Transcript, Episode 70: TikTok Strike, Ballet Departures, and Game-Changing Grants

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

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we will talk about the Black TikTok dance creator strike, which is a viral campaign that’s aiming to bring awareness to systemic inequities in that online space. We will discuss two kind of surprising changes in ballet-world leadership that raise questions about how ballet companies share information, and how much of that information they choose to share. Then we’ll do a little bit of a followup to our conversation from a couple episodes back, about MacKenzie Scott’s major grants to dance organizations, now that we’ve heard more about what those grants are and how companies are planning to use them.

But before all that, we actually have a little sort of amuse-bouche for you. Because, as we’ve mentioned, we’re getting ready to launch The Dance Edit Extra, our new premium interview series, which we’re very excited about. And we can announce now that our first episode, the very first interview in this series, will be with the absolutely brilliant choreographer Andrea Miller.

I just talked to Andrea, and we discussed the creation of her upcoming sculpture and sound and performance installation, You Are Here, which will be presented on the Lincoln Center campus later this month—all over the Lincoln center campus. Right now, we’re going to play an exclusive clip from that interview, to give you a sense of what you can expect from The Dance Edit Extra. Just a little context: At this point in the interview, we’re talking about the fact that You Are Here is an inclusive project. It’s designed so that all guests, including those with disabilities, can experience it. Here’s the clip.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
So how did that idea of inclusivity sort of shape the development of the work? Two part question—the second part is, how do you see inclusion as part of your creative philosophy more broadly?

Andrea Miller:
This is, I think, one of the things that is really important about getting outside of the theater. Which I think now, theater is becoming a little bit more aware of this. But when you make a work for public space, kids are there. Seniors are there. People with accessibility needs are there. People who don’t want to see you are there. People wanted to sit down in that chair that you’re now dancing in are there! So it really totally changes your status.

When you’re on the stage, you’re dominating the space. You are telling people to sit down, and listen, and watch. And obviously, you can totally play with that—I described it in very cartoonish ways. But when make a work for public space, you have to think about everybody. You have to do your best to try to think about everybody.

That really excites me, and it inspires me. I have a lot more that I want to do and learn with that. I’m just at the beginning. This is just the beginning. But it’s a space that I want to be in, because that’s exactly where the movement that I’m making and the conversations that it requires are pushing to grow and make more connection with our world and our lives.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Seriously, that is just a tiny taste of that interview, and that interview is a full-on meal. So we really hope that you’ll join us for this Dance Edit Extra adventure, to hear more from Andrea, and then from all the other artists who are shaping the dance world’s headlines who we will be talking to. You can find out more about the series at thedanceedit.com.

All right. Now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown—beginning with Lil Nas X’s kiss heard ’round the world.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, so, the final weekend of Pride month was absolutely sweltering. You know what else was? Lil Nas X on the BET Awards Sunday night.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well played. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
Of course, Lil Nas X broke the internet yet again with his performance. Other dance-driven performances included Silk Sonic, Migos, and Cardi B. If you missed the awards, I believe they’re still watchable in their entirety on YouTube. And BET also put up a video collecting all the performances in one handy-dandy place.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Sean Bankhead choreographed that Lil Nas X performance, by the way. Just, more shout outs for Sean Bankhead, and more shout outs for Lil Nas X, always, forever. So good.

Amy Brandt:
The Royal Ballet has had to cancel its performances in London after a COVID-19 outbreak forced a number of dancers to quarantine. The company’s summer Draft Works series, which was set to occur July 1st through 3rd at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theater, is being postponed until next season. So, just a little reminder that we aren’t completely out of the woods yet in terms of this pandemic.

Courtney Escoyne:
Worth noting, though: A lot of the mainstage performances are, for the moment, still going forward at The Royal.

Amy Brandt:
True.

Courtney Escoyne:
Lil Wayne’s Uproar Hip-Hop Festival has announced that they’re adding a dance competition to the lineup this August. It will be hosted by choreographer Samantha Long, who’s joined on the judges panel by Lil Buck and Jon Boogz. Interested dancer duos can submit videos now via Instagram. 12 Semi-finalist teams will go to LA in July. After a competition to narrow the field, six duos will compete on August 13th. Rules for entry are available at uproar420.com.

Amy Brandt:
The Great White Way has officially opened. Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show, opened at full capacity to a fully vaccinated crowd last weekend at the St. James Theater. I have my tickets! I’m going in August.

Courtney Escoyne:
Aww, fun.

Amy Brandt:
I know, I’m very excited. Obviously we know there’s no dancing in this show, but it’s still exciting news and a sign of what’s coming.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, this is also not dance news, but I just loved the New York Times profile of the usher who’s been an usher at that theater, at the Springsteen on Broadway theater, for the past 20 years. And he was just so thrilled to get back to work. This reopening means so much for the performers, of course, but also for this whole ecosystem of Broadway workers.

Courtney Escoyne:
The White House has announced President Biden’s nominees to the National Council on the Arts. We were delighted to see that they included Apollo Theater executive producer and all-around brilliant theater and television director Kamilah Forbes, and Dance Place executive and artistic director Christopher K. Morgan. Now, they’ll still need to be approved by the Senate, but there’s no reason to believe that that process will go anything but smoothly. Huge congratulations.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That’s major.

Amy Brandt:
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Jerome Robbins’ Dance Division has just announced its latest class of dance research fellows, exploring the theme of dance and democracy. This year’s fellows include Tommie-Waheed Evans, Petra Kuppers, zavé martohardjono, Ariel Nereson, Jason Samuels Smith, and Huiwang Zhang. Each fellow will receive a stipend of $7,500, and a research period from July 1st to December 31st of this year to complete their work. They’ll be able to showcase their research in either a presentation or performance at a day long symposium on Friday, January 28th next year.

Courtney Escoyne:
Those symposiums are always just such treats. They just have so many resources at the Jerome Robbins’ Dance Division, and seeing what these different artists do when given access is absolutely incredible.

Swinging back around to Broadway: MJ the Musical announced the departure of leading man Ephraim Sykes, who you might know from being in the original Broadway ensemble of Hamilton, or from a star-making turn in Ain’t Too Proud. Ephraim stepped back from the musical to work on a feature film. And taking his place is Myles Frost, a newcomer who will be making his Broadway debut in the role of Michael Jackson when MJ starts previews in December. So like, yay, Ephraim, go get that Hollywood money. But also, I really wanted to see you in this part.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But also, congratulations to Myles Frost! That’s a huge break.

Courtney Escoyne:
Huge.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And also it’s almost… It’s sort of a miracle that this show is somehow still happening.

Courtney Escoyne:
Given everything.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Given everything. Yes. The bigger picture context as well.

Amy Brandt:
The trailer for a new Bill T. Jones documentary has just dropped. The film, entitled Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, centers on Jones’ signature work, created at the height of the AIDS crisis, as he stages it on a group of young dancers today. Can You Bring It will be released in select theaters starting July 16th. And I’ve actually never seen D-Man in the Waters, I’m embarrassed to say.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, fix that as soon as possible!

Courtney Escoyne:
You do still get to experience it for the first time…

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Make sure you have Kleenex.

NBC’s upcoming Annie Live! has added Harry Connick Jr. to the cast, playing Sir Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks opposite Taraji P. Henson’s Miss Hannigan. The live made-for-TV musical, which has Sergio Trujillo attached to choreograph, is set to air December 2nd. And I believe they’re still looking for their Annie.

Amy Brandt:
A new Latinx dance movie entitled The Way You Move is in the works. Directed by Alberto Belli, the movie follows an inner-city teenager, whose punishment for getting in trouble at school is to join the ballroom dance club. And of course, he realizes how much he loves ballroom dance once he gets there. So filming starts this fall.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Very curious to see who the choreographer for that project will end up being.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I did not see any names attached, so we’ll keep you posted.

Courtney Escoyne:
And Netflix and Shondaland have teamed up with UK experiential company Secret Cinema to produce an IRL Regency-style ball, inspired by the runaway hit “Bridgerton.” The immersive soirée will feature a string quartet playing arrangements of pop songs for the dancing, as well as life drawing, card playing, and apparently boxing. The event will take place at a yet-to-be-disclosed location in London, beginning in November. Tickets are set to go on sale for the secret ball on Tuesday, July 6th.

What if I just went to London for this? Like seriously. All I want is to attend a Regency ball, except maybe I’ll wear like a suit and tails instead of a gown. I don’t know…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Courtney, you and I were saying…we both have our outfits already planned.

Courtney Escoyne:
We do.

Margaret Fuhrer:
They’re already in our closets.

Courtney Escoyne:
Truly. And I just…I want to be Keira Knightley in the Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice movie. That’s all I want.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Or Gentleman Jack. Either/or.

Courtney Escoyne:
I would love be Gentleman Jack. That is truly the goal.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I might be mixing my historical eras there.

All right. So in our first deeper dive segment today, we’d like to discuss a viral campaign that’s been going on for a couple of weeks now, but it recently exploded into the mainstream news. And that is the Black TikTok creator strike, which is a widespread protest designed to raise awareness about inequities in the online space. Essentially, Black TikTok dance creators have been refusing to choreograph a dance to Megan Thee Stallion’s very dance-ready new song, “Thot Sh•t,” to force non-Black users to come up with their own dances, and thus prove how essential Black creators are to the platform.

The goals of this movement certainly include ensuring that dance creators get proper credit and compensation, which are problems that we’ve discussed before on the podcast. But it goes beyond that, too. At the root of this campaign are even larger issues of power and ownership.

Amy Brandt:
I have some questions, because I’m not on TikTok, and I don’t know a whole lot about it. I think I’m showing my age here.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s okay, Amy. I’m not on TikTok either. Because I know I will never emerge again if I go down that rabbit hole.

Amy Brandt:
Right. I know it’s huge and it’s very influential and everyone’s on it. But I am not. So I’m just curious: How do people make money off of TikTok? Is it like Instagram with influencers? And I know there’s some sort of fund set up with TikTok. How does that work?

Margaret Fuhrer:
So from my understanding, there are a few different ways to make money off TikTok. One of them is similar to what’s happening on Instagram, where you can land influencer brand deals, and get sponsorships that way. But TikTok also has a creator fund that pays creators directly, based on the number of views and engagements they’re getting with their videos. So it is a little bit different in that respect.

Courtney Escoyne:
Where things get thorny when you’re talking about views and engagement, is… There has been a lot of well-publicized issues that have arisen with TikTok, of, are Black creators getting shoved to essentially the back of the queue when it comes to what the app is putting forward for people to discover and engage with. And when you have that algorithmic bias already in place, it makes it a lot easier for white creators—who take the dances of Black choreographers and don’t necessarily credit them—it makes a lot easier for them to blow up, and either benefit from that fund or from other sponsorships, than the Black creators who are actually responsible for the work themselves.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So it is interesting to note that the strike is having a real effect on the online landscape. There are a lot fewer videos than might be expected set to the Megan Thee Stallion song. And a lot of people are saying that’s because white creators don’t have a dance trend to copy, because Black creators aren’t making it.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I think the TikTok post about this, that’s gotten so much traction and attention, is—Erick Louis posted one, where he has the track playing in the background. It starts out seeming like, “Okay, here comes the dance track.” And then he flips off the camera, walks off, and the screen says, “SIKE! This app would be nothing without Black people.” And if that doesn’t make the point, I don’t know what does.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And it’s interesting, because some people have pointed out that this isn’t a true “strike,” because many of these Black creators are still posting other content. But what it is is a labor protest. This is about calling attention to the exploitation of Black labor, which is a problem that goes well beyond TikTok, and also well back into history. Black Americans have gone on strike to extract fair compensation for their work since before the Civil War. I think what’s different here is the scale of influence of these particular workers. Because the influence that these online creators have is massive.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, absolutely. And it grows exponentially. And also, I think it’s making it much more visible and clear something that’s been going on in culture for decades and decades and decades, which is, Black creators do the work. And then a white creator will come along and say, “This is really cool,” and elevate it, or appropriate it, depending on how they actually handled the issue. And then it becomes acceptable. It becomes mainstream, because a white creator put their hands on this. We see this with African-American vernacular English. We see this with, for example, twerking. This has been happening, and been happening, and been happening. And the difference right now is that, in part because of the way TikTok works, there’s actually more of a platform now for this absence to be noticed.

Amy Brandt:
Right. Has TikTok come out with any statement or anything about this? Have they acknowledged what’s going on?

Margaret Fuhrer:
They issued a comment to the New York Times for their story, that was sort of anodyne and…unlikely to satisfy most people, I guess is the way I’d put it.

So I think the bigger questions here, are how do we protect this whole class of workers who are creating what is obviously a very valuable product, but not necessarily reaping the financial benefits of it, for starters? How do we transfer some of the enormous power that the social platforms themselves have back to the creators, and particularly the creators of color, that are driving them? That’s what’s at the root of all of this.

Okay. So in our next segment, we want to talk about two pieces of ballet-world news that dropped this week. Or actually, we want to talk less about the news items themselves than about how they were conveyed.

So first, last week, Oregon Ballet Theatre issued a press release saying that its artistic director of eight years, Kevin Irving, had resigned. And then earlier this week, San Francisco Ballet similarly announced that its executive director of just two years, Kelly Tweeddale, had stepped down. No explanations were given by either company for these departures. Irving did issue a letter of his own, clarifying that he had been asked to resign. And shortly after that, Irving’s life partner, Nicolo Fonte, who had been resident choreographer at OBT, clarified that he too would be leaving the company, although initially the OBT’s board chair had said that he’d be staying on.

We’re just going to start by saying, right off the bat, that we have no further details about what exactly happened behind the scenes at either of these organizations. And we’re not here to speculate, or start rumors. But we do want to talk about how these announcements reflect a general lack of transparency at pretty much all major ballet companies, and about how that sort of “nothing to see here” opacity shapes and warps ballet culture.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I feel like I’m seeing a few different issues collide here. Because…Okay. As private individuals, what we choose and do not choose to share publicly about our lives, and our careers, and decisions about that, that should be just that: a choice. And becoming a semi-public figure should not divest you of that right to privacy. But at the same time, ballet’s well-documented history of collectively just sweeping things under the rug, and operating with all the transparency of a well-layered romantic tutu, means that when explanations aren’t given, the assumption and the suspicion, deserved or not, will be that there is something being hidden. So how do we navigate these things that—okay, it’s possible that these were just personal decisions made by the individuals, and the companies are respecting their privacy. Versus, okay, is there something going on here? Because there’s been no explanation given. Historically, we can point at all these instances where no explanation given was because there was something to hide.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Something was up. Yeah. I have to go back to your “well-layered romantic tutu” thing, which was brilliant. Because I just want to clarify, we’re not talking about a diaphanous Serenade tutu. We’re talking about a full-on La Valse, multiple layers of heavy tulle tutu. That’s where we’re going here. [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
It would have been very easy for them to just say, “The board wants to go in a different direction,” or something. That can say a lot without divulging everything, if it is the truth. But by not explaining anything… Sometimes that can backfire, I think, and lead to misinformation, rumor mongering, et cetera. People start to speculate on what happened, what didn’t happen.

I agree with you, Courtney. I think there is—on the one hand, these are often private conversations. There’s often heavy negotiating going on. They often involve a lot of people, large boards making these decisions. Or sometimes, it’s just one person who is unhappy, and wants to leave, but doesn’t want to air their dirty laundry or whatnot.

But yeah, as we’ve seen in the past, that’s not always the case. There was a lot of confusion over Liam Scarlett’s departure at The Royal Ballet. That was not really explained, that I think left a lot of people really confused and angry. I think it does help to be transparent at times about these things.

I’ve experienced lots of leadership changes at places where I’ve worked before. Director changes—I think I worked for three or four different people at one company I danced for, in an eight-year period. And I know some of those departures were not friendly. And others were just, “I need to change.” But that wasn’t really shared with the public. And there was nothing really sinister going on. I don’t know if it needed to be shared with the public, so much. But it is kind of interesting, because you’re asking the public for support and donations to your organization. Where do you draw the line of what’s shared, and what isn’t shared?

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think this is a problem that goes well beyond ballet. I feel like this tends to happen at most organizations as they grow larger and then end up becoming more bureaucratic: There’s this focus on protecting the company, rather than thinking first about what’s best for the employees, or what’s best for the wider community that the company operates in. And ballet companies tend to be the dance organizations with the most resources, so they are more likely to have more bureaucracy—we could do a whole separate episode on that.

But it does seem like at least a little bit more transparency about why and how these companies make, especially, leadership decisions, because those have such a profound effect on the state of the company—I think that would help people both inside and outside the organization identify potentially problematic aspects of a decision-making process. The less insular they are, the more fair they might end up being. Just more voices, more eyes, more air in that space could be helpful.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think also, as you pointed out, Amy, often they’re soliciting donations. They also want to get butts in seats. And I think that increasingly as… Trying to court “younger” audiences, and new audiences, and more diverse audiences—I think people of my generation, people of the generation below me, it’s important to us that who we are supporting are also operating in ethical ways. And so, if you’re on the fence about whether or not you want to support this organization, and you see, “Okay, they’re not really being transparent. I don’t really know what’s going on here”—which way is your opinion going to lean? Are you going to roll the dice? Or are you going to say, “You know what, I’m going to put my support towards something that I have more faith that things are being done ethically, that the people who work here are being treated well, and that they are actually working to serve their community the way that they say that they are.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. These organizations do have responsibilities to the communities that they serve, for sure.

All right. So finally today, we want to do a quick followup on the grants that MacKenzie Scott made to a whole bunch of diverse and historically underfunded dance companies. Because we’ve now heard a bit about first of all how much each of these dance groups actually received, and then also about how each company is planning to use the funds. Pretty much everything we’ve heard just further proves how hugely transformative these gifts—these unrestricted, un-earmarked gifts—are going to be.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I mean, unrestricted grants? Game changers for any individual. For any organization. And in the amounts that we are talking about… This is bananas. It’s just bananas, in the best way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s totally bonkers, yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
To do a quick little roll call here of more of the details that we’ve gotten: Collage Dance Collective received three million dollars. Dance Theatre of Harlem received 10 million dollars. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater received 20 million, which they say is going to go towards commissioning new work, producing new productions of existing Ailey rep, teacher training, and Ailey School scholarships. 10 million dollars went to Ballet Hispánico; they’re currently consulting with their board, but artistic director Eduardo Vilaro is looking at bolstering the company’s endowment fund and providing scholarships. And 3 million dollars went to Urban Bush Women. Which, the artistic director, Jawole, made a comment in one of the articles covering this saying that part of sustainability means investing in people.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I loved that.

Courtney Escoyne:
She had this fantastic quote that said, “You do brilliant work on two cents of prayer and spit. And there’s a certain creativity that comes out of that, of what you have to do. But there’s also a price that is paid.” And I wish I could have a mini Jawole just to ride around in my pocket and say wonderful, brilliant, wise things to me all the time. [laughter]

Another thing that got me in these news articles, that really got me, was Anna Glass from Dance Theatre of Harlem, talking about the 10 million gift that DTH got, saying, “It will allow the company to say, ‘We have a future. We know we can exist 50 years from now.’ ” I’m getting choked up saying that again.

Amy Brandt:
I also just want to add, Courtney, that LINES Ballet got 5 million dollars.

Courtney Escoyne:
I knew I was missing someone on this list! Thank you, Amy.

Amy Brandt:
But going back to what you said: Dance Theatre of Harlem, for example, they’re so beloved. But it wasn’t really that long ago that the company had to take an eight-year break. I remember being in New York, dancing, and seeing what that did to a lot of dancers’ careers. For some of them, it really altered the course of their career. Or it ended their careers. And it was just so heartbreaking. So something like this, that really solidifies that they have a strong future ahead—especially after this pandemic, is really just such wonderful news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The gift of sustainability, that’s really what it is.

All right. That is somehow our episode for this week. Thank you everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Amy Brandt:
Bye everybody.