Transcript, Episode 61: Accountability at Staatsballett, Give Dancers a Minute, and Chloe Angyal

[Jump to Chloe Angyal 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 first of all, happy International Dance Day, everybody. Not to be confused with National Dance Day here in the US, that’s coming up in September. But hey, more visibility for dance—always a good thing.

Cadence Neenan:
We love a dancing holiday.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Always love, always love a dancing holiday. In today’s episode, we will discuss and contextualize the settlement that dancer Chloé Lopes Gomes reached with Staatsballet Berlin following her allegations of racist treatment by the company. We will talk about dance artist Brinda Guha’s recent Dance Magazine essay, in which she broke down why, even though things are beginning to reopen, it is both impossible and inappropriate to expect dance folks to return to some kind of pre-pandemic “normal.” We will do a little squeeing over and a little analysis of the new West Side Story and In the Heights trailers, which debuted during Sunday’s Oscars broadcast.

And then we’ll have our interview with Chloe Angyal, who is author of the forthcoming book Turning Pointe. If you’re on ballet Twitter, you almost certainly already follow Chloe. She studied dance growing up and then sociology in college before becoming a journalist. And she brings all of that expertise to bear on this book, which gets into ballet’s many ailments in a way that manages to be damning and hopeful at the same time. So even if you’re pretty familiar with the whole ballet is broken discourse, please give her interview a listen and her book a read. Her perspective is informed by a lot of data and reporting, and it’s really illuminating.

Before we get into the episode, though, we wanted to take our usual minute to remind you that this podcast does not exist in a vacuum. It is actually a companion to our newsletter, which is a daily digest of noteworthy dance news stories. If the Twitter firehose of news is too much for you, but you want to keep up with what’s going on in dance, this newsletter will fill that gap nicely. You can sign up for it at thedanceedit.com. Not that we have anything against Twitter. In fact, you can also follow us there: we’re @dance_edit. And we’re on Instagram, @the.dance.edit.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which begins pretty much where we left off in last week’s episode, with more news on the Broadway and Scott Rudin front.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes. So last week, hundreds of Broadway workers and advocates protested in New York City, demanding not just the ousting of producer Scott Rudin, but also calling on unions and trade associations to help spearhead widespread industry reform. Rudin, at this point, had said that he would step back from day-to-day operations on the shows with which he is involved, a move that was largely decried as being not nearly enough, including by those of us on this podcast. In a statement to the New York Times over the weekend, he said that he would also be resigning from the Broadway League, the trade association of producers and theater owners. So a step forward to decoupling Scott Rudin from Broadway, we hope more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Some progress, yeah. There were actually complaints on social media that this protest was under-covered by the mainstream theater media, which, not great. We have included a few links in our show notes so you can find out more about what happened at the protest and also about the organizers’ six central demands—he first of which was Rudin’s removal from the Broadway League, which obviously has now come to pass, and on the second of which was the disclosure of the organizations that Actor’s Equity is working with to ensure BIPOC safety, which the union has also taken steps to address. So, protest is effective, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Last June, Cirque du Soleil was forced to file for bankruptcy due to pandemic losses, laying off about 95% of its workforce. But after a change of leadership this fall, the Montreal-based company will relaunch its two longest-running live shows in Las Vegas, signaling that Cirque du Soleil is ready to return—not just to Vegas, but to the world stage—for the first time since the pandemic shutdown. Both of Cirque’s Las Vegas shows, Mystère and O, will reopen in time for July 4th weekend.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It feels like a bellwether. First Cirque in Vegas, then Broadway, then…everything else?

Cadence Neenan:
The world!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here’s hoping.

Courtney Escoyne:
And more good news: The International Association of Blacks in Dance has received over $3 million from the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford foundations to support its Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative | Managing Organizational Vitality and Endurance grant program. $1.775 million will be distributed in MOVE grants to 30 member companies over the next three years, as well as an additional $375,000 to 25 more companies through the Building Up: Integrating Learning and Development initiative. IABD’s five founding member companies will also receive $100,000 each in additional support through this latest funding. Continuing to address those historic funding and equities—we love to see it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, such good news.

Cadence Neenan:
At least 300 students in Oneida county, New York are now in quarantine, the worst outbreak in the county since the pandemic began. The dance link? The students were forced to quarantine after dance school students in the area began showing symptoms of COVID-19 following attendance at a dance competition in Syracuse, New York. And though Oneida public officials declined to name either the dance school or the competition, they did say that more than one student from the school attended the competition despite being aware that they had symptoms of the virus. So please, if you are bearing symptoms of COVID-19, stay out of the studio.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yuh-ikes. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Also, get tested frequently. And also studio owners, be understanding about students maybe being sick or needing to step back during these times when public health is a huge problem that we all have to work together on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That’s another podcast segment.

Courtney Escoyne:
Indeed. American Ballet Theatre soloist Gabe Stone Shayer spoke with our very own Lydia Murray about being an artist in residence at Palm Heights Grand Cayman, a resort in the Cayman Islands, for two months this spring. He got to help shape what the program will look like for future dancers receiving the residency. They actually built a studio for him while he was doing his mandatory two-week quarantine upon arrival. And he spent the time working on developing a narrative ballet based in African culture and folklore, something we don’t see a lot of on classical ballet stages.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, it’s so cool. And if you haven’t yet heard Gabe’s Dance Edit interview in which he just drops all the truth bombs, please go back and give it a listen. It’s in episode 52.

Cadence Neenan:
Broadway, nightclub, and television dancer Susanne Carmina Cansino, the last original member of the Dancing Cansinos, passed away on April 10th, at the age of 90. Cansino danced in Broadway shows like Aries Is Rising, Sally, As the Girls Go, and Dance Me a Song, alongside the illustrious Bob Fosse. Later, Cansino proceeded to tour in her own nightclub act and made appearances on various television shows.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She was born in Carnegie Hall, in those Carnegie Hall apartments. True dance royalty.

All right. So moving on to our first roundtable discussion today, which is about another important news story from the past week. On Thursday, news broke that a settlement had been reached between Staatsballett Berlin and dancer Chloé Lopes Gomes. And the background here is that Lopes Gomes, who is Black, joined Staatsballett in 2018, but her contract was terminated last year. She talked to several news outlets around the world about the racism she experienced at Staatsballett, and her accounts were harrowing: She described a number of racist incidents, including being told to whiten her skin for performances. So, the settlement, which was reached in the German Labor Court for stage employees, awarded Lopes Gomes 16,000 euros, which is about $19,000, in compensation, and then renewed her contract through the end of the 2021 to 2022 season.

In some ways, this is a step forward. It’s a moment of much-needed accountability. But the announcement also raised a whole bunch of questions about Lopes Gomes’s future, about the future of the company…

Courtney Escoyne:
There’s so much to get into here. I do think just to start it’s worth going back and briefly retreading what the allegations that Chloé brought to the forefront were. Essentially, while employed, she kept having incidents with one particular ballet mistress who was on a lifetime contract, ranging from microaggressions to outright racist comments in the studio during rehearsals, to being forced to whiten her skin for performances—despite the artistic director at one point saying, “no, that’s unacceptable. You don’t have to do that.” After the artistic director departed, she was told, “well, now you’re not going to get special treatment anymore. You have to do that again.” And essentially just her being what sounds like targeted specifically because she was a Black dancer, and this ballet mistress did not like that. Which largely resulted in her not being allowed to perform, not being cast. And so she came forward with these allegations.

It’s also worth noting at the time, there was no internal instruments for dancers to bring up these issues in a way that wouldn’t put them in direct conflict with the members of the artistic teams that were causing the issues. So after she found out that her contract was not being renewed, she came forward with a story. And that pretty much brings us up to the present.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, while the allegations hinge on that one—the actions of that one ballet mistress, the whole organization was complicit in creating this environment where there was no safe way to report discrimination, where there was no way to discipline this ballet mistress who was on a lifetime contract.

I feel like the gut-punch quote from the Times‘ story about the settlement is this one from Lopes Gomes. She said: “I can’t say I’m thrilled to stay at Staatsballett, but I am happy to have work and to dance.” And how awful that the state of the ballet world is so precarious that she feels she has no choice but to remain at this company even after all this turmoil.

Courtney Escoyne:
And even if they have set up—Staatsballett has done work to set up an outside agency that they can report incidents to so that there is a process for reporting discrimination. But also, as far as anything I have heard has been, this ballet mistress in question has not been disciplined in any way. I have not heard anything about making really internal changes to create that accountability. Everyone is going to be certainly watching and paying attention now, and Lopes Gomes, obviously, is not afraid to come forward and talk about what’s happening. But she is contracted through the end of the 2022 season—who’s to say what kind of treatment she is going to be facing going back into those studios?

Cadence Neenan:
I feel like, more than any kind of relief at hearing of the settlement, honestly, all I felt was like so many questions rising up. Theresa Ruth Howard actually posed a lot of the same questions on the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet Instagram account, asking, “what measures have been put in place to assure that there is no retaliation upon her return?” And “I’m happy that she will return, but has the organization done the work necessary to receive her?” And I think that was really what immediately came to my head when I read the details of this settlement, is, really, how is this going to work? Is this actually going to be a safe and healthy environment for Lopes Gomes?

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s just terrible that my gut-punch reaction to this was, is she going to get to dance? And feeling like the answer was going to be no, and that’s terrible. Like, we shouldn’t instinctively being like, from what I know about ballet, because of this whole thing, she’s not going to get to dance this year even though she has contract. That’s terrible that, that is like… we people who love ballet and love dance and also recognize how far there is to go and making it a more equitable workplace and also a healthy workplace. The fact that we’re sitting here being like, yeah, this probably is not going to go well, that’s awful. That shouldn’t be the way that it is.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, here’s hoping the settlement is sort of the beginning of the journey for Staatsballett instead of the end of it, and that they continue to work on practices that will make for a more inclusive and equitable work environment. Fingers and toes crossed, because otherwise I don’t know what her, what Chloe’s life is going to look like there for the next year.

All right. Moving on to our next segment. We are now going to talk about a recent Dance Magazine piece that hits on feelings that I think a lot of people are feeling, both in the dance world and well beyond the dance world. Dancer and choreographer and educator and administrator and friend of the pod Brinda Guha wrote an essay titled, “I’m Just Saying, I’ll Need Like Another Solid Week Before I Can Reply to Your Email.” Which, moment of silence for that excellent title. It’s a wide-ranging piece that we encourage you to read in its entirety. Of course we’ll link to it in the episode description, but at the heart of it is an indictment of this insidious idea that because dance artists are strong and resilient, they should be able to immediately snap back to some version of “normal activity” as things start to reopen. Like, responding to emails about teaching or performance opportunities within hours, for example, as the title references. And as Brinda says, we cannot just pretend this past year didn’t happen. We can’t pretend it didn’t leave scars. We can’t pretend that the pandemic is over, because it’s not over yet. And also, as we’ve asked a lot on this podcast, do we even want to go back to the “normal” dance world way of operating?

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. So as you said Margaret, Brinda reiterates that she believes artists are some of the strongest members of society. And I think we really have undoubtedly seen that in the past year, with practically every dancer or company I follow on social media continuing to produce digital offerings, including performances and online classes, seeking new revenue streams, and just finding ways to continue to create amidst a global pandemic. But as she points out, it seems like people are kind of starting to ignore that we’re still trying to survive a global pandemic, and that people are starting to, in some ways, deny the emotional reality of the state that we’re currently living in—pandemic aside, just the general world, as it seems to devolve into flames, and the pandemic itself. And I think she’s calling in a lot of this essay for people to keep that in their heads as they’re sending emails or communicating with members of the creative community. Remember what we’re existing in. Normal isn’t normal right now, we can’t be normal because what we’re feeling and experiencing and living isn’t normal. So we shouldn’t be trying to go back to this pre-pandemic normal, not that we can right now. As tempting as it might feel, things are different right now. We need to recognize that and sit with the uncomfortable feeling that that is.

Courtney Escoyne:
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot, both in terms of the dance world, but also just like as a human being, is thinking about the fact that we as human beings, we are constantly changing and growing and morphing, right? And this past year has been unlike anything anyone currently alive has ever really experienced—this collective experience of this pandemic and all the things that it’s brought to light that normally get brushed under the rug. And as a result of that, none of us are the same people we were going into this pandemic. And as we cautiously, optimistically look at, it feels like we’re on the tail end of this, it feels like maybe we can look ahead to a moment where we can say that we are post-pandemic—even though hello, look worldwide at what’s happening right now, we super aren’t—anyway, like, we aren’t the same people we were before. And so the idea that we should, once we’re allowed to return to “normal,” get back on the grind, on the hustle, be back in the studio with one another, I think it’s really important to hold space for the idea that we’re not the same people we were going into this pandemic. Why should we work in the exact same way that we did before?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I feel like this is continuing a theme from last week, of how difficult it is for people to hold two ideas in their head at the same time. Because the idea that, “oh, the arts are what’s going to get us through this! We have to keep making art!” Or like the urgency around, “I need to get back in the studio, I need to get back to work!” Those are things that people are feeling, those are valid as well. Art is incredibly valuable in times of uncertainty and loss and hardship. Many dance folks do feel a sense of urgency around their practice right now, some of which is financial. They have to create because they have to make a living.

But we can’t then forget about our duty of care to the artists. Because no matter how superhuman dance folk seem, they aren’t super humans. They are people who have been through trauma. They need a minute. And I think we’d be remiss not to note that people of color are feeling the effects of this past year even more acutely, for obvious reasons. And this attitude of, “You should respond immediately to our email about this opportunity, like hustle, hustle, hustle”—that’s a capitalism problem, but it’s also a white supremacy problem. It’s the idea that the artists, and especially the artists of color, should feel constantly indebted to these large powerful, generally white-led institutions—that’s rooted in white supremacy, as Brinda points out in her essay.

And by the way, I’ve been doing some reflecting of my own along those lines, in terms of recognizing more fully and completely the artistry and the personhood of our interview guests. Brinda was a guest on this podcast back in episode 53, and in the Dance Magazine essay, she says, “I can do more than talk about intersectional feminism and politics 101 on your podcast.” Which, point taken, Brinda, I hear you. We have work to do too.

All right. So in our last round table segment today, we’re going to ease our aching minds into a nice warm movie-musical–trailer bath. Oh, that sounded so much weirder and grosser than I thought it would when I wrote it out! During the Oscar broadcast on Sunday night, we were treated to new previews for two eagerly anticipated dance-centric films, the Spielberg West Side Story remake and the In the Heights movie. And as a bonus, the West Side trailer was introduced during the broadcast, by the incredible Ariana DeBose, aka Anita, which—it feels like odds are good that she’ll be right back on that Oscars carpet next year, doesn’t it?

Cadence Neenan:
Yep.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here’s hoping. Anyway, we laughed, we fangirled, we learned a few things. Let’s talk about both trailers.

Courtney Escoyne:
I have to say, every time I see an In the Heights trailer, it makes me start doing the math on when I’m getting vaccinated and when I’ll be fully inoculated and therefore, am I going to feel safe to go see this movie in theaters? Because I really want to. And it is the only movie that has provoked that response to me in the last year. It just looks so joyous. Just massive shoutout to Christopher Scott, who took on the gargantuan task of choreographing this film when the Broadway musical choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler won a Tony. And Chris Scott came in and worked with John Chu and just—it looks so joyous and exciting and fun. And I’m going to cry through the whole thing. Every time I see a new trailer, I just think, yep, this is going to wreck me in the best way.

Cadence Neenan:
I just remember the day the first trailer came out—we were still in-office. And I just remember tearing up at my desk, watching the trailer for the In the Heights film. And I don’t think that’s changed in any of the new trailers I watched. I feel like, every time I watch a new trailer, they give us another glimpse of the movie—like seeing more of Anthony Ramos as Usnavi was a lot for me, and any time Nina and Benny come up on my screen, serotonin. I just, there’s just so much in these trailers.

Courtney Escoyne:
Also the shot of Lin-Manuel Miranda, shaking the hand of Anthony Ramos. I just, it got me. I was just like…

Cadence Neenan:
My father and my son. Like, wow.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The handshake passing of the torch, yeah. We’ve had some looks at In the Heights already, so there wasn’t as much new to discover in this trailer. But it did show a little more of the Latin choreography in the film. Which, the Latin dance choreographers are Eddie Torres Jr. and Princess Serrano, and they are absolute royalty of the New York City mambo scene, the on2 scene, which I was a part of for a brief moment in time. It will be so exciting to see their work on the big screen. I can’t wait.

But so, West Side Story, this really was our first look at the film. And what struck me most was how much it looked like the Jerome Robbins movie.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The locations, the style of filming, even the costumes. We had Maria and the white dress with the red sash. The limited glimpses we got at the choreography.

Cadence Neenan:
I have seen, I’ll say, a lot of discussion online of people saying, “why are you remaking the original film? This seems ridiculous.” And I would like to note that Steven Spielberg is basing this off of the musical itself, not the original film. So there will be adaptations, I am sure. And I just need people to stop fighting in the comment section on YouTube. Nobody is trying to remake the West Side Story film and ruin your life, Rita Moreno’s in both, you will be happy.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I feel like that was the thing that got me, was like that lingering shot of Rita Moreno as Doc. I just…

Margaret Fuhrer:
By the way, did you know that she’s the one singing “Somewhere,” in the music? That’s Moreno’s voice.

Cadence Neenan:
What? Important!

Courtney Escoyne:
Stop, stop I’m going to cry.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, the idea of paying some visual homage to the original film, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I just thought it was an interesting choice.

Courtney Escoyne:
The tension was so palpable. And something I appreciated is that in the sequence, in the shots where we actually got to see movement, not even just dancing-dancing, but like a group running together to someplace, it has that urgency and tension that the Jerome Robbins’s choreography in both the musical and the film really delivered. And I think is so key to making West Side Story work.

Cadence Neenan:
I have to say, I didn’t know what to expect with Mike Faist as Riff. And I’m now very excited because of that trailer.

Courtney Escoyne:
Also, Ariana DeBose just looks, yes, spectacular. And we knew she would. And it’s just so satisfying.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She’s already a star, she’s only going to get bigger. I can’t wait. Fun side note, I think there was a moment in 2019 when these two films were shooting within a few blocks of each other in New York City. Which, only New York City. But also I love the idea that they might have like fed off each other’s energies in some way. And Courtney saw something on Twitter that I’m going to make her recount now, even though she didn’t want to.

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh yeah, there was a tweet going around that had the In the Heights poster and it said Marvel Cinematic Universe. And then it had the West Side Story poster and said DC Cinematic Universe. And I just was like, this is accurate. Although also, hopefully this West Side Story movie will be better than the vast majority of the DC Universe films. Don’t @ me, we all know it’s true.

Cadence Neenan:
Oh my gosh.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, on that controversial note, we’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Chloe Angyal. So stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH CHLOE ANGYAL

Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. I am very excited to be here now with writer Chloe Angyal, who is the author of the book Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself, which is out May 4th. Hi, Chloe—thanks for joining!

Chloe Angyal:
Hi, I’m so glad to be here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So good to have you. Turning Pointe grapples with the inequities and the shortcomings of ballet, this art that many of us care for so deeply. And there’s a lot of excitement around the book and the dance world. It’s very zeitgeist-y. But before we get into all things Turning Pointe—Chloe, would you actually tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and about your relationship with dance?

Chloe Angyal:
I started dancing before I can even remember it. There are photos of me from when I was a very, very small kid dancing in settings that were appropriate—recitals and in classes—and then dancing in settings that are totally inappropriate, like supermarkets and airports. I was just one of those kids who always wanted to be moving and always wanted to be moving to music.

I did ballet and jazz from a very young age, and took a bit of a detour into fairly serious gymnastics until I was about 12 or 13. And then I came back to dance pretty badly injured, my body pretty badly messed up from various gymnastics injuries, and also sort of remade in a way that I was told at the time was fundamentally incompatible with serious ballet training. So I found other forms of dance that I loved—lyrical, theater jazz, I loved the sort of Fosse style of dance that really encouraged use of the pelvis and hips or ribcage in a way that I had been told was completely off-limits in ballet. And I kept dancing through high school and through college. And then once I established myself as a journalist, I found a way to sort of bring my dance background back into my work in journalism.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So that leads into my next question, which is talking about the beginning of the book’s story. Because you had started at that point writing about ballet, mostly for The Huffington Post, but also some other outlets. Can you talk about when this book idea first started to sort of take shape in your mind?

Chloe Angyal:
Yeah. My coverage at HuffPost, I remember very distinctly saying to my editor, I don’t want to write reviews. I don’t want to write after-the-fact coverage of performances that are happening here in New York, that very few people are going to be able to have access to. And what I want to do is sort of take advantage of people’s inbuilt fascination with ballet, the sort of mystique of it, and then sort of break that down a little bit and get non-dance readers to understand that dancers are workers. They go to work every day, just like you and me. And yes, their work looks a little bit different, but they deal with a lot of the same things in the workplace that a lot of us do. There’s racism in the workplace, there’s sexual harassment. There are unions to represent them. There are interpersonal issues where you have to work with your boyfriend or wife or ex husband or whatever. And there are the same barriers to leadership, to diverse leadership, particularly for dancers of color and for women. And these people are just workers. So let’s talk about it that way in a way that non-dancers can find an entry point as well.

But the moment when I really felt like there was a book here, I was writing a story in late 2017, that was pegged to the release of David Hallberg’s memoir, A Body of Work. And Hallberg writes at length about his experiences of being bullied when he was growing up dancing, because he was a boy who was dancing. And the nature of that bullying was sort of very explicitly homophobic and misogynistic. And I was writing the story, looking at the stats on the percentage of boys who dance, who were bullied because they dance. And those statistics are absolutely horrifying. One expert that I interviewed for that story was if this were not the arts, we would be calling it a child health crisis.

And that story, I think I told my editor, “Oh yeah, I can get this done in 1200 words. Don’t worry. I’ll knock it out.” And the word count just kept ballooning. It just kept going and going. I think the final word count of this thing was like 2,700 words, because not only was there so much to say, but for people outside of the ballet world, there was so much of a foundation of understanding to establish, to get them to understand why ballet is so associated with femininity and why boys who dance are considered to be so precious and special, and why they are both privileged inside the ballet studio but bullied outside of it. It was just so much sort of establishing information to get through before I could get to the crux of the issue that I started thinking, “I think there might be a book here.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And there are many different ideas at play in Turning Pointe. How would you characterize the driving themes of the book? What’s the elevator pitch?

Chloe Angyal:
This book is about how to make sure that ballet survives in the 21st century. It’s about how to make sure that ballet can be a thriving, inclusive, relevant art form in which dancers of all levels are treated with care and respect. And in which dancers, regardless of how they participate—as young children, as longstanding professionals—that they leave ballet feeling like it loved them as much as they loved it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And you’re of course an experienced journalist, but you also studied sociology. So you bring a sociologist’s perspective to ballet—I think that’s something that doesn’t happen enough. What does that particular lens reveal that journalists and historians and other dance writers and dance people might miss?

Chloe Angyal:
Ballet is absolutely ripe for sociological analysis. I mean, sociology is the study of people in groups, and dance is its own world. It’s its own culture, literally with its own language, with its own rules, with a very particular power structure. And it almost cries out for translation, not only for people who are outside of it, so they can understand this fairly insular world, but also for people who grew up in it, “This is just how the world works.” And then once you are able to step outside of it and have someone explain to you, “Well, this is this is what the power structure looks like. And this is why these rules are set up the way they are”—you come to understand yourself and your own experiences in that world differently. Once you can step outside of it and have that explained to you rather than, “Well, this is just how the world works. This is how it’s been since I was four and I don’t know any different.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I think that’s where a lot of our listeners are. They have grown up inside this world and have internalized a lot of the dysfunction within it to the point that they just take it for granted. It’s just the way things are.

Chloe Angyal:
And I felt that way as well. And one of the things that was most surprising was even as someone who… I wasn’t a serious ballet student. I’m very upfront about this in the book. I was not a serious ballet student. I was never pre-professional or professional material. I did ballet. I was on pointe for a couple of years. And then I just did it as sort of maintenance technique for everything else that I was doing. But even I managed to internalize a lot of that dysfunction and to see it as normal. And I thought I was sort of free of that by the time it came to write this book, and then I would repeatedly have this experience of interviewing someone for the book, a dancer who’s talking about dancing on an injury or an artistic director who was talking about dismissing dancers who were too big for his liking. And in the moment I would listen to their explanation and I would sort of nod and empathize and I would think, “Yeah, I can rationalize that. That makes sense.” And then I would send that chapter to my editor or I’d go out to the kitchen and tell my fiancé about it, and they’d be like, “That’s awful.” And I’d be like, “Oh, my ballet brain took over.” My internalized ballet logic took over for a sec there.”

And I think this book is going to teach people who don’t know a lot about ballet, they’re going to learn a lot, but I also hope that people who do know a lot about ballet, and have sort of spent a lot of their lives explaining away some of the things that are wrong with it, will be able to see it all in one place and then sit back and think, “That doesn’t look right.”

I think a lot of people go through this process sort of organically and on their own. Often, they leave ballet and it takes some time and distance to look back and think, “Oh, that probably wasn’t great.” And what I really hope this book does is sort of accelerates that process for a lot of people, and also supports them in that feeling of like, “No, you’re right. That wasn’t great. That was bad. That was dysfunctional. And you did not deserve to be treated that way. This was a culture that failed you. This was not you failing to meet all these demands. This was ballet failing to treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want to come back to the idea of ballet as a workplace, because that’s another thing that we hit on frequently in this podcast. And ballet dancers, especially, are not seen as workers—that’s true of all dancers, but it seems to be especially true of ballet dancers. This idea that they are artists and they must suffer for their art…that’s expected of them. What’s at the root of that in ballet culture?

Chloe Angyal:
I think part of it is gendered. Obviously there are lots of men and lots of non binary people who dance, but the default dancer is a woman. And there is a certain expectation that women will suffer, that women will do as they’re told, that women will be silent and obedient. And I also think it stems from the fact that the only reason anyone of any gender does this job is because they love it with every fiber of their being. And that love, right? That childhood dream come true is just incredibly easy to exploit. It’s incredibly easy to get people to put up with all kinds of unacceptable treatment because they’re being permitted to do something that they love, because they’re getting to live a dream.

And I think there’s also generally an expectation in American work-life writ large that if something matters to you, if it feeds your soul, if it’s coming from a place of love and commitment, then you’ll do it for low wages or you’ll do it despite crappy treatment at work. That’s absolutely true of people who work in the nonprofit sector and that’s true of dancers. That’s true of dancers as well. Right? “Well, if you really loved it, then you do it for sub-minimum wage and pay for your own pointe shoes and pay to travel to auditions. I mean, if you really loved it.” And I’m all for people doing work that they love, but also that love is just very easy for people to exploit.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I think in ballet, that’s compounded and exacerbated by the fact that, especially if you’re a woman, you’re considered utterly replaceable, there are a million other people lining up for your job. If you can’t hack it, great, we will find somebody else who can.

Chloe Angyal:
Absolutely. And that sense of interchangeability and replaceability is enforced from a very young age in the same way that the sense of irreplaceability and incredibly high value is enforced for boys from a very young age. And we have research showing that the treatment of boys and girls in ballet classes diverges at an incredibly young age, and it just persists. And so it’s no surprise that by the time you get to being an adult and you get to the point where you might be a professional, men and women have internalized a very different sense of their own value to the ballet economy, because quite frankly, they do have a different value in the ballet part.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And then we see that play out down the line in terms of who steps into leadership roles and who thinks about becoming a choreographer, who even sees that as a possibility.

Chloe Angyal:
And also whose misconduct is tolerated and explained away. And who feels entitled to mistreat their coworkers and colleagues. It turns out that if you raise one group of children to believe that they are special and privileged, they will grow up believing that they’re special and privileged and that’s just how that works.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Fancy that. So, shifting gears a little bit now: You started Turning Pointe before the pandemic, and then the pandemic happened and it completely changed everything, including the stakes of the book you were writing. Can you talk a little about how the arrival of COVID changed the nature of the finished product?

Chloe Angyal:
I had finished all of the primary reporting for this book in November 2019. I think I got it done just before the sort of Christmas rush and Nutcracker rush made it basically impossible to talk to anyone involved in the ballet world. And then I did my last piece of sort of on the ground in the room reporting in January, 2020.

When the pandemic hit, obviously dancers were some of the first workers to be pulled off the job, and they will be some of the last to go back in there full pre-COVID capacity. Obviously some of them are luckily already back to work in bubbles and digital dance and Zoom classes and whatever. And my first instinct, like a lot of people, was, “Well, who knows how long this will last. This might just be four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, whatever. I have writing to do.” I put my head down, I got the writing done. And then by the time we got to late spring and early summer, it wasn’t only the sort of the pandemic shutterings and the increasingly clear prediction that Nutcracker was not going to happen, at least not in its normal form—it was also the uprisings in response to the killing of George Floyd, that for the first time we saw ballet institutions, everything from companies to local neighborhood schools talking explicitly about racism, about white supremacy in ballet, not just sort of in the world at large, but in their own homes, in their own dance homes, in a way that they really had not done with previous with previous expressions of Black Lives Matter protests. And so it became very clear to me over that summer that there was going to need to be more reporting, that I could not just give readers, “And here’s what happened at the end of 2019 and then nothing changed!” It was like—things have changed in several really big ways.

And so, as you say, the stakes do look and feel different, but I tried to be really clear in the book that it was not just that there were new problems that ballet had to contend with. It was that ballet had left itself vulnerable, more vulnerable to the kinds of challenges it was now facing, because of the racism and sexism and the elitism that it had allowed to persist until 2020, which made facing 2020 and the years that will follow so much harder. And that’s true of lots of institutions in American life. The pandemic revealed existing weaknesses that had been there for a long time that had been ignored or explained away, or not prioritized. And the responding to the pandemic was made more difficult by those problems.

And I tried to be really clear in the book: Any energy that is spent rebuilding ballet to what it was before last summer’s protests, before the pandemic, any energy that is spent restoring the status quo from 2019 will ultimately be energy wasted. This is a rebuild-from-the-ground-up moment. Otherwise, ballet will just leave itself vulnerable again to the next wave that comes along and knocks everything over.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s kind of a weird time to be a ballet person, because a lot of people are really angry at ballet right now, and for good reason. At the same time, yes, it’s clearly still this beautiful, rewarding, hopefully viable art. And that’s where a lot of the anger comes from, out of care for something that has profound value. So, at this point, having written this book that interrogates all of these huge problems in ballet, what makes you hopeful about ballet’s future, as we start that rebuilding process?

Chloe Angyal:
I find real potential in that anger, like you say, I think that anger comes from a place of frustrated love. Like, I see the value in you, ballet, why don’t you see the value in me? Because I’m not white, because I’m not skinny, because I am a man who dances in too feminine of a way—the number of things, the number of reasons for which you can be devalued and dismissed and tossed away by this art form, it’s just endless. I mean, you have to sort of win the genetic and socio-economic lottery, and then just keep getting lucky and working harder than anyone else in the world over and over again.

So I think a lot of the frustration comes from that sort of frustrated love. I see the value in ballet, why doesn’t ballet see the value in me? But I think that love can be expressed in all kinds of ways. I think it’s totally valid if people want to stay and rebuild it from within, I think it’s totally valid if people want to take what is serving them about ballet and what’s good and then go build something different. And I also think it’s totally valid if people just want to say… Am I allowed to swear on this podcast?

Margaret Fuhrer:
I have a good bleeper. Go for it.

Chloe Angyal:
Okay. I think it’s totally valid if people want to say, you know what? [Bleep] this. I have given you all of me, you’ve given me basically nothing in return and seem unwilling to change at a speed that is going to make meaningful change in my life. I mean, future generations may benefit from it, but I won’t. [Bleep] this, I’m out.

And there are lots of people who’ve already done that. There are lots of people who have already walked away or who have been pushed out and are walking around with, for lack of a better word, ballet trauma. People who believe that the problem with ballet was them. That they failed, not that a system and a culture failed them.

So the question was, what gives me hope? And I mean, what makes me hopeful is that people are finding whichever of those paths is right for them. And so, yes, I want ballet to be saved. I want it to continue to exist, but not at the cost of the people who do it and love it. People are more important to me than an abstract art form.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think it’s also important—and you’ve talked about this before, too. I’m looking at the subtitle of your book, “How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself”— which is true. They are. And yet we can’t sort of place all our bets on this next generation and say, “Oh, they’re fantastic. They get it. They’re going to save us all.” Because that’s abdicating our own responsibility to fix these problems that are hurting people right now. And of course, writing a whole book about those problems is a pretty big practical step to take. But those of us who do have some clout or a little bit of power in this world—journalists, administrators, leaders, veteran dancers even—what can we do now to start effecting positive change?

Chloe Angyal:
Yeah. And to be clear, I use the word generation fairly loosely and I’m very wary of the “Gen Z will save us all” framing because they shouldn’t have to. And frankly it takes all of us to save us. No one generation is going to be able to do it on their own. It takes all of us to save us. And that’s true of climate. That’s true of gun violence. That’s true of all of the things which we shove onto young people and be like, “You got this.” It takes all of us.

And because it takes all of us, I think whether you’re a journalist or an administrator or a teacher, I think figuring out how you have been complicit in these problems and being really honest with yourself about how you have upheld a system in which boys get better treatment than girls; or how you have conveyed to your dance students that the right body for ballet is a white body for ballet; or how you have priced your curriculum so that it’s basically impossible for low-income or even in some cases middle-class families to afford to study ballet; or take a look at the races, ethnicities and genders of the choreographers that you’ve commissioned in the last five years, and look at whatever patterns might emerge there. And to sort of look that in the face and say, “Well, I know better now, and I’m going to do better now.”

And recognize that none of this is going to be fixed overnight. None of it’s going to be fixed all at once. But recognizing that the stakes of this are not just, we won’t get the best dancers or we won’t win the most awards at YAGP, or we won’t be able to attract the most audience members. The stakes of this are, this art form to which you have devoted your entire life is going to wither and die if we don’t fix all of these problems. Again, not overnight, not all at once, but the stakes here are not just about you as an individual or your school or your company. This is an art form that has been around for hundreds of years. It commands the love and imagination of hundreds, of thousands of people. And it’s going to wither and die unless each and every one of us figures out how to make it what it needs to be to survive.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Chloe, thank you so much for taking the time to do this, for sharing your insights and your deep, deep knowledge of this subject matter. Where can listeners go—first of all to buy your book, because they should, but also to find out more about your work and about what’s up next for you?

Chloe Angyal:
Listeners can order the book at their local independent bookstore. And if they don’t know what that is, they can go to bookshop.org and get connected with their local indie. And they can find me at chloesangyal.com or @ChloeAngyal on Twitter. And on my website, they’ll find a full list of events where they can come hear me talk at bookshops, usually in conversations with authors and journalists who are way cooler than me. So there are some really great events coming up that they shouldn’t miss.

And the other thing is that I am available to come and talk to your dance school. We’re doing a digital—I mean, this is one thing that Zoom has made possible: I can Zoom into your dance school, come talk to your dance parents and your dance ballet students. And we’ve got a very easy to fill out form on my website. I want to meet all of the ballet parents in the whole country.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Great. Okay. And we’ll include all the links, to all the things in our show notes, just to make sure people have access to them that way too. And an extra vote for following Chloe on Twitter, because you’ll get this sort of delightful mix of woke ballet news and also ballet dad jokes, which I don’t know about the rest of you, but that’s exactly the Twitter cocktail that I need right now.

Chloe Angyal:
Wait, what’s your favorite ballet dad joke?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, you had a series about, “Just because you got your vaccine doesn’t mean that you can gather all your undead girl pals and make men dance until they’re dead.” That’s…

Chloe Angyal:
Come on people, be sensible here!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes! That whole thread was exactly my sweet spot. All right. Thanks again, Chloe. Really appreciate it.

Chloe Angyal:
Thank you for having me.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Chloe, and I wanted to give another shoutout to the virtual events that she is available to do for ballet studios. Because those are totally free and they could be incredibly useful, of course, for dancers and teachers, but also—as Chloe said—for dance parents, who are such an important part of this ecosystem in crisis, and will be such an important part of the fixing of it. So, we’ve included the link to that sign-up page in our show notes.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye everyone.