to use each moment to better ourselves as artists and humans. And try to help one another. Wow. I really digressed.

Stella Abrera:
Yeah, but you hit home. And it’s all really important to keep that in mind.

Sascha Radetsky:
I have one more thing to add, and I’m sorry to veer toward a graver end of the spectrum, but the pandemic really started to hit home when we started losing people we knew one by one.

Stella Abrera:
Absolutely.

Sascha Radetsky:
One of the JKO teacher’s husbands passed away. He was an emergency room doctor and her spirit has certainly been inspiring to all of us. Also Willy Burmann

Stella Abrera:
We lost our beloved teacher.

Sascha Radetsky:
And then one of your friends, Noni. So that’s the kind of darkest realization that this stuff is real.

Stella Abrera:
Yes. I am heartbroken that my farewell performance was canceled at the Metropolitan Opera House. I was really looking forward to saying goodbye to that beloved theater and too many cherished roles in this season. My heart also does go out to many of my friends and co-workers who were slated to have big debuts this season. It was going to be a big season for so many.

I will say that I am incredibly grateful to look back on my career at ABT and to know that I have 24 years of memories of being on so many of the world’s stages, dancing. So many incredible works of art with fantastic dancers. So that is what I will celebrate.

So, as well as retiring from ABT, I am transitioning into the position of artistic director at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park for Dance. It’s right on the Hudson River, with enormous cathedral-like dance studios, and just wonderful opportunity for dance residencies.

Although we were disappointed that Mark Morris, ABT Studio Company, Martha Nichols, and Alejandro Cerrudo among many others couldn’t come onsite to perform or have their residencies, we were able to have a digital dance residency, which is a way for us to share the work of these wonderful groups and artists with a broader reach that social media can help us attain. So not only did we pivot from our onsite performances and residencies, but we also revamped our onsite ballet intensive program. So now that will be offered online. It invigorates me as a teacher and as a dancer and as a dance lover to see the next generation be so hardcore, so inspiring at such a young age. So that’s been the silver lining for me.

Sascha Radetsky:
I think it’s going to just feel incredible to get back in a studio and do a grand allegro sequence across the floor. Go onstage and do a manège and have that space and freedom just to be among kindred spirits doing what you love to do—I think it’s going to be really powerful and meaningful. And as a viewer, to be in an audience, I mean, we’re going to have new appreciation for those community endeavors. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to complain about an uncomfortable seat in the audience or a slippery floor or bright lights ever again. We’re just going to be so grateful to be doing what we love to do.

For what it’s worth, I’ll read you something I wrote to my studio company dancers when we all scattered into quarantine.

“Mind: This is where we can now make real progress as artists, intellectuals, seekers of experience and wisdom. Now we have the time to read everything. Now we can listen to and appreciate all the music. Please research ABT, its repertoire, choreographers, dancers, designers, leaders. Research other dance companies, ballet and otherwise; watch all the good ballet videos on YouTube. Watch the Oscar-winning movies from the last few decades. Volunteer virtually. Pen someone special a poem, sketch a portrait of your grumpy family cat or the pigeon on your windowsill. Move, create, dream, take a beginner tap class on YouTube. Look up Einstein’s theories of relativity and Hawking’s findings on black holes, and let your mind blow apart, then gaze up into the night sky as if for the first time. Take a crack at playing an instrument, if you can access one. Memorize a poem or monologue. Decide which ballets, books, or paintings move you, and consider why. Discover what it is about your favorite dancer, beyond the obvious, that’s so mesmerizing. Build your artistic palette. Expand your range of reference. Get worked up about something of meaning and beauty. Stoke your curiosity for art and life.”

Stella Abrera:
From our home to yours, sending love to all in the dance world. Thanks for having us.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s a hard act to follow. Thanks everyone for joining us for this holiday special. We’ll be back next week with more of our favorite voice memos of 2020. And in the meantime, keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing. Happy holidays, y’all.