Transcript, Episode 74: Vogue’s Fairy Godfather, “Industry Baby,” and Crediting Dancers

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

Lydia Murray:
And I am Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we will talk about vogue legend Archie Burnett, who has become a revered and generous teacher of underground club styles, and is in the news right now because of his new show at Jacob’s Pillow. We will discuss Lil Nas X’s internet-melting new video for “Industry Baby,” which features choreography by Sean Bankhead. And that will segue right into a conversation about an ongoing campaign to get the entertainment industry to credit its dancers, which is spearheaded by dance artist Taja Riley; she actually called out the “Industry Baby” video specifically, recently.

First, though, just a little housekeeping. We really hope that you enjoyed our soft-launch episode of The Dance Edit Extra, which is our new premium audio interview series, which dropped on Saturday. So please go check it out. It’s an epic conversation with choreographer Andrea Miller. And now we can reveal that the first official episode of the Edit Extra will feature, the one and only James Whiteside, the ballet star, talking about his new book Center Center. There is never a dull moment with James; he is so funny, he’s so smart, he’s so thoughtful about the ballet world and about his work in it and beyond it. So that episode will be coming out within the next few weeks. And it will require subscribing to the separate Dance Edit Extra feed, so please do visit thedanceedit.com/podcast to find out more about all that.

Okay. Now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown. Let’s go.

Lydia Murray:
American Ballet Theatre has announced the departure of its executive director, Kara Medoff Barnett, after five and a half years at the helm. She will become the new leader of social impact marketing and strategy at First Republic Bank starting in mid-September.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, they were already looking for new artistic leadership. Now they’re looking for new administrative leadership. That is some big change.

Lydia Murray:
A lot of major leadership changes in the ballet world these days.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Well, here’s some news that was actually tucked quietly at the bottom of a press release that New York City Ballet sent out earlier this month, but it just got a New York Times article of its own this week: Amar Ramasar, the principal dancer who was denounced by colleagues and temporarily fired from the company for sharing vulgar texts and sexually explicit photos, will leave New York City Ballet next year. His final performance will be in May on the very last day of the company’s spring season. And I don’t think these two things are actually connected, but it is striking that this news broke just as Georgina Pazcoguin’s memoir, which includes more allegations of inappropriate behavior by Amar, came out.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Oh man. But on another note, some more ABT news: The company recently announced its first fall season in two years, marketing a return to indoor performances. The season will open on October 20th with a full-length Giselle, and will include the world premier of ZigZag by Jessica Lange, which was co-commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival. Also featured are Bernstein in a Bubble by Alexei Romanski, Touché by Christopher Rudd, along with Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Indestructible Light and Lauren Lovette’s La Follia Variations, which were previously shown online. And Anthony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire and Clark Tippet’s Some Assembly Required are also on the bill. So, a very exciting season.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that’ll be really interesting to see how some of these formerly digital premieres translate to the stage. It’s actually—that is a trend that we are seeing here in. our next news item, too: New York City’s Joyce Theater, which is one of the only theaters dedicated entirely to dance, has announced its 2021–22 season. And it also includes that kind of from-digital-to-the-stage premiere: the live premiere of Ayodele Casel’s incredible Chasing Magic, which had its digital premiere last year, that’s going to take the stage this year. Other highlights include Ragamala Dance Company’s evening-length work Fires of Varanasi, and Caleb Teicher’s delayed Lindy Hop and swing show, Swing Out. So, lots for new Yorkers to look forward to there.

Lydia Murray:
That must be so exciting to do something that was previously in digital form, now getting to perform it on stage in front of a live audience.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah!

Lydia Murray:
Love, love to see it. And New York City’s new park Little Island will host a free monthlong arts festival called NYC Free, which will include dance works curated by Misty Copeland, Robert Garland, and Georgina Pazcoguin.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m loving Little Island’s commitment to dance and to dance programming. On the other side of the country, ballroom dance star Derek Hough is finally coming to Vegas. His dance-centric limited run residency, Derek Hough: No Limit, which was originally scheduled to open last June, will begin performances at The Venetian in September. And it’s choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon Dumo, so when we say “dance-centric,” we really do mean dance-centric.

Lydia Murray:
I just—I feel like he’s so perfect for Vegas. Like, he’s just such a performer. He’s straight out of old Hollywood, he can put on a show.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right?

Lydia Murray:
Actor’s Equity, which has historically limited eligibility for membership to those working for an Equity employer, is opening access to any performer or stage manager who has worked professionally in the U.S. The organization says that the change is part of a diversity and inclusion effort, though public response has been mixed. Some of the theater community have expressed concern that the effort may be financially motivated and that it will not sufficiently improve diversity and inclusion.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, definitely a wide range of reactions all over the theater community and also the dance community, because this will affect the many dance artists who are involved in theater. We will link to an article in the show notes with more information about all of that.

Here is a “big yikes” piece of news: Apparently anti-vaccine groups on Facebook have been relabeling themselves as “dance parties” in order to skirt bans on the platform. Most of these groups are private and unsearchable, but they gained large followings during the years that anti-vaccination content was permitted on Facebook. According to NBC News, one “dance party” group has more than 40,000 followers, which, oh man. We’ll link to that article in the show notes too.

Lydia Murray:
And the dance world lost another luminary this week. Ione Nash, known as Philadelphia’s great-grandmother of African dance, has died at age 97. Nash was a renowned performer and instructor, and the founder of Ione Nash Dance Ensemble. She was at the center of Philadelphia’s African dance movement in the 1960s, and continued dancing and teaching classes well into her nineties.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I believe there will be a memorial for Nash, with a lot of dancing and also with some drumming, in early August. We’ll share more information about that as we hear it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So in our first longer discussion segment today, we want to talk about Archie Burnett, a grandfather of the House of Ninja and a club dance icon, who has a new show coming up at Jacob’s Pillow. Burnett was a mainstay of the underground club scene in the eighties and nineties, and he’s still dominating dance floors. But today he has also become what critic Sally Summer calls “the most significant disseminator” of club styles, including vogue and waacking and house and the Hustle. And his Pillow show, which is called Life Encounters, features this intergenerational cast—basically Burnett’s dance family,—telling his life story through movement.

Everything that Burnett does is driven by this desire to share not only the knowledge that is in his body, and there’s so much of it, but also to share this joy that he feels with others. And so often figures like Burnett, who aren’t products of the world of classroom-based dance training or stage-based performance, they don’t get the respect and the credit that they should. So it’s really wonderful to see his generosity recognized by the Pillow, and also in a recent piece that ran in the New York Times.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, it was interesting just to read in this article that Archie wouldn’t always want to battle people who challenged him in clubs in the nineties, and chose instead to praise them, and slap the floor, and scream, and kind of—taking that spirit of competition, and returning it as a form of collaborative joy, and dance, and support. And younger dancers have described him as a fairy godfather or a cool uncle, someone who “makes you want to dance even when your feet hurt,” as one dancer put it, which is where you can see the thread of embracing that inspirational quality and a spirit of community in dance. It’s also just great to see so many of these fantastic dancers from different generations displaying their gifts and representing this rich history in a show like Life Encounters.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think sometimes people who are outside of the club dance world think of the scene, especially the vogue scene, as kind of cutthroat—like, this whole idea of, it’s all about battling, you’re going to read your opponent to filth—that whole idea that I think, as interesting as shows like “Legendary” are, they can perpetuate that stereotype a little bit. But that environment is so much more about community. And it was so great to see that this piece recognized that’s at the heart of this community, not the competition.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. And also when you have dance forms that come from groups that were so marginalized, there’s that sense of community that develops that I think is so distinct from the concert dance world. I think it kind of mirrors the more collectivistic, versus individualistic, cultures of marginalized groups, versus the rest of society more broadly. And there is still, of course, going to be a combination of conflict and competition and togetherness in both. But I feel like there’s still a bit more of a sense of being bonded to the others in your group when you’re on the margins.

And underground and club dance forms still don’t often get the respect they deserve within the concert dance sphere because it’s not considered serious enough, which, of course, is rooted in racism and homophobia. The concert dance is rife with mistreatment of dancers, and yet there’s still that sense of superiority, and it’s quite a problem.

But it’s again, so great to see these dance styles flourishing and getting the broader recognition that they so deserve.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The Albany Times Union also did an interview with Burnett, and it has this great quote that I just wanted to read because it really gets at the heart of his philosophy. The quote is, “Vogue, ballroom, that’s social work. The way I see it is, if you bring a diaspora together under the simple guise of entertainment, their guard is taken down. That inquiry leads to investigation, and investigation leads to understanding, and understanding may then lead to empathy—and empathy is the thing that leads to change.” That’s really it. That’s really it.

I was lucky enough to see one of the live performances of Ephrat Asherie’s UnderScored, at Works in Process at the Guggenheim. That show starred Burnett and these other legends of the club scene. It was one of my first shows back after getting vaccinated, and it was the most glorious way to reenter live dance. That spirit of generosity—all the performers in the show had it, but Archie, especially, even though he was so obviously a star in this room, even though we couldn’t stop watching him, he was constantly building up and showing off the other dancers around him. Just the joy that he took in their talent was so moving. That was my first good cry in a theater in 18 months, so thank you for that, as well as for so many other gifts, Archie.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, so much about dance involves exchanging energy with the people around you, whether that’s audience members or students or collaborators. It’s like we’re in this constant state of taking energy from one source and converting it into a form that can serve another, whether it’s a person or a project or everyone involved in the performance or rehearsal experience. And I just love the specific way that that happens in these kinds of dance forms.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Retweet, hard retweet. So next up today, we’re going to get into the Lil Nas X collaboration, his latest collaboration, with choreographer, Sean Bankhead. That is the “Industry Baby” video, which dropped on Friday and immediately broke the internet, exactly as intended. In case you’re not totally up to speed on this corner of the pop culture universe, here’s a little bit more context. Before the video came out, there was a teaser clip showing a mock Supreme Court case spoofing Nas’s Satan Shoes controversy with Nike, which I’m not going to go into because that’s a whole separate can of worms to open. But anyway, the teaser ended up with him being sentenced to five years in state prison. And then the “Industry Baby” video picked up that story three months into the sentence, with Nas basically running the whole prison and dancing naked in the shower with other incarcerated people.

I mean, the whole thing was just one long, brilliant, troll of all of his homophobic critics, and dance is a big part of why it works so well.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Well, to start on a different aspect of this, for one thing, the video is also part of a fundraiser for The Bail Project, which raises money and awareness for cash bail in the U.S. And that’s part of what makes Lil Nas X so great: he’s thorough, and he doesn’t seem to compromise on any aspect of his voice as an artist. He engages the public on multiple levels, when so many people insist on limiting or misinterpreting him. And of course there were homophobic comments, which Lil Nas challenged on social media.

There was a Salon article about this, that points out the way it kind of replaced stereotypical images of menacing incarcerated men with, as it put it, “a cavalier power.” And Lil Nas X really took that stereotype of the kind of aggressive Black male in prison, and also the other stereotype of homosexuality in prisons, and how that’s used as a punchline, or a threat, or a sign of weakness, and he inverted it. There was really a sense of power there. And he also, as the Salon story points out again, kind of sexualized Black men the way so many Black male rappers in the past have done to women. So there’s just a lot here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s pot-stirring, but it goes beyond pot-stirring, even though pot-stirring itself can be productive. I don’t know, I was thinking about how clearly the visual of Lil Nas X Dancing naked with a bunch of prisoners, was intended to have an effect, and it had that effect. That’s the headline of most of the stories about this video: “Nas Is Dancing Naked in Prison!” But he’s not just using that setting because he knows it will destroy the internet, which it did. He’s also using this striking choreographic moment to draw attention to an important cause, and then funneling that energy into a fundraiser that might actually help create productive change. So, he’s just—he’s doing it right. He’s doing it right.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I was just going to say that Sean Bankhead’s choreography was done in a way that supported that, and facilitated that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, the homoeroticism, the deliberate homoeroticism of the choreography, that’s a big part of the statement being made.

But so, there was some criticism of “Industry Baby” that was dance-specific, and that’s what we want to talk about in our last discussion segment today. Taja Riley—who’s a standout commercial dance artist, you probably know of her already—she has been pointing to “Industry Baby,” and also to another recent Sean Bankhead project, which is Normani’s “Wild Side” video, as prime examples of the music industry’s disturbing inability to credit the dancers and music videos. Huge high-level dance-centric videos will come out, and the dancers in them will just be anonymous—not tagged, not named anywhere. It can honestly be next to impossible to figure out who the dancers and these projects are, even for people like us, who’ve spent years covering the commercial dance space. So Taja has done a series of posts on Instagram that first of all tag all the dancers in both “Industry Baby” and “Wild Side,” and then also do an excellent job explaining why it’s so important to give these artists credit.

Lydia Murray:
So on Instagram, Taja pointed out that other members of the video’s creative teams were tagged, but dancers were left out. And dancers of course are part of the backbone of the production, but they don’t typically get the same amount of respect. She said that choreographers have even done this themselves, which seems particularly egregious considering their familiarity with the problem as dance professionals, and specifically, often as dancers themselves or former dancers themselves. It’s an ongoing issue, it’s been happening for years, and it’s one that we’ve discussed before on this podcast.

In a post about “Industry Baby,” Riley said that agents should begin adding media credit clauses for multimedia contracts to help combat the problem, which I thought was an interesting point. She also said that choreographers should go through the proper channels to ensure that the artists they work with are sufficiently, as she put it, “credited appreciated and protected.” And she wants production houses to learn the names of the dancers involved in their projects. All of which are important points.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, this is a conversation that’s been going on for a long time, but I really appreciated these specific points that Taja was making about, how do we fix this? And, yes, those are proactive steps that, you would think would…I mean, in theory, shouldn’t be that difficult to take, even though I know that other artists have also been advocating for this and hitting brick walls. But in theory, it’s so clear that dancers aren’t being valued the way they should be, that they’re being wronged here, that I think the hope is, once the people with big-time power, producers especially, are made aware of how harmful this is—and perhaps more cynically just how bad it looks—change will happen.

I mean, of course, tagging and crediting dancers is sort of the bare minimum. This is also a money issue. We’ve talked about this in other episodes of the podcast. Dancers on these music video jobs are frequently making very little money, often just a day rate, even though these projects bring in a ton of revenue for the top line creators. Choreographers in these same environments also tend to be underpaid and overworked, especially when you think about how essential their contributions are to the overall package. And we talked about that as well, when we were discussing choreographer JaQuel Knight’s efforts to copyright his commercial choreography. But the dancers always somehow end up on the absolute bottom of the pile.

Yeah, we’ve got to fix it. The first thing to do is to raise awareness. Hopefully, concrete action will result once greater awareness is happening. That was…almost English. [laughter]

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.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.