Transcript, Episode 71: Gender-Blind Ballet, “Hamilton”’s Federal Aid, and Propaganda Dance

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 Ashton Edwards, the nonbinary dancer who is helping to change professional ballet’s approach to gender. We will break down how the smash hit Hamilton ended up with $30 million of federal aid, and what that means for the wider performing arts industry. And finally, we’ll discuss the wave of nationalistic dance happening in China right now, as the country’s communist party turns 100, and the larger complexities of propaganda art of this type.

But before we get into the episode, just a reminder that The Dance Edit Extra, our new premium interview series, is launching imminently. As we mentioned last episode, the first interview in the series will feature choreographer Andrea Miller discussing her new inclusive performance installation at Lincoln Center. And we have a whole bunch of great guests lined up for future episodes too. So please visit the thedanceedit.com to find out more about the series. And actually, when I say that the Extra is launching imminently, I do mean imminently—there’ll be more information about that very soon. So make sure that you’re following us on Instagram @the.dance.edit and Twitter @dance_edit to hear launch updates just as soon as they’re out.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, starting with yet more major dance company leadership news, oh my goodness.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which broke right before we were sitting down to record. So, National Ballet of Canada finally announced that Hope Muir will be its next artistic director, succeeding longtime leader Karen Kain. Kain officially stepped into the role of artistic director emerita at the end of June; Muir is expected to take over on January 1st. She’s been artistic director of Charlotte Ballet since 2017. So we will definitely be watching to see how the leadership transition is handled there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, there’d been all kinds of speculation about who might replace Karen Kain. I don’t think there was any clear front runner. But Muir is definitely a surprise choice for sure.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it’s also—we’ve been waiting for this announcement for so long, because Kain announced her imminent retirement before COVID, and ended up staying on a bit longer just to shepherd the company through. And also she’s an institution, she’s been there for so long.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. It will be interesting to hear what Hope’s plans are for the company.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and definitely exciting that the company will still be led by a woman! That’s good news. Speaking of which…

Amy Brandt:
Yes: Ballet Tech, a public school, which makes dance training accessible to thousands of New York schoolchildren, has announced that ballet and Broadway dancer Dionne Figgins will succeed founder Eliot Feld as its artistic director. Figgins danced with Dance Theatre of Har-lem under Arthur Mitchell, and later she danced on Broadway in Motown the Musical and Memphis, among others. And according to the New York Times, she really developed a love for teaching over the course of the pandemic at her alma mater, the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington, DC. She is also the co-founder of Broadway Serves, a community service organization for Broadway and theater professionals. And she comes from a dancing family: Her sisters, Jenelle and Samantha, who I believe are twins, are also dancers.

Courtney Escoyne:
Wait! Wait—I hadn’t put that together. Really?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah!

Courtney Escoyne:
That just made me even more excited about this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, they’re all all so great. This is such wonderful news. And I also feel like it’s kind of only a matter of time before those three dance sisters are running most of the dance world, and I sort of can’t wait for that to happen.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m here for it.

So after what was meant to be a COVID-free dance party at the Aspen Valley nightclub in the Netherlands, more than 160 of the 650 attendees have tested positive for the virus. The event required proof of vaccination or a recent negative test to gain admittance, and attendees were not required to wear masks or distance once they were inside. But in the aftermath, it seems that many who are admitted used screen grabs of others’ test results. Local health authorities have asked that all attendees self isolate until they can be tested. I’m just…I’m mad about it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I have to say I’m so relieved to hear that it’s a story of people skirting the rules, as opposed to vaccines not working or tests not working.

Courtney Escoyne:
Right. True.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But still, not great.

Amy Brandt:
Belgian choreographer Jan Fabre will stand trial for abuse of power and sexual harassment following an investigation prompted by allegations made by performers in his company. In 2018, 20 women who danced with his company, Troubleyn, wrote a public letter accusing him of inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment after he gave an interview where he defended his rehearsal practice. I think he was talking about the “secret bond” between choreographer and dancer, among other things. The accounts in the letter are truly harrowing, ranging from bullying and humiliation—especially about women’s weight—to doling out roles in exchange for sexual favors. The hearing is scheduled for September. So, I guess I’m glad that they’re taking it seriously in the court system there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, the investigation that preceded this announcement lasted almost three years. The allegations go back decades. There’s a lot to take in here. We’ll link to the pretty comprehensive story that the Belgian magazine The Bulletin ran on the situation.

Courtney Escoyne:
And meanwhile, stateside, after Phylicia Rashad tweeted in support of Bill Cosby’s release last week—Tweeting, “Finally a terrible, wrong is being righted. A miscarriage of justice is being corrected”—Howard University, where Rashad was recently appointed dean of the College of Fine Arts, released a statement disavowing her stance: “Survivors of sexual assault will always be our priority. While Dean Rashad acknowledged in her followup Tweet that victims must be heard and believed, her initial tweet lacked sensitivity towards survivors of sexual assault.” The statement continued that the university would continue to advocate for survivors, and that while the personal positions of those in leadership at the university did not reflect its policies, they had full confidence that the school’s faculty and staff would live up to that commitment.

Margaret Fuhrer:         
And this story just keeps going. A couple of days later, Rashad sent an apology letter to Howard students, and then recently Cosby himself launched this whole ugly tirade against Howard. Another really complicated story—we have some explanatory links in the show notes.

Amy Brandt:
The Royal Ballet announced that they’ve appointed Joseph Toonga as the company’s new emerging choreographer. Toonga, who was born in Cameroon and moved to London in the 1990s, has a background in hip hop, and his work often addresses racial and societal stereotypes. He’s also the founder of Just Us Dance Theatre, a dance collective and hip hop apprentice company, and the artist-led hip hop initiative Artists for Artists. The Royal’s emerging choreographer position is a two-year program that will give Toonga the opportunity to work with and create on the company, receive mentorship by resident choreographer Wayne McGregor, and shadow the Royal’s associate and visiting choreographers. Very interesting move by the Royal Ballet—very outside the box to go outside of ballet itself for their emerging choreographer pick.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I like it.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And he’s been doing the work for a while as well, if you pay attention to the UK scene.

Amy Brandt:
I sort of question the term “emerging choreographer,” because he seems to have been working for quite a while, but…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Dance Magazine did a great story about that. What does it mean to be an emerging choreographer for multiple decades?

Courtney Escoyne:
So, filed under things I did not have on my 2021 bingo card but honestly probably should have: There’s a new video cycling around the internet featuring K-pop sensation BTS getting into a dance-off with one of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots. The behind the scenes featurette debuted alongside the latest Spot dancing video, featuring half a dozen of the robots performing to BTS’s “IONIQ: I’m On It.” While the dance video has garnered around 1.4 million views, the one actually featuring BTS has already gotten over 21 million. So, I don’t think there’s any fears about dancing robots replacing K-pop idol groups.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It feels wrong talking about anything BTS without Lydia. But did either of you have sort of weirdly complicated emotions watching this? Like, love BTS, and the two videos were very cool and endearing and fun. But it’s also strange when you know that this is an attempt by Hyundai, who just bought Boston Dynamics, to emphasize the playful side of these machines, to minimize some not-so-great PR they’ve been getting recently about how, for example, Spot robots were used in rather sinister ways by the New York Police Department. I don’t know—I was all over the map.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
I was just thinking about how much work that must have been, to program that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, here’s some progress: The Verge story that talked about this—they used the same choreographer, Monica Thomas, that they use for their previous viral video. And she actually got a credit in this story. So yay, progress on that front.

Amy Brandt:
New York City’s brand new Little Island, with its small outdoor stage overlooking the Hudson River, has just announced its lineup for the Little Island Dance Festival in September, co-created by choreographer in residence Ayodele Casel and her longtime collaborator Torya Beard. The festival features an international array of percussive music and dance forms, includes four world premieres, and offers a National Dance Day celebration on September 18th. The lineup includes Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence, The House of Xtravaganza, Rokafella and Ryan K. Johnson in a collaboration, kathak artists Barkha Patel and Michela Marino Lerman, a tap dancer, in another collaboration, Ayodele & Friends, and so much more. And I believe those dates are September 15th to September 19th.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I don’t think I can overstate how excited I am about this festival. And if you want to learn a little bit more about how it all came together, please do listen to our interview with Adoyele and Torya. That was back in episode 68—one of my all-time favorites.

Courtney Escoyne:
And earlier this week, reality TV series “Dance Moms” officially turned 10 years old. Buzzfeed did a very Buzzfeed roundup detailing where the show stars have ended up a decade later, including the moms, as well as the Ziegler sisters, Jojo Siwa, and of course the infamous Abby Lee Miller. I kind of feel like it’s been longer than 10 years. I feel like “Dance Moms” has been so ubiquitous for so long that it’s kind of mind boggling to me that it’s only been 10 years.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Whereas I was thinking, it’s been 10 years, and yet I haven’t aged a day. [laughter] I just can’t get over that baby McKenzie Ziegler is 17 years old. That is so bonkers to me.

All right. So in our first roundtable segment today, we have to talk about Dance Spirit‘s new digital cover star, the extraordinary Ashton Edwards. Ashton is a young Black nonbinary ballet dancer who was assigned male at birth and dances on pointe. And they’re hoping for a professional career in which they’ll be cast not just in contemporary parts, which are more likely to be gender-blind, but also in all the roles from the classical ballet canon, including traditionally female roles. And Ashton is well on their way to achieving that dream: This fall, Ashton will become an apprentice with Pacific Northwest Ballet, which is fantastic.

It’s a pretty incredible moment, both for Ashton and for the ballet world as a whole. And we just want to take a minute to, first of all, celebrate Ashton and their accomplishments, but also to talk about what the work they’ve done and continue to do means for the future of ballet.

Amy Brandt:
I’ve been following Ashton for a while, and I was wondering what was going to happen with Ashton’s career as far as, would a director take a chance on him. And to see that Peter has, and really opened the door…and not just take a chance, but I mean, Pacific Northwest Ballet is a big major ballet company in the United States. In the past, and specifically in the recent past, a lot of nonbinary dancers have had to go off and kind of create their own companies if they wanted to express themselves authentically. And to see that Peter is creating this opportunity in a more mainstream ballet company is… I’m very intrigued to see how this opens doors going forward and how it continues.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, it is an apprenticeship. So, grain of salt: what happens at the end of this apprenticeship year or two years is anyone’s guess. Obviously Ashton is immensely skilled, immensely well-trained, very driven, and, I mean, gorgeous. The photos from the Dance Spirit shoot—I’m like, excuse me, why do you look better in pointe shoes than I ever did? This is upsetting, in the best way. But it’s not just a matter of, okay, is an artistic director going to “take a chance” on hiring a nonbinary dancer who wants to potentially do more roles than just the roles that would typically be awarded to them based on their assigned gender at birth? It’s also a question of, okay, are the ballet masters and mistresses in the company giving them equal amounts of attention? Are they being allowed to rehearse for those roles? Are visiting choreographers going to take this possibility seriously?

The fact that it’s starting from the top with Peter Boal PNB, that is a good indicator. It helps set the company culture in such a way that that can maybe be possible. But there is also the very real possibility that we do have to acknowledge, and that my cynical side does have to point out, which is, okay, is the case going to be, good PR for hiring the nonbinary dancer as an apprentice, and then they don’t get to do that much? I don’t want that to be the case. Ashton does not deserve for that to be the case, but it is hard not to have a voice in the back of my head being very concerned.

And also Ashton’s really young, and I just really hope that they have a really robust support system in place. I hope PNB is being supportive. Ballet’s hard enough without shouldering all these additional expectations and pressures from the outside.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, a thousand percent—retweet to all of that. Ashton’s story has made me do some thinking about what actually pushes ballet forward. Because partly ballet’s attitudes toward gender and race are changing right now because of larger movements that are pushing it to change. And the work that advocates have been doing for years to make ballet more inclusive is obviously critical and should never be discounted. But in Ashton’s case, ballet is being pushed to change because one individual’s talent is so undeniably extraordinary. It’s astonishing how good Ashton is on pointe after a relatively short time studying on pointe—I mean, he was only really able to begin that training in earnest about a year ago. Nobody can watch Ashton dance and say, “Oh, they don’t deserve that spot in PNB.” And that’s a big part of why this is happening—it’s so clear that this is merited.

And in a way that’s a little bit disheartening, that it takes basically a superhero to actually blaze the trail ,to get that first professional job as a nonbinary dancer. And of course, Ashton also talks about how being a Black dancer has meant that they felt this intense pressure to excel from a very young age. I think their quote in the story is, “I’ve had to be 12 times better than everyone else my whole life,” which echoes things we’ve heard from Misty Copeland over and over again.

Courtney Escoyne:
And also reading Ashton’s story made me think of Maxfield Haynes, who’s an incredible black nonbinary dancer with Complexions as well as Katy Pyle’s Ballez. And their section of the solo from Giselle of Loneliness was very much steeped in the frustrations of, “I was assigned male at birth and I’m Black, and because of that ballet doesn’t love me the way that I want it to.” And so, it’s not just Ashton—there are other Black nonbinary and other beautiful things on the queer spectrum dancers who fall into those categories, they are out there and doing the work. So it is heartening that there are others.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I think there’s a student at San Francisco Ballet School as well who was training on pointe.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I guess the hope is that Ashton isn’t an exception that proves the rule, but rather the hole that will eventually burst the dam. I don’t know, that was a terrible analogy, but you know what I mean? Ashton is a star. Let’s hope others are allowed to follow in their path. Because obviously there are all kinds of talented dancers out there who could and should do so, and want to.

Courtney Escoyne:
Absolutely.

Amy Brandt:
There’s also the matter of training, as well. Margaret, like you said, it shouldn’t take a superhero for this kind of opportunity to present itself. But the reality is that a dancer does need to have that training, and basically it needs to start younger. If nonbinary dancers are finding that they need to kind of change the way they’ve been training in their late teens, that presents a big obstacle for them. And so, how do we answer that question as well?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, congrats to Ashton, we are so beyond in your corner, and so excited to see what’s next for you.

All right, next up we want to talk about a story with a sort of eyebrow-raising headline that ran in the New York Times this past week. Bless the editor who came up with this headline, which was “The $30 million Founding Father.” The piece itself discussed the fact that Hamilton, the Broadway phenomenon, has to date received $30 million in federal pandemic relief. This is a show that’s grossed $650 million since it opened—not a production that you’d really think would need help. And it actually might be getting even more money, another other $20 million, from the government in the near future. So how and why did this hit show end up with all of these relief funds? How will they be used? And what does all this say about the state of the performing arts world as we begin to emerge from pandemic shutdowns?

Courtney Escoyne:
So first things first. To address this off the bat, it’s not like the Broadway show Hamilton got $30 million in relief and might get $20 million more. What it was, was that the Broadway Hamilton production and the four touring productions that are US-based each separately applied for $10 million in aid, because they are separately incorporated for various business reasons. This is actually a fairly typical thing with Broadway shows, and their tours were able to do that. And so far, those numbers, as Margaret said, have been approved and are waiting for approval.

What these funds are going towards is not anything like lining the producer’s pockets. It’s not going towards artist royalties. It’s going into reopening expenses, such as, as we have talked about a lot, the cost of running rehearsals for a month to get everyone back on the same page, as well as longer workshop periods for new cast members, repairing or replacing equipment, transporting people and sets, COVID safety personnel. Also marketing is still a thing apparently, even if you’re Hamilton.

There’s also pandemic expenses that came up during the shutdown, whenever the shows were not bringing in any money whatsoever. So, financial assistance; health insurance coverage, which Hamilton did continue to cover for its employees; renting the theater, because yes, Broadway shows were still paying rent on their theaters during the shutdown. So it’s a lot of bits and pieces that all go into keeping the show in suspended animation for these 15 months of the shutdown, as well as the costs of remounting these shows and trying to do it in such a way that Hamilton is actually going to be financially healthy on the other side of it and doesn’t have to just shut down immediately after reopening.

Amy Brandt:
It definitely shows you how expensive it is to put on a show.

Margaret Fuhrer
Yeah. I mean, I think basically the idea of this government program that’s giving these grants—it’s called the Shuttered Venue Operators grant initiative—the idea is to get these cultural organizations back to where they were before everything shut down. And these many millions are what it actually takes, which is a little bit mindboggling. So yeah, the idea of Hamilton getting multiple millions of dollars feels like sort of a juicy story, but I think one of the more important takeaways in the piece is that, hey, right now the U.S. is committed to investing substantially in the health of its cultural institutions. And that does seem like a good thing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, for sure. And I think it does show that a show like Hamilton that is so successful does still need help. And if Hamilton needs it, everyone else does.

Margaret Fuhrer:
If Hamilton‘s not immune, nobody’s immune. Yeah. Poor analogy to use when we’re talking about a pandemic… [laughter]

Anyway: So, finally today, we want to get into another story that ran in the Times recently. This one concerns the fact that China is seeing a surge in nationalist works of art, including dances, as its communist party celebrates its 100th anniversary. The government has announced plans for performances of 300 ballets, operas, plays and other types of artistic works, including both older pieces and new ones. And this big swell, which is part of efforts by the state to improve the party’s image, comes during a longer-term crackdown on free expression in China—it’s against that backdrop.

A caveat before we start our discussion here: We’re not political theorists, we’re not Chinese dance or dance history experts. We’re primarily just directing you to this article, which we’ll link in the show notes. But we did think it was important to recognize the long history of propaganda art, and to acknowledge the fact that dance has for a long time been used as a political instrument in a way that is really complicated, especially for the artists who are making and performing these works.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I thought it was interesting at one point in the story talks about how critics denounce them as propaganda, but that the Chinese artists themselves say, “Well, duh, that’s sort of the point of them.”

Courtney Escoyne:
In some ways it raises this interesting question, right? Because I think art as a rule exists in some way, consciously or not, in response to the world in which it is being created. Even art that is self-consciously abstract and not directly responding to what’s going on around it still has the layers of whether or not the artist is given the luxury of it being read as an abstract work, no matter what it is being informed by in the world around it.

And I think the obvious example that comes to mind when you talk about Chinese art that is in line with the state is of course The Red Detachment of Women—historically, that’s the one that comes to mind. But it’s also not the only example. When you think about the origins of classical ballet, everything that was originally created was done in such a way that it was highlighting the divine right of kings, it was the aristocracy and the royalty that was performing and everything about it was propping up the idea of the state, such as that existed at the time. You can fast forward and look at, for example, The Flames of Paris, which is still performed in Russia, which has very political overtones.

The fact of the matter is that art is always in some way a function of the world in which it is being made. So the question is, at what point do works that are in this case maybe explicitly being made to be aligned with these party values, at what point does that start becoming the canon? Do we consider it lesser because it was created to be in line with these values? Is there a way to evaluate it outside of that structure?

Amy Brandt:
With the National Ballet of China in particular, I know that for a long time, they were only allowed to perform The Red Detachment of Women and I think another ballet called The White-Haired Girl. But since then, their repertoire has opened up substantially. But specifically, I think The Red Detachment of Women is a very important work for them in China that they perform a lot. And I know they’ve brought it to the United States on tour. I have not seen it, so I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t know if they see it as propaganda over there at this point.

When you look at Spartacus, which was made in the Soviet era, The Flames of Paris—you can watch it today and kind of remove yourself from that…

Margaret Fuhrer:
The context in which it was made.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
 Yeah. Works like The Red Detachment of Women, works like Spartacus—there are essential qualities of those ballets, beyond their political agenda, that speak to people, which is interesting and complicated. And yeah, how do we think about that?

I guess the idea that all dance is political we’ve discussed that from several different angles on this podcast, but how do we think about dance with a specific political agenda? Not that that’s a new question, but it’s definitely still an important question.

All right. That is our episode for the 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:
See you later, everybody.