Transcript, Episode 76: Broadway’s Prospects, Rethinking Attendance Policies, and Ballerina Moms

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 discuss how Broadway’s prospects are currently looking—not its prospects for reopening, because it seems like that’s fully a go, but for staying open. We will get into how the pandemic has prodded dance schools to reconsider their often draconian attendance policies. And we will talk about the new moms of ballet’s recent baby boom, and the uniquely complicated set of circumstances they’re trying to navigate.

Before kicking off the episode, though, we wanted to say thank you, first of all, to all of you who sent in ideas for upcoming mailbag episodes. We got a ton of great suggestions via Instagram and Twitter and email. Stay tuned for our first mailbag pod—that’s coming up in a couple of weeks—because you just might hear us discuss one of your suggested topics. And if you haven’t gotten us your suggestions yet, there’s definitely still time. Send us a DM @the.dance.edit on Instagram or @dance_edit on Twitter. We also know that you are all eagerly waiting for updates on our new premium audio interview series, The Dance Edit Extra. I promise it’s coming very soon—please keep your eyes and your ears peeled! You can sign up for updates about the launch at thedanceedit.com/podcast.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which we’re starting on some low notes today.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. An arbitrator has upheld New York City Ballet’s decision not to pay its musicians for the 2020–2021 season due to the lack of live performances. Naturally, the musicians’ union is not happy about it. The New York City Ballet orchestra members have not been paid since June of last year. Here’s some background: On March 24th, 2020, the company agreed to guarantee the musicians 24 weeks of work over the 2021 season. Company management’s argument here is that 24 weeks of “guaranteed employment” does not exactly mean 24 weeks of “guaranteed compensation.” So without any shows during this time, New York City Ballet is not required to pay them, according to their argument. And the arbitrator has agreed with them. So, kind of sounds like one big word salad to me,and incredibly unfair.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that’s a big mess. We’ll include a link in the show notes where you can read the full statement from Local 802, which is the musicians’ union.

So on Monday, we found out that the re-imagined revival of West Side Story will not reopen when Broadway returns this fall. That news followed April’s announcement that lead producer Scott Rudin would be stepping back from active participation in all his Broadway productions, after he faced multiple allegations of harassment and bullying. And then last year, of course, pre-pandemic, the revival had also come under fire for casting and then standing by Amar Ramasar, even though he had been suspended from New York City Ballet after sharing nude photos of female dancers—it’s a story that’s probably familiar to many of you. Anyway, it’s sort of a “not with a bang, but a whimper” ending for this West Side revival, which—I know it got mixed reviews, but it also featured some really extraordinary performances by the artists and the cast. What I would give to see Yesenia Ayala’s Anita again!

Amy Brandt:
I know, I never had a chance to see West Side on Broadway. But it is a shame that this announcement is coming so late and so close to Broadway’s reopening.

This year’s Princess Grace Award winners for dance and choreography were announced last week. They are Khalia Campbell of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ashton Edwards of the Pacific Northwest Ballet School—actually joining Pacific Northwest’s Ballet as an apprentice this season—Tushrik Fredericks, who dances with Chanel Pitt’s company TRIBE, Ashley Kaylynn Green of Whim W’him, choreographer Johnnie Mercer, and choreographer Martha Nichols. There are also four artists who received honoraria grants. They are Alysia Johnson, Kennedy Targosz, Alice Gosti, and Crystal Michelle Perkins.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is such a great list. And I’m personally—well, Ashton Edwards, we love us some Ashton Edwards, but I’m also personally excited to see Martha Nichols on there. She is a genius, and I feel it’s taken way too long for a lot of the dance world to realize that. If you haven’t heard our interview with her, you’ve got to go back and listen. It’s in episode 51 from February.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So it looks like the long-whispered-about revival of Funny Girl will finally be happening next spring. An Equity casting call for the show says that the production is aiming to start performances in April of 2022. The show is going to feature choreography by Ellenore Scott and tap choreography by Ayodele Casel. Actually, that’s a line that sort of makes my heart flutter— “choreography by Eleanor Scott and tap choreography by Ayodele Casel”!

Amy Brandt:
I know, I’m so excited for that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And I love the recognition that, hey, yes, you’re going to need a specialist to do justice to tap dance.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, for sure.

Ballet Hispánico has launched two new initiatives: a tuition-free program to cultivate a new generation of dancers and the Latinx Dance Institute to foster a new generation of dance leaders. So here’s a bit of info on each one. The Latinx Dance Institute will center around three initiatives: the Instituto Coreográfico, which invites audience members, leaders, and presenters into dialogue with emerging choreographers through showings and panel discussions; the Latinx Leaders Summit, which is a two day event of forums, networking and workshops for Latinx dance leaders; and Diálogos,​ free public panel discussions exploring the intersectionalities of arts, social justice and Latinx culture. And then their second initiative, the Pa’lante Scholars, is a professional studies program that will serve to bridge that gap between student and professional, and will offer 20 dancers tuition-free scholarships to work with the company and also train on their own.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Such a big deal, both initiatives. I mean, big shout out to Eduardo Vilaro, their artistic director, who’s just been getting it absolutely right—for a long time, but especially recently.

Amy Brandt:
Oh my gosh. I feel Ballet Hispánico has really been on fire this whole year, through the whole pandemic. I mean, I don’t go a week without getting some sort of update on something that they’re doing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, absolutely.

Here is a story that we actually missed in our round up last week: Lincoln center has named Shanta Thake as its new chief artistic officer. Thake is a theater executive—most recently she was associate artistic director at the Public Theater, where she managed Joe’s Pub for a while. She said she’s hoping to maintain the organization’s classical offerings while also bringing in more diverse programming and artists. So, excited to see what she has planned.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. “Pose” star and choreographer Jason Rodriguez and his longtime manager Ricardo Sebastián have just launched a new talent agency for BIPOC, queer, and trans creatives to ensure “equal access to opportunities for all.” The New York City-based company, named Arraygency, is now accepting submissions for consideration.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s so stinking cool.

Amy Brandt:
I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean also just by the way, if you have not yet read The Cut‘s profile of Jason, where they followed him around during a night out dancing at clubs, you need to go read it immediately. It is epic. Fantastic.

So here’s some big news from the dance reality TV world: John Whaite, who won “The Great British Bake-Off” back in 2012, will partner with a male professional dancer on BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing” this next season. That’s the dance show’s first pairing of two men, although it’s actually not the show’s first same-sex pairing. That was boxer Nicola Adams and pro Katya Jones last fall. Fingers crossed, though, that Whaite and his partner have a longer run than Adams and Jones did, because they had to bow out after Jones got COVID. Which, that was like the most 2020 headline that ever was: “the first same-sex strictly couple ended its run after a dancer tested positive for COVID”!

Amy Brandt:|
Yeah. Have they done this with “Dancing with the Stars” yet?

Margaret Fuhrer:
No, it’s so overdue. It’s so overdue. I feel like it’s only a matter of time. I hope!

Amy Brandt:
Bruce Bui, Ballet Memphis’ beloved costume designer, has died at the age of 44. Gretchen Wallert McLennon, Ballet Memphis’ CEO and president, told the Commercial Appeal that Bui had designed at least 50 ballets over 20 years. He was also a huge fixture in Memphis’ drag scene. And apparently he died of a heart attack. So very sad. Big loss for Ballet Memphis.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He was so young. It’s just incredibly sad.

So for our first longer segment today, we want to get into a recent piece that ran in Bloomberg with a very ominous headline: “Broadway Is Coming Back in September. But Can It Stay Open?” And that makes it sound like a Delta variant story, which it is, in large part. I mean, clearly the Delta surge has made Broadway’s reopening process much more complicated and much more fraught—as it has made pretty much everything much more complicated and much more fraught. But this is also a story about which Broadway shows will ultimately be the most vulnerable if ticket sales are lower than anticipated. And they’re not necessarily the shows you’d think.

Amy Brandt:
No, they’re actually the big blockbuster shows, the long-running Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Lion King, basically because they have been here so long that the majority of their audiences are tourists. And with tourism being down a lot, that presents this conundrum.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah if everybody local has seen them already—the newer shows are going to have an upper hand. They have that novelty appeal that’s going to bring in people from nearby.

Amy Brandt:
Right. Charlotte St. Martin, who is the president of the Broadway League, said that 65% of Broadway’s audience is made up of tourists, so that’s a big chunk.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s a huge chunk. Yeah. So Charlotte St. Martin gives a bunch of useful figures in this story. One of them was that if you want to keep your show open, it’s really simple: You have to sell 75% or more of your seats, every single show. And if you go for more than a couple of weeks without hitting that target, most shows have to close. She pointed out that some shows have been able to set aside some of the money they got through the governments’ Shuttered Venue Operators grants, and that there are some tax credit programs that might help shows stay open, but without ticket sales, eventually you’re just toast.

I also thought it was interesting that this piece pointed out that usually musicals are easier sells because they have big widespread appeal—even if there’s a language barrier, you can still get something out of them. But they’re just larger, slower moving machines than plays are—they require more time to develop and more resources to put on. So they can’t be as nimble in terms of adjusting to or reflecting a particular moment the way that plays can. Like, if you’re hoping to bring in more diverse audiences, which is going to be key to filling houses as we come back—look at the slate of plays opening on Broadway this fall. There are seven new plays by Black playwrights, which is fantastic, and probably going to bring in new and different crowds. But you just don’t see that in the musical slate because it’s just harder to do.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, and they mentioned in the article that changing the marketing for some of these bigger Broadway shows is really key to surviving this upcoming season, reaching out to those—targeting younger people from different backgrounds, classes, cultures, and getting more creative in how they attract those audiences is going to be really crucial for a lot of these musicals.

I will say, having lived in New York for 16 years, I have never gone to see Phantom of the Opera because it’s always just been there, and I’m like, oh, someday I’ll get to it. But now I feel like a greater sense of urgency. Also I’ve just missed live theater and live performances, and I feel way more apt now to run out and just see whatever I can. And I’m not the only person that feels this way. I was just talking to a good friend of mine, not a dancer. He grabbed me and was like, “We need to make a date for the ballet. I am never taking the arts for granted again.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh. Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
And I think a lot of people feel that way. So hopefully that attitude will help I guess. But 75% of ticket sales is a lot to have to…

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so much. I mean, it does sound like so far ticket sales are looking good. That’s a good sign. But yeah, there’s just so many variables. It’ll be interesting to see how the whole industry adapts and evolves once shows are actually open.

Amy Brandt:
I hope Chicago doesn’t go. I’ve seen Chicago five times. That’s my favorite musical. I can never get enough of it. I just love the music so much, and the choreography and the whole…

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is a solid show—and it does feel very relevant still. If they could do some creative marketing for that, I can see that really helping bring in new audiences, hopefully. Anyway, we shall see.

All right. So our next discussion segment today concerns an issue that might not seem super timely at first glance, but it’s actually very timely. Earlier this week, Dance Teacher ran a story by Kathleen McGuire about attendance policies in dance education. So, dance schools and college programs are notorious for their strict rules about attendance. A lot of schools have a “show up no matter what” policy that’s basically in line with that “show must go on” mentality we see a lot in professional dance. But that doesn’t leave much room for dancers who might be struggling with illness or injury or mental health issues. And what Kathleen argues is that since the pandemic basically turned that “you’ve got to be there” model on its head, we should use this moment to reevaluate it and maybe revise it. And Amy, I know you have a lot of thoughts about this, as someone who is actively teaching right now.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, I do. It’s like, a lot of my friends who were teaching over the pandemic could really see some of their dancers struggling with this remote learning business. And I think one reason why they did kind of relax those rules is because they could tell the kids were just really struggling.

And there is—you do need some level of commitment to get a show on, especially with students, if they have competing interests like soccer or whatnot and half of them are not in rehearsal, it gets hard to put on a show. But Kathleen made a really great point about attendance being a sign of motivation, and to kind of question that, especially with injury and with more mental health issues.

And I know for myself, when I was a trainee, my grandmother died, and that day I approached the artistic staff member and a choreographer asking to take a day and a half to attend my grandmother’s funeral. And both of them told me I couldn’t.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh.

Amy Brandt:
And I was shocked. I was totally shocked. And it was this, “Yeah no, it’s too important. We’re putting on a world premiere and it’s more important that you’re here for that.” So I…whatever, I got around it, I went above this person and I got the time off and I went to my grandmother’s funeral. But that always stuck with me, that notion of, this rehearsal is more important than your grandmother dying. And I was in no way unmotivated, I would’ve much rather been in rehearsal than at a funeral. But I do think that teachers, directors, that you do need to talk to your dancers and evaluate what you’re prioritizing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, I feel like there are a couple of really straightforward counter arguments to strict attendance policies that involve some of the things you were just bringing up: encouraging dancers to push through illness or injury? Pretty much always a bad idea. Teaching students that their essential needs are not as important as their dedication to the art? Pretty much always a bad idea. But then after that you get into a lot of gray area.

And yeah, like you were saying, Amy, a lot of it concerns how we think about motivating students, because that old school idea of “do it or miss out, do it or be punished”—if you implement that, what’s the long-term effect of that mindset? The students end up disengaging from dance because it becomes an obligation? If their motivation is rooted in fear, what if they start their professional career and realize they don’t know how to self-motivate, because they’ve lost their connection to the reasons they started dancing in the first place?

I liked in the piece—Kathleen talked to Sarah Wroth, who’s the dance department chair at Indiana University, Bloomington. And she said, like you were suggesting Amy, communication is such a huge part of this. Why not see this as an opportunity to work on students’ communication skills? If they have to miss class or rehearsal, how do they communicate that in a professional way? If that’s a skill that teachers can help them learn, that’ll then help them handle that situation once they are in a professional environment. “Talk to me about this the way you would talk to your artistic director”—which sustains a degree of autonomy while also making sure the students are still showing respect for the work they’re doing and their teacher’s time.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. It was also interesting—Kathleen’s experience being injured and having to watch from the front of class, to, me for myself as a dancer, I couldn’t bear to be out of the studio and away from my friends. And I felt like I would miss out if I wasn’t there. So I was usually always there taking notes in class. So it’s interesting how different dancers really do have different responses to that. For Kathleen, sitting there and watching everyone dance was very hard while she couldn’t.

And I think dance teachers can be creative in thinking of ways to involve their dancers who might be struggling through an injury, whether that’s letting them supplement their training with Pilates or something, or asking them to help with the music, or just, “Help me with notes in rehearsal,” or whatnot, or give them a walk-on part where they don’t have to worry about…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The “best” response varies so much depending on the person.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s why the communication side is so important. I mean, I don’t know, obviously this is an incredibly complicated issue, but please do go read Kathleen’s piece. It’s excellent and it’s linked in the show notes.

So last up today, we want to discuss a piece that Amy is very familiar with, because she edited it! And that is Pointe magazine’s recent story talking to three new moms who were part of ballet’s pandemic baby boom. We’ve seen a ton of articles along these lines recently—I mean, the combination of like ballet and babies is just sort of irresistible to journalists—but I thought this Pointe story, it’ take on this phenomenon, was so much more thoughtful than most of those other stories. These dancers were extraordinarily candid about what it’s actually like to navigate three huge challenges simultaneously. This is really something that’s never happened before: becoming a mother, being a professional dancer, and living through a public health crisis at the same time. And those are all challenges that involve both physical and emotional stressors. They’re sort of hitting you from all sides.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, the writer Zoe Phillips, who is our new assistant editor at Pointe magazine, she did a really—

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yay Zoe!

Amy Brandt:
Yeah! She did a really beautiful job with these interviews and capturing all these different facets of what pregnancy is like to go through as a dancer. And at a time when most dancers’ careers were very stressfully put on pause. It’s interesting because you see how the pandemic in many ways made certain things easier for them as dancers becoming mothers and other ways more challenging. With Mathilde, you see this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mathilde Froustey.

Amy Brandt:
Yes, yes—San Francisco Ballet. But you really see her kind of struggle with identity, because in her interview she talks about how she sort of had an eating disorder she was in denial about, and her and her husband, who is a chef, were trying to have a baby, and she was just too underweight, and it was causing some issues. And then with the pandemic he wasn’t able to work. She’s unable to work. She’s unable to… I believe she had a miscarriage.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Multiple.

Amy Brandt:
Multiple miscarriages. Yeah. And there’s a line where she said, I couldn’t be a dancer and I couldn’t be a mother and I had nothing to grab on to. So that was really heartbreaking. But it also forced her to take care of her eating disorder and gave her the time to do that. And it allowed her to relax about her ideas about her body and gain more weight and now she’s about to have her first child. So her story was really raw and vulnerable.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That, like, knocked me over, reading her portion of the story—I mean, all three dancers had really thoughtful things to say, but Mathilde’s especially.

I feel like so many of these “ballerina baby boom” trend pieces just sort of assert that oh, of course, shutdowns freed ballerinas from their crazy schedules and their crazy body pressures, so they all got pregnant—nobody’s looking at them in a leotard, of course! And I just…I was so tired of that reductive way of positioning it. And this story allowed so much more room to talk about what it actually felt like.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I think the first person voice was really important in this story.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so important.

Amy Brandt:
It’s important to hear it from their own words. And I thought Ingrid Silva of Dance Theater of Harlem—she talked about learning she was pregnant at the beginning of the pandemic, and feeling scared, and also feeling kind of—she couldn’t be completely happy about it, because there was so much suffering happening with COVID-19.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There was a quote in there that it actually made me think of the movie Children of Men—remember that movie? Where nobody can have babies anymore, and there’s one pregnant woman alive on earth? I don’t know why it made me go there—but she said, the whole world is dying and I’m pregnant. As I’m trying to grow new life, the whole world is dying. Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And then she also talks about how wonderful it felt to bring her baby to the studio and to have her lying next to her and to be doing floor exercises and to experience this together.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And then Jordan Tilton had that great section about being in a WhatsApp group of dancer moms from all over the country, and being able to ask them these hyper-specific questions about these hyper-specific challenges they’re facing, and what a comfort that was.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, and she also talks about the ballet family—how, at a time when everyone’s isolated and they can’t travel and her own family is far away, she had her ballet family to support her and throw her a shower and do all of those celebratory things.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There’s just so much more in this piece than in your typical ballerina mama story. Yeah. Anyway, as is often the case on this podcast, the point of this discussion is really to get you to read this story. So we hope you do. You can find the link in the show notes.

All right. That is our episode for the week. Thanks everyone for joining us. We’ll 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.