Transcript, Episode 65: Tap Legacies, “In Balanchine’s Classroom,” and Sienna Lalau

[Jump to Sienna Lalau interview]


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

Courtney Escoyne:
And I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s just the two of us today. We are editors at Dance Media. And in this episode, we’ll be talking about how both the 100th anniversary of the musical Shuffle Along and the birthday of tap legend Bill Robinson, which is a date also recognized as National Tap Dance Day, fell this week; we’ll look at the tightropes that Black artists like Robinson and the Shuffle Along creators had to walk. We will briefly discuss the trailer for the new documentary In Balanchine’s Classroom, and some of the reactions it has provoked on social media. We will break down Lil Nas X’s joyfully, maximally queer performance on “SNL,” with its instantly iconic wardrobe malfunction.

And then we’ll have our interview with Sienna Lalau, who at 20 years old—I have to keep reminding myself she’s 20 years old—she’s already become one of the industry’s go to K-pop choreographers. Sienna talked about what it’s like to work with massive stars like BTS, and also about why commercial dance generally, and K-pop specifically, deserve greater respect—especially from the concert dance community, which, hear, hear to that.

First, though, we want to say thank you to all of you who have been tuning into this podcast from the beginning. We so appreciate you all. And we also want to welcome those of you who might be new, because we have seen a little surge in listenership recently, so: Hello, new dance friends! If you have a minute, please do subscribe to the podcast on your listening platform of choice, and give us a rating and review if you’re so inclined. Let us know what you think.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is my personal first dance headline rundown since Courtney and I are doing our duet today. Let’s go.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right, so in Broadway reopening news: Hadestown has jumped to the front of the pack. The most recent Tony winner for best new musical plans to raise the curtain again on September 2nd, nearly two weeks earlier than any other show that’s announced a reopening date so far, as we’re recording this. Cadence and I were actually texting about this, and she pointed out that there’s something like really right and perfect about Broadway coming back with André De Shields asking the audience, “All right?” Yes, that—that’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That does feel correct, yes. The reality series “World of Dance” is back, or sort of back. NBC did cancel the Jennifer Lopez-produced show back in March. But this week, the new social platform display has revived “World of Dance.” It’s airing a five episode showcase version of the series. And those episodes have been airing nightly in the app, so you can catch the last two of them tonight and tomorrow night.

Courtney Escoyne:
In a bit of a turn for sad news, Verndell Smith, the founder of Ultimate Threat Dance Organization in Chicago, was shot dead a few blocks from his studio. The 32-year-old was remembered by his family and the families of his students as a uniquely caring teacher who wanted to make his studio a safe space for the children he taught.

Margaret Fuhrer:
His motto was “stop shooting and start dancing,” which…oh my gosh, the whole thing is so heartbreaking. We’ll include a link to some coverage of that story that provides a little bit more context, and a little bit more information about who he was and the work he was doing.

Last week, the Tony and Emmy-award winning performer Billy Porter revealed in a piece for The Hollywood Reporter that he has been HIV positive for the past 14 years. And Porter actually said that playing the HIV-positive character Pray Tell on “Pose” helped him “work through the shame.” You need to read the story, if you haven’t already. It is searingly candid, and no summary is going to do justice to Porter’s own words, so we’ll link to that in the show notes too.

Courtney Escoyne:
The Joffrey Ballet announced its 2021–2022 season, returning to live in-person performances at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House. This season will kick off in October with a mixed bill featuring the live performance premieres of works by Chanel DaSilva, Nicholas Blanc, and Yoshihisa Arai. Also of note is the long-awaited premiere of Cathy Marston’s Of Mice and Men in April, which was meant to debut in February, but was postponed of course due to COVID-19.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and the Joffrey’s whole move to the Lyric Opera was delayed by COVID too.

Courtney Escoyne:
By a full year, yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’ll be interesting to see as well. Well, friends, it is a Lifetime holiday movie announcement time—it is Christmas in May. And this year, the Lifetime holiday slate will include A Christmas Dance Reunion, which is a typically on-the-nose title for a film that is reuniting High School Musical stars Corbin Bleu and Monique Coleman. I mean, Chad and Taylor dancing together again—I’m all the way in for this. It just sounds wonderful.

Courtney Escoyne:
I will absolutely be a little bit ironically tuning in, but also I just adore Corbin Bleu, so…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, actually very little irony in my enthusiasm. I’m just fully a fan.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. He’s wonderful. Two wonderful performers. I can’t wait to see what this turns out to be.

And in more Hollywood news, Warner Brothers has announced a new movie musical project titled Wonka, depicting the early years of famous fictional chocolatier Willy Wonka. The film will star Hollywood darling Timothée Chalamet, who, his reps confirmed, will be singing and dancing in the movie. There’s no word yet on a choreographer or lyricist, though, David Hyman being a producer seems like a fairly good sign. The theatrical debut is slated for March 2023. Margaret, we had very different reactions to this news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Wildly different reactions. Well, I think they overlapped in the fact that we were both like, “Ahh,” like literal jaws dropping.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But I was mostly enthusiastic, whereas you have some reservations.

Courtney Escoyne:
I do. Listen, I love Timmy, but Gene Wilder’s performance is so iconic and such a perfect thing in and of itself, I don’t know why we need to go back and do a prequel. I kind of feel the same way about Emma Stone playing Cruella Deville when we have Glenn Close playing Cruella Deville so perfectly. This is just me. New narratives, new narratives. We don’t need to keep rehashing old properties. We can do new things.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I understand that, but I also have faith in Timmy. I think he’ll make something great out of it.

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh, he’s going to be wonderful. I have no doubt. Just, my caveat.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, making a hard turn now into some very sad news. The dance world lost two luminaries on the same day this week. Samuel E. Wright, who was probably best known for voicing Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, but who also had an extensive Broadway career—he originated Mufasa in The Lion King and William Sheridan in The Tap Dance Kid; he actually replaced Ben Vereen as the leading player in Pippin—he died of cancer at age 74. And then Anna Halprin, the revered dancer and choreographer who our own Wendy Perron called “the mother of American experimental dance,” and who also explored ways to use movement as a tool for healing—she died at age 100. I mean, she seemed immortal. I almost can’t believe she’s not here anymore. Unsurprisingly, there have been tributes to both of these artists all over social media, and we’ll link to some of the obituaries in the show notes.

Courtney Escoyne:
And looping back around Broadway: In news that broke right before we sat down to record, the Tony Awards have finally set a date. The ceremony will take place on September 26th, almost a full year after nominations for the abbreviated 2019-2020 season were announced. It’s expected to be live and in person, but only the awards for best musical, best play, and best play revival will be broadcast live on CBS. The program will primarily be a starry concert of theater songs, according to the New York Times. All other awards will be presented in a two-hour ceremony immediately prior, streaming exclusively on Paramount+. It’s an interesting model. It’s four-hour long Tony awards. We have to go to two different places to see all of it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, look, this whole process has been so bananas, I’m kind of just glad they’re happening. But the injustice of not letting network TV viewers witness Aaron Tveit getting his Tony…that feels wrong.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah…

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, at least Jagged and Moulin Rouge and Tina will get their performance moments in prime time.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and they haven’t really announced yet what other performances we’re going to be seeing, so I have faith we’re going to get to see a lot of cool stuff. I’m still holding out hope that Moulin Rouge gives us like the act two opener, because it’s so dancy and wonderful and magnificent, but we’ll see.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It does seem Tonys-ready. Well, yeah, much to be seen.

So in our first discussion segment today, we want to recognize and then tie together a few different milestones that happened this week. First, May 23rd, on Sunday, was the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking show Shuffle Along. It was the first all-Black musical to become a hit on Broadway. And then Tuesday, May 25th, was the birthday of legendary tap dancer Bill Robinson, known as Bojangles. It’s a day that we also now celebrate as National Tap Dance Day. May 25th was also the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. So for multiple reasons, this felt like a moment to think about the complicated negotiations that Black Americans have had to make, and continue to have to make, to survive—to survive in show business, but also just to survive, period.

Let’s start by looking at Shuffle Along. Because this was a show that helped usher in the Harlem Renaissance—it brought jazz music and dance to Broadway, it showcased Black excellence with virtuosic singing and dancing. But it also provoked some really complicated reactions.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So starting with sort of like the upsides of Shuffle Along: It was completely groundbreaking. It was an all-Black team of creators showcasing incredible dancing, incredible singing. It was a smash hit. It played so many performances. It lasted way longer than was typical for the time period on Broadway. However, it also featured Black performers in blackface, which is a strange thing to contemplate. In some ways it can be looked at as a reclaiming, as saying, “Okay, if white folks on Broadway are doing this anyway, let’s beat them at their own game.”

It was also playing primarily to white audiences. It had a white producer team. It’s been said it hasn’t really been successfully revived in a very long time and a lot of that has to do with, a lot of the humor is deeply uncomfortable to listen to and probably was, as a Black audience member at the time, would have been deeply uncomfortable to listen to as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. There’s a great NPR piece about the show’s anniversary, and they talk to historian Caseen Gaines, who points out that the creators of the show, they knew that to market it effectively to white audiences—which they knew would be primarily the audience for a Broadway show—they’d have to buy into some of the minstrelsy stereotypes that had been popular on the vaudeville circuit, that had proven to work with this audience. And I think we have to also mention that, of course, George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover revisited Shuffle Along in 2016, with their brilliant sort of half revival looking at the making of the show, and that unpacked some of this baggage. But yeah, I think it is important to recognize that when the show debuted in 1921, there was nothing else like it on Broadway. Like, it really helped create a new type of musical, and pave the way for shows like West Side Story and, yes, Hamilton.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it also brought jazz to Broadway, which, I think mostly for better from an artistic perspective. There were so many white composers who ended up taking what they learned from the show and what they were inspired by from the show and applying it to their work. Which is also kind of problematic in its own right. However, from a purely artistic perspective, it did contribute to the evolution of Broadway into what we see today.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. So, a lot of artists have also expressed conflicting feelings about Bill Robinson over the years. Because though he’s known pretty much universally as a phenomenal, boundary-breaking tap dancer, he’s not always thought of as a social role model. But three of today’s most esteemed tap stars—that’s Dormeshia, Derick K. Grant, and Jason Samuels Smith, who are all incredible—just premiered a new dance work about Robinson called The Mayor of Harlem, and it celebrates not just his dancing, but also his sort of behind-the-scenes style of activism.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. N. R. Mitgang, who co-wrote a biography of Robinson, in this article that appeared in The Washington Post, talked about how he was fighting for equality in his lifetime, but he did it very quietly. He did it behind the scenes. To quote him in this article, “He was smart enough to realize that if too many whites realized he’s breaking down this barrier and breaking down this barrier, he would be out of a job.” So he played by the rules of his time, quietly pushed where he could push, did it behind the scenes, and kept doing the work, essentially.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And talking about the pushing that he did do, I mean his civic contributions, for example—he was a really engaged community supporter. He performed in benefits. He did charity work. Those are the kinds of actions that earned him that honorary “Mayor of Harlem” title, which is where the title of the show comes from. And he also would insist on integrated audiences at benefit performances he was involved in.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which was not the norm by any means.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That was not the norm, especially in, like, Dallas and Memphis, he was doing this—that’s totally not the norm. But yeah, there was this acknowledgement that having a more prominent presence as an activist would probably cost him the platform that allowed him to help in a meaningful way.

So anyway, Courtney and I, we’re not tap experts; we’re not tap history experts. We will link to the NPR piece about Shuffle Along, we will link to The Washington Post story about The Mayor of Harlem, so you can learn more there. But it’s important to revisit and reconsider this history as we think about the type of dance world that we want to build going forward, and there’s of course a lot of that happening right now.

So, speaking of reconsidering history: in our next segment, we’re going to get into the new trailer for the documentary In Balanchine’s Classroom, which dropped a few days ago. Actually, we’re not going to get too far into it because it is just a trailer. We have not yet seen the film. Often filmmakers have very little to do with their trailers, so it might not be a complete representation of the full documentary. But this thing provoked some heated reactions on Twitter. And as people who are deeply invested in ballet, and invested in rethinking how ballet’s story—particularly when it comes to its “great men”—is told, we just couldn’t not talk about it.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So I think, as Margaret said, it’s worth noting, often times the people who cut trailers aren’t actually the people who made the films. However, I do want to point to the synopsis that’s provided by Zeitgeist Films, part of which reads, “It takes us back to the glory years of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet through the remembrances of his former dancers and their quest to fulfill the vision of a genius.” Everything about the language of this does, to me, and I think to a lot of people, reek of that lone genius mentality, which we see so much, and which we pretty much only see applied to straight white cis men. And historically it has been used to cover up and excuse poor behavior, which—you do not have to look far to see further discussion on this. Literally around the trailer, so much Twitter discussion was happening about “Okay, but are we going to talk about the mistreatment? Are we going to talk about the relationship he had with a lot of his dancers?”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The tone of that blurb on the website is also very much the tone of the trailer. It’s sort of uniformly positive.

Courtney Escoyne:
I mean, some direct quotes from the trailer of dancers talking about being in rehearsal with Balanchine: “I thought I was going to throw up,” “I’m going to fall down dead,” “I went from questioning to believing, to being a disciple.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, it’s a little culty.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s a little culty.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean…I am someone who personally feels a deep affinity for Balanchine’s work. Like, I fell in love with it, as a dancer and as a viewer, growing up. My dance childhood was spent watching VHS tapes of those 1970s PBS Dance in America specials until the tape wore out. And I remember learning the variations—I specifically remember learning the Divertimento No. 15 variations and thinking, the internal logic of these steps is so right. Like,, this is what it feels like to be the music, you know? So the idea of this documentary is of course appealing to me. And I understand the impulse to deify the guy, to write off the bad because the good is so good.

Courtney Escoyne:
Also, from a dance historical perspective, looking at the footage that’s in here, I can’t wait to watch the footage from the rehearsals and things, because everyone who worked with Balanchine directly—he was so much a choreographer who was very much creating on the people who were in front of him in the room, and he had such a specific and intriguing way of describing what he was looking for. So from that perspective, I cannot wait. I think there’s going to be such insights here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And they’ve promised us a bunch of previously unseen footage, which yeah, of course, that’s exciting. But, haven’t we learned at this point that we cannot responsibly teach another generation of dancers that Balanchine’s treatment of women, especially, was just the price to pay for his genius? We can not only share the voices of those who support him unconditionally. And also a more nuanced take on his legacy would be so valuable. It’s that idea that we just keep coming back to on the podcast of, can we please learn to hold multiple ideas in our heads simultaneously? Balanchine was a brilliant teacher and choreographer. Balanchine’s treatment of dancers, especially women, was extremely problematic. Both of those things can be true at once.

Anyway, as we said, this is just a trailer. Here’s hoping that all this worrying we’re doing ends up being completely unnecessary, and they do show a more complex portrayal of what Balanchine was actually like, what working with him was actually like.

Courtney Escoyne:
Hear, hear.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, finally, we want to discuss another news item that we could not not take a minute to obsess over. That, of course, is Lil Nas X’s internet-breaking performance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend. Actually, he did two songs on the show, but we’re referring to his performance of “Montero,” which was his first collaboration with choreographer Sean Bankhead. That is just a match made in dance heaven. And the two of them used dance to celebrate queerness in a way that still, I mean even in 2021, you just don’t see that much in pop music.

Courtney Escoyne:
So before we get into the whole like wardrobe malfunction part of this and all the craziness in the week leading up to this performance, because it was, from the sounds of it, bananas: I just—watching this, it makes me think about how, when we have talked about queering the dance vocabulary, we’ve talked about it a lot in the context of ballet, because ballet has been pretty much the slowest to get there. But we talk about queering dance vocabulary and having a more, for lack of a better term, egalitarian approach, expanding the colors in your tool chest, not just saying, “Okay, this is ‘feminine movement,’ this is ‘masculine movement,'” really allowing everyone to access everything. Watching this, the sensuality of it, without getting hung up on gender norms? Oh, it just hit different, and I loved it so much. It was just beautifully choreographed, beautifully performed, so sensual, just everything about it. There was never a point where I’m just like, “Oh, they’re trying to be feminine, they’re not being feminine,” or like, “Oh, they’re doing the cliché of masculinity.” It’s like, no, this is just a complex look at sensuality that is ignoring gender norms and just mm, just yes. I’m running out of words. I’m so into it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What’s so great about Lil Nas X—and has been for a while, but this performance just kind of epitomized it—is making what used to be implicit in a lot of pop performance, explicit. It’s not that queer culture hasn’t been influencing pop music for decades. Of course it has. It’s been everywhere. But it’s…looking back on especially boy band history—for some reason that’s where my head goes—there was always this overtone of like, “Yeah, we’re stealing from all these different parts of culture, but like, no homo!” You know, like they had to prove their heterosexuality. Lance Bass could not be gay.

And now, it’s recognizing all those contributions in a way that’s celebratory. You’re not hiding behind anything. Including, unfortunately, in this case, his own pants. Which I mean look, he covered it like a pro, literally covered it like a pro. And it made it meme worthy, which kind of got the performance more exposure in a way that I think ended up being great.

Courtney Escoyne:
Exposure, ha.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh god, I can’t—I’m not even doing it intentionally.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think also it was quite cool because he ended up going and doing an interview on Jimmy Fallon, and they showed a video of his dress rehearsal, where he actually did, the move on the pole he was supposed to do, and it was so impressive. And also just kind of proved this was not a stunt. This is what the choreography was supposed to be.

Also, mad props to those dancers, because apparently the day before filming, one of the cast members in that dance crew tested positive for COVID. The entire cast had to isolate, including choreographer Sean Bankhead. They had to get completely new dancers, rehearse them remotely, not having the choreographer actually there. And you watch this video—they are so on it. They are so rehearsed. They know exactly what they’re doing. Like, mad props.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep. I mean, long story short there is dance people are the ultimate professionals, always. And also, Lil Nas X and Sean Bankhead collaborations forever. Just forever.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. This is my new favorite dream team.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we will have our interview with Sienna Lalau, so stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH SIENNA LALAU

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, again, dance friends. I am very excited to be here now with commercial dance phenomenon Sienna Lalau. Hi Sienna!

Sienna Lalau:
Hello! Nice to meet you. Thank you for having me today.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much for joining today, for making time. Sienna is 20 years old, and that’s a fact that I have to keep reminding myself because her resumé is already so extraordinary. She has earned national recognition for her work with The Lab, the creative arts studio that you may know from the show “World of Dance.” Recently, she’s become a go-to K-pop choreographer—her choreography for BTS earned a Video Music Award last year—and she’s also created dance for J.Lo and Ciara and Missy Elliott. She has had this meteoric rise.

But before we talk about all your professional successes, Sienna, can you actually start by telling us your dance origin story? How and when and why did you first fall in love with dance?

Sienna Lalau:
Absolutely. For me, I was actually surrounded by music all of my life. My dad used to be a DJ back in the day, and when my mom was pregnant with me, she used to go to all of his events and everything. And when you’re pregnant with the baby in your belly, of course, the baby’s going to hear the music playing from the loud speakers. So I remember her telling me this story where she would always go to his events and she would feel me kicking in her stomach to the beat.

I think from that moment, she kind of knew that I was born to do something with music. And once I was born, and from the ages I would say one to three, I was just running around the house, always singing, always dancing whenever music was on and even when music was off, just constantly moving. I couldn’t keep still. And so my mom knew from that point that I was going to be a dancer, and she put me in dance classes right away at a studio that I lived kind of close by in Hawaii, that’s where I’m from.

And so I started my dance training there. I learned from all of these amazing teachers at a studio called Hypersquad back in Hawaii. And I don’t think it wasn’t till I was probably around my teens, around 13 or 14, where I started to notice that you could actually do something with dance. I think at that time, when I was a teenager, I guess YouTube was starting to become a bigger thing—posting dance videos on YouTube and seeing all these videos just get millions of views, I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s a scene out in L.A.” I was so sheltered for most of my life that I didn’t even know that that was a thing.

So I would always watch these videos on YouTube and always see these amazing dancers on social media—that’s when Instagram started to start coming up—and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I want to go there. And I want to be a part of that scene.” So from there I would travel out to L.A. every now and then, I would say about every two or three months out of the year, to just go train and take classes from so many choreographers and teachers that I look up to. And then it wasn’t until I did this dance competition with The Lab, the team The Lab, back in 2016, and from there we built that relationship together, and then everything just started kind of falling into place from there.

I moved out to L.A., started to choreograph a lot more, and become a little bit more interested in choreography, while still taking class and learning from all these amazing choreographers out in L.A. And then lo and behold, I started posting more of my own choreography on YouTube and on Instagram and social media, and started to gain so much recognition from all around the world, which I’m so blessed and so thankful to have at the end of the day.

Margaret Fuhrer:
How old were you when you actually moved out to L.A.?

Sienna Lalau:
I was 17. 17 years old.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You were 17!

Sienna Lalau:
Not that far off.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Wow, yeah, just three years ago. That’s crazy. So, I want to talk about The Lab, because it’s been such a formative part of your dance life. So first of all, can you actually just explain what The Lab is, since some of our listeners might not be as familiar with it?

Sienna Lalau:
Absolutely. Yeah, people are probably like, “What’s The Lab?” [laughter] The Lab is a dance studio out in West Covina, California. We’re kind of turning it a little bit more into a creative agency now, but for the most part it is an advanced studio, and it’s been around for, I think over 20 years now. It’s kind of gone through different names. It’s under the direction of an amazing director named Valerie Ramirez, and also managed by my manager, Carrie Calkins. And we do all these competitions in the dance community, and we joined “World of Dance” and won that TV show. So yeah, it’s basically a dance studio, but now turning into a creative agency where we can bring in lots of new talent, whether it’s barbering, music, creative design, anything.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Did you say barbering?

Sienna Lalau:
Yes! We have a lot of amazing talented people around the studio that are friends with Val and Carrie, and we all kind of collectively come together and bring our talents and skills together to do all these fun projects and jobs together.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, dance studio plus.

Sienna Lalau:
Yes, exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And how did The Lab—how did being a part of that family sort of shape you as an artist?

Sienna Lalau:
I would say it changed pretty much my whole life. Changed my perspective, my mentality, just even my motivation to get up and want to dance every day, that was definitely, The Lab was a big part of… I think The Lab is a big part of who I am. I come from a small island, and I was always so used to just being more on the chill side of things, because everybody in Hawaii is very laid back. We love to live as life goes on, and just ride the wave as much as we can. But I felt like when I started to dance with The Lab and when I started to work with The Lab, it felt like a shift in my mentality. And mainly my hustle changed the most, just knowing if I really wanted to do something or succeed in something, then I had to get up and do it myself and not let my comfortability take over too much.

And so I think The Lab has shaped me in that way so much. I feel like The Lab has such just supportive and genuine people that I’m always surrounded by that have always supported me in everything that I’ve done. And so I’m just really thankful for each and every one of them, because they’ve, oh my gosh, they’ve made me the woman that I am today for sure.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And you’ve grown up so much as an artist over the past few years. Can you talk a little bit about how your creative process has evolved during that time, since you started this snowballing process of booking job after job after job? It feels like you’ve really found your voice.

Sienna Lalau:
I think with every job that I’ve done, I feel like I learned something new every single time, and I always find something that I’m not so strong in every single time. That process has been so amazing to watch, but also very stressful to be under. It’s been an interesting growth process I would say that I’ve had. But I think that the people that I’m always surrounded by and the people that I work with are always the pluses to it. It’s just being inspired by that and being motivated by the people that bring their energy and their commitment and their dedication towards everything, it’s such a rewarding feeling.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, the support system to help you get through that crucible that was forging you.

Sienna Lalau:
Exactly. Oh, my gosh.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So I especially want to talk about your work in K-pop, because you went from K-pop fan to respected K-pop choreographer so quickly. First of all, what draws you to that art form? Where does your affinity for it come from?

Sienna Lalau:
I’ve always kind of been a fan of K-pop, ever since I was, I would say middle school. I started listening to K-pop when I was like 12 or 13, because my cousin introduced it to me, and I loved the way it was just so colorful, so vibrant. And even though I didn’t understand a word they were saying at the time, it was just the fact that their music videos felt like they always had so much life in them. And that’s something that I connected to right away. It was the fashion that they had—the music makes you feel good, the beat and the vibe that you get from it is just so, it’s so…childlike. It’s just very vibrant and very full of life. And so I think that’s why I liked it so much.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I know what you mean about almost like a childlike quality to it. It’s that sense of earnestness—there’s no cynicism in it. It’s always full-throttle. We mean what we’re saying.

Sienna Lalau:
Exactly. Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There is such an appeal to that. Especially right now. I feel like after this year, we all need more of that.

Sienna Lalau:
Oh, my gosh. I totally feel that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So how did you initially get involved as a choreographer in that world? What was kind of your breakthrough moment?

Sienna Lalau:
I think for me…I posted a lot on my Instagram, and while social media has definitely played a big part in helping me get the jobs that I have today, I think the networking of it is so special, and the fact that I’ve been able to post a lot of my videos of my work from just working with The Lab or even choreographing things on my own and posting it on my social media, I think that’s what probably gained a lot of attention to these companies. And so I remember being hit up once to choreograph for a boy group named Exo. That was my first time ever doing a K-pop submission in my life, and I was so stressed, because I wanted it to be so good. And they ended up using some of it, or using the concepts of it, which was really, really cool.

And then The Lab did this competition called VIBE JRs. And we did this whole production set up, with risers and gates and chains for dogs. I don’t know. It was a full on crazy performance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The Lab is always full out, always.

Sienna Lalau:
Always, always the most. But I think after that video got posted, that’s when BTS had hit me up, or hit The Lab up, to have me choreograph to their song “Dionysus,” which, they wanted to use all of these props in it—a moving table, chairs, a staff, they wanted everything in it. And it was about the Greek gods or having a dinner at the table—or, the Last Supper, I think that’s what the theme of it was. And so I was like, well, I just choreographed for The Lab doing all this production stuff, so I think I can do it. We did it, we sent it in, they loved it. They used everything. And from there they posted the video of their performance and I was able to kind of share it on my page.

And from there, I think that’s when their ARMY, their fans, they were like, “Oh, my gosh, you choreographed this, it’s so crazy. The production level of it is insane.” Which I’m so thankful for them, by the way. The ARMY fans are definitely so dedicated and, oh, my gosh, they are so supportive of everything.

And so, yeah, after I choreographed that for them, I was able to choreograph for a little bit more K-pop jobs on the side for other groups after that. And then it wasn’t until they hit us up again, back in, I think it was November of 2019, to turn in a submission for “ON,” that music video that we were able to be a part of. And so from there, I sent them that submission and because they loved the way the dancers executed it so much, they wanted us to be in the music video ourselves.

So, oh my gosh, things just blew up from there. And obviously COVID happened right after that, which is such a sad feeling to be on such a high and then now to go back to…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Complete shutdown.

Sienna Lalau:
Exactly. But from there, I was so blessed because there were so many K-pop companies reaching out to me especially just from that, asking me to choreograph some of their new comebacks and their new songs that were coming out. So I was able to do, I think close to 10 different K-pop comebacks in the year of 2020 alone, which was so just such a blessing, especially because the world was put on pause and the world got shut down, and so to be able to still be working, it’s just crazy to have a job after everything got shut down.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I didn’t know that story, that BTS already had in mind that they wanted to use those specific props and you were like, “I can do that. The Lab has taught me how to do that. I’m your girl.”

Sienna Lalau:
Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s so great. I want to talk a little more about working with BTS because I mean, once you work with BTS, all of K-pop comes calling. How do you choreograph for this group that is, first of all, so famous, so huge, and second of all, that has so much diversity in its movement aesthetic?

Sienna Lalau:
Right. For me, I’m obviously a very big fan of theirs. I’ve always been a big fan of theirs, so I would say the 13-year-old girl in me was definitely screaming a lot inside when I first heard that they wanted me to choreograph for them. But I think whenever I work with artists, I like to just think of them first as human beings and not put so much of the pressure of them being a star on top of myself. Just putting this mindset on myself, that like, okay, they hired you because they believe in you and they want to work with you. They know what you can do. So it’s time to pull up, it’s time to show out, and not be afraid, and not be scared of showing them who I am through my choreography.

But for them too, especially like you said, they have such a diverse movement range in like what they do. And I grew up listening to them and I also watched all of their music videos, so I know what they’re capable of doing. And so for me, I wanted to think of things that maybe they haven’t done too much of in their past songs, and try to bring a different energy and a different vibe that would fit the song that they wanted me to choreograph to trying to think of ways to elevate their movement and think of different things that they haven’t done before.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, rather than sort of playing the greatest hits in terms of things they’ve done.

Sienna Lalau:
Exactly. Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, a lot of our listeners are from the concert-oriented part of the dance world. And I think sometimes that community tends to write off commercial dance generally and K-pop in particular as “unserious.” Like, “Oh, that’s fun. That’s not serious dance.” Which is clearly wrong. But what would be your personal argument against that? What does that perspective on this industry miss?

Sienna Lalau:
I think dance is just meant to be a form of an expression, right? And so I can see where the concert dance world wants it to be serious. But I think the one thing that dance is able to do, the superpower that it has, is that it brings people together. It unites people, and it’s something that’s very fun, something that’s very pure and something that’s very raw in its own self. And so I can see where they probably look at the industry and just the K-pop world as unserious, “unserious”. But I think that they make waves in the community. They make waves in the world, and they’re also bringing together people of all different backgrounds, all different origins, all different styles. And so personally I think that the K-pop and the commercial industry is definitely serious because it makes impacts. It makes impacts on people. Everybody feels something when they watch either the K-pop industry or the commercial industry.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s like, the proof is in the impact—you can’t argue with the billions of views that these video get. They’re obviously connecting with people. They mean things to people.

Sienna Lalau:
Exactly. Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And I think I phrased that question poorly, because “unserious” is sort of the wrong word. It’s more about a lack of respect. Although I do think some of that comes from the fact that K-pop in particular…the commercial dance industry generally emphasizes fun, and that is seen as inherently less serious and therefore inherently less worthy of respect, even though that shouldn’t be the case, because I know you take your work deadly seriously, even though what you’re doing is inherently fun.

Sienna Lalau:
Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, anyway, here’s one giant reason everyone should take commercial dance seriously, and that’s something that you already touched on, which is that the industry has done a much better job weathering the pandemic than the concert dance world has. There’s still commercial work out there happening. Can you talk a little bit more about how the pandemic affected your life and career? How did your life change and what have you learned over this past pandemic year?

Sienna Lalau:
Absolutely. I would definitely say the pandemic changed my life tremendously. When it first started, I was already kind of going through a lot, mentally and emotionally. And I remember just being on a two week break. I took a break from everything, everything that had to do with dance. I said, “Nope, I’m going to watch TV, Netflix.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hard reset.

Sienna Lalau:
Right. I said, let me just take these two weeks to myself to just kind of process everything that’s going on and really figure out the next step in my life. And so from there I realized like, oh, my gosh, like, okay, I need to make something happen for myself. I can’t wait for these opportunities to come because nobody’s really providing them anymore in this time. So as a human, I just tried my best to just live a better life: working out every day, eating correctly, making up more choreography, thinking about new ideas for concept videos.

And so I felt like that time that we were given where the world shut down for really presented us a lot of time to just really work on ourselves and see things in a different perspective and come up with new creative ideas. So that’s definitely one thing that I’ve been working on.

This past year also presented me a lot of different new creative ways to figure out how I can present dance now through video, and how can I showcase my choreography in a special way through video. And so that’s definitely one thing that I’ve also been working on through the pandemic. And it was really cool to see that even through the pandemic, like I said, I was doing a lot of K-pop jobs. So a lot of these different groups are inquiring me to make up choreography for the new songs. And that’s one thing that definitely kept me afloat, doing different video projects with The Lab. Recently, I just did a job with Ms. Jennifer Lopez again for the Global Citizen Vax Live Concert. And that was so cool in itself, just to be able to perform live again in front of a real audience. Even though we still had to wear masks, there was still the fact that everybody kind of got united together and we were able to just feed off of the crowd’s energy and everything. That was something that I never felt in a long time.

So even though the pandemic really, I felt like it definitely took a toll on everybody’s mental and emotional state for sure, and I know that a lot of my friends have lost their jobs or they had to move back home—I’m still so proud of every single one of us for just keeping on and just doing what we got to do in the time that we’re given right now to hopefully have a better and more successful future.

And I also have my family here now. They all moved up from Hawaii. So it was just my mom and I living up here in L.A. for three years, and now my family, my younger three siblings and my dad, they all live together with us.

Margaret Fuhrer:
They’re all in L.A. for good?

Sienna Lalau:
Yes, here for good! So it’s a nice reunion with all of us. And yeah, it’s been an up and down rollercoaster for sure. But at the end of the day, I’m always so thankful.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Family helps everything so much.

Sienna Lalau:
Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m glad that you brought up self-care, because I feel like, because of the intensity of the hustle, as you were describing, a lot of dance artists let that fall by the wayside too much. It’s just, like, last on their list of priorities. But that can lead to creative burnout too, if you don’t take time to take care of yourself.

Sienna Lalau:
Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, it is AAPI Heritage Month. It’s this moment of celebration that feels especially needed after the swell of anti-Asian hate over the past year, especially since the Atlanta shootings. And you are part of Instagram’s #RethinkOurInfluence Campaign for AAPI Heritage Month, which is so wonderful. Can you talk a little about what being a member of this community means to you, and why API representation is crucial in the dance industry in particular?

Sienna Lalau:
Absolutely. For me being a part of the API community is something that I take so much pride in. I take so much pride in where I come from and who I am, because it’s what makes me, me. And to be one of the few Polynesian dancers, hip hop dancers in the industry, and also being one of the few Polynesian choreographers in the industry, is something that I like to take pride in too. Because I just think that it’s so cool to represent my people in that aspect. And for, especially where I come from in my culture, not a lot of our people are hip hop dancers, and so it’s really cool to be in this community and represent it in such a different way. But with everything going on in the world, it breaks my heart to see that we still have this conflict in 2021.

This is like what I always say, because as a human being, I think that we all have a right to be treated equally and to be treated fairly, and the fact that we still see these cycles not being broken this year, it’s so heartbreaking. And I love that it is AAPI Month, this month, to kind of bring things back into perspective and to celebrate my culture and its people. There’s a lot of things that have derived from our people and our culture, and I’m always just so thankful to be a part of just the Asian Pacific Islander community in general.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So finally, what dance projects are on the horizon for you? What should we keep an eye out for? What’s coming soon—that you’re allowed to talk about?

Sienna Lalau:
Well, some K-pop jobs here and there that I cannot talk about, but…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Stay tuned.

Sienna Lalau:
…definitely stay tuned for that. And hopefully just to keep dancing every day and just do what I love. But that’s definitely what might be happening in the future.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Listeners, she just gave me the best wink. Thank you so much for taking the time today. Where can people go to keep up with you and to find out what you’re working on? I know your Instagram is huge—is that the best place to go?

Sienna Lalau:
Yes. My Instagram for sure is the best place to go. It’s @sienna.lalau. And you can go check out all of my stuff on there. That’s usually where I post, but I’ve been kind of bad at posting recently, so I will get better at it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Your “bad at posting” is most people’s “great at posting.” Thank you again, Sienna. And yeah, looking forward to seeing more of those projects.

Sienna Lalau:
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, and thank you everybody for listening. I hope you have a beautiful day, and I hope you guys are all doing well in this crazy time that we’re in, and I hope that we can all be reunited once again, very, very soon.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Amen to that.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Sienna. And by the way, she just joined Misty Copeland’s HQ Dance and Activism Challenge, which is a chance for young dancers—I think it’s ages 13 to 21—to tell their stories through dance, and then also potentially earn prizes. So you can find out more about that on her Instagram page, which again is @sienna.lalau.

All right, thanks everyone for joining us. We’ll be back soon for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world—three of us will be back soon. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.