Transcript, Episode 59: Cultivating Better Tomorrows, Tech Needs Dancers, and Duke Dang

[Jump to Duke Dang 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. And we are recording in the middle of a truly overwhelming mainstream news cycle, following the shooting of Daunte Wright on Sunday, which happened just a few miles from the Minneapolis courthouse where Derek Chauvin is on trial for the murder of George Floyd. We hope you’re all doing what you need to do to take care of yourselves this week.

So in today’s episode, we will be talking about the anti-racism consulting business launched by a former Joffrey Ballet dancer that is helping to break the dance world’s cycle of trauma. We will get into why the tech industry needs artists, and especially dancers. We’ll talk about what the dance world generally, and then us hosts specifically, have learned from a year of online dance. And then we’ll have our interview with Duke Dang, who is the general manager of the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series. Duke is one of the most gifted arts administrators in the business—he is passionate about arts admin. And we had this fascinating and, as he put it, nitty-gritty conversation about how Works & Process pioneered performing arts bubble residencies early in the pandemic—because they were really among the first to do that—and then how they were able to safely return to live performances beginning last month, which is much sooner than the rest of New York City. They’re really pioneers on multiple fronts.

Okay. We are actually going to dive right into our headline rundown this week, because there is a lot of dance news to get to. So, Courtney, go for it.

Courtney Escoyne:
In a recent feature in The Hollywood Reporter, film and Broadway producer Scott Rudin was accused of abuse, intimidation, and vindictiveness by former assistants and staffers going back decades. Rudin’s portfolio of course includes last year’s Broadway revival of West Side Story and upcoming high-profile revivals of The Music Man and Our Town, and he’s one of the organizers behind the New York PopsUp festival. Some members of the theater community have expressed solidarity with those who came forward in The Hollywood Reporter piece on social media, with several drawing parallels to Harvey Weinstein and the culture of fear that kept people from speaking out sooner—and I suspect many from speaking out now.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And it should be noted, too, that since the release of the exposé, three theater unions have released a joint statement condemning, generally, harassment and toxic workplaces in the industry. We’ll link to coverage of that as well as the original Hollywood Reporter exposé in the show notes.

Cadence Neenan:
Los Angeles’ Music Center will returned to live performances in May for the first time since the onset of COVID-19, starting with a series of four star-studded outdoor dance programs. Each of the four Dance at Dusk performances will be an hour long without intermission. And because the programs begin before California’s full reopening, they’ll feature abundant health protocols. The first dance presentation will be a tap performance by Dormeshia, Jason Samuels Smith, and Derick K. Grant and later in the summer, audiences can catch performances by American Ballet Theatre, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

Courtney Escoyne:
And in further season announcement news, The Kennedy Center has announced its 50th anniversary season, to kick off in September. It is unsurprisingly absolutely packed, but of particular interest to us dancer folk: the premiere of a new site-specific commission from Ragamala Dance Company, the return of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—which, fun fact, Ailey performed new work by Alvin Ailey at the opening of Kennedy Center in 1971. I did not know this dance history tidbit, but I love knowing this dance history tidbit now. And also a very busy musical theater season that will include recent-ish Broadway hits Hadestown, Ain’t Too Proud, The Prom, Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!, The Band’s Visit, and Hamilton, among many others.

Cadence Neenan:
Can’t wait for everything to feel recent-ish again—we haven’t seen it in so long!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Amen.

Cadence Neenan:
Black Dance Stories is presenting new episodes in April. And this month, the dance series features many iconic figures, including Robert Garland, Alice Sheppard, Amy Hall Garner, and Robert Battle. The series streams live on YouTube Thursdays at 6:00 PM, and prior episodes are available on the Black Dance Stories’ YouTube channel as well.

Courtney Escoyne:
And a hearty congratulations to Katlyn Addison and Hadriel Diniz at Ballet West, who have been promoted to principal artists beginning with the new season. Katlyn is the first Black dancer and Hadriel the first Brazilian to become principals at Ballet West. And in other roster updates, principals Katherine Lawrence and Arolyn Williams announced that they will be retiring at the end of the current season.

Cadence Neenan:
She Loves You, a new musical featuring music by the Beatles, is in development for a spring 2022 premiere in Copenhagen. The musical will feature Beatles hits like “Let It Be,” “Blackbird,” “Across the Universe” and more as well as choreography from renowned director and choreographer Nick Winston, whom you may know from West End productions like Fame and Annie.

Courtney Escoyne:
And then more musical news, A Beautiful Noise, a biographical musical about Neil Diamond, is planning a pre-Broadway run at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre beginning June 2022. At the helm of the creative team is Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer; Steven Hoggett, who worked on Once and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is attached to choreograph. I’m going to have “Sweet Caroline” stuck in my head for the rest of the week.

Cadence Neenan:
HBO is getting Magic Mike back onstage in the form of a new dance competition show called “The Real Magic Mike.” The series, produced by Magic Mike star Channing Tatum, will feature 10 male performers competing for a chance to perform at the Magic Mike Live stage shows in Las Vegas. It sounds…magical.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You know what? I’m on board. I am! [laughter] I stan Channing Tatum—I think he’s so talented.

Courtney Escoyne:
Researchers in China have unearthed a large concentration of fossilized dinosaur footprints. According to a paleontologist from China University of Geosciences, some 200 dinosaur tracks were unearthed in a 100 square meter area, with the number expected to exceed 1000 footprints as excavation continues. “But wait,” you’re probably saying, “what does this have to do with dance?” Nothing really, except the fact that apparently areas with large concentrations of dinosaur tracks are termed “dinosaur dance floors.” Which I did not know, and I’m utterly delighted by.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is the scientific term. It’s excellent.

Cadence Neenan:
Why do I want to visit a dance floor with dinosaurs and dance with them now?

Margaret Fuhrer:
My immediate thought was, that is an excellent band and/or song name. And so I Googled it, and there is in fact, a song called “Dinosaur Dance Floor.” It’s not good, in case you’re wondering.

Cadence Neenan:
You’re doing the important research.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hard-hitting.

Cadence Neenan:
Many of Spain’s tablaos, the intimate venues that play a crucial role in the country’s flamenco sector, will not survive the pandemic. While many theaters in Spain have reopened already, social distancing rules make reopening financially unviable for intimate spaces like tablaos. Since the start of the pandemic, 34 of the 93 tablaos in the National Association of Tablaos have closed. And according to the president of the National Association, if the government doesn’t step in to provide financial support, soon tablaos are heading for extinction.

Courtney Escoyne:
This is one of those things that I’m like, “Yes, more government support,” because these are so important culturally. But then I also have to believe in my heart and my soul that flamenco has survived so much. This is a very crucial, key thing—it’s going to continue to exist in some form. I believe in my heart and soul that it’s going to find a way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The New York Times story about this is excellent. We’ll link to it in the episode description.

Courtney Escoyne:
And the wider dance world is belatedly mourning the death of Mary Ellen Moylan, who passed away in April 2020 at the age of 95. She was once dubbed by Maria Tallchief as “the first great Balanchine dancer.” She got her start at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and originated numerous Balanchine roles there and at Ballet Society, a precursor to New York City Ballet.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Whatever your feelings about George Balanchine, if you have not yet seen the 1989 documentary Dancing for Mr. B, you should watch it ASAP. Moylan is one of the six ballerinas who are featured, and it is thrilling to hear this part of ballet history told by the extraordinary women who danced it, because we do not hear their perspectives enough.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And the footage is…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Incredible.

Courtney Escoyne:
Breathtaking.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And Allegra Kent holds a flower for her entire interview, and it’s just so on-brand—it’s wonderful.

So in our first roundtable segment this week, we’re going to discuss a story that feels especially important and relevant, given everything that’s happening in the mainstream news right now. This past week, Dance Magazine ran a piece about Cultivating Better Tomorrows, which is a consulting business founded last year by former Joffrey Ballet dancer Erica Lynette Edwards. And they’re working to make the performing arts more inclusive and equitable. They lead anti-racism trainings and workshops and strategic planning services for arts institutions, and in particular dance institutions. And Edwards is sort of a veteran of community engagement: She was the Joffrey’s director of community engagement for five years after she retired as a dancer back in 2014. In her interview, she talks about the challenges of anti-racism training in dance specifically, and about what Cultivating Better Tomorrows’ goals are—starting with the goal stated outright in its name.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. So as you said Margaret, in the interview, Edwards mentioned that literally the goal of this organization is to cultivate better tomorrows. And a big part of that is both recognizing and breaking the cycle of trauma as tradition in the dance world. I thought it was really amazing one of the things Edward says is that she wants people coming out of a dance class, whether or not they want to be a professional, to have joy. And I think that’s just such an amazing goal. I think it’s something that we really honestly forget about a lot in dance, that joy is why we’re here. And it’s what we’re trying to cultivate, whether or not we’re trying to be professional dancers.

But how do we do that? Well, Cultivating Better Tomorrows works within the dance community to lead anti-racism trainings, guided conversations, racial healing circles, DEI sessions, organizational consulting, and educational webinars. So, just a lot of different kind of aspects of DEI work, which we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast. And I think in particular, why this story seems really important to us is that we’ve talked about the need for dance organizations to not put the labor of DEI work on BIPOC dancers and creatives, who often aren’t paid for that additional work. This organization is a great way for dance organizations to hire qualified professionals to help them with DEI work.

Courtney Escoyne:
So there’ve been a handful of stories we’ve discussed on this podcast over the past few weeks that have prompted me to say, “Weren’t we just talking about this a year ago?” And looking at the mainstream news cycle we’re in this week, it’s been very much this feeling of like, “Here we are again, still.” And that cycle is going to keep repeating unless we, all of us, demand that it be broken and unless we do the work.

In the dance world—in this article, Erica references generational cycles of trauma. And so in the dance world, this is true of so many things beyond racism, but looking specifically at racism, the name Cultivating Better Tomorrows is so striking, especially right now, because racism is too systemically entrenched both in our wider society and in so many dance organizations—it’s not something that is going to be undone overnight. It’s something that we have to cultivate. These actively anti-racist environments have to be cultivated. We have to start the work or it’s never going to happen. And also it is a continuing process. If this was something that could be one and done, you check the box and it’s gone. We wouldn’t be back here a year later still having this same conversation.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. That’s one of the things Edwards talks about. She says that leadership needs to not think of DEI as one aspect. You don’t just say, okay, we’ve got diversity now. She wants you to dig into the bigger questions. Like, what microaggressions do Black dancers experience once they’re in the space? What responsibilities do you put on their shoulders as they come into that space?

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think it’s also worth noting—we have a tendency to think of the studio, of being like, when you’re in these four walls, all that matters is the work that you’re doing. It’s just the dancing. You leave everything else behind. But even if you manage to cultivate a space where dancers of color and specifically Black dancers aren’t facing any microaggressions in that space, that doesn’t change the reality of stepping outside of the studio. We are living in a racist country and ignoring that isn’t recognizing the totality of these dancers’ and these artists’ experience.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. You touched on this in something you were saying earlier Cadence, but: When Edwards is talking about this divide that she saw in the professional concert dance world where the majority of leadership was white, but anyone involved in community engagement was BIPOC—not only is that putting that labor on people who probably aren’t being compensated properly for the work that they’re doing, it also creates this huge disconnect, this siloing of perspectives. So the white people at the top can say, “Okay, yes, we have checked the DEI box, we have people working on that,” without ever truly engaging with or understanding the needs of their community, or the challenges that their dancers or students of color are facing. So part of what Cultivating Better Tomorrows is doing is helping to bridge that gap, so that everyone in all parts of these dance institutions can do the kind of critical self-reflection that actually leads to real change.

This sort of ultimate quote at the end of the article—she says, “My partners and I recognize the cycle of trauma as tradition in the dance world.” So it’s not just that we keep seeing these cycles of trauma. It’s that they’re actually baked into the way that we operate, and some people see them as things of value, these systems that are hurting so many people, and especially people of color. It’s long past time to eliminate that way of thinking.

This profile ran last week because Cultivating Better Tomorrows hosted a virtual summit last weekend, with a totally incredible lineup of speakers. So, that event has come and gone, but please do visit their website and their Instagram page to get a better sense of the work that they’re doing and of what’s on the horizon for them.

So next in our lineup today, we have a story that just delights my contrarian heart. Forbes ran a piece that counters the popular narrative about how we need to invest in STEM rather than in the arts and humanities, because tech and engineering, that’s where the future of work is. During the pandemic, especially, we’ve heard all kinds of arguments along those lines—the whole terrible “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber” campaign, which, yikes. But the Forbes article says that this kind of thinking, as we already know, is misguided. And that in fact, STEM fields need and are actively looking for creative thinkers. They’re looking for artists, and they’re looking specifically for dancers.

Cadence Neenan:
I think the basis of this story is this narrative that we’ve all heard time and time again, that education should focus both funding and resources on STEM training, because that’s the best way for people to find jobs. There are a few quotes in this article that I think will really hit home for all of us, like Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin saying, “There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors. There just will. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” Which I think does kind of sum up the feeling that a lot of leadership in the United States and elsewhere has had towards funding for the arts in past years.

But I think that the really interesting point that this story makes is that this focus is actually misdirecting those coming into the workforce away from what the industry needs. And that many of these tech, coding, STEM companies are actually now seeking the creative and humanist thinking that emerges from studying the arts. Because as the rise of artificial intelligence and machine programming continues, an arts background actually brings really valuable and important insights. So a lot of these companies are actually now seeking out artistic, creative people who have these backgrounds in arts.

One in particular, a leader at a coding institute, said that the patience that artists learn in their work can be really beneficial to the mindset for coding. We know how to make mistakes. We know how to start from scratch without a skill set. And that’s the kind of thing that will really benefit you in these fields.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think on the one hand, right, there’s this practical application of it: arts and humanities training gives you practical tools that can be applied to this field. But there’s also the aspect—this isn’t gotten as much into here, but look at what’s been happening with various big tech companies over the past decade in terms of talking about data collection, in terms of the way these new technologies are handled and whether or not they’re being handled in an ethical way. The study of ethics is humanities, and the arts are all about teaching you how to question. Arts and humanities, in a lot of ways, I think can be summed up by, learning how to ask the question, “What if?” Both in terms of ethical application of new technologies—which as we’ve seen, a lot of the issues in Silicon Valley over the last decade have come from completely divorcing ethics from technology, from not asking the “What if” question from the perspective of, “Is this good for humanity, actually?” But also just in terms of creative problem solving, which is a lot of what this story is getting at.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And sorry to bring us down from the realm of philosophy and into sort of more practical skills. But when we’re talking about practical skills, a lot of the emphasis on STEM comes from the idea of building people with these highly specific skillsets tech specific skillsets. But the article points out that these fields are actually advancing so rapidly and becoming so highly automated that those kinds of skills become irrelevant so fast, especially now. And what tech actually needs are creative minds, minds that can leverage technology in innovative ways to solve larger problems. And if you can think about those problems ethically as well, more power to you.

It’s just yet more confirmation that artists, and especially dancers, are first of all some of the smartest people in the world. But also they’re a critical part of not just culture, but also industry. Like, so often, when we’re talking about the value of dance, we’re talking about its spiritual, life-affirming value—which of course is a valid thing to talk about, that is huge. But dance skills are also valuable in an economic sense too. Here are reasons to hire dancers, tech companies!

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and something that Catie Cuan talks about specifically—essentially, she’s talking about experience design, but talking specifically about working with robots. And she was saying that once we have robots in public-facing sectors—we know, based on scientific research, how we respond to something new as humans, a lot of what we’re responding to is based in movement. It’s not color. It’s not the way it sounds. It’s the way it moves, the way that we understand it as a mover. And you only have a couple of shots before the human is going to say, this is too weird, or this seems dangerous, I’m not engaging with this. And if you’re a corporation that’s invested a lot of money in these public-facing robots, the last thing you want is for the general public to be like, “Yeah. No. I can’t deal with this,” because then that’s a bad investment. So a lot of what Catie talks about is, let’s talk to dancers and movement specialists to figure out how to program these robots so that they seem approachable, and people want to have them around.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Dance Magazine did a great piece with Catie Cuan about being a robot choreographer a few months back, and we’ll link to that in the episode notes too.

Moving on, because we’ve got to. So, our last roundtable segment this episode is going to be another one of those “taking stock at the pandemic’s one-year mark” moments. Over the past week, there’ve been a few different stories highlighting what different members of the dance community have learned from a year’s worth of making and viewing on-camera dance. Pointe magazine did a story about how dancers have adapted to performing on film, Dance Magazine talked about institutional approaches to onscreen dance, specifically about the “film now, perform onstage later” model that several companies have followed. And then dance writer Martha Ullman West published an essay from the viewers’ perspective. So we want to get into all of those stories. And then we also want to talk a little about what we, the three of us, have figured out about how we engage with filmed dance during what Martha has called this “year of living cautiously.”

Courtney Escoyne:
We’ve said this from the get-go, and it’s been interesting having it reinforced: Creating dance that is intended to be filmed and is intended to be consumed on film is a very different skillset from creating dance that is intended to be put onstage and viewed that way. And I have found that my experience as a viewer has actually kind of mirrored that in a lot of ways. I’ve realized that when I sit down to watch a digital dance piece, the way that I’m engaging with it is much more similar to how I engage with film or television than it is in the before times, when multiple times a week, we would all file into theaters and watch live performance. It’s fascinating, because even though I am still watching dance, and those choreographic analytical muscles are still going off in my brain, the way that I am actually actively engaging is much more similar to the way that I watch film.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Just to tie this all back to some of the stories we were mentioning—because it is a totally different set of skills that you’re learning, several sources in a few of these stories talked about how making work for the camera improved their mind flexibility. Figuring out different types of performance energy that are camera-appropriate, figuring out dance that is going to be seen both on a screen and on a proscenium stage—it’s developing a different type of adaptability. And those are skills that they can bring with them into post-pandemic life, which I thought was interesting.

Cadence Neenan:
I think that mindset of “stream the dances now, see them live on stage once public health guidelines allow”—for me was one of the most interesting things about this Dance Magazine story. And I think mostly because it taps into something that I, and I think we, have been saying for a while, of the need for both streaming content and live content, and why both dance and theater and so many other industries should embrace that opportunity. This shows us that people will still want to see live performances, even if they have literally already seen the performance streamed, because there is a different aspect to that. And it just goes back to—I think it was when #Hamilfilm first came out, we were saying that more shows should be available for streaming, because the audiences are different. They will often see both. And this is one of those things that—can we keep it after the pandemic? Can we keep streaming performances? Because people will watch it from home, and they will watch it live, you. arenot going to lose ticket revenue. People want to watch it. Please just keep streaming, streaming art! It’s so important.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, I agree if we can find a way to keep this—however, key caveat, can we find a way to fund this? Because as was also pointed out, when we discussed #Hamilfilm, they fronted the money to film that, and it’s, it was extremely expensive. And this is a whole other set of people that you also are going to be paying, in terms of your cinematographer, all of your film crew, all those things.

I want this to keep going because I was a kid in South Louisiana who did not see a professional dance company until I was like 14. And most of what I learned about ballet, I learned from watching DVDs of ABT. The amount of access that has happened over the last year, I would have been absolutely gaga over that growing up. So yes, make it available, but also we need to fund it. Can we just fund everything? Everything’s about funding.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. Accessibility, another theme that came up in all of these pieces. It does seem like now that there are some systems in place, now that they have done this filming process once, hopefully that will smooth the pathways a little bit going forward. And maybe some of the overhead costs there have been taken care of in a way that will make it at least a little bit less expensive, going forward, to film and stream dance, fingers crossed. Because I agree, Courtney, we’ve got to fund everything.

My personal take on this is…it’s so funny. At the beginning of the pandemic, I assumed that I was going to hate watching performances that were filmed in a theater on a stage, that were filmed the way they were regularly performed. I thought that was going to make me sad. I thought it was going to be flat and boring. And I thought I was going to be totally interested in new dance works made completely for film, entirely of that medium.

And it turned out that the exact opposite was true. I mean, I think I just had very little stamina for dance onscreen generally, probably related to screen fatigue generally. But the dance I was able to get through was either dance that approximated a real theatergoing experience very closely, or that was filmed in or around a theater environment. Because my heart just missed that theater experience so much that it was comforting to be virtually inside these spaces.

Not that that’s any profound insight—I miss theaters! But I think it’s—I mean, literally nobody in any of these stories is arguing that filmed dance will ever replace live dance, as Cadence said. And I think over the next year, fingers crossed, we’re all going to be doing a lot of happy crying in a lot of different theaters. Please. I can’t wait.

All right, we’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’ll have our interview with Duke Dang, so stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH DUKE DANG

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi again, dance friends. I am very happy to be here now with Duke Dang, the general manager of Works & Process at the Guggenheim. Hi Duke! How are you?

Duke Dang:
Good, thank you for having me, Margaret.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much for coming on, because you are one of the busiest people in the arts world right now, so I appreciate you making the time. Duke has led Works & Process for nearly 15 years. If you are an arts person in or around New York City, you probably either know Duke or at least know of him: He is a prominent and widely respected leader in this scene. And he’s helped make Works & Process itself a notable leader—well, for a long time, but especially during this past year, as the series has piloted innovative approaches to pandemic era programming and performance.

So, that’s the short bio. But Duke, would you start out by telling our listeners a little more about yourself and your arts background, and your relationship to dance in particular?

Duke Dang:
Absolutely. So I am an arts administrator through and through, and I’ve always seen it as, what I do as an arts administrator makes it possible for artists to do what they do best. And what I do best is what makes it possible for artists to do what they do best. And, often times, artists aren’t interested in doing what I do. So they’re happy to let me take over.

I went to BU undergrad, studied art history, had so many internships in the performing arts and the visual arts: at Glimmerglass, at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at Sydney Theatre Company, in the performing arts program at the Getty Center. And of course, as an intern here at Works & Process, between my junior and senior year. And so I fell into this very specific niche of performing arts in museums. And when I did my grad work at NYU in performing arts administration, I ended up writing my thesis on performing arts in museums. And that’s how I ended up at Works & Process. And I’ve been here ever since.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So New York arts people are really familiar with Works & Process, but for people who are a little farther afield, can you explain what the series, in a typical year, what it looks like, and more broadly, what its mission is?

Duke Dang:
Yes. We are completely focused, 100%, on the creative process of artists. And so rather than presenting straight performances and premieres, we always illuminate that creative process and try to make it possible for audiences to go behind the scenes. So we always have the creators there, showing what they’re creating at any given moment, and then discussing that. So you really hopefully walk away having gained insight into the artist’s intention.

So, the bulk of our programming before the pandemic focused specifically on that: discussion, performance highlights, blended together, all leading up to the premiere. And what was very exciting was that often times this was the first time that audiences would get to see this work. And it was often times the first time that an artist would have an audience. So they’re testing this material. It was really a laboratory.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, the show before the show.

Duke Dang:
Right, right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And then at Works & Process made, I mean, just an astonishingly fast pivot once COVID did hit last year. Can you talk about what your thought process and your focus was during those first days of the pandemic, and then how you ended up launching your virtual commissions so quickly?

Duke Dang:
Yeah. You know, we are a very artist-centric organization. Our staff is very, very small, and very nimble. We just don’t have the bureaucracy, so we could move very, very fast. And the immediate response was to hear… I mean, what happened was so many artists were just receiving cancellations across the board, walls of cancellations. And we just said, we are not going to cancel on the artists that we have committed to. We’re going to find a way of continuing to support them. And then it turned into, we’re going to try to support even more artists than the artists that we have committed to.

So the first step was, well, we don’t have access to brick-and-mortar space anymore, but we still have a platform. So let’s just start virtual commissions. And so we started inviting artists who had been at Works & Process, were alums of the program, to create video works at home. We offered a fee. The parameter was that they had to maintain social distance and it had to be less than five minutes long, because we were aware that this was going to be distributed across a digital platform. So by the time April rolled around, we had probably about 50 or 60 commissions at that point. And we just started to premiere them as they were submitted. We just wanted to provide a platform for artists to continue to create, with the belief that artists have the ability to reflect the moments that we were experiencing at that time.

But we realized that that really wasn’t going to be enough. And as an organization that champions that creative process, we said, well, let’s just take the in-person audience completely out of the equation, because it just wasn’t possible. How can we as an organization support the creative process of artists?

And so I was very fortunate—my husband and I have a house in the Hudson Valley, and nine years ago we actually helped co-found the Hudson Valley Dance Festival. And so we were very aware of the dance residencies that exist in the Hudson Valley. And I started making phone calls to Petronio, to Kaatsbaan, to Mount Tremper Arts, saying, “What’s happening with your space?” And everybody said, “It’s sitting empty.” And also at that time, the infection rates were so high in New York City yet so low in these rural communities in upstate New York. So we said, well, what if we were able to safely bring artists into these residency spaces that sit on over 150 acres, and isolate them on these spaces and make it possible for them to gather and create again?

And so our board liked the idea, but they said we just really need medical counsel. And, so we reached out to… We were introduced to Dr. Wendy Ziecheck, through Nikki Feirt Atkins. And Dr. Ziecheck said, “Well, I can access rapid testing, antigen as well as a PCR.” And so it’s May, and at this time, test results were coming back in seven days, six days, 10 days, and testing just wasn’t readily available. Yet she said, “I can help you access reliable, rapid PCR tests that you can get back in two hours.” Which now seems common, but in May 2020, it was finding a nugget of gold. And also at this time we were able to get our hands on Tyler Perry’s bubble protocol. Because Tyler Perry was planning on having residency, or filming in a bubble, in Atlanta. So we were looking at a movie mogul’s production—

Margaret Fuhrer:
Wait, back up for a second. How did you get your hands on Tyler Perry’s protocol? I need that story.

Duke Dang:
You know, it was in—I think it was The Hollywood Reporter! It was actually, like, readily available. And also I was talking with Anna Glass at the time, at Dance theatre of Harlem, as well. And she also had this idea of like, maybe we could bubble. So we got our hands on that protocol and it was, well, we can’t charter a private plane to fly artists, but we could charter a private bus and get artists to a bubble. We had the testing side solved as well. And while we didn’t own a residency center, there were all these residency centers that were sitting empty in upstate New York that could accommodate these artists and provide a safe harbor.

So, that fell into place. And then the third thing that we had to really think about was, it’s June, there still are no gigs. Artists don’t have performance opportunities. And here we are offering them a gig to create, to perform, to rehearse. And we said, is it the ethical thing to do? And so we reached out to Dr. Robert Klitzman, who’s the head of bioethics at Columbia University, who’s a friend of the program, and we outlined the whole program. And Dr. Klitzman said, “What you’re doing is you’re providing a lot of safety. You have a structure in place”— we even were providing the dancers with enrollment into health insurance at that time—”and if these dancers accept the opportunity and you’ve done everything possible in your power to create a safe environment, then it’s ethical. So I give you permission to move forward with this from an ethical perspective.”

And so that’s when the board approved it. And that was late June. It was about two weeks after the NBA had announced their bubble. And by early August, we had our first bubbles happening at Kaatsbaan. So, that’s how that happened. And it was really based in our mission, which is—we are Works & Process, how do we continue to support the process of the artists that we champion?

Margaret Fuhrer:
And it’s—I mean, now everybody’s bubbling. It seems like such a commonplace thing. But you were the pioneers. It is astonishing to think how much of that work…you were the first people to figure it out.

Duke Dang:
It was really putting the pieces of the puzzle together, very Wild Wild West, but thankfully we did have the Tyler Perry template. And then we were also looking very carefully at what the NBA was doing in Orlando, because we were doing this simultaneously.

And then we were very naïve also because we were thinking, Oh my gosh, by the time August rolls around, museums should be able to reopen, right? And we didn’t think that theaters would reopen, but we said, well, museums would reopen. And the Guggenheim is a museum and it’s very voluminous. And the rotunda itself is very social distance–conducive. And our hope was that we would be able to sequence these bubble residencies directly into live performance in the rotunda. Because we knew, well, COVID was still going to be around, but there’s this magical window of opportunity on the last day of a bubble where the dancers have been isolated for 14 days and you don’t just want to drive them back home and say goodbye. You know, you have them rehearsed and ready to perform. And so why not allow them to perform on that last day before they go home? Because once they go home, the bubble has been pierced.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So you were right. You were just, like, eight months off.

Duke Dang:
Yeah. Because by the time August rolled around and these artists were in their bubbles, it was clear that museums weren’t going to open and we still didn’t have a home or a final destination for these projects. I mean, what was fortunate is that, because all of our, most of our bubbles were at Kaatsbaan, all of our projects were then folded into the Kaatsbaan festival. So those performances were co-produced by Works & Process and Kaatsbaan together. So those were some of the first outdoor permitted performances in America.

But again, it goes back to, well, what’s the final destination for these projects? And that was when we were just casting about looking for presenters that would consider co-presenting video performances with us. And it was August and September, and Lincoln Center has this big outdoor campus and people were comfortable performing outdoors. And Lincoln Center said, “Wait, you’ve mitigated all this risk for us? You’ve put these artists in a bubble for 14 days? You’ve tested them? You know that they’re COVID-free? Yeah, of course we would love to have these companies come onto the Lincoln Center campus and perform.” And that’s how the Works & Process at Lincoln Center video series ended up coming to life, because we just didn’t want to have these artists go home on the very last day. And what was also wonderful was bringing Lincoln Center on board provided additional fees for these artists. I mean, the exposure is wonderful, but what artists need right now are fees.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk a little too about when and why you decided to chronicle those residencies, this first series of residencies, in the Isolation to Creation docuseries?

Duke Dang:
Yeah. It was again, I always go back to what is the mission of Works & Process, and it’s to allow audiences to go behind the scenes and to illuminate the creative process and to tell that story. And we knew that our audiences couldn’t go into the bubble, they couldn’t follow these artists in person, but a docuseries would enable audiences to take that journey with these artists at this very specific moment in time. So it made a lot of sense in terms of, what is our mission. But also the Works & Process archives live in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library. And we had been having many conversations with the curator there, Linda Murray, about how this particular moment in time is so historical. And how do we capture this moment? And the Jerome Robins Dance Division was very supportive in saying, we can provide filming support if this docuseries is able to happen.

And initially we were just going to release it ourselves on social media, but we wanted it to have a broader distribution. And so we reached out to ALL ARTS Channel 13, and they said, “We love the idea of the series, we’ll license it, you produce it, we’ll put it on TV, we’ll put it on ALL ARTS platform.” And we just knew that that made a lot of sense, because it would ultimately expose these journeys that these artists were experiencing and help to really peel back these layers so that the audience could see what these artists are experiencing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And it felt like there was a matching of medium and moment there, too, in the way that it was filmed—the dancers had their own cameras, that sense of intimacy of being inside the bubble with them, that felt so spot-on.

Duke Dang:
Yeah. We really, and that’s back to our mission, which is we always want to go behind the scenes. We always want to illuminate the creative process and we always want to put the artists front and center and we felt that the docuseries would be able to do that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So now we’re at a moment where artists are slowly beginning to return front and center in live performance, back at the Guggenheim, with your series of one-night performances that’s happening now. And again, you’re pioneers: You’re among the first in New York City to return to in-person performances. Can you talk about when the planning for all of this began? When did you start to think, We’re ready to come back?

Duke Dang:
Yeah, well it goes back to night in our naïveté in June, we thought that the museum would open in August and we would be able to have live performances in the rotunda. But the museum actually didn’t open until October. And so we just knew it was just too tenuous to push this idea of, let’s have live performances in the rotunda, even though the bubbles were still happening. (Our last bubble actually into 2020 ended at the end of October. )

But we were so fortunate in that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation came through with a half-million dollar grant, which enabled us to produce 12 more bubble residencies in the first half of 2021. And so we said, okay, now we have a pipeline. We can continue this pipeline of work creation. And it was thinking, again, what’s the exit strategy for these bubble residencies, because we didn’t want the artists to just go home.

So it turned into, well, the museum liked the idea, but the museum couldn’t greenlight the live performance. It had to be done at the state level, whether it’s through the governor, Empire State Development or the Department of Health. And so it turned into really a game of the squeaky wheel, and constantly trying to figure out, who are the powers at the highest level that make these decisions? And so through multiple channels—Empire State Development, the New York State Council for the Arts, through politicians, we eventually were able to loop into a consortium of flex-space presenters that were making this case at the state level, that we understand that theaters, conventional theaters with fixed seats, proscenium, are not going to reopen, but there are alternative venues that could possibly reopen.

And so Works & Process was added to that list through Sade Lythcott, who is the executive director of The National Black Theatre. And this was early ’21. And the governor had announced a pilot initiative for reopening of the performing arts. And so, after filing a lot of paperwork, we finally received a site visit from the Department of Health. And the Department of Health had piloted a program where the Buffalo Bills were having their playoff games in upstate New York, and they were able to rapid-test I think it was 10,000 fans to see two playoff games in upstate New York. And that gave the state the confidence to move forward with, well, we can gather people in a safe way, let’s see how we can do it for the performing arts.

So it was a February 5th, and the Department of Health visited the museum. And they walked into the building and they said, “Okay, we completely see why the Guggenheim rotunda is on this flex-space list.” For those that have not been in the Guggenheim rotunda, it’s a spiral ramp a quarter-mile long that’s six levels, with a big atrium in the middle that’s 95 feet tall. So they walked in and they said, “We completely see how performances can happen in this space.” But also, let’s get to the nitty gritty: the Guggenheim museum before the pandemic was housing some of the world’s most valuable artwork. These artworks need to exist in a certain condition, which means that the air needs to be very clean. And so the museum already had a double-bar filtration system with UBC light. Also, with paintings, you can’t have dry air, so the museum keeps the building at 55, 50% relative humidity at all times. And the higher the humidity, the lower the viral transmission rate, and also, the higher the humidity, the less chances of a painting cracking. So between the architecture and between the infrastructure in the museum, the Department of Health says, “You guys are really well positioned to host live performances.”

So we received the site visit on February 5th, and on February 9th the governor announces NY PopsUp and includes Works & Process at the Guggenheim in that press release. And so we knew we were off to the races at that point, and it was just receiving the final flex-space guidance. And we received that on March 5th, before other venues.

And so once we got the green light, we just said, well, when is the next time that we have a bubble exiting? That’ll be our first live indoor performance. And it ended up being Caleb Teicher & Company with Conrad Tao; their plan was to create a new Rhapsody in Blue. And we premiered that project on March 20th, which as far as I can tell is the first permitted indoor live performance with audiences on that scale in New York state.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s pretty incredible. And this is—everything about this story is why we need more good arts administrators everywhere, because it’s not the sexy stuff. It’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that has to get done. It’s being the squeaky wheel. It’s talking to literally all of the people, it’s having all of your pieces lined up so that you’re ready to go at the right moment.

Duke Dang:
Yeah. People say, well, what’s your strength, Duke? And I say, well, it’s that I usually don’t like to take no for an answer. It’s being that squeaky wheel, let’s try to find a solution, let’s be innovative. And if there is an idea, how do you put the pieces of the puzzle together?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Because your perspective on this whole scene is so valuable, and because we don’t have enough people like you on the podcast, I’m going to jump into some really big-picture questions. So, well, first of all, what have you personally learned over this past year? In dealing with all of these challenges, what truly surprised you or changed the way you approach your work, and what aspects of your ideology or of your approach have been reaffirmed?

Duke Dang:
I think because I have been at Works & Process for so long, 18 years now, I’m very much a process person. I’m very much a “behind the scenes” person. I think it’s that process that has propelled me throughout this year. Like, how do we make things happen? Because that creative process is so much a part of our organization’s DNA, we never really were stalled in our tracks. We were never like deer in the headlights. We were just like, well, what do we do to support artists? And how do we do it? What is the process to make this happen? And it was about, well, times have changed, we can’t do things the way that we have always done them. We have to find new partners. If people that we used to work with are not working with us, well, let’s try to work with other partners. And that was what was very exciting about this year, is it opened up so many new partnerships for Works & Process, because we just had to find a way forward. And it we couldn’t do it alone, we had to do it with partnerships.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. One of the common themes I think we’ve all been hearing in the dance world over the past year: We’ve never been more separated, but we’ve also never been more connected.

Duke Dang:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Out of necessity—it’s the only way to survive.

Duke Dang:
Yeah. We can’t be siloed. But it was also saying to the Guggenheim, well, the most valuable asset that the museum has arguably is this iconic building, which can play such an important role right now when the performing arts as a field for the most part finds itself, even now, homeless, because of the infrastructure that was built up over the past century of theaters, proscenium theaters with fixed seats. And saying to the museum, you could really play a much major role, so think about that. And that’s when the museum realized what a role the museum could play. And so they said, yes, let’s move forward and figure out how we can carve out this home for the performing arts right now.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here’s the biggest question of all, because obviously the arts—dance in particular, but all of the arts—are facing really strong headwinds right now. So what’s your big-picture argument for why, even in this moment, that’s challenging for everybody, why do we need to continue to make arts support a priority?

Duke Dang:
Well, I think—so I’m going to talk about this from a New York City perspective, because unlike many places, New York City has actually seen this outward migration of population. People have moved out of New York City. So for the economic health of New York City, for the identity of New York City, for the cultural health of New York City, how do we get people to come back to New York City?

And so, as we have started to produce live performances, right now, we’re making a deliberate decision to severely reduce our digital offerings. Because now we’re tapping into this idea of what is innately special to the performing arts, which is the performing arts are really good at gathering people. And that’s what we need in New York City right now, at a time when the city is so empty and people are not coming into the city. So we really see the value of what we’re doing as well. Look, the performing arts are happening again in New York City! Come back.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, I really hope they do. I really hope we all come out of this OK.

Duke Dang:
There’s really a multiplier—I mean, the arts are happening everywhere, but as a New Yorker and as an arts administrator working for an organization that is New York-based we still believe that New York City is the capital of dance, and it’s an engine for dance-making that resonates across the world. And so if New York City comes back strong, then the field will come back strong.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, thank you, Duke for being an important part of that engine. Thank you for sharing your insights and for everything that you are doing to support the performing arts in New York City. So what can listeners do to support you and your mission at Works & Process, and what do you all have on the horizon, what should we keep our eyes out for?

Duke Dang:
Well, as I last said, we want people to come to live performances again. It’s important for the economy, it’s important for the artists, but it’s important for our souls. I mean, we have gone through so much, and the performing arts are going to play a role in healing us and nourishing us.

So come to our performances! We have pop up performances every day through April 19th at lunchtime. Today, the 15th, we have the Limón Dance Company. Tomorrow we have Mark Morris. Saturday, we have New York City Ballet, Sunday, Martha Graham, Monday, Paul Taylor. In addition to the pop up performances, we have many bubble residencies that are exiting into evening performances. So our next performance will be Dance Heginbotham on April 18th, and then Omari Wiles and Les Ballet Afrik on May 4th, and Sonya Tayeh and Ephrat Asherie in June. And so come to these live performances. There’s more information at www.worksandprocess.org. If you can’t come to New York City, we do have a very robust YouTube channel with a lot of virtual commissions, a lot of Works & Process programs. And the docuseries Isolation to Creation can be streamed on allarts.org.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And we’ll include all the links to all the things in the show notes too, so people can access them on that way.

Duke Dang:
Thank you so much, Margaret.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I said it earlier, but it’s true: We don’t hear enough of this side of the story, and I really appreciate you sharing your perspective.

Duke Dang:
And thank you for letting me get real nitty-gritty.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We love the nitty-gritty. Nitty-gritty is important.

[pause]

Thanks again to Duke. If you are in or around New York City, I really do hope you can make it to one or more of the rotunda performances, because there’s pretty much no better way to return to live dance than in that beautiful Guggenheim space, stationed somewhere on that winding six story balcony, watching the extraordinary dance artists on that lineup. And also make sure to follow Works & Process on Instagram too; they’re @worksandprocess.

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, y’all.