Transcript, Episode 63: The Artistry in Every Body, Retiring “World Dance,” and Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich

[Jump to Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich 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 in today’s episode, we’ll discuss a series of stories that Dance Magazine published online recently discussing disability and access as generative forces in dance and choreography. We will talk about an essay that explains why it is absolutely time to retire the problematic term “world dance.” And we’ll take a moment to say goodbye to our own Cadence Neenan, because this is actually her last episode with us. She is about to begin a new adventure on Capitol Hill, and before she leaves, we’re going to do a little walk down podcast memory lane—which she has no idea about, and we’re very excited to surprise her.

After the roundtable conversation, then we’ll air our interview with the wonderful Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich, the leaders of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in the Hudson Valley. Kaatsbaan is, of course, about to launch its first ever spring festival, which has a ton of great dance programming. It also has food events and sculpture and music performances—Patti Smith is playing, for goodness’ sake! We got into all of that, but Stella and Sonja also both had these incredibly rich dance careers. So we also talked about how they navigated their career transitions, going from professional dancers to arts administrators, which Stella did very recently, just a year ago. And it’s such a challenging but illuminating process, and they were both really transparent about both what makes it challenging and what makes it illuminating. So, we hope you’ll stick around for all of that goodness.

And speaking of goodness—oh man, woof to that transition, but here we are, I’m committing to it—don’t forget to subscribe to our daily dance newsletter, The Dance Edit newsletter, if you haven’t already. It is a digest of top dance stories that comes out every weekday. It’s a great way to stay up on everything that’s happening in this community, and you can sign up for free at thedanceedit.com.

Okay, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, and there was a lot going on this week. Courtney, go for it.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. Since New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Broadway would be allowed to reopen without capacity restrictions this fall, a number of shows have announced reopening plans. Alanis Morissette jukebox musical Jagged Little Pill reopens October 21st. Mainstay Phantom of the Opera will be back October 22nd. And Six, about the wives of Henry VIII, will begin previews over again on September 17th, with an official opening on October 3rd. And then Hamilton, Wicked, and The Lion King have just announced that they’re all aiming for September 14th.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Lots of news there, and there’s only going to be more, hopefully, over the coming weeks.

Cadence Neenan:
Sony announced that its live-action musical adaptation of Cinderella will bypass a theatrical run, opting instead to debut on Amazon Prime later this year. The film, featuring stars like Camila Cabello, Billy Porter, Idina Menzel, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver, and Missy Elliot, is the latest major studio film to launch on a streaming service amidst pandemic fallout. Nevertheless, we’re waiting with, forgive me for this, bibbidi-bobbidi-baited breath for Porter’s portrayal of the fairy godmother.

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh gosh.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, never apologize. Although, is it the Disney version? Is there going to be bibbidi-bobbidi-ing? Or is it the Rodgers and Hammerstein version with no bibbidi-bobbidi?

Cadence Neenan:
I don’t have any information the bibbidi-bobbidi-ing. We’ll have to wait for that. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
Moving on. Former Kirov Academy of Ballet comptroller Sophia Kim pleaded guilty to fraud after she accessed $1.5 million in academy funds to pay off gambling debts. She had previously been found guilty of embezzlement in 2013 and sentencing is expected to happen in September. Just a wild story.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, a really complicated story—there are a lot of twists and turns. We will link to the New York Times article that does a good job kind of summarizing it.

Cadence Neenan:
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city’s new Open Culture program, the next phase in the Open Chicago Initiative to open the city to in-person events. The program’s goal is to give a boost to the pandemic-devastated live performance sector of the Chicago economy, and it will feature dance, music, and theater performances around the city. As Mayor Lightfoot said, “our arts and culture community is not a nicety, it’s a necessity.”

Courtney Escoyne:
And Pittsburgh Ballet Theater announced its 2021–22 season—season announcements, remember those, guys?—marking its first season fully programmed by artistic director Susan Jaffe. Of particular note is the March Here and Now program, which has been postponed and re-imagined multiple times due to the pandemic, but will now feature the long awaited premiere of Staycee Pearl’s SKIN + saltwater, a new work by Aszure Barton, and existing rep by Helen Pickett, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Gemma Bond. Yeah, it’s an all-woman program. Like, hello, amazing. There’s also a new Jennifer Archibald on tap for the program that opens this season, and a new staging of Swan Lake by Susan Jaffe to close.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And for the record, yes, an entire repertory program choreographed by women is still rare enough to be noteworthy. That is a newsworthy event, which is, like, both happy and sad. But bravo to Susan Jaffe.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it’s also nice looking at like the overall balance of the season—it’s, I think, about equitable, if not actually equitable in terms of male versus female choreographers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
At least approaching equity. Yeah.

Cadence Neenan:
Leadership of Dancers Responding to AIDS announced that the organization’s Fire Island Dance Festival and Hudson Valley Dance Festival won’t return until 2022. However, the organization will continue its longstanding financial support of organizations in the area, even as its festivals remain on hiatus.

Courtney Escoyne:
But Youth America Grand Prix 2021 season finals have been taking place live and in-person in Tampa, Florida this week. May 13th, tonight, as you’re listening to this, we’ll see the junior division finalists perform alongside YAGP alums for the Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala, with the senior division finalists following on Sunday, May 16th. A virtual edition of the gala will be available to stream on May 23rd.

Cadence Neenan:
“Dancing with the Stars” judge and soon to be guest star on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” Derek Hough teased a new dance TV show he’s working on in a recent interview. And though he wasn’t able to provide much detail, Hough did confirm that the project is a television show, saying, “It is a once in a lifetime project.”

Courtney Escoyne:
And the dance world mourned the passing of several members of our community this last week: Nancy Lassalle, a founding board member of School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet; Tawny Kitaen, an icon of the ’80s music video scene; Debora Chase-Hicks, who danced with both Philadanco and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before acting as rehearsal director for Philadanco; and NaTalia Johnson, a Dance Theatre of Harlem alum who went on to found an eponymous conservatory in Sacramento, California.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So many heavy losses, and most of them totally unexpected losses too. I wanted to note that there’s a ceremony for Debora Chase-Hicks, who meant so much to so many people in the dance world—that will be streamed at 11:00 AM tomorrow, May 14th. We’ll include information about that in the episode notes.

So, in the first roundtable segment today, we want to talk about a collection of Dance Magazine pieces about accessibility and disability that ran in two different print issues of the magazine, but recently went up online. And there are two threads that connect all these stories. One is the idea of inviting everyone into the dance world, of showing that there are ways for every body to dance and experience dance. The other is the idea of both disability and access not as limitations, but as sources of creativity. So, we want to talk about how all these stories expand on those ideas, and also about some of the access work that we’ve been doing here too.

Cadence Neenan:
If you listen to our podcast, you know that we’ve talked a lot about how we want to rebuild the dance world following the pandemic, and how possibly sticking to the status quo is not actually what we want to see as we come out of the pandemic. And this is sort of where Alice Sheppard began her essay for Dance Magazine, and she began it with a series of questions that she wants to pose to the dance world as we rebuild the arts, following the pandemic. And I think, while of course I primarily want you to go read this article, I also am going to read those questions now, because I think they’re important to talk about.

And so she says, “Who do you imagine in your audience? For whom do you make work? Who performs in your work? Let me be blunt. Do you imagine disabled people as part of your world?” You know, thinking about who we’re creating this world for—who are we designing it for? Who are we creating access for? And Sheppard says, “Who is responsible for creating equity? We all are. That means presenters, funders, educators, administrators, technical and production people, and, yes, artists.” And I think as members of the dance media, we consider ourselves to be a part of that too. We are people who need to be held responsible for creating equity in the dance world. And so that’s what this series on Dance Magazine was all about.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think something else that Alice says in this essay—”Compliance with the law is a necessary minimum; equity is something different”—I think it’s something that we’ve definitely all observed both in the dance world and in the wider world, that creating access is something that is not a given, and it’s not a checkbox that you can just go down the line and be like, okay, cool, we have access now. It’s the same thing when talking about diversity and inclusion in any of the various forums that we spoken about. It has to be ongoing work, ongoing questioning of the work you’re doing, asking, who is being left out, and how can we welcome more people in?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. And part of the work that Alice is asking us to do is to educate ourselves on access practices that go beyond complying with accessibility regulations, and instead focus on equity of experience, of incorporating access in a way that makes sense artistically, that is in line with your larger artistic vision. And that creates the same kind of value that the other aspects of your performance are creating.

A lot of these ideas, Alice discussed in her interview on this podcast a while back. And another idea that she touched on that same interview is shedding the misconception that there’s such a thing as a “normal” body, and instead looking at the unique possibilities presented by disabled bodies. And along those lines—this leads into another one of the stories from this Dance Magazine collection. Dance artist Mickaella Dantas wrote an essay about how dance helped her re-imagine her relationship with her prosthesis—to stop thinking of it as this utilitarian thing independent of her living body, and instead, as she says, “Today, I do not feel it’s a ‘third party’ to my body, but that it’s one facet of my body composition.” That’s such a profound shift.

Courtney Escoyne:
Something that she also talks about is using her prosthesis in dance in a creatively generative way. So for example, in a piece that she’s done, putting her prosthesis on backwards, so that the knee bends in the opposite direction of what you would expect in a like “normal” human, and it unlocks so many different movement possibilities.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and speaking of those possibilities, this has been another piece of that package of stories: an article by Sydney Skybetter talking about sort of the other side of that same equation, about how prosthetics design allows for new and inspiring movement possibilities. So, actually designing prosthetics to enhance an artistic performance. And Sydney points out that emerging technologies, like 3D printing in particular, are allowing artists to create prosthetics that really build on the body’s capabilities in fascinating ways.

Courtney Escoyne:
But also, at the same time, noting that any place that technology intersects with our lives, I feel, there often tends to be a sense of, whatever is newest is the best thing for you. When talking about prosthetics and various designs along those lines, oftentimes that isn’t necessarily the case for the individual. It’s a highly individual thing. It, in a weird way, makes me think of, like, pointe shoes and the way that just because this is the newest model of the shoe from this maker, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily best for your feet or what you need from a shoe. And I think prosthetic design is what is going to best enhance this dancer’s artistry, or what is going to allow them to feel it is part of their toolkit, not necessarily what’s the new cool fancy thing. Although there are cool and new fancy things that do amazing things.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, Mickaella does a great job articulating that point in her story. We’ll link to all of these stories in the show notes, of course, because as Cadence said, we really just want you to go read all of them. But we also just want to mention the work that we’re doing here to increase access at Dance Media. On The Dance Edit Podcast, we’ve begun offering transcripts for every episode. And we don’t just want to write out what we’ve said, but instead offer additional contextualization, often through additional links. That’s also why we’ve been more vigilant about providing alt text and image descriptions on our social media pages, and all of the publications here have been better about doing that on their websites. Dance Magazine editor-in-chief Jenny Stahl wrote in an editor’s note about other access efforts at Dance Media. We’ll link to that too. But progress is a process, and these are just first steps on a much longer, and hopefully fruitful, path.

So next we want to get into yet another Dance Magazine piece—Dance Magazine has been nailing it recently. This one is an essay by flamenco dancer and educator Alice Blumenfeld about the problems with the term “world dance,” which she argues, and we agree, we need to get rid of as we work to diversify who is seen and valued in the dance ecosystem. And the term “world dance” is often used to signal authenticity—like, presenters putting on “world dance” programs sell them that way, as something authentic. But as Blumenfeld says, it’s actually obscuring and limiting the very dance forms it purports to celebrate. This is another one of those articles that we really just want you to read in its entirety, but let’s summarize some of its key points.

Courtney Escoyne:
So Alice actually starts the article saying, “It’s time for our field to retire the phrase “world dance.” What does it even mean?”

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s really it.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s really it.

Cadence Neenan:
End podcast. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
I found myself, reading this, flung back to when I was an undergrad taking dance history, reading a quite well-known essay that was published in 1969, called “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance”. It was written by Joann Kealiinohomoku, and I’m not going to get into all the nitty gritty of it, because essentially what it was arguing was that the term “ethnic dance” had emerged as a term that was used in anthropology and in dance writing, and the way it was used was actually just to lump in everything that did not fall under the category of Western concert dance. If it wasn’t essentially ballet or modern dance, it was ethnic dance.

And it goes on to argue about why that doesn’t make any sense: All dance is rooted in the culture from which it comes from, et cetera, et cetera. But what’s interesting is that this article written in 1969, so many of the points in it apply to what Alice is saying here in 2021, about this phrase “world dance.” The slight difference being that world dance is perceived as, in some ways, a way of denoting authenticity in these forums that are not Western concert dance. And so it’s essentially dressing up the same sort of homogenization of these very disparate forms into one thing, when in reality, it’s just othering them, and it’s doing it in a way that seems a bit more culturally conscious when in reality, it’s kind of just doing the exact same thing that has been happening for a long time.

Cadence Neenan:
It’s funny because I was actually thrown back to my own undergraduate experience as well. In this essay, Alice talks about how the creation of this phrase inherently groups together movement styles and practices that have little in common. And it also, by doing so, sidelines these forms, positing Western dance forms as foundational and anything else is extra, which we often see in educational programs, where Western styles like ballet and contemporary are requirements and world dance classes are electives. And it reminded me of something I’ve been very upset about recently, because I started thinking about it again, is that at Tulane University, the Africana Studies major is a coordinate major, which means that you have to have an additional major in order to graduate from the university, if you are an Africana Studies major. Which makes me furious for about a hundred reasons. But it really, when I read this article, it made me think a similar thing, where we just choose to sideline anything that isn’t Western, particularly in education, and the phrase “world dance” only furthers that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, so Alice talks a little about potential ways to fix this problem, especially in dance education, which is where it tends to be most rampant. So, how do you keep from presenting forms like flamenco or Polynesian dance or West African dance, that usually get maybe a one-off guest class in a college curriculum—how do you give them the time and the attention that they deserve? And the first part of it is simply that: giving them time and attention. So to offer more time and space to these styles, she suggests maybe certain programs can start offering specialties in very niche genres. Obviously no one program can do this for every style, but building a reputation around a specialty? That’s not a bad thing for a college. And that would allow for study in a way that acknowledges the larger culture that created this art form, and all of the richness within it.

So yeah, a lot to think about there. I have to say, as the former editor of a magazine that ran a “world dance” column for years, I clearly have learning to do here. But thank you to Alice and to many others who’ve raised this issue for years—Brinda Guha also touched on it in her interview on our podcast, a few episodes back—thank you for bringing this conversation to the forefron. Because it still, all these years after that essay that Courtney cited, it still needs to be had.

All right. So in our final group segment today, we’re going to take a few minutes to say goodbye to the one and only Cadence Neenan. And here we’re going to have Lydia join us so we can do this properly. Hi, Lydia.

Lydia Murray:
Hi!

Margaret Fuhrer:
So tomorrow is Cadence’s last day at Dance Media. She is off to a really exciting new job in DC. And actually, Cadence, do you want to tell listeners a little about your plans?

Cadence Neenan:
Sure. So, as Margaret said, I’m heading down to the district and I’m going to be working in a senator’s office as a staff assistant.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Fighting the good fight on Capitol Hill. So Cadence, we’re going to celebrate you by…quizzing you.

Cadence Neenan:
Oh, man.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ve put together a little game called “This is Your Podcast Life.” It’s basically a pop quiz on assorted fun facts about your run on The Dance Edit Podcas. And our hope is that it’s going to be fun, and also thoroughly embarrassing. Like, both simultaneously, that’s the goal.

Cadence Neenan:
Okay. Yep. That’s awesome.

Courtney Escoyne:
‘Cause you know, we love you a lot. That’s that’s what we do.

Cadence Neenan:
You torture me. That’s good.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is our love language. Sadistic quizzes.

Cadence Neenan:
Combining nerdiness and meanness. Yeah, that feels right. That sweet spot. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is why we’re going to miss you! Okay. All right. Are you ready?

Cadence Neenan:
Yes?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here we go. Question one: in how many episodes of this podcast have you appeared? And your hint is that this is episode 63.

Cadence Neenan:
Okay. So, I’m guessing like 33?

Margaret Fuhrer:
You got it! Which is very impressive.

Cadence Neenan:
That’s crazy. I actually guessed that because my lucky number is 3 and I was like, we’re going to go for it. We’re going to say 33.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Aww, that’s auspicious. And it’s impressive that you guessed that because I know that we alternate episodes, you and Lydia, but you jumped in for a few, randomly, did like a “Dancing with the Stars” guest appearance one episode, and then there were some trade-offs for vacations.

All right. Question two.

Courtney Escoyne:
What was the name of the dance horoscope segment that you helped workshop in our trial-run episodes? It’s a multiple choice question:
A. We See Dance in Your Future.
B. Your Dance Horoscope
C. Dancing and the Stars.

Cadence Neenan:
Okay. I wish it were C, but I think it was B.

Courtney Escoyne:
Correct. I also wish it were C, why did that not occur?

Cadence Neenan:
How did we not do that?

Lydia Murray:
C would have been wonderful.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Cadence, some glorious day when you return—not if, but when—you return for an appearance as our guest dance astrologer, we’ve now workshopped the new title for that segment.

Cadence Neenan:
Incredible. It’s like a niche crossover of my interests.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. Question three.

Lydia Murray:
Okay. When I hopped on to episode 11 to discuss Center Stage‘s 20th anniversary, how did you describe my entrance?

Cadence Neenan:
Oh, like Ethan Stiefel riding in on a motorcycle? Was it that?

Lydia Murray:
Yes. Killing it with these answers.

Cadence Neenan:
The most important entrance in history, I would say perhaps.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Correct answer, and it was the correct response at the time. Yes. All of the above.

All right. Question four. In our discussion of Harry Styles’ dancing in the “Treat People with Kindness” video, which Broadway roles did you dream-cast Harry Styles in?

Cadence Neenan:
I know this. I literally know this because I’ve been thinking about it a lot, because that’s what I do. I said Aaron Tveit’s role in Moulin Rouge, who I can’t remember the name right now—Christian!—and Orpheus in Hadestown, because his aesthetic is correct for that role.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Ding, ding, ding.

Courtney Escoyne:
His aesthetic is correct for that role.

Cadence Neenan:
It’s his current aesthetic. Like, I just. It’s perfect.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. Question five.

Courtney Escoyne:
Carrying on with the pop culture theme, in episode 50, we were talking about a pop culture dance moment, and you expressed disappointment about it, saying, “I’m a Leo, so I like things to be direct, and I would have liked to see the choreo.” What was the dance moment in question? Hint one, episode 50 aired on February 11th, and hint two, the dance moment happened during a major sports event.

Cadence Neenan:
Oh…oh! The Super Bowl halftime show, “Blinding Lights.” I wanted to see the TikTok choreo.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I am incredibly impressed by your power of recall.

Cadence Neenan:
I am shocked to be honest, but I think it’s just because every time I go on this podcast, I am overthinking every single thing I say so much. So it’s burned into my brain.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We appreciate that dedication. All right. Last but not least.

Lydia Murray:
Okay. During our special Thanksgiving episode last November, what dance things did you express gratitude for?

Cadence Neenan:
Oh, I’m guessing the season of “Dancing with the Stars.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s one, there are four of them.

Cadence Neenan:
Oh gosh. Then I definitely am not going to get all of these.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Some are related. One of them was about something that happened on “Dancing with the Stars'” sister show, “Strictly.” You were grateful to see…

Cadence Neenan:
Their first ever same-sex dancing couple!

Lydia Murray:
Yes!

Margaret Fuhrer:
One was about a particular app.

Cadence Neenan:
Oh, TikTok dance. Always. Because I’m addicted.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Of course. And one was about a person that that app introduced you to.

Cadence Neenan:
Oh, Dexter Mayfield! Human sunshine. Just the best.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Absolutely human sunshine. Yay! You completely aced the “Cadence, This is Your Life” Dance Edit podcast pop quiz. Which, man, we’ve got to workshop that title too. I’m going to update my own thankful list from that old Thanksgiving episode and say that we are so grateful for you, Cadence, and the time that we’ve had with you at Dance Media, but especially on this podcastl. So much fun, so much thoughtfulness, so much astrology trivia. We’re really going to miss you.

Courtney Escoyne:
Retweet!

Lydia Murray:
Yes, so much.

Cadence Neenan:
Thanks guys. I’m going to miss all of this more than I can say on a podcast.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. Before we all start crying, we’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich, so stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH STELLA ABRERA AND SONJA KOSTICH

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is my privilege now to be here with Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich, the leaders of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in New York’s Hudson Valley. Hi Stella, hi Sonja! Thank you both so much for making the time today.

Sonja Kostich:
Hello!

Stella Abrera:
Thanks for having us.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So Sonja is Kaatsbaan’s chief executive and artistic officer, and Stella is its artistic director. They both have deeply impressive professional dance backgrounds. Sonja also has an impressive business and arts administration resumé. And together they’d been mounting such innovative dance programming—or dance and beyond, rather—at Kaatsbaan during this pandemic year. They’re about to kick off their spring festival, which I’m eager to hear more about.

But first, actually, I’m realizing as I’m saying this that this is the first time we’ve ever done an interview with two women together on the podcast. Which is great—we’re making history! But I also want to make sure that our listeners can tell your voices apart. So would you mind just quickly saying your names for the record, so people can put a voice to a name?

Sonja Kostich:
This is Sonja Kostich.

Stella Abrera:
And this is Stella Abrera.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. Thank you. All right. So now that everyone knows who’s who, can you talk a little about how each of you came to Kaatsbaan?

Sonja Kostich:
Sure. As you mentioned, my first career was as a professional dancer for approximately 20 years. I started as a classical ballet dancer in American Ballet Theatre and went on to dance at San Francisco Ballet, Zurich Ballet, and the White Oak Dance Project, which was Mikhail Baryshnikov’s modern dance company that he started with Mark Morris. And then I also did about a decade of freelance dancing, which included working with the opera director Peter Sellers, and very often with Mark Morris as well. And at the very end of my professional dance career, I decided to co-found and co-direct a small New York-based modern dance company. And this was an endeavor that began with no experience of running a company. So I also did not have a college degree at the time as I got into ABT when I was still in high school.

So following running this company for about six years, I decided to go to undergrad business school. I majored in accounting and business communications. Subsequently, I went to work for Goldman Sachs in their finance department, and went and got my master’s in arts administration, knowing that I wanted to eventually return to the dance world. So right before coming to Kaatsbaan, I worked at Mark Morris in their finance department, and then at New York City Center in their programming department, which all led me to Kaatsbaan. And it just was a period in my life where I found myself wanting to live in the Hudson Valley and was very lucky on being able to find such an incredible place as Kaatsbaan, and merging together basically my lifetime of experiences and education.

Stella Abrera:
I mean, brava Sonja, what an incredible breadth of experience.

How I came to Kaatsbaan was through my many years as a dancer at ABT. You may not know that two of the founders of Kaatsbaan—one is Kevin McKenzie and the another is Martine van Hamel—two of the four founders were these major influences in my life. So I had the great pleasure of visiting Kaatsbaan often throughout my career, occasionally to perform, sometimes to visit. And towards the end of my stage career with ABT, I was invited to be associate artistic director to Martine van Hamel, who was leading the Kaatsbaan summer intensive program. I guess that was maybe three years ago now that I was able to start teaching here at Kaatsbaan. I just fell in love with the organization. And obviously, the area is just so restorative, to be able to be in touch with nature every chance you walk out the door, look out the window.

And also my husband Sascha Radetsky and I, we’ve had a cabin in the Catskill Mountains, which is close by. And so we already had fallen in love with the landscape and the general vibe of the area. So it all came together beautifully when I was invited to join the team.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And can you talk a little about what your respective roles at Kaatsbaan entail, and then how they’re collaborative, how you work together?

Sonja Kostich:
Well, clearly in my position, I do oversee a lot of the business aspects of Kaatsbaan, the operations and the finances. But Stella and I work very closely together. We have a very small team, so there’s a lot of collaboration amongst all of us who are working at Kaatsbaan, but it’s wonderful. Stella and I have a really great working relationship and are able to just discuss every detail about everything and work together to fulfill the Kaatsbaan mission.

Stella Abrera:
Yes. I am so happy that we join forces to take our collective strengths to further the mission, as Sonja mentioned.

Sonja Kostich:
We joke because we only have seven people on our staff. And so we don’t really have departments—one person is sort of a department! So we try and help each other out as much as we can.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Small business collaboration—it’s always collaborative.

So before we get into this year’s spring festival, I want to go back in time a little and talk about last summer. Because it was a moment when everything was shut down, George Floyd had just been murdered. A lot of people in the performing arts world were feeling bereft for multiple reasons. And then you managed to mount this really beautiful outdoor dance festival that was… It was restorative for audiences and for performers both, I think. Can you talk about how you conceived of the idea, and then how you actually made it happen?

Sonja Kostich:
I think it was pretty organic. We were hit with this really confusing and devastating pandemic and our facility had to close down, as did all arts organizations and other businesses worldwide. Normally during the summer, we have a nine-week summer ballet intensive, which was moved online, as well as any previous spring programming. Everything, of course, moved online. But then we realized that one of the original aspects of the mission that really the four founders had every intention to fulfill is that Kaatsbaan would become a cultural park. And Stella and I discussed in depth what a cultural park meant. And really, we decided that meant being inclusive of all arts, as well as utilizing the 153 acres that Kaatsbaan sits on, most of it which is not developed. So putting all the variables together, an outdoor festival just seemed the natural next step to take. And because things shut down so quickly, we had to turn around equally as quick what our next steps would be. And so with summer just right in front of us, we thought, “Okay, let’s pull this together in three weeks and do a summer festival.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
It was three weeks! Oh my gosh.

Sonja Kostich:
More or less.

Stella Abrera:
The post-its were flying. As many post-its as we could mount on the wall, we did. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
So now let’s talk about the spring, because I mean, clearly that first festival was a success in multiple ways. So at what point did you begin to think, We should do this again?

Stella Abrera:
Right away. And it was a luxury to have months to plan an enormous event instead of a few weeks.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So, how did you then start putting together your lineup for this spring festival? Because you were saying that you decided that Kaatsbaan was going to be more inclusive in terms of the types of art forms that you were featuring, and you really opened up the programming to include a wide range of things. There’s not just music and poetry and sculpture, there’s even the culinary arts. And you have Patti Smith, which, oh my gosh, what a get. How did that all come together?

Sonja Kostich:
Well, I think again with Stella and I coming on board and being relatively new to the organization, it was a really opportune time to take a look at the structure of Kaatsbaan’s programming. And because the summer festival developed very quickly and came upon us very quickly and unexpectedly, as Stella said, thinking about the spring festival, we had the luxury of a bit more time, and also to step back and really look at what we want for Kaatsbaan to develop into as we move forward. And so I think that this spring festival is a perfect time for us to hone in on this idea that we want to broaden our inclusion of all arts. And up here in the Hudson Valley, the culinary arts are so relevant. We are surrounded by farms and foragers and farm-to-table. Who doesn’t want to talk about food? So that definitely felt really important to include. But Stella and I, we basically looking at all the different art forms and, and what we thought in terms of providing artists an opportunity, as well as our audiences to experience.

Stella Abrera:
From the dance perspective, at that point in the year, it had become devastatingly clear how the large dance companies especially were suffering from not being able to perform for live audiences. Both from our summer festival here at Kaatsbaan and in the other small pockets of the world where people were able to perform live, it was more of artists who were independent contractors who were able to perform. So we thought it would be nice to see if the larger organizations, such as ABT and Mark Morris Dance Group and Dorrance Dance and Martha Graham, to see if it would be possible for Kaatsbaan to present them on a small scale, but to have the actual companies be presented. And so it was really exciting when they came on board and we were starting to plan for their performances.

Sonja Kostich:
Yeah. Just to speak really quickly about American Lyric, which is the piece that Kaatsbaan is commissioning: It’s our first solo commission. And again, the intention was to have something created that was really unique to Kaatsbaan. So for those who might not know, it incorporates Hunter Noack, who is a pianist, and he has a show called In a Landscape where he takes a nine-foot Steinway grand piano into the wild, outside of the concert hall. Garen Scribner, who’s a dancer, formerly of San Francisco Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater, approached me a couple of years ago, actually—he had this idea to bring Hunter to collaborate with some dancers, and how it would really be seamless to incorporate in the landscape of Kaatsbaan. And so we’re really excited to see how that develops. They will be creating the piece together, collaboratively, in a residency at Kaatsbaan that is supported by the Howard Gilman Foundation. So we’re very grateful to them.

And then I just want to speak really quickly because we are all, I think, really, very excited about the music concert portion of the festival. Looking at the festival as a whole and how we want to be inclusive of artists, but also audience—so, hoping that we can draw a new audience who might not at first glance sign up for a dance performance, but would normally go to a music concert. Maybe if you’re coming to the Hudson Valley or you live in the Hudson Valley, it can become a total experience. So it’s not just attending a theater where you’d see one show and then you’d leave, but you actually come to Kaatsbaan and have a total experience. You have a food experience, you have a music experience, a dance experience, and all of it very specific to Kaatsbaan and what the physical property can offer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love this idea that it’s the place, it’s this beautiful physical place, that is the thread that connects all of these different offerings, that it weaves through everything. That’s beautiful.

So let’s zoom out a little bit, because you mentioned that you’d like to talk about the career transition process for dancers. And of course, you’ve both transitioned out of professional dance careers, and Stella, of course, you transitioned very recently. Can you talk about the specific challenges of that process, and then the resources that dancers need and that they might already have at their disposal to make use of as they figure out their next steps?

Stella Abrera:
That’s a large question.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s huge, yeah.

Stella Abrera:
As you mentioned, yes, my career transition happened a bit quicker than I had anticipated. It looked a little bit different than what I had thought it was going to look like. But of course, this whole year didn’t look like anyone’s fantasy year, clearly. I’m so grateful that I was able to transition into another career path that is full of creativity and innovation and incredibly hardworking people who are moving towards a really exciting future. So, to focus all the energy that I had focused on as a dancer, to now learn how to deal with administrative work and teaching quite a bit more—it was a steep learning curve, but also a very fulfilling and interesting one, especially to be part of a team that was able to create the Kaatsbaan summer festival last year. That was incredible.

As far as resources that are needed, I wish I had the bandwidth to have put myself through college during my dance career. I feel like for the last 10 years of my dance career, I was looking around at all that generation and just being in such awe of their tenacity and their diligence and their ability to do both at the same time. I myself did not have the bandwidth to do that. I felt that because I had some major injuries to manage that it just wasn’t in my bandwidth. And so coming on board the team here, I’ve been grateful to have an incredibly generous work partner in Sonja and in other staff members who have also made the transition from dance career to arts administrative work. And it’s been yet another great experience to have people guiding and helping, just as you would when you enter a ballet company and the elder gals help the newer gals. It’s kind of been that way.

Sonja Kostich:
I think this is such an important question, and maybe I’m just speaking from a personal standpoint, but I would have loved to have heard dancers who transitioned into post-dance careers on the path they took and what resources they had. And when I was coming towards the end of my professional dance career, I really didn’t even know what was out there. I would ask like, “What jobs are out there? What do people do in the world?” Because especially in a ballet company, you’re just so focused on the tasks at hand and the work you’re doing. And you can be in the studio in theater from morning tonight with little contact with the outside world. I was very much the typical ballet dancer in a ballet company that was just very much focused on what I was doing.

And so when I came to the end of my professional dance career, I was still so young in terms of a normal working professional, but I had no education and I really didn’t know what my options were. I didn’t want to feel limited. I do think post-professional life is part of a dancer’s life. So it took me a very long time to figure out what I wanted to do and what was I capable of. But dancers are so resourceful. I think you can see that throughout this pandemic. I think all those dancers out there who were unable to work because theaters were shut down, buildings were shut down, just learned a slew of new skills.

We do live in a time with the internet, which is very helpful. When I was coming to the end of my dance career, there was no internet yet. So I think that’s very helpful. There are so many online classes now for people like Stella. Working full-time in a dance company, you don’t have a lot of extra time—so now it’s nice, you can do online classes. Really exceptional colleges offer wonderful programs online, or hybrid types of programs which are really, really so helpful and supportive and can guide one as they prepare. You can now prepare for your life after dance. It doesn’t have to start after you’ve retired.

So I do think that it’s something that dancers think about a lot when they start nearing the end of their professional dance career because you’re so young when that time happens, and you have a whole life ahead of you. So I think it’s very exciting now with Stella that we can see this incredible life ahead of us and we can build off of that and continue developing and learning and growing. And I think that for other dancers who are getting to that place where they are looking for that next step, there are now so many resources out there. And then there are people like us that they can speak to who’ve had to make those transitions ourselves.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is touching on a theme that we hit on frequently in this podcast, where there’s this essential tension, because dancers are so resourceful, and they can figure so much out—and they do. It’s incredible. And yet that also creates this expectation that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that they don’t need external support. And it’s like, no, they really do, and especially ballet dancers who are coming from this world where you have to have tunnel vision just to make it. So it’s encouraging to see that there’s more transparency around this now, that more people are talking about it, and that there are more resources online. Thank you both for bringing attention to that.

Sonja Kostich:
And just to add one thing, I think for dancers to recognize their strengths—even if you don’t have a college degree or you don’t have decades of experience working in some specific role or job, I think we’re all learning now, and corporate businesses are learning that qualitative skills are just as important, if maybe not more important than quantitative skills. Because you can teach and you can learn quantitative skills, but qualitative skills take a much longer time to develop, and something that really maybe starts at a very young age to really develop your character. So I think that dancers have exceptional qualitative skills and can recognize that and use that to their benefit. Even if they transition into something that’s completely different, those are the kinds of skills that they can take with them and really should focus on and utilize.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is the argument that I wish I’d had when I was 16 arguing with my parents, but… [laughter]

Stella Abrera:
What I keep coming back to and what constantly resonates with me is that just trying to strive for excellence and be myself is the best I can do. And that’s…

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s the same thing that makes you an extraordinary performer. It’s finding that authenticity, that authentic expression of self, but just expressing it in a different way, through different mediums.

I have more big questions coming at you—sorry in advance. But you’d said you wanted to talk about dancing in a big ballet company versus working as a freelance dancer, because between the two of you, you’ve experienced both sides of that coin. So, a two-part question: First, can you speak a little to the differences between those types of career paths? And then, what advice might you have for dancers who maybe aren’t sure which one is right for them, especially at this strange moment as they face this spectacularly uncertain job market?

Sonja Kostich:
So I danced about a decade in ballet companies and then about a decade as a freelance dancer. And I think one of the reasons why I switched from working in a really safe and supportive environment of a ballet company was, similar to what I was talking about before, was a feeling of disconnect from the rest of the world that I was searching for.

Being a freelance dancer is super tough. I wasn’t a big-name dancer, so I didn’t move to freelance dance because I was suddenly just getting so many offers. I chose that path because I wanted to find out if there were other experiences that maybe I was missing. Not to say I was missing, but I just didn’t know, and I wanted to find out. And so being a freelance dancer the way I was a freelance dancer is like running a company. You are the company, which in many ways, without my knowing, set me up for now where I am decades later. But it’s equally challenging and fulfilling, because you are left with the task of supporting yourself and finding work, but also some of the most incredible things from my professional career happened because of that. And so it was definitely worth it for me, but for someone who’s looking right now at the different options they have for their professional career, it’s going to be different for everybody, I’m sure.

But I think it’s just asking yourself sort of that question, like, “Where do I see myself in five years?” I feel really grateful that I did both. 10 years dancing in a ballet company is significant, and I feel very grateful for that experience, but I also know that I would not be the person I am today had I not gone through really very deeply the experience of being a freelance dancer and working on really very different types of projects. I’ve danced in church basements to the Paris Opéra stage, I mean, just such a wide range, and everything in between, and with all kinds of artists, not just in dance. And that really lent itself to that full life experience that I sought.

Stella Abrera:
I have to say I’m so grateful that my childhood dream of joining ABT came true. There was this game we played on the Pasadena freeway: when you go under these long tunnels, you’re supposed to hold your breath and cross your fingers—I’d do it really carefully as a 16-year-old driving on the freeway—and make a wish for the whole time that you’re going underneath that tunnel. And the whole time that tunnel, I was wishing that I could join ABT, and I’ve been wishing that since I can remember. And so to me, it felt right to stay as long as I did. I feel like I was five different dancers within my time at ABT, just as my dancing and body and physicality changed and evolved.

And towards the end of my career there, I was so grateful that I was able to find a way to give back and being able to gather many dancers and curate and perform in several charity performances in the Philippines, for some children who are not as lucky as many of us—that is maybe one of the most fulfilling moments of my time there. And I don’t think I would have been able to do that had I not stuck it out as long as I had at ABT. So, one of many things that I’m grateful for during my time there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s this idea of finding the path that allows you to express your complete artistic self, whether that’s having a stable home base that allows you to explore inside of that environment, or it’s searching out and finding different homes that allow you to find different aspects of your artistry and your creativity.

Finally, you started talking about this a little bit already, but can you elaborate a little more on why the two of you work especially well together? What makes for a good partnership in the world of arts leadership, and how do the two of you have that?

Sonja Kostich:
An enormous mutual respect for each other.

Stella Abrera:
Constant and candid communication.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And lots of post-it notes.

Stella Abrera:
[laughter] Look at that. I mean, just look. It’s crazy.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Listeners, I wish you could see this. There’s a wall covered in post-its. They are color-coded. That’s amazing.

Sonja Kostich:
I think both Stella and I also work really well together because we share the goal and the vision for Kaatsbaan. We want the same thing, which is to see Kaatsbaan reach its fullest potential. So it’s not about what I want or what she wants. It’s really about what is best for Kaatsbaan, what is going to allow Kaatsbaan to grow and develop in the way it deserves and we both know that it can become. So I think we clearly like each other, respect each other, are very comfortable to speak to each other candidly, because those are all things that are required if we want Kaatsbaan to move forward. I think that there is such enormous potential for Kaatsbaan to become really, truly this destination cultural park with innovative arts and presenting artists that are looking to work in a new environment and in a new way with a new perspective. And so we’re just here to support that and work together.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, thank you both so much for everything you’re doing for the dance community and the broader arts community. Where can listeners go to find out more about and support the work that you’re doing at Kaatsbaan, and find out about the spring festival?

Sonja Kostich:
Kaatsbaan.org, as well as all of our social media—Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. We post every day.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Great. We’ll link those all up in the show notes so people can get there.

Stella Abrera:
Wonderful.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you both so much. I really appreciate it. I know your schedules are bananas right now, so thank you.

Sonja Kostich:
Thank you so much.

Stella Abrera:
Thanks for having us.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Stella and Sonja. I neglected to mention that the Kaatsbaan Spring Festival officially begins a week from today on May 20th. If you are in or around New York, get yourself to that beautiful campus. And in case you’re not in the area or can’t make it, select performances will be streamed online as well. So, make sure you give them a follow @kaatsbaan on Instagram and @KaatsbaanDance on Twitter, just to keep up with all of that news and where you can find everything.

All right, thanks everyone for joining us. Thank you so much to Cadence for all the joy and the knowledge she’s brought to this podcast—we are so excited for your next adventure. The rest of us we’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye, y’all. And thank you.

Lydia Murray:
I’ll say bye too, why not? Bye, everyone.