Transcript, Episode 44: The Best of 2020, Part 2

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to another special holiday episode of The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer, and I’m here on my own again today for this final episode of 2020—which, good riddance, 2020. But without my co-hosts around, rather than doing the usual news round table discussion, I’ve put together part two of our Dance Edit “best of 2020” retrospective.

If you’ve been listening for the past few months, then you’re familiar with our voice memo series, which started back in April when we’d all just started on this quarantine journey. From then until the beginning of November, we asked one dance artist each week to leave a voice message for the dance community, just discussing the things they were thinking about and working on. All of those memos were pretty darn great. Many of them are worth revisiting. And that’s what we’re doing in this week’s episode: We’re re-airing a second round of our favorite voice memos. (If you want to hear the first group of messages, please go check out last week’s episode—that’s episode 43.)

So today the first memo that I’m going to play is from the brilliant Phil Chan. Phil is the co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, which aims to make dance more inclusive by creating positive and nuanced representations of Asians on stage. Phil has helped many arts organizations figure out ways to navigate different race-based issues—ways that don’t require discarding whole artistic legacies. His voice memo first appeared in episode 21, back on July 23rd. And it sums up this important and complex mission so directly, and succinctly. Phil has this game-changing approach to thinking about race in dance and history, and he distilled it into not even three minutes. It’s pretty extraordinary. Here it is.

Phil Chan:
My name is Phil Chan. I’m the co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface.

With the recent conversations around Black Lives Matter being embraced by ballet companies across the country, there’s renewed examination to the roles we all play to uphold white supremacy in ballet. Now, if you cringed when I said white supremacy, I am not suggesting our community is filled with KKK members. White supremacy doesn’t just look like that. What I mean by white supremacy in ballet is the fact that you’ve probably never seen a full length ballet by a Black person. Have you? Can you name more than one or two Asian choreographers who’ve made work for a major ballet company, if any? That’s white supremacy.

One area I’m focused on is how Asians are represented. And I’ve been asking questions about how to preserve orientalist ballets like Le Corsaire and La Bayadère. What do these ballets look like when we produce them not just for Russian audiences living 150 years ago, but for diverse American audiences living today? How are we going to preserve the important dance history contained in these ballets, the classical foundation from which we drive the art form forward, if we just dismiss these works as racist and never perform them again? At Final Bow, we are just as much about focusing on solutions as we are with pointing out the problems. To that end, I’ve been collaborating with the brilliant dance scholar Doug Fullington on new versions, American versions, of Bayadère and Corsaire, that retain and even restore Petipa’s choreography, but make the stories about “us” instead of “them.” This isn’t so different than the approaches by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Creole Giselle, for example, set in Louisiana instead of Austria. Or the Royal Danish Ballet’s Napoli, now set in the 1950s.

So for our Bayadère, the action takes place in the 1930s, in Hollywood and mirrors the plot of Singing in the Rain. Imagine Nikiya as Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly as Solor, and the dramatic Lina Lamont as our Gamzatti. Our version is complete with a Busby Berkeley “Kingdom of the Shades” fantasy. Instead of dancing bayadères at an Indian temple, we have dancing cowgirls on the set of a Hollywood picture. Same choreography, just a different setting.

Our Corsaire is sort of like the plot of Ocean’s 11. It takes place at the Miss Oceans Beauty Pageant, hosted at the Pirate’s Cove Casino at Atlantis Beach. There are scheming showgirls, there are gun-slinging beauty queens, and there’s a pasha who thinks you can just grab women, if you’re famous enough. And it’s still all Petipa, and follows the original libretto quite closely.

This approach really allows us to invite everybody in and to be truly inclusive, which is our duty as American artists if we want the diverse communities we live in to support this art form that we all love so much.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So next up, we have a memo from someone who sounds like a professional podcaster, because he is a professional podcaster. That would be Silas Farley, who, until the whole world shut down, was a member of New York City Ballet. And at that point, he actually retired—at age 26—from his performing career, so he could cultivate other parts of his truly extraordinary mind. Silas is now an artist in residence in SMU’s dance division. He continues to choreograph and he remains, thankfully, the host of New York City Ballet’s podcast, which is excellent. His memo, typically insightful and composed, first aired on August 20th, in episode 25. Here it is one more time.

Silas Farley:
Hello Dance Edit listeners. My name is Silas Farley. I’m a ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer. Right now I’m in the Dallas, Texas area where my wife, Cassia, and I have lived with her side of our family since March. It’s been a transformative season of life for us. And I’d say that family has been the main theme of these past few months.

On Sunday, March 1st, I danced what I didn’t realize was my last performance with New York City Ballet, and a few weeks later Cassia and I came here to Texas. We’d been thinking about a career transition for me even before the pandemic. I’d had an exhilarating eight years with City Ballet, and had fulfilled what I hoped to do as a performer. I was ready to start cultivating other aspects of my artwork and education, towards my goal of being a leader in ballet.

During the quarantine, I was able to seek wise counsel and began to move in a new direction. I transitioned out of my role as a City Ballet dancer. I started coursework towards a degree through Harvard Extension School. And an amazing opportunity opened for me here in Dallas to become the Armstrong visiting artist in residence in ballet at Southern Methodist University, SMU. My sister-in-law, Eliza, had arranged for me to start guest-teaching at SMU a few years back when she was a student there, so I already had a strong connection to the university. In my new position, I’ll teach advanced ballet classes, a section of ballet history on Balanchine. And in the spring semester I’ll choreograph a new work for the students. For some time now, teaching has been my main passion, so I’m excited to start pouring myself full-time into encouraging and developing other artists.

COVID-19 has brought about a lot of change in my life, and I’m so grateful for the love and support of my family through it all. They’ve also been instrumental collaborators on my recent teaching and choreography work. I spent a month in Abilene, Texas earlier this summer with Cassia’s grandmother, Judy. Judy let me turn her back office into my studio. From that room, with the furniture pushed aside, I taught virtual classes for Raleigh School of Ballet, the Chautauqua School of Dance and the School of American Ballet. I was moved by the focus, dedication and beautiful work of my many students, who beamed in from their living rooms, garages and studios all over the country.

Since COVID-19 shifted our art form to a digital platform, I’ve made several dance films. My sister-in-law, Eliza, has been my videographer, and the golf course behind my in-laws’ home has been my location. One of these projects is a film for the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process virtual commissions. I choreographed the work for me, Cassia and Eliza. We could partner because we were all quarantined together, and that was such a gift. I hope the viewers will feel the joy and freedom that we felt as we danced to this piece outside. I chose music by a brilliant composer and close friend of mine named Kyle Warner. I’ve entitled the piece Anachorisi, which is the Greek word for departure. The music is the first movement of Kyle’s Cyclades, which is a large-scale solo guitar work based on a sailing trip Kyle took through the Cyclades, a group of islands in Greece. In this one movement, Kyle introduces the musical ideas that he develops in the later movements. It’s a sonic preview of what’s to come. I choreographed these subsections of the first movement as solos for me, Cassia and Eliza, and the piece ends with the three of us dancing together. The centerpiece of the Cyclades in Greece is the Island of Delos, the mythological birthplace of Apollo. As someone who loves classical ballet, I braided references to Balanchine’s Apollo into my choreography. There’s a repeating gesture, similar to Apollo strumming his lyre, and a quote from Calliope’s variation, when she contracts with a pang of inspiration on a percussive note in the music.

I recently had a conversation with Kyle about how we want to honor and renew our disciplines of classical music and ballet. And we talked about Kyle’s visit to Delos with its ancient ruins. That got us both thinking about how ancient Greek and Roman statuary and architecture were actually not all monochrome white marble as we typically see. Oftentimes, the sculpture and architecture from that period were richly painted. Those hues faded with time and the resulting all-white bodies and buildings became emblems of Western classical art and beauty. But the reality is that classicism was in color, and that idea of classicism in color makes my heart race with excitement for the future of ballet.

I see how my new roles as a teacher and choreographer—in concert with the work of leaders like Theresa Ruth Howard and Virginia Johnson, combined with the re-fired movements for justice and equity since the tragic killing of George Floyd—are pushing this historically white art form of ballet to open itself up. To embrace and represent people of all different colors, to become what could be called, in the very best sense, a Kingdom of the Shades.

There’s no question that COVID-19 has done a great deal of damage, but it has also given many of us something we rarely have, which is time. And my hope is that we will use this time well. It’s time to reconnect with our families and loved ones. It’s time to enter into conversation about how to heal the organizational culture of our companies and schools. It’s time to reflect on the history and purpose of our art form. And it’s time to ask ourselves this question: How can I be an agent of peace, continuity, and reconciliation?

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re going to take a short break. And when we come back, we’ll have a thought-provoking memo from Denise Saunders Thompson of the International Association of Blacks in Dance. Stay tuned.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, welcome back. So the last memo in our “best of 2020” retrospective is straight-up my favorite from the entire series of memos. It comes from Denise Saunders Thompson, who is the president and CEO of the International Association of Blacks in Dance. She has worked extensively across the performing arts world, on both its nonprofit and for-profit sides, for decades. She’s an advocate, she’s an educator, and she is one of the most influential people in dance, period.

If you follow the podcast, you know that we are now doing long form interviews instead of running these short voice memos. And that’s partly because of this message from Denise. She sent us nearly half an hour of incredibly powerful material, and we did not want it to end! We wanted to hear more from her, and from other artists like her. We’ll have to have her back on soon for a more in-depth conversation about IABD’s mission, but for now, here’s the rebroadcast of her original memo, which first aired in episode 22 on July 30th of this year.

Denise Saunders Thompson:
Greetings, Dance Edit listeners. I am Denise Saunders Thompson, President and CEO of the International Association of Blacks in Dance. Currently, I’m in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is right outside of our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. And life at home is with my husband, my son, and our dog Pepper.

IABD, the International Association of Blacks in Dance, has been on the front line of fighting systemic racism going on three decades. The organization turns 30 in 2021. And through our mission of preserving and promoting dance of African ancestry and origin, as well as providing opportunities in advocacy, education, funding, performances, touring, and other areas, we have been the voice for Black, brown and people of the global majority for many years. We continue to lift up. We continue to tell our stories and we continue to raise awareness around the systemic inequities that have plagued our community for decades.

IABD has always been a truth-teller, a keeper of history for Blacks in dance, and has never been silent about the challenges that dance artists and companies have faced, but yet continue to find the strength to carry on despite all of the odds being stacked against them. Currently, IABD has launched the I Said, Can You Hear Me Now campaign, which is in three phases. The first phase is a letter to the white American dance community. The second phase is The Black Report, which was a release of a financial and organizational assessment of a representative sample of 30 Black-led dance companies from throughout the United States. And phase three is TBA, to be announced. We’ll be letting you know what it is quite soon.

But really, setting off this rather organic campaign was a letter entitled “Let’s Take a Moment.” And this letter was in response to the murder of George Floyd and the appearance of our organization’s silence. While many of my colleagues were in the field, putting out solidarity statements, IABD was intentionally silent. We were listening. We were watching. We wrote a letter to reassure our community that IABD wasn’t going anywhere, that we would still be in service, but we would be working more intentionally and with meaning. The staff made conscious decisions about everything: who we would engage with, how we would engage with people, our response times, the content for engagement, our social media posts, email, everything. Everything was on the table for reconsideration. And we told our community that IABD would fight for them, and that they should also fight for themselves and call for change.

So after the “Moment” letter, IABD watched, closely, members of the industry to see how they would respond to these three crises that were occurring. Of course, the health crisis with COVID-19; the economic crisis that continues to this day, because people are not working, our industry has been put on stop; and the racial crisis, of course, with the murder of George Floyd. And so, as my colleagues presented their statements, IABD took note, we saw who made a statement, who didn’t make a statement, what was the content of the statement. All that wasn’t said from those dance companies and institutions in the field. All of that made me write the letter and that feeling needed to come out. And so “Dear White American Dance Community” said all the things that it needed to say.

As part of phase two of our “I Said, Can You Hear Ne Now?” campaign, is the recently released Black Report. It’s an organizational and financial assessment of 30 Black-led organizations from across the United States. And a few years ago, IABD had the opportunity to travel to 16 states to visit these organizations—along with their staff, their board, members of the community and volunteers, stakeholders—to discuss not only the financial aspects of the company, but the organizational health of the company as well.

The Black Report is a historical document because it is the first time ever—and I’ll say that again: It is the first time ever—that a report has been developed solely on Black dance companies. No comparisons, no apples and oranges and grapes and tomatoes, strictly on Black dance companies. And in addition, it’s a research tool and a historical tool that includes the many contributions of Blacks in dance. So for all of my academicians out there and my historians and scholars, download the report. It can be accessed through our website and you can add it to your curriculum.

Phase three of our campaign is soon to be announced, but you’ll be hearing about that soon in just a few weeks. The letter, though, has shifted the dialogue around race and centering Blackness in our conversations. And I believe it provided my colleagues with the opportunity to be more reflective and intentional about the much-needed steps they will be taking, both personally and professionally, moving forward in support of Black lives.

We have all witnessed Black people losing their lives every day, just because of the color of their skin. And if you’re not able to recognize this, and/or if you make a decision to constantly not be a part of change, than racism will always, and continually, prevail. Many people in our country continue to have a problem with valuing the contributions of Black people, who have literally built this country on their backs and have not received proper recognition and/or credit for it. It’s time for that denial to stop.

And so IABD has been focused on a number of important action items. The biggest priority has been raising money for our Emergency Fund, where we’ve been able to re-grant dollars to individual artists and dance companies and related personnel in the field of dance who are members of the Association. And the grants have ranged from $1,000 for individuals to $2,500 for arts organizations. And we have provided over 90 grants to assist with loss of income due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Since IABD is virtual, we’ve also made the tough decision to postpone our upcoming 2021 conference and festival that was scheduled to take place in Toronto, Canada, and we’ve pushed it back to 2023. In addition, we recently received a grant from the Council of Library Information and Resources, also known as CLIR, to establish what I call our black dance archive. However, the project is officially named Preserving the Legacy and History of Black Dance in America. This will be the start of the IABD dance archives, and we are extremely excited to partner with Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. That is where IABD house its archives. And it’s also fitting that the archive would live there and be a part of Howard University’s digital library space, due to the fact that the first dance program at a historically Black college or university that offered a bachelor of fine arts degree was from my alma mater, Howard University, HU. And it was led by my mentor, Dr. Sherrill Berryman Johnson, may she continue to rest in peace.

And so I was asked the question, what’s bringing me inspiration right now. And right now young people are given me inspiration. Even though we’re not able to gather together and dance together and be in person with one another, young people have taken this virtual moment in time to become even more creative and innovative inside of our art form. I find it really fascinating. Though, I will certainly say that I don’t believe that we can sustain our field virtually forever. This is very difficult. It’s very challenging in terms of resources for many of our organizations to operate virtually. But to see young people really stepping out and using their art form in just extreme and beautiful ways has just been a pleasure to watch. And they’re taking dance to a whole another level, through all of the many social platforms that are online, they’re bringing it to us.

That’s inspiring. What’s also inspiring to me is actually having the ability to be at home. And I know most of you are going, “What?” I travel a great deal. And so it’s been nice to actually not have to travel and be at home and be with my family.

With all that being said, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is next. What is the current state of operations for IABD? This just cannot be. It’s not sustainable. Who is going to make it through the pandemic? Who are we able to help? How are we able to help them? How can we continue to be of service? How do I make my network work? Who can I ask for additional funding to help the community?

But I do believe that folks within our dance community can continue and must continue to support and lift one another up as much as we possibly can. There are so many of us right now who are doing all right, and there are so many of us who are not. Check in on people, make sure that they’re all right. Even if it’s only just a quick hello or a short text or email, or even voicemail, sometimes people just need to know that you’re thinking about them and that’s all right. Just continue to be who you are. Be the best person you can be to yourself, to other people, and continue to have faith and believe that we will come back together again in person really soon. We need a vaccine first, but we’ll be back together very soon.

As Baba Chuck Davis would always say, “Peace, love, and respect to everyone.” Take care y’all.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you to Denise. Thank you to all of our voice memo guests from this whole past year. Every single one of them had something truly extraordinary to share with us. I, at least, have learned a ton. And thank you to all of you for joining us for this little holiday special.

We’ll be back next week in our regular format. We’ll have a very exciting new interview guest. In the meantime, keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing. And happy New Year—thank goodness!