Transcript, Episode 73: West End Closures, Ageism in Dance, and Georgina Pazcoguin’s Memoir

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

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we will talk about how London’s COVID surge is shutting down West End shows, even as the country itself has now officially reopened, and about what that might portend for the fall performing arts season stateside. We will discuss why ageism remains such an entrenched problem in dance. And we will get into the New York Times‘ bombshell of an article about Georgina Pazcoguin’s new memoir, Swan Dive, which is a bracingly candid look at ballet culture.

But first, we have some big news of our own. We are doing a soft launch of The Dance Edit Extra, our new premium interview series. That’ll be happening this Saturday, July 24th. We’re going to be dropping the first episode of the series, which is an interview with choreographer Andrea Miller, right into the regular Dance Edit Podcast feed.

To clarify, because I know this is a little bit confusing: Going forward, after the soft launch, you’ll need to subscribe to a separate Dance Edit Extra feed to get the Edit Extra episodes. But first, we want to give you all a sense of what the series has to offer. So, if you’re already subscribed to this podcast, Andrea’s Edit Extra interview will just pop right up in your list of episodes this weekend. If you don’t subscribe to this podcast, well, clearly now is the time to do so, on your listening platform of choice or at thedanceedit.com/podcast. And thedanceedit.com/podcast is also where you can go to learn more about The Dance Edit Extra.

All right. Now, it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown. Take it away, Amy.

Amy Brandt:
Thanks, Margaret.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That was so newscaster-y! [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
The 2021 Dance Teacher Awardees have been announced. This year’s awards will honor Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Florida State University professor and founder of Urban Bush Women; Eva Encinias-Sandoval, the creator of the University of New Mexico’s flamenco program, the only BA program of its kind in the U.S.; Antoine Hunter, artistic director of the San Francisco-based Urban Jazz Dance Company, who teaches dance and American Sign Language to both hearing and deaf communities; Karisma Jay, owner of the Brooklyn, New York-based AbunDance Academy of the Arts; Dr. Nyama McCarthy-Brown, an author and assistant professor of community engagement through dance at the Ohio State University; Dr. Doug Risner, director of the masters in Dance Teaching Artistry program in the Maggie Allesee Department of Theater and Dance at Wayne State University; and Alice Teirstein, founder of New York City’s Young Dancemakers Company. A very impressive list. This year, Dance Teacher is once again partnering with Move/NYC. So all proceeds from tickets sold at this year’s DT Awards will go to fund the Dance Teacher scholarship.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll include a link in the show notes where can find out more about all of that. That is such a spectacular group. Congrats to everybody.

Some more happy news: Leyna Bloom, a dancer and actress who came up through the underground ballroom scenes of Philadelphia and New York, just became the first transgender model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit issue. And the swimsuit issue has, of course, been criticized in the past for reinforcing gender stereotypes, so this is at least a signal that the brand is moving into the future. The issue actually had three cover stars: in addition to Leyna Bloom, rapper Megan Thee Stallion and tennis champ Naomi Osaka also got covers.

Amy Brandt:
Yay!

Filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry, who created the Oscar-winning animated short “Hair Love,” is partnering with director/writer Chaz Bottoms to create a new animated series called “Battu” for the Cartoon Network. The series follows two young Chicago hiplet dancers. Hipet is a blend of ballet and hip hop that is attributed to Homer Hans Bryant, a very well-known Chicago ballet teacher at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center. His dancers have been on “America’s Got Talent” and all over social media. No news on when this cartoon based on hiplet is coming to TV, but keep an eye out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. And it sounds like the creators have been working with Homer Hans Bryant to create the series. So the dancing should be on point(e) in both senses of the phrase.

Amy Brandt:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Spoleto Festival USA, which mounts the prestigious dance- and music-filled Spoleto Festival each summer in Charleston, announced that Mena Mark Hanna will become its new general director. Hanna, who is a music scholar known for his critiques of the legacy of colonialism in art, will be the group’s first director of color—and also its first new director in a long time. Nigel Redden, the previous leader, was with Spoleto for 35 years. So, big changes are potentially ahead there.

Amy Brandt:
Yes, it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, NY has announced its 2021 summer festival lineup. The dance festival will take place both outdoors and indoors at their theater on Saturdays and Sundays from August 28th through September 12th. Kaatsbaan will feature three new classical dance commissions, from Gemma Bond, Claire Davison, and Lauren Lovette, with live music, and a premiere screening of In Balanchine’s Classroom. Merrill Ashley is featured in the film and will be speaking at the event. And also, a free weekend of Western swing dance, which should be really fun.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. And it’s definitely worth noting that all three of those commissions are by women, which is great. Sonja and Stella continuing to do exciting things at Kaatsbaan.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. It’s fun to see the touch she’s bringing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a new $30 million program to improve technological infrastructure at cultural organizations, as a way of helping them stabilize following the pandemic. And the initial group of beneficiaries at this digital accelerator project includes the Apollo Theater, Ballet Hispánico, Mark Morris Dance Group, and New York City Center.

Amy Brandt:
Washington, DC’s Signature Theatre has named Matthew Gardiner as its new artistic director. He has a long association with the company as a choreographer, and for 10 years as its associate director. And next season, Signature Theatre will present a pre-Broadway production of KPOP, The Broadway Musical, by Jason Kim, Helen Park, and Max Vernon, and choreographed by Jennifer Weber.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The whole season that they announced is full of interesting things, but I have to admit that my heart skipped a beat just hearing the title KPOP, The Broadway Musical.

Amy Brandt:
I know! Me too.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know it’s been around for a while—I think it had an off-Broadway production brief one back in 2017—but finding a real path to Broadway? Yes, please. Let’s do it.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. It should be very dancey.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, here’s one of the most delightful stories of the week: It turns out gymnastics superstar Simone Biles enlisted the help of her former “Dancing with the Stars” partner Sasha Farber to choreograph her Olympic floor routine. Bile said she asked Farber to help her “spice it up.” She also revealed that she has a lot more autonomy now over her routines than she did earlier in her career, which is what made this type of collaboration possible, which is interesting.

I always love a gymnastics and dance crossover. And I think this connects to some of our past conversations on the podcast about dance and figure skating crossovers—two of these places where athletics and artistry meet in ways that are interesting and sometimes complicated.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. I can’t wait to see it. She has a Facebook Watch series, and you can see a little bit of it on it there. It looks fun.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. I should clarify that’s where all of this information is coming from, from her Facebook Watch series. We’ll include the link in the show notes.

Amy Brandt:
And it’s been another sad month for the dance world, as we’ve lost several legendary artists. Paul Huntley, who created hairstyles and wigs for more than 200 Broadway shows, including Chicago and Cats, has died at age 88. Don Martin, a dancer and choreographer who taught Horton technique to generations of students at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, has died at age 90. Dance scholar, teacher, and mentor Allegra Fuller Snyder, a former chair of UCLA’s dance department, has passed away at age 93. Sheldon Soffer, manager and mentor to generations of performers and arts professionals, has died at age 93. Oleg Briansky, the international ballet star who became a renowned ballet teacher, has died at age 91. And Patricia Wilde, an early member of New York City Ballet and later artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, has passed away.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, Pat Wilde, who died just a few days after I think her 93rd birthday. We went from happy birthday posts to “in memoriam” posts. Another week of huge losses.

So in our first roundtable segment today—well, duet segment today—we want to talk about what is happening in the London performing arts scene right now, because it’s kind of a mess. The country officially got rid of all COVID-related restrictions this week, allowing theaters and clubs to open at full capacity and no longer requiring audience members to wear masks. But the government still mandates that any person who tests positive and all of their close contacts quarantine for 10 days. And many young performers are actually not yet vaccinated. Plus, of course, the country is seeing a huge surge in virus cases right now due to the more easily transmissible Delta variant. Which means there’s this weird split screen going on: It’s supposed to be this celebratory moment of reopening, but many West End shows have actually been forced to shut down as members of their teams have tested positive.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. It’s very odd because people are going back to nightclubs and such and are fully allowed to do so without masks, but yet the performing art scene is under such stringent COVID protocols where even… It sounds like the majority of people from, at least from this New York Times article, it sounded like a majority of the people were close contacts of someone who had been infected, but weren’t even testing positive but yet needed… So yes. It does ask a lot of questions about how things are going to turn out here in the fall. We’ve been ramping up. And maybe…I don’t know, Europe opened up a lot sooner than we did, their performing arts. And a lot of American dance companies just canceled their season and went digital. And perhaps that was more helpful in the long run, even though it seemed extreme at the time, but I don’t know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, I feel like it’s just so hard because there are no right answers, and there are so many strong opinions on all sides of every argument. So, for example, Andrew Lloyd Webber delayed the opening of his Cinderella yet again and made this, in his typical fashion, very dramatic statement. He essentially wants to force the British government to change its rules about this quarantine for anybody who has a positive test plus their close contacts. And he’s been running that campaign for a long time—he’s the leader of the “reopen theaters now” parade. You totally understand his urgency, and yes, as you said, theaters in London did reopen and close several different times—they have been through this before. And we know that financially and emotionally, the longer things are shut down, the bleaker stuff looks for the performing arts. But it also makes me so deeply anxious to think of further loosening rules just as cases are surging.

Amy Brandt:
Right. And the article does say that fully vaccinated close contacts won’t have to quarantine starting August 16th. So there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, as far as these strict regulations that the government is imposing on theaters. But it just seems like every night that they have to cancel is like a million dollars or something that they lose.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The stakes are just so high in so many different senses. London is cresting—or maybe not even cresting, maybe just riding—this wave that we are just beginning to ride in the U.S. when it comes to the Delta variant. So yes, we have to look at this as a warning for fall performance seasons in the U.S. too. The New York Times did that piece about a week ago about how the return of the arts, and especially the performing arts, is critical to the health of New York City’s economy—so critical that the way the arts return and the success of that return will be a leading indicator for the state and even the country. It’ll either go well and be a model to follow, or go poorly and be a warning to heed.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so hard, because I feel like a lot of the coverage that’s been happening recently—and we’re guilty of this on the podcast too, because it’s so tempting—has been almost obstinately forward-looking. Like, “We have the vaccine, we’re about to be on the other side of this. How should we think about this brave new arts world?” But the virus is still such a real threat, and presenters and artists are just going to have to continue to deal with that in the months ahead. And oh man, it makes me tired even just saying that out loud.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. And things just keep changing so quickly all the time. So you wonder how they will handle it—if it will be a matter of demanding vaccination in order to see the program. Like at the Bruce Springsteen show on Broadway that’s happening right now: you must be vaccinated, you must bring proof of vaccination in order to enter the theater. Will they reduce their schedules? Will they limit capacity? Will they do less shows a week?And what will that impact be financially?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. If they have to do those things, how will they make the bottom line balance?

Amy Brandt:
Yes. And if they have to increase ticket prices—not only on Broadway, but ballet companies, dance companies, presenters around the country, if they have to increase ticket prices in order to help make up for that loss, what will that mean for audiences? Will they come back then if the tickets are too expensive? There’s so many questions.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So many different cans of worms that are going to be opened. We could keep talking about this for like two more episodes worth of content.

So next on the agenda today, we have a piece that came out in the Observer recently about ageism in dance. And this is one of those stories that is unfortunately deeply evergreen, in the sense that it could have run almost word for word five or 10 or 25 or 50 years ago. But it is true that now is a particularly good time to address this issue, with this pandemic pause pushing the dance world to rethink what a dancer “should” be or “should” look like. The article talks to a bunch of brilliant dancers over 40 about why the whole, “dancers have short careers, that’s just the way it is” narrative doesn’t have to be true. Clearly, mature dancers do have things to contribute that are invaluable to the art form. So why is the Western dance world still so ageist? Amy, I know you have a lot to say about this.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. First, there is some truth to, why is it a short career? I know what it feels like to age as a dancer and to feel my body fighting me and to feel all those years of injuries build up and calcify and make things a lot harder and make things a lot less fun. When I retired—I don’t remember if I was 36 or 37 when I officially stopped dancing—I couldn’t do the splits anymore because I had these hip injuries. I was losing that razor-sharp foot articulation on pointe. And the body does change. So there are some aspects that I found a little simplistic in the article itself. But I’m also coming from a very classical ballet perspective, where it’s very rare that people can dance at that high classical level beyond their early 40s. And it’s usually, they’re exceptionally talented people who have a lot of resources at their disposal, which I did not have.

But that said, there is a lot of truth to the fact that you can make beautiful dance art as a mature dancer. You lean less on your technique and you lean more on your experience and the artistry part of the craft. And that can make for some really gorgeous performances. I still remember a performance I saw with Margie Gillis years ago at NYU. I think Adam Burke choreographed the piece for her—it was stunning, and it burns in my memory. Or I saw something with Mikhail Baryshnikov, he did something at his Arts Center years ago, where he was dancing and then there was video footage of his younger early days in Russia. And it was really fascinating to watch him dance now and in live in the flesh, and then behind him to see him as a younger man, and just to see the physical differences in his body. But it was still a beautiful performance.

You learn how to use your energy differently. It’s just like all those years of learning and building that you do as an artist, those don’t leave you, even if physical things do—those things continue to build and become easier to access as you age as a dancer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. You can’t deny physical reality, but there are so many other different avenues to explore as dancers come into their own as artists, as artistic thinkers. This piece—as you said, I think it is a little bit oversimplified, especially if you are somebody who’s been inside of dance for a long time. But the reason to read it is because it has these incredible quotes from all of these great dance artists over 40 who have wonderful things to say—because of course they do, they’re grownups with deep wells of experience and intelligence and insight. And that’s what makes them so compelling onstage, too.

I especially loved hearing—oh, I forget who it was, but hearing one of them talk about the energetic and communal benefits of including older performers in a group, about how the whole community can learn from their ways of being and working. And the article points out that actually a lot of non-Western cultures recognize and celebrate that pretty openly. The idea of the young and physically superhuman dancer, that’s a pretty Eurocentric idea. So, this issue actually connects and intersects with a lot of other discussions the dance world has been having about inclusivity.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. There’s a learning curve I think that audiences need to make to where they aren’t just always expecting bravura—specifically with ballet, of course—when they are seeing an older artist, to learn how to appreciate the things that they do bring to their performances.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. And the best way to educate audiences is to aspire for greater representation in dance, so there are more performances by older artists that showcase a wider range of what dance—here’s that word again—”should” look like. Anyway, if you want yet more proof that mature dancers are spectacular, look no farther than Dance Magazine‘s July cover story.

Amy Brandt:
Totally.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is a roundup of 30 dancers over 30. We’ll link that in the show notes. All proof you need is right there in that story.

Amy Brandt:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So finally today, we have to talk about the New York Times piece on Swan Dive, which is the new memoir by New York City Ballet soloist and friend of the pod Georgina Pazcoguin. Everybody is abuzz about this story and about this book. You heard our interview with Georgina and Phil Chan about their work with Final Bow for Yellowface back in episode 62, so you already know that Gina is absolutely unafraid to tell things like they are. And in the article, she talks with typical candor about some of the stories in her memoir. Some of them are genuinely shocking and some of them are, for those of us in or around the ballet community, sadly not shocking at all.

Before we start the discussion, Amy and I have not read Swan Dive in its entirety yet, just get that on the record. But there’s a lot to unpack even in the Times article alone.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. First and foremost, she says that the brave thing isn’t writing the book, the brave thing is going back to work when the book comes out in August. Because I do think… We’ve been getting a lot of anonymous sources in these stories coming out of New York City Ballet over the years, from within the company. And this is not an anonymous source—she really lays it all out there. And so I’m interested to see what impact that has on the company itself, on the company culture, on this discussion we’ve all been having about ballet and how it needs to evolve. In so many ways, to finally see someone just speak with such bluntness from inside is, I don’t know…

Margaret Fuhrer:
I feel like I’ve had the same reaction, reading the parts of it that I’ve been able to read so far, that I had reading Dancing on My Grave. It’s very much a Gelsey kind of story in that all the names are named, all the major players are there, it’s as bad as you thought it was, sometimes worse. I thought it was interesting—she said in the New York Times interview that Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was a model as she was writing her book, and that makes a lot of sense. Kitchen Confidential had that same kind of blunt honesty about the bad, but also the good, of the restaurant world that made its criticism hit more effectively. Because it was coming from this place of knowledge and respect. And Gina says in the interview she feels the same way about ballet—I think her direct quote is “I love ballet and I love this company and I believe in it 1000%.” Which means that her indictments feel all the more believable, first of all, and cutting.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This story was the first time I’d heard about her relationship with Merrill Ashley, and that Merrill had been so staunchly in her corner from the time she first coached Gina in Ballo della Regina for the SAB workshop.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And apparently had super real conversations with her about, “You’re not going to be used the way you want to be used in this company. They’re going to give you all the contemporary and dramatic parts. What kind of dancing do you really want to be doing? Do you want to be a star on Broadway? You could be a star on Broadway.” I thought that was fascinating.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. I do think that mentorship does happen a little more often than people give the ballet world credit for, these kinds of blunt conversations. I’ve had blunt conversations with ballet masters before about, this is how you’re seen in this industry, what are you going to do with that information? And to Georgina’s credit, she explored outside of classical, she was on Broadway several times, and on television. I remember watching the FX special on Bob Fosse and seeing her, and being like, “That’s Georgina. Oh, my God!” But it also doesn’t erase that pain of knowing that you’re not seeing a certain way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And why are you not seen that way? And often it’s something you have no control over. I know—we had our discussion about ballet’s lack of transparency to the outside world, but often inside ballet, many things are made completely transparent. “No, you’re not going to get this part because your thighs are too big.” That kind of real talk is happening, and it can be devastating.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. It can be devastating. It can also just be like, real. If I can’t improve on this, then this is what’s holding me back. I got a lot of talks about my confidence, tons of very blunt talks about, “you are getting in your own way”—from choreographers, from directors. And it was something I was very aware of and was able to eventually work through. But there were other things that I’d been told that I knew I wouldn’t be able to change.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. And it’s hard to parse when you’re being told these things, which are just being told in the spirit of honesty, but which are the results of some of the more toxic aspects of ballet culture as they become internalized by everybody within the system.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Anyway, what we’re trying to say is, please go read the story—we’ll link to it in the show notes. And read the book when it comes out next week, next Tuesday, I think. I know that we’re both eager to read it in full.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Amy Brandt:
Bye everybody.