Transcript, Episode 62: Remembering Jacques, the Reopening Struggle, and Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin

[Jump to Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin interview.]


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

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Lydia Murray:
And I am Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and here’s what’s on the lineup for today’s episode. We will, first of all, pay tribute to Jacques d’Amboise, the beloved New York City Ballet star and founder of National Dance Institute, who died earlier this week. We will unpack this complicated moment in the reopening process when dance studios and theaters are getting governmental clearance to open, but are struggling to operate sustainably under capacity restrictions. We’ll talk about how dance studios are updating their dress codes to be more inclusive, and the huge impact that that can have on students.

And then we’ll have our interview with Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin, the co-founders of Final Bow For Yellowface. It felt like the whole dance world turned to Phil and Gina after the Atlanta shootings. They are such powerful advocates for better Asian representation in dance, and they’re such clear leaders in this community. We discussed, first of all, their large-scale plans to celebrate and elevate Asian dance talent, including their 10,000 Dreams virtual choreography festival, which is highlighting a different choreographer of Asian descent every day this month. But they also talked about how they’ve dealt with being looked to for guidance, even as they cope with their own fear and their own grief as Asian Americans. We hope you’ll listen to that, and we hope you’ll go to yellowface.org to find out how you can help them in this work that they’re doing.

Before we officially start the episode, here’s a ten-second plug: Please be sure to subscribe and to rate and review this podcast on your listening platform of choice. We especially love reviews—it truly means so much to hear your feedback. And also a reminder that transcripts of every episode are available now at thedanceedit.com/podcast, so check that out.

All right, time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is super jam-packed this week, so let’s go.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. University of North Carolina School of the Arts elected to drop excerpts from La Bayadère from its spring dance concert, which continues through Saturday, May 8th, stating that it recognized that, “Performing any portion of this ballet is racially insensitive.” The decision followed a Hindu cleric calling on several dance organizations to drop their productions of the ballet due to cultural insensitivity.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, this cleric sends these calls for change periodically when major companies mount Bayadere. It’ll be interesting to see if or how Paris Opéra Ballet, who was also called out in this round of complaints, responds, given that they just made a pledge of their own to ban blackface and yellowface on their stages. So we’ll see.

Lydia Murray:
A new free virtual dance class series called Share The Floor spotlights BIPOC artists and those from underrepresented backgrounds in the dance industry. The project launched last week on International Dance Day, and enables dancers to learn from icons like Bill T. Jones, Ariana DeBose, Francesca Harper, and more. It was created by Broadway choreographer Christopher Gattelli along with Broadway dancer Vasthy Mompoint, who is also one of the instructors, and shoemaker Phil LaDuca.

Courtney Escoyne:
What a lineup.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s such a great lineup. We’re going to have Richard Riaz Yoder, who’s one of the participants in that project, on the podcast in a few weeks. It’ll be great to hear from him.

Courtney Escoyne:
BJM-Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal announced that Alexandra Damiani will take over as artistic director this June, succeeding longtime leader Louis Robitaille. Damiani spent a few seasons dancing with BJM under his direction, but is perhaps more widely known for her 10-year involvement with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, where she served first as ballet mistress and then as artistic director before the company folded in 2015. All I can say is this appointment makes so much sense and I am so delighted by it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All is right in the universe—when we got that announcement, that was my reaction, yeah.

Lydia Murray:
A new musical adaptation of The Great Gatsby is Broadway bound. It’ll feature music by Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok. It is set to be directed by Olivier Award nominee Rebecca Frecknall, and its producers will be Len Blavatanik and Amanda Ghost for Unigram in association with Robert Fox.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Gatsby‘s in the public domain. Get ready for lots of these announcements. When are the ballets going to start coming? Only a matter of time.

Courtney Escoyne:
I mean, I think there are already existing Gatsby ballets, and I believe I’ve also seen word that there’s an immersive Gatsby show that’s trying to open in New York this summer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s officially opening in New York this summer—they made that announcement. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Roaring twenties, y’all! [laughter]

The West End production of Hamilton has announced plans to resume performances on August 19th. Rehearsals are scheduled to resume shortly, though casting has not yet been announced. The production had previously announced a return for May 15th, but had to postpone due to UK COVID restrictions. Now, please notice how I refrained from making any “Wait For It” puns through that entire headline item. You’re welcome.

Lydia Murray:
Boo! [laughter]

The ballet dramedy “The Big Leap” has been picked up by Fox, in another UK-related news item. They received a 10-episode order. The show’s about a group of characters who’ve had some hard knocks, and they’re trying to change their lives by joining a reality show that leads to a live performance of Swan Lake. It was inspired by the UK-based reality show “Big Ballet,” and it’s had a six-year journey to the screen.

Courtney Escoyne:
As was announced in March, Mills College, home to one of the oldest collegiate dance programs in the country, is closing with this fall, welcoming the last cohort of freshmen, and the school is planning to confer its final degrees in 2023. As became clear in a recent story for Dance Teacher, what the transformation of Mills College into the non-degree conferring Mills Institute will mean for its dance program and for the place of dance and higher education more broadly is still very much an open question. Way too much in this story to really summarize in a headline rundown item, so please head to danceteacher.com to find out more.

Lydia Murray:
On a little bit of a brighter note, AdWeek recently announced the winners of its first Creator Visionary Awards. There was a tie for Dance Creator of the Year. The honor went to TikToK stars, Keara “Keke” Wilson, who created the “Savage” dance to the famous Megan Thee Stallion song, and Mya Johnson, co-creator of the “Up” Challenge with Cardi B. Figure skater/activist/dancer Elladj Balde won the title of Sports Creator of the Year. So much talent! Very excited to see this, and congratulations to all.

Courtney Escoyne:
We love to see it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, very much.

Courtney Escoyne:
Superstar dance couple Allison Holker and Stephen “tWitch” Boss have partnered DICK’S Sporting Goods on an inclusive apparel line, with a percentage of proceeds going to support DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation’s Sports Matter program, which works to save youth sports programs in the United States. Just give them all the things. They deserve all the things.

Lydia Murray:
They’re so great to watch.

Last weekend, 3,000 people in Britain took part in a nightclub experiment to gauge whether social distancing guidelines could be relaxed without sparking new outbreaks of COVID. The participants were legally able to dance, listen to music and drink in a crowd. This event was the first of its kind in Britain, but similar experimental gatherings have taken place in countries like Spain and Germany.

Courtney Escoyne:
And last week on International Dance Day, Canada Post revealed two new commemorative stamps honoring two Canadian ballet luminaries, National Ballet of Canada star–turned–director Karen Kain, and Fernand Nault, the late choreographer who helped put Les Grands Ballets Canadiens on the map. It marked the first time that individual ballet stars have been honored in this way. Are there rules about—as an American, can I get Canadian postage stamps? Am I allowed to do that? They’re just really cool stamps, I don’t know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m sure you’re allowed to. I don’t know if you’re allowed to use them in the United States, but I’m sure you’re allowed to buy them! I mean, I think—of course, it’s always lovely to see Karen Kain celebrated, that’s so richly deserved. But it’s also great that they chose Nault, because he’s significantly less well-known, even though he did so much for ballet. Anyway, let’s just keep putting dancers on stamps, more dancers on stamps, always.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m getting some in the US this summer with the tap dance stamps.

Lydia Murray:
I know, I can’t wait. I’m loving all these stamp projects.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So in our first segment, we’re going to talk about news that made for a heartbreaking start to the week. Dance icon Jacques d’Amboise passed away on Sunday at age 86 of complications of a stroke. And d’Amboise, of course, was a titan of American dance. He was a longtime star of New York City Ballet. He helped shape the company’s identity. He was familiar even to non-dance folks, thanks to his appearances in movie musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Carousel. He founded National Dance Institute, which brings free dance classes to children, regardless of background or ability.

Every dancer who worked with Jacques has a Jacques story, or even a Jacques poem—he loved to write poems for people. He was just such a generous and enthusiastic and vibrant person, into his eighties. I mean, he seemed, in a lot of ways, sort of invincible—which I think is one of the reasons that his death this week, even at 86, it felt like a shock.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. The idea of him feeling invincible, I think that is so relatable. I think anyone who ever encountered him out in the wilds of the New York City performance landscape, he carried so much joy, and he always carried so much joy, that even if you didn’t actually meet him, you could feel it radiating from him. I remember, I was at an event for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division anniversary gala a couple of years ago, pre-pandemic times. And Jacques was one of the people who were there, and just the whole time had the hugest smile on his face as he was moving from little dance excerpt to dance excerpt, and it just was so warming to be in his presence.

But reading this news and reading all the remembrances on social media that were being put up reminded me of something that I came across when writing the From The Vault column for our Dance Magazine a couple of years ago. There’s this really great lengthy profile and interview in the October 1969 issue, when he’s a couple of decades into his career at New York City Ballet, reflecting on everything. And one of the things he spoke about was—as we know, Jacques was the person who revived Balanchine’s Apollo in 1957, and became like the definitive interpreter of that role of his generation. And in this interview a bit over a decade later, he said, “I knew that I was terrible in my first Apollo, and when Balanchine did not come to me and tell me so, did not train me in it, I realized that to be a dancer, you must work as a dancer, not as a robot. I knew then that your teachers can teach you so much, but that the learning process is limitless and that you set your own limits on what you learn.” And I think that enthusiasm and that love for dance and for learning and for teaching and all those things, that’s what has animated the rest of his career. And I think that’s why this hits so hard, because he’s beloved because we all understood, this is a man who loves dance with everything that he is.

Lydia Murray:
Absolutely. I mean, he just applied so much brilliance to everything he did, and I’ve always admired his passion and his generosity. And he was just such a force. He was kind of simultaneously other worldly and human and grounded, both on stage as a performer and off. He brought so much energy and dedication to his work as a teacher. He poured his heart and soul into NDI; founding and shaping that organization was such a testament to how much he cared about the arts, about people, about helping future generations, and about sharing these gifts he had with as many people as possible. And he did so much to not only make dance and dance education more accessible, but to really pass along all of the joy and discipline and richness of life that dance had given him. It’s just incredible to think of how many lives around the world and how many people of different ages and backgrounds have been so positively and directly affected by his contributions.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Sharing that joy with as many people as possible—that’s really, it that’s really it. And I mean, of course he did such great things as a dancer, helping to create this new idea of what an American male ballet dancer should look like—this combination of athleticism and poetry and an unpretentious, sort of unaffected, version of chivalry. But I do think, and as Lydia was saying, I feel like his greatest legacy is going to be through NDI and his championing of arts education, which had such a huge influence on so many kids. And children, I feel like, were so central to the way he thought about dance, sort of the wellspring of that joy. And part of that was his own children, of course, two of whom went on to become incredible dancers themselves—but all children, too. And the idea that all children should experience this feeling that he had, this love that he had for dance.

Many of the obituaries have noted that for a time, d’Amboise was considered to be the clear choice to lead New York City Ballet after Balanchine. In his own autobiography, d’Amboise actually says that both Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein told him as much. And we were saying before we started recording that it hurts a little bit to think about what City Ballet might have looked like had he been chosen. How might the company culture have been different? What sort of dancers might he have championed? A City Ballet shaped by his generosity of spirit and his related interest in bringing more and different audiences to ballet? Just imagine.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s funny because we talk about the ballerinas that Balanchine loved and created on a lot, and how those primas were also unique and had such particular physical gifts and particular artistic gifts, and how really truly individual those artists are. And I feel like Jacques is the male-dancer example of that. Looking at him by today’s standards, you pop him into a class of today, it’s like, he didn’t have the most beautiful feet. He didn’t have the most amazing turnout. He was not the most virtuosic. But the man could dance. There’s footage on YouTube of him in Apollo. And it is…

Lydia Murray:
Stunning.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, it’s stunning. It is breathtaking. And it is so human and yet at the same time, so elevated. And that generosity that we keep talking about, it came across as a performer. He spent 35 years dancing at New York City Ballet. He started as a 15 year old. So he was so just really part of the bedrock of the company culture of that time. And as Margaret said, it’s a little heartbreaking to think about the alternate future in which he had taken over leadership.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Even though he did not get a chance to lead City Ballet, I think that forward-looking, optimistic spirit of inclusivity—of “ballet for all!”—that is exactly what our community needs more of right now. Let’s work on carrying that legacy of his forward. And the National Dance Institute is, of course, part of that mission. So we will link to the organization’s website so you can find out more about what they’re doing and how to donate if you’re able. That’s one of the best ways to remember Jacques.

So in our next segment today, we’re going to discuss two stories that highlight the difficulties of reopening after longterm pandemic closures—a process that’s challenging for any business, but it’s especially hard for performing arts businesses. So first, last week, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece about L.A.’s struggling dance studios, which are now allowed to operate at reduced capacity. That is good news in theory, until you realize that income from classes held at 25% capacity, which is the current cap in L.A., are not going to cover operating costs.

And then on Monday, we heard that theaters in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will be allowed to reopen on May 19th, which, again, sounds amazing. But at that point, 6-foot social distancing rules will still apply, and even Broadway producers said that they can’t afford to operate at less than full capacity. In fact, news just broke literally right before we started recording that Broadway will be reopening at full capacity on September 14th. They’ll need that long to make things work logistically and financially.

So, let’s talk about this difference between being allowed to open and being able to operate sustainably following that reopening, and how dance businesses are coping with this strange in-between moment.

Lydia Murray:
As an example of how dance companies are coping, in the L.A. Times piece, the founder of Millennium Dance Complex, AnnMarie Hudson, mentioned that the studio is staying afloat largely thanks to their landlord postponing the rent, Paycheck Protection Program loans, starting a subscription service that offers dance tutorials, and also just the strength of their brands and their locations in other cities. Holding reduced-capacity classes, of course, isn’t enough to cover expenses, but they’re able to continue operating for the good of the dance community. And smaller organizations, of course, don’t really have as much leeway to take that approach—it’s more difficult to focus on the intangibles. And it’s really putting studios and even companies into a strange sort of limbo.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and something that really struck me in that L.A. Times piece was, the owner of 3rd Street Dance—which is a studio in central L.A. that does primarily ballroom and partner dance—the owner, Leslie Ferreira, said, “It’s kind of like this moral obligation to stay open because so many community members really depend on our studio.” The sentiment that got repeated over and over again is, this is not financially viable, it is not financially sustainable long-term, but we feel like we need to do something. We feel like we still need to be here.

And where this gets tricky, and I feel like we’ve seen in a lot of different sectors of business, particularly here in New York—there’s this kind of idea coming from government and coming from policymakers saying we need to have things start reopening now, or else there’s not going to be anything to reopen. And while that makes an amount of sense, in theory, it doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the high level of startup costs, the amount of upfront cash that it takes just to get a business that has been shuttered for a while on its feet again. And it also doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the risk of, if we have to scale things back due to pandemic regulations changing again, because maybe things reopened too soon, that is—all that upfront money is down the drain, and then they really might not be able to reopen again.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I want to come back to that sense of obligation that studio owners, in particular, feel to reopen. Because they’re not just businesses providing a service—they’re like a home, a spiritual home, even, for an artistic community. And this sort of brings us back again to another common theme of this podcast, which is the expectation that dancers—and here we’re expanding it to dance-world business owners, small business owners in particular—are expected to put financial reality aside, for the good of the art. And it’s not hard to understand where that feeling comes from, but this situation is making it painfully clear how unfair and how unsustainable it is without further support, ideally from the government, to make that possible.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, just to clarify my point from earlier: Yeah, studios large and small and organizations large and small feel that same obligation, but they just are going to have more difficulty actually surviving with that attitude, when you don’t have as much money or as much brand recognition.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, absolutely. If it’s that hard for Millennium to do it—Millennium, the juggernaut—then smaller studios are only facing harder choices, yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
And then it’s tough because you want your teachers to feel safe. If students don’t feel safe or parents don’t feel safe, it’s really a matter of, how do you balance out concerns, lingering concerns, with, well, we need to be open and having people come in to generate revenue. You want to behave ethically and recognize where people are at and the various risk factors that may be in play.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think the takeaway is, as we hear these hopeful stories about dance venues being allowed to reopen, we can celebrate—clearance to reopen is cause for celebration. But we also have to fight the misconception that businesses that have survived to this point are going to be okay now, like, we’re in the home stretch. Because the reality is that small dance businesses in particular, but all dance businesses, need additional support, hopefully governmental support, if they’re going to make it through this reopening phase. If even Broadway theaters can’t make reduced-capacity operation work financially, smaller ventures 10,000% need help.

So in our last roundtable segment this week, we want to talk about a hopeful feature that ran in Dance Magazine recently. It explores how many dance studios are looking for ways to be more inclusive—which, progress on its own—and then they’re realizing that one of the best first steps they can take is to change their dress codes. This is particularly true of ballet-oriented studios, most of which previously mandated pink tights and shoes designed to match the skin tones of white dancers. Some are now switching to tights and shoes that reflect each dancer’s actual skin color. And dress codes and classroom terminology are also being updated to be more gender inclusive. So these are simple changes, but they can have such a profound, positive effect on young dance students in particular.

Lydia Murray:
As the article points out, requiring everyone to wear supposedly flesh-tone material that doesn’t actually match their skin is really exclusionary. So these current efforts are really righting a wrong, even though they’re sometimes perceived as unnecessary or optional. It’s about avoiding asking someone to hide who they are. When a dark-skinned dancer wears pink tights, it breaks their line. And I wonder whether poorly matched tights or shoes can affect how non-BIPOC dance teachers even view their students or assess their talent or skill or potential. If a Black or brown dancer is wearing pink tights, does that on some level signal to some teachers that the student doesn’t belong, or the student doesn’t look right doing this art form, or could it be contributing to some sort of unconscious bias? And it can be very validating to wear flesh-tone tights when you’re a ballet student who has never been able to do it before. So it’s definitely changed that. It’s long overdue, and it’s really great to see.

Courtney Escoyne:
And something that I wanted to shout out in this article was, for the schools that have definitive dress codes—like, you have to wear this to show up to class—at least one of the studios that was interviewed for this, they actually gave a period of time, basically saying, “Hey, we’re giving you notice. This is going to be the change that’s happening in however many months from now or starting with this next semester,” so that they would actually have time to hunt that down and get it done. Because as a person who went to a public school that nevertheless had a very strict dress code, last-minute dress code changes are the worst. And also, you do not have that extra money lying around all the time to be able to just buy new clothes because your school decided the week before it started to change the dress code. So, props for actually giving adequate amounts of notice—and hopefully support for any students whose families maybe need a little bit of help in order to be able to acquire these things, that ultimately are going to make these dancers feel better in their own skin, and in the space and have all these positive effects.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that’s an important caveat to note when we say it’s a simple change to make. It’s simple for administrators to make, but allowing time for the students and their parents to find the actual equipment, find the funds that they need to pay for that equipment. That’s an important part of the equation too.

Courtney Escoyne:
Dancewear is expensive, y’all.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is expensive. And I think we should recognize one of the reasons studios are changing dress codes now is partly because dancewear companies are finally offering tights and shoes in a wider variety of skin tones. A lot of them began doing that last year, prompted by calls from dancers and activists as part of the larger reckoning around racial injustice. And it’s important to acknowledge that chain of events.

That said, now that more companies are offering a range of shades, changing dress codes… I think sometimes white-led dance organizations hear calls for dismantling white supremacy in the studio and they get kind of nervous or intimidated, because it sounds like such a gargantuan task. Which it is. But this kind of relatively small, concrete statement really does help decolonize the dance classroom. It really does make a difference in how dance students see themselves. So it’s encouraging to see studios embracing it, more and more studios embracing it.

Courtney Escoyne:
And something that I wish we would, while we’re also seeing this, see more of, which was also mentioned in this article, was being more gender inclusive, rather than having unnecessarily gendered terms for what the uniforms are—instead of having “boys” wearing one thing and “girls” wearing another thing, making it more gender neutral, making the classes themselves more gender neutral. I definitely have seen, in higher education, a trend towards, instead of having men’s class and women’s pointe class, calling it an allegro class or a big jumps and turns class, as well as just pointe work that’s open to anyone and any gender. As we’ve said before, dancers today have to be so versatile. Let’s not only do away with these very arbitrary distinctions that are keeping male dancers dancing one way and female dancers dancing another way, but really egalitarian approaches to technique are good for everyone. And also signals to your queer community in the studio that they belong too.

Lydia Murray:
Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hear, hear. All right, we’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin. So stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH PHIL CHAN AND GEORGINA PAZCOGUIN

Margaret Fuhrer:
I am very excited to be here now with Georgina Pazcoguin and Phil Chan of Final Bow for Yellowface. Hi, Phil and Gina. Thank you so much for coming on.

Phil Chan:
Our pleasure, Margaret. Thank you.

Georgina Pazcoguin:
Thank you for having us.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Georgina is a soloist with New York City Ballet who has performed on Broadway as well; you might know her as The Rogue Ballerina. Phil is an arts administrator and educator, and author of the book Final Bow For Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact. The two of them co-founded the Final Bow For Yellowface organization coming up on five years ago now. And they’ve been doing such critical work to improve Asian representation in the ballet world. You guys really have been such important leaders in the field.

To get started, for those who might not be as familiar with Final Bow, how would you describe its mission?

Georgina Pazcoguin:
So the mission of Final Bow is to empower not only dancers, but dance leaders, to commit to this idea that if we want ballet to survive into the future, we have to acknowledge and eliminate the use of outdated and offensive stereotypes on our stages.

Phil Chan:
And at this point, pretty much every major American ballet company has signed our pledge, which essentially reads, “I love ballet, and it’s because I’m committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m committed to eliminating outdated portrayals of Asian yellowface on our stages.” So the Paris Opéra Ballet, or the Paris Opéra, just cited us as one of the contributing factors for their decision to no longer do blackface and yellowface on their stages.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s huge.

Phil Chan:
In the last five years, it’s been kind of a wild ride to going from getting a lot of pushback on this issue to now pretty much every company globally is starting to really engage and understand the value of this conversation. So we are thankful to be in this place right now.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The conversation continues, because, as you said, we’ve now reached a point where thanks to your efforts, most companies realize that yellowface itself has to go. But how else does dance perpetuate stereotypes that dehumanize Asians and otherwise feed anti-Asian bias?

Phil Chan:
Well, I think for Gina and I, since day one, this work has been about connecting the images and the choices we make on stage and how we treat people offstage. Art is a mirror to life. If the only exposure to Asian people you have is flattened, caricatured, fantasy versions of these people, then when you encounter them in real life, it’s very easy to dehumanize them or to spit on them during COVID. So in our small corner of the world, if we can improve how Asians are represented onstage, maybe that will move the needle in a very small way to making sure that Asians are treated with respect, with nuance, as our friends and neighbors and colleagues, and just regular normal people contributing to the betterment of our society. So that’s really been our focus, and we’re starting to see the impact of our work in a really meaningful way now. So I think in light of all the anti-Asian sentiment happening right now, it’s only made our work more urgent and more relevant.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And since the shooting in Atlanta in March—it does seem like that prompted this sort of swell of introspection in the dance world. And many people looked to you and to Final Bow as de facto leaders in the dance world’s participation in the #StopAsianHate Movement. And following the shooting, you have been extremely active. You’ve accelerated these huge plans to support Asian dance talent, which we’ll talk about. But to be called upon to be leaders while also processing your own feelings of grief and fear as members of this community—how did you navigate that?

Phil Chan:
This experience the last couple of years has really hit home. I mean, my Chinese family, they don’t even leave the house anymore. My dad pretty much doesn’t exercise outside anymore. He just goes out and sits in the backyard a little bit and kind of walks around in the backyard just because he’s too afraid to leave the house. It’s just really demoralizing to hear that from my family, and to know that that’s a reality for many Asian Americans right now. So that has really made us push a lot harder with this work.

Immediately after the shooting, we hosted a virtual tea house, the Sunday after the shooting, for members of the AAPI community. It was a chance for folks to just gather together, to reflect, to share, but also to network and to build community. And I think one of the things that we found was that a lot of folks feel like their experience as Asians has been one of invisibility, a lack of recognition, that we’re all kind of siloed in our own experiences and not really working together. And so it sort of pushed an urgency for us to organize and to get people talking to each other and organizing together as a community. So something out of that experience was something quite powerful for us.

And for us, we were just acting as part shamans, part healers, part community organizers. At the same time, we were processing our own feelings around this work. I mean, it was pretty much, for a couple of weeks there, like every phone call, I would get off the phone and just break down into tears. It was incredibly hard work for a couple of weeks.

And there’s many folks in our community who are Latinx, who are Black folks, who are still experiencing this trauma on a daily basis. I mean, it just like every day another Black person is shot in the streets. And so to just live in that kind of fear and to be resilient, to make art, to be creative when that’s the society you live in, it’s just so much.

And so, I think since Atlanta, that’s prompted us to have a greater urgency to do this work and a greater focus. And I think more people are finally listening, and that’s been a deeply humbling experience, but also really, really sad that that’s what it took for people to take us seriously in some ways. So we’re thankful for that. And I think the best thing we can do is to just keep pushing forward.

Georgina Pazcoguin:
Yeah. Just to tag onto that, for myself trying to toe this line—I don’t think either Phil nor I thought that we would be leaders in this way. And to just process this grief and be able to hold space for ourselves, it’s been an interesting time. Sometimes Phil will call and be like, “I need this day.” And the next day, it’s my turn to tap out. And there has been a lot of attention, and we are so thankful for it. But at the same time, this work here in the dance world is intersectional to what’s been going on in the broader media landscape. I mean, things like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, those sorts of—seeing ourselves onstage with nuance is so important.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So I want to talk a little about your current initiatives, because they’re focused on choreographers, on representation in that space. And first of all, you asked all ballet companies to commit to hiring an Asian choreographer, prioritizing women, for a mainstage production by 2025. And then, in case there are directors out there saying, “We don’t know who to hire”: This month, you’re also hosting this amazing virtual choreography festival, called 10,000 Dreams, where you’re highlighting a different choreographer of Asian descent every day on your Instagram page and your website. Like, right now, this is happening now, as people are listening! Can you talk about why Asian representation in the choreographer pool, in particular, seemed like an important place to start?

Phil Chan:
Yeah. So I was having a conversation with an artistic director who wanted to do an Asian program, and they wanted to do a sort of a before and after with The Nutcracker. And so they wanted to do the Chinese tea in yellowface and then do a second cast, not in yellowface.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Eee.

Phil Chan:
And I said, “Well, okay. So in the following week, are you going to do the same program with blackface?” And this person says, “Oh, no. That would be offensive.” I said, “Right. Okay. So instead of doing that, why don’t we use this as an opportunity to highlight the work that an Asian choreographer has made for your company?” And there was an awkward pause, and this person said, “Well, actually I don’t think we’ve ever had an Asian choreographer.” And so I challenged this person to say, “Well, would you be willing to commission an Asian choreographer by 2025?” And this person said, “Absolutely.”

And then, why 2025? Well, anything, if we say we demand change now, any commission that a choreographer receives and probably the next two or three years even is going to be a much smaller budget than normal. And so we wanted to be able to set the Asian choreographers and our community up for success. So, whatever you’re giving Justin Peck for a number of rehearsal weeks, I want an Asian person to have that too. Whatever budget you were going to give Chris Wheeldon for the costumes, I want that budget for an Asian person too. And I want to set up the opportunity for an Asian choreographer to take their best shot and to show what they can do when given enough resources to actually succeed. So that was the reason for 2025.

I think the larger issue, though, with why we focused on choreography is, many ballet companies have a Eurocentric focus, meaning they perform the classics from Europe, which involve fantasies of Asia. So if you look at La Bayadère and Le Corsaire, which are probably two of the most popular classical ballets in the US, they pretend to be about Asian people, but actually have nothing to do with our experiences, our cultures, our dance forms. And so here we are saying, “Yes, diversity, equity inclusion. Yes, come on in brown people, we want you to be our board members. We want you to enroll your kids in our schools, buy a ticket to our show.” But then you’re only showing this sort of fantasy version of Asia from a European point of view from 150 years ago, and not hiring contemporary Asian artists to make work on their own terms. So it’s in that sort of really imbalanced dynamic that we thought, well, since everyone is having this diversity conversation right now in their respective companies, this is a concrete thing that they can do in order to improve.

So that was the push for choreography. And also, the 10,000 Dreams virtual festival —by committing to hiring a choreographer by 2025 and actually asking the companies to do so, we didn’t want that to just be, “Well, you guys have to do better.” We wanted to actually support them and say, “Okay, we’ve asked you to do something that might be a challenge for you. We’re going to help you achieve those goals by presenting you 31 options over 31 days of people that you can commission to make them work for your company.” So the choreographers we are featuring are quite diverse. They’re pan-Asian, so it’s folks from across the Asian diaspora, but also lots of different disciplines are represented. So you have traditional, ethnic dancers from our own ethnic traditions. You have classical ballet choreographers. You have contemporary ballet choreographers, you have modern choreographers, you have postmodern choreographers, who are all defining Asianness on their own terms. And that just felt like such a powerful statement that we could make right now to improve how Asians are seen in the broader world. So, that’s really the impetus behind this work.

So pretty much how it works is every single day you can visit our Instagram, @finalbowforyellowface, or our website, yellowface.org, and you’ll be introduced to a new Asian choreographer every single day. There’ll be a link to a work that they’ve choreographed. Each choreographer is also hosting their own programming. So they might host their own interview or post other things, just really for you to get to know them better and to make sure that they’re on your radar. And then we just gone and invited everybody who signed our pledge to tune in and say, “Hey, here’s somebody for you to consider,” and not everyone’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but you might find a choreographer that you’d like to nurture and make her work for your company or your school.

Georgina Pazcoguin:
If you don’t find someone in this particular month that you can immediately commission, it’s also about finding that diamond in the rough that you want to invest in. And I think that’s an important quality to have in this festival too, is that that is also there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. If not to commission these artists, then to cultivate them, to help build a deep, sustainable pool of talent, that’s an important part of the process.

Georgina Pazcoguin:
It really comes back to empowerment on all levels.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And then, on an even larger scale, you’re launching a choreographic incubator to produce new ballets with entirely Asian creative teams—composers, filmmakers, librettists, lighting designers, costume designers. Can you talk about what inspired this particular project? Because you mentioned Ballets Russes in your emails about it, which is intriguing. And then, where are you in the process at this point?

Phil Chan:
Gina and I are both dance history dorks, and just looking at our own history, the Ballets Russes stands out as one of the most innovative dance companies ever. They were able to do what they did because of collaboration. So they were able to bring together the best fashion designers of the time, the best composers, the best choreographers, the best dancers, and have them work together to create something that was bigger than the sum of the parts. We saw that model, and we thought, hey, well, instead of doing Orientalism, which was a lot of the Ballets Russes repertory, why don’t we actually have real Oriental people, actual Asian people, collaborating in the same idea to create these new fantasies for our stages?

So bringing together leaders in dance and music and fashion and film, even literary circles, to collaborate, to make new work—I think that’s what’s going to push ballet into a new direction, to a bigger direction, and also make ballet bigger as an art form, more inclusive, and attract new audiences. Because coming out of COVID, we’re going to need all the donors and all of the butts in seats that we can get to get our industry back on track. And I really do believe that if we hire Asian talent that has varying degrees of experience with ballet but are all incredible exemplary artists, we’re going to come out with some really, really creative work.

And so we’ve been lucky enough to partner so far with six major American companies. We’re not quite ready to announce the companies, but they are all big-name companies to commission these works, and we will help incubate these works in partnership with these companies.

A second aspect of that has also been to revive the works of legacy Asian-American choreographers. So in this first iteration, we’ve selected Choo San Goh, who will be celebrating his 75th birthday in 2023. His would-be birthday, he unfortunately passed away of AIDS, but he was really a groundbreaking choreographer, American choreographer, and made works for pretty much all the big companies. So a lot of companies already have his works in dormant repertory, and this was a push for us to take a look at some of his work, a chance for companies to dust them off and revive them for a new generation of people to appreciate.

And so the model is essentially, we’re creating these Asian dance festivals with partner companies all across the country, where these six partner companies will each gather in each of their six locations and do a mix of both Choo San Goh works as well as these new Asian commissions. So it will really be a celebration of Asian talent, both looking back to the past, as well as looking forward to the future. And we do think that this is going to be a great way to engage new audiences, get new Asian students excited about ballet and enrolled in our schools, bring in new donors. And this is, we think, a good way to do that.

Georgina Pazcoguin:
I think it’s also really exciting for artistic directors because they’re going to get a chance to work hand in hand. And I think—I’ve been lucky enough to spend my entire career at the New York City Ballet. I feel a lot of these major companies get siloed into just their world. And now we’re going to be together, interacting with each other and reflecting: why was Choo San Goh’s work just allowed to evaporate? Why was he allowed to disappear? Reflection in that, and also inspire themselves to do better.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love the idea of these mini festivals and the reflection and cross-pollination that will be happening there. And then, the idea of looking back while also looking forward leads into my next question, which is that, in its early days, it seemed like Final Bow was mostly focused on eliminating Asian stereotypes in older classical ballets. And now, many of your plans are emphasizing the creation of new work by Asian artists. It feels like an obvious question, but can you talk about why both of those efforts are critical to your mission?

Georgina Pazcoguin:
I feel they’re critical to the mission because both, Phil and I, we do not want to cancel The Nutcracker. We both think that there is a place for tradition and ritual, but there’s also a place to adapt that tradition to be inclusive of the audience, that includes so much more. And especially with work like The Nutcracker, which is basically that the gateway to ballet for most people, and we take our children to it. That’s a teaching tool. Why not use this teaching tool, see this teaching tool as a global lens, not just a Eurocentric lens?

Phil Chan:
So a lot of the work we do is questioning, how do we keep tradition while being inclusive? And I think traditionally, ballet companies have felt those two things are sort of separate, and we think that they’re perfectly congruent. So a lot of our work is keeping that tradition but replacing a strictly European lens with a multiracial lens. And when I say multiracial, whiteness, and Europeans, are also included in that multiracial lens—it’s just a bigger way of looking at this repertory.

So an example of that is I’m working with, actually have a producer already lined up for, a new version of La Bayadère and Le Corsaire. I’m working with Doug Fullington, who is a brilliant musicologist and dance scholar out of Seattle, to go back to the old texts and examine what is there and reconstruct some of these dances—and in many cases, revive dances that haven’t been seen in the West before from the original notations. But changing the context to not just be this European center. Because if you think about it like La Bayadère, it was made for the tsar. It was made for a specific type of people. And those people aren’t in the audience anymore. The tsar is dead. So now in the audience, it’s a diverse audience we’re programming to. So we can’t still pretend that La Bayadère, with its abuse of India from a European perspective 150 years ago, is still going to resonate with audiences today.

And so, how do we keep work like La Bayadère, which is considered a Petipa masterpiece? It’s got some of the most beautiful choreographic structures, the transitions, the music, the melodrama. It really is probably one of the best examples of the grand Russian spectacle classical ballet from the 19th century. And so, how do we keep that alive while not doing the hoochie-coochie Indian dances that it comes with?

Well, Bayadère‘s an Eastern fantasy. So in our version, we decided to make it a Western fantasy. So what is our version of a Western fantasy? And for us, it’s cowboys. It’s a dude ranch. It’s the golden age of Hollywood movie-making. They’re on a dude ranch. They’re making a cowboy picture. And so if you think about this love triangle, if Nikia is Debbie Reynolds from Singin’ in the Rain and Solor is Gene Kelly, and you have Lina Lamont—you know, “I can’t stand him”—as Gamzatti, it’s the same dynamic, we’re still able to keep the Petipa. But instead of it being about those exotic, strange Indians over there, it’s about us Americans today. You still get to keep the parts of it that are classical, a masterpiece, but instead, anybody at diverse audience can come to it and see themselves represented a diverse company in the 21st Century can perform this work without feeling like they’re pretending to be a different race than themselves. It’s something that we can be as Americans now in this work and embody it on our terms. So I think that is one solution. There are, of course, many other solutions, but that’s our way of approaching how to keep tradition while being more inclusive to people of color.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, first of all, Lina Lamont, she’s so clearly a Gamzatti, that’s brilliant, but now I’m curious. So how does the Shades scene work in this translation?

Phil Chan:
So the Shades is going to be—so the time period we’re setting it is in sort of the 1930s. So our Shades is going to be this Art Deco, Busby Berkeley fantasy. And if you look at the choreography of Busby Berkeley, you look at the choreography of the Kingdom of the Shades— it’s the same. It’s the same choreography. And so figuring out ways to, maybe even putting a giant mirror on stage, so you can see the action from above as well to really evoke, this is the golden age of Hollywood movie-making, but it’s also grand Russian Petipa.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s so great—the Shades as Busby Berkeley. So backing out a little bit now, at this point, what makes you feel hopeful about the future of Asian representation in ballet? And what are ballet’s most persistent blind spots on that front?

Georgina Pazcoguin:
I am super hopeful with the recent ownership of the Asian-American community being able to stand with Phil and I. And to speak up, speak out, and be proud of the work that they are creating. I think that’s wonderful, and I still sit here so struck from the overwhelming support. I just want to shout that out that we should continue to support each other across the board, allies included in that.

And what is ballet’s persistent blind spot? This—and I’m going to take a second to articulate this slowly. I think there’s more that needs to be done on leadership’s end in speaking to patrons. Because Phil and I can stand here, and we can present. We can make it easy for them to ignore the—there’s no more excuses anymore. You can’t say there’s not a pipeline. You can’t say you don’t know where the Asian creatives are. But at the end of the day, the dancers shouldn’t be made to be having the difficult conversations with patrons who just want to come back and see the same old ballets. To see the, like, to see The Sleeping Beauty. I mean, I’m tired of seeing a 15-year old married off after she was put… That’s not a story about a woman I want to subscribe to. That’s not my princess.

We are not in a rush to get back to normal. And I need leadership—and I toe an interesting line still being an active ballerina and also being a leader in this space, standing with Phil—I need artistic directors to not only be talking to the dancers and having the dancers do their own work, and artists coming in from the outside doing their own work. I need the artistic leadership to reach out to the patrons, to the money, because it matters. It’s a fact: the major gifts have still come in for the major count companies. But don’t expect to come back to the same programming. That has to change. Tradition can still be there, but you are also going to have to get on board with everything that’s happening as well in that, in the newer lane.

Phil Chan:
I do think there are still blind spots in the ballet community, especially when it comes to Asians, that there still is this model minority myth very much at play in the ballet community. So when we did our What’s the Tea interviews last May, pretty much exclusively all the dancers we interviewed could fall into two different groups. The first group was dancers who were born in Asia, they trained in Asia as members of the majority. So, say you’re a ballerina in Shanghai who danced at the Shanghai Ballet Academy. Your teachers were all Chinese. Your classmates were all Chinese, and then you graduated, and then an American company hired you to join the corps. So that’s one story, common story. And the other one is you were trained in the United States, but you are Asian of biracial descent. You’re mixed, and you’re able to pass and kind of get through the system. And those are pretty much exclusively the two types of Asian dancers we saw.

So when you talk about Asian representation in dance, it’s very easy to point and say, “Oh, look, we have Asian principal dancers in the company. See?” But they fall into these two groups. So what that tells me is that our education system is still failing Asian-American dancers, but because we’ve imported them from Asia, we’re blind to that particular issue. And so, there’s a pipeline there that is not working, that I think we need to really question.

So my background is sociology, I don’t have the exact data on this, but that was an overwhelming impression that we got from these conversations. So something that we would like to look into more detail with. And as part of this Asian-American incubator, we’re also working with a few volunteers on data collection. We’re starting to count who is getting opportunities to make work at companies? Who are the composers? Who are the fashion designers? Who are the choreographers? And we’re going to track what these ballet companies are doing.

So yes, diversity, equity inclusion. Yes, post that black square. But we’re also counting. And we’re going to use data, which does not lie because numbers don’t lie, to track and see how well we are doing as a community and to hold each other accountable if we’re not doing as well as we should be doing. So that’s something that we are actively looking at as well.

Georgina PazcoguinS
To that point: on The David H. Koch Theater is this beautiful, large poster of an Asian-American who’s been tapped to commission for Lincoln Center stages this summer. And on the bottom of the beautiful poster, it says, “We belong here.” I might be misquoting that. But I feel conflicted, because for the first time, and I’ve worked there for nearly 20 years, I’ve never seen anything like that. And then, at the same time, I’m also like, “That’s the bare minimum.” And Phil made this point to me, “Gina, that’s the bare minimum.”

Phil Chan:
Yeah. On that point, it’s like Gina is, I think looking at the two of us, she has a lot more skin in the game because she’s an active professional dancer. I’m not. I’m not employed by a ballet company, so I can speak up louder. So just calling it like I see it, but Gina is the only woman of color who’s in the principal or soloist rank in New York City Ballet. She’s the first Asian woman to make it out of the corps de ballet in New York City Ballet. And so to have a poster that says, “You belong here” outside of the building—I want to see change happening inside the building next.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That tokenism versus representation thing—a lot of ballet companies seem to fall into that trap over and over again. Thank you both so much for sharing your insights with us and for all the invaluable work that you’re doing. What can listeners do to support that work, to support Final Bow?

Georgina Pazcoguin:
Well, I think it’s an interesting point to make that we had to adapt our Asian choreographic festival. We wanted to do interviews and things, and we just didn’t have the money to hire a video director. So yeah, we need money. We need dollars.

Phil Chan:
No shame! I’m Chinese, we love money, I have no shame about this, but we need money. We need board members. We’re starting this new thing. So if there are listeners out there who want to get involved and who are thinking, “How can I can contribute?” We’re looking for pretty much everything. So help with marketing, help with fundraising, help with organizing, bookkeeping, just spreading the word. Sharing our work on your social channels all of that is helpful. No contribution to this work is too small, but just recognizing that Gina and I have been volunteers for this work for the last five years, we have actually paid to do this work.

Thank you to the people who have already given so generously. Post Atlanta, it’s so lovely to see people stepping up and wanting to be a part of this work. This mission has become so much bigger than just the two of us. It’s become a much larger movement. It’s become a much larger conversation, and there is room for other leaders in this space, and we welcome that. So if this is an issue that resonates with you, if you want to contribute in some way, we absolutely welcome it. But we’d also take some money too. Never say no to money.

Georgina Pazcoguin:
I think it’s important to note that Phil clearly has wonderfully exciting ventures coming, and I am still trying to get myself into shape for a fall season, hopeful fall season. And I am still aiming. I still want to break through my final glass ceiling. I still want to get promoted. I still see myself as in contention. I also want time myself to train, to be there, to be able to do not only this work but my work as a dancer. And Phil also deserves to be able to have space to do his work as an artist as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Do you hear that, listeners? We’re going to link to yellowface.org, we’re going to link to all of their social pages, we’ll link directly to the donations page so you can help in any way possible. Thank you both again for giving your time today. I know you are two of the busiest people in the dance world, so sincerely appreciate it.

Phil Chan:
Thank you. And we really look forward to sharing our 10,000 Dreams festival with everybody. It’s just like, Gina and I have already looked at all of the submissions, and it’s like, every single day is going to be a knockout.

Georgina Pazcoguin:
[singing] “These dreams go on when I close my eyes…” I can’t help it. I can’t be serious all the time!

Phil Chan:
She can’t help it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
No no, I am very glad we got that on the record! So much to look forward to. Thank you both again.

Phil Chan:
Thank you, Margaret.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Phil and Gina. They are not just doing invaluable work, they are also incredibly gracious: We did a lovely interview that I did not record, and bless them, they went back and the whole thing again. Anyway, one more reminder to please check out the 10,000 Dreams festival at @finalbowforyellowface on Instagram and at yellowface.org. And, most importantly, to donate to Final Bow, if you are able. We have all the relevant links in the 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.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.