Transcript, Episode 80: Retooling “Nutcracker,” a Ballet Tragedy, and Body-Positive Dance

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 we have a lot of meaty topics to cover in today’s episode. First, we’ll discuss how dance companies across the country are reworking their Nutcracker productions to make them safer for young dancers and audience members, just a huge and complicated and really important task. We will unpack—we’ll do our best to unpack—a piece that ran in Vanity Fair about Doug and Ashley Benefield and their ill-fated American National Ballet, which is a story that ends in murder. And we will discuss plus-size dancer and therapist-in-training Colleen Werner’s efforts to get dance to embrace different kinds of bodies, and how that work fits into the broader body inclusivity and mental health movements that are happening in the dance world.

First though, we have the question of the hour, which is: have you checked out The Dance Edit Extra yet? That is our new subscription-based audio interview series. It’s a companion to this very podcast, and it is available right now on Apple Podcasts. Every other Saturday, the Edit Extra will bring you in-depth interviews with the dance artists who are shaping the news. And the first Edit Extra episode features the ever-fabulous James Whiteside. Trust me, you need to hear about the ballet sitcom he has in the works. He’s so funny and so smart. You can find more information about The Dance Edit Extra at thedanceedit.com/podcast, or you can just go on ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts. Just search for The Dance Edit Extra.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown. Let’s go.

Amy Brandt:
Joan Myers Brown is stepping back from her duties as artistic director of Philadanco, the company she founded over 50 years ago. The 89 year old will still go into the office and be very involved, she told the New York Times, but she’s passed the baton to Philadanco’s new artistic director, Kim Bears-Bailey. Brown is legendary and her legacy is huge. Her work helped give Black dancers a space to train, create, and perform at a time when they were otherwise not welcome in the dance industry. She also founded the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts in 1960, mentoring countless dancers. She founded the International Conference of Black Dance Companies, which led to the International Association of Blacks in Dance that we have today. And she is a National Medal of the Arts recipient from President Obama. So, quite a legacy.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Charmaine Warren did such a great interview with her in the New York Times. And back in December, we talked with Kim Bears-Bailey, who is Joan Myers Brown’s successor—or almost-successor, however that’s going to work—about how the transition is going. So this is definitely a gradual evolution. You can’t just replace Aunt Joan! Please do listen to that interview with Kim if you haven’t yet—that’s back in episode 43.

On Monday, transgender artists and advocates for greater trans inclusion in theater participated in the Trans March on Broadway in New York City. The event was organized in response to producer Cameron Mackintosh’s recent statements that transgender casting in classic musicals is a “gimmick.” But the protest went well beyond that, too—it wasn’t just a response to those remarks. There’s a larger debate going on about trans erasure in the theater industry, about the fact that shows like Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire can profit from transgender stereotypes while casting cisgender performers. We’ll link to Variety‘s coverage of the march, which features some great quotes from several of the activists and the trans artists who participated.

Amy Brandt:
Michaela DePrince will be joining Boston Ballet this season as a second soloist. The company announced the season’s roster earlier this week, which also includes a new soloist Ángel García Molinero, originally from Spain. DePrince, whose story was chronicled in the 2011 documentary First Position, had announced on her Instagram page that she was leaving Dutch National Ballet, where she danced for several years. So I’m happy to see that she will be back stateside.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, totally!

Amy Brandt:
And be sure to check out the show notes to see who else is joining the company. There are several dancers who will be new this season.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, lots of news from Boston Ballet. I’m also really glad to hear that Michaela is ready to return to work again. I know she took some time off last year to take care of her mental health. Sending her all the good vibes up in Boston.

Alrighty, so, the new season of “Dancing with the Stars” is just a couple of weeks away, and news about casting has been trickling out for a bit now—we talked about JoJo Siwa’s history-making casting last week. But as of this morning, the day we’re recording, we now know all the celebs and pros involved. We’ll link to the full list in the show notes, but notable celebs include dancer and talk show host Amanda Kloots, Spice Girl Melanie C, and Olympic gymnast Suni Lee. The pro dancer list also includes a bunch of familiar faces. There are two new pros this season as well, Sofia Ghavami and Ezra Sosa, who will not be partnered with celebs, but will assist with rehearsals and fill in if needed. And actually, fun fact, both of those new pros are alums of “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 16.

Amy Brandt:
Oh, wow!

Okay bunheads, mark your calendars: World Ballet Day is on Tuesday, October 19th. This annual event will be again hosted by the Bolshoi Ballet, Australian Ballet, and Royal Ballet, and will be streamed for free across six continents. This year, in addition to collaborating with YouTube and Facebook, world ballet day is also working with TikTok. So it’s expected to be even bigger than ever. A full list of participating companies will most likely be announced later. I have to say this is a day I look forward to every year. Love waking up extra early to catch all the European footage.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. World Ballet Day on TikTok—I’m very curious to see what that’ll be like.

So, here is your unfortunate reminder that COVID cancellations are still very much a thing: The pre Broadway run of KPOP, the Broadway Musical, which was originally scheduled for December at DC’s Signature Theatre, has been canceled. And the reason given was pandemic-related logistical challenges. We don’t know exactly what that means, but producers do say the show is still on track to open on Broadway sometime in the coming year. Fingers crossed, because it sounded fantastic.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. It’s such a bummer.

Houston Ballet announced last week that longtime associate choreographer Christopher Bruce will be stepping down after 32 years. That’s amazing, an amazingly long tenure. They are currently on a search for a new associate choreographer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And we’re ending our headline roundup this week on an especially sad note. Michael K. Williams, the artist who is best known for his work as an actor but who started out as a dancer and choreographer, has died at age 54. Before he was Omar on “The Wire,” which is the role he’s best known for, Williams danced for George Michael and Madonna, and he choreographed and performed in the music video for Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love“—which, if you have not seen that music video, you should pause this episode right now and go watch it and then come back, because it’s fantastic.

Amy Brandt:
I know. I actually, I went to YouTube yesterday and watched that video several times. I mean, that’s from my era of high school, when I was growing up.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s an iconic video period, yeah.

Amy Brandt:
So I was like, oh! I didn’t realize that it was him in there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I have to say I knew of Williams as an actor first, but once you know that he danced, you start to see it in all of his acting work, in the way that he approached his roles physically. It’s such an enormous loss.

So in our first discussion segment this episode, we wanted to get into a piece the New York Times ran recently about how dance companies are adjusting their Nutcracker productions to make them safer for the many, many children who will be on stage and also in the audience. And the story gets at issues I think a lot of us have been thinking and worrying about for a while. I mean, doing an in-person Nutcracker is of course critical to the financial health of pretty much every ballet company, but the Delta variant is still a major threat, and this is a show that tends to rely heavily on kids under 12, who can’t be vaccinated yet. So, how are companies making that all work responsibly?

Amy Brandt:
I have to say, I have been worrying about this for months—just, how are they going to handle it? Because especially at New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, there are so many small children in that production. And they’re wonderful, I mean, I love going to watch them every year. And then there are the children that are in the theater watching. So I have been concerned about how this is going to go down. And it seems like they’re being very solutions-oriented: They’re not having any children under the age of 12 in the performance. So all of those polichinelles and party scene kids, they’re going to redesign costumes to fit a tween-age child. They’re also going to cast the adult dancers that are performing with them, whether that’s in the party scene or whatnot, they’re going to try to cast taller dancers, so that you see a bigger height discrepancy, so that I guess that it’s not as noticeable that they’re using older children.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I did love that detail in the story.

Amy Brandt:
I know. And then I guess all children under 12 in the audience—which by the way, children under 12 are only allowed to come to The Nutcracker this season; all other New York City Ballet programming, they are not allowing children under the age of 12—but for The Nutcracker, they are making an exception, and they must show proof of a negative COVID test before they enter the building. And all audience members must wear masks. So we’ll see. I hope it doesn’t deter people, but I don’t really see another solution for a production the size of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, is, what is the alternative?

Apologies in advance, because I can’t talk about this without going on a mini rant, but: As the parent of a five-year-old and a two-year-old, I’m feeling such intense anxiety about the lack of clear COVID guidelines for unvaccinated children just generally in the world. So the idea that there are clear rules, that they appear to be rooted in science, that they are relatively easy to follow—it’s like, are you vaccinated and over 12? Great, you’re in. Are you not? Show us your negative COVID test or you’re out. I find that deeply comforting.

Okay. End rant, I got that out of my system. But yes, I feel like the downsides, the possible downsides of these new rules and regulations, the impact they might have on ticket sales—I think that’s a price worth paying for the safety, for the peace of mind.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. The Times story did interview a couple of other companies as well. Joffrey Ballet in Chicago is also not including children under 12 in its casting. Kansas City Ballet is reducing its children’s casting by 65%. The story said that they are not letting children under 12 into the audience. And they also spoke to Louisville Ballet, which seems hopeful that they can pull off their production.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I love that quote from the director of the Louisville Ballet children saying, “If we have to do a battle scene with half the soldiers out because they’re all in quarantine, we’ll make it work.” And I feel like that’s very much the spirit of all of this: Hey, this is a chance for dance organizations to get creative, which is something that at least in theory they should be really good at.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. We’ll see. I hope ballet companies across the country can pull this off. The article cited that at least for City Ballet, Nutcracker sales are $15 million in ticket revenue.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s an unbelievable number.

Amy Brandt:
And obviously that’s New York City Ballet, but for almost every American ballet company, their Nutcracker season is their bread and butter. And so fingers crossed that this can be pulled off well this year.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, because it has to be.

So next on the docket today, we have the mysterious and just deeply sad story of Doug and Ashley Benefield and their failed American National Ballet experiment. This is not a new story; ANB fell apart back in 2017, and Amy, I know you followed those events very closely and covered them from a few different angles in Pointe. But it was back in the headlines this week with the publication of a Vanity Fair story that probed not just why the company imploded, but also the series of events that, last year, culminated in Doug’s murder.

We just heard, right before we started recording, that “48 Hours” is doing a special on this, airing tonight, that…oh I’m scared to watch it. And the reason I’m scared to watch it is because there’s a lot of potential for sensationalization here. So before we get into this, we just wanted to reiterate that we are not, like, Dance TMZ. We’re not here to sensationalize. This is an ongoing murder case about which we have no inside information, and we want to be sensitive to the very real people whose lives are still being affected by it. But we did want to talk about some of the new information revealed in the Vanity Fair story, and how it relates to things that we learned from our own reporting. And then, zooming out a little, talk about how dancers can protect themselves from red flag situations like the one that happened at ANB.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. The Vanity Fair story really goes into not only what happened with the company but the personal relationship between Ashley and Doug Benefield and their marriage as it was unraveling, which sounded pretty terrible. But I mean, I remember when we first heard about American National Ballet, it was through Sara Michelle Murawski, and it was actually in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I remember. That’s how Pointe learned about this new company that was starting up in Charleston. And Sara Michelle had just gotten fired from Pennsylvania Ballet because of her height, and this was this triumphant comeback story, that she had not long after that been hired by this brand-new company in Charleston that had a totally different vision than most other American ballet companies or ballet companies in general, where it was all about diversity, racial diversity, body diversity, et cetera. So that was intriguing to us.

There were couple of things that stood out to me. There didn’t quite seem to be a lot of information about what the company was going to be performing, what their artistic vision was. Their social vision was very, very clear, but as far as an artistic vision, I couldn’t get a sense of it. And as the months went on, we still weren’t getting a sense of what kind of a season they were going to perform and where they were going to perform and when.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And who their director was.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. There was a rotating door of directors. I think Octavio Martin was first up to be artistic director, and then later that summer they announced Rasta Thomas was going to be artistic director. I know in our reporting, we had dancers tell us that they were not notified of that change, that they actually read it in the story that we published about it. So that was also a little strange. And then when it did become clear that they hired almost 50 dancers—where’s all this money coming from? I just had a lot of questions, I remember. It all sounded good, but what was happening…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Behind the scenes.

Amy Brandt:
…behind the scenes. And then eventually the management changed again, there was going to be this merger with another company which apparently never happened because ANB ended up folding, and that’s when half the dancers got let go. So yeah, it was all just very odd. They had great ambitious ideas, but there wasn’t the funding behind it to back it up.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s interesting because after this most recent Vanity Fair piece came out, I was seeing some chatter on Twitter about oh, wouldn’t it be great if dancers weren’t so desperate for jobs that they were willing to make themselves marks for this scam? And it’s like, well, I don’t know if that’s quite right. It does seem like the intentions were good, but there was no money—the business side of it, it was just imaginary from the beginning, from what we can tell. Which also makes me a little bit sad, because I remember hearing about this company at the beginning and thinking, oh, they must be pulling in donors left and right. Because that mission should be catnip to philanthropists. You would think everyone would be lining up at the door to support that endeavor.

I mean, I’m guessing the problem ultimately came down to the Benefields’ lack of experience—they weren’t able to build trust with donors just because I’m sure it quickly became apparent to people who were interested that they were in over their heads. But I don’t know… I’m thinking now about newer projects with similar missions, like Black Sheep Ballet, which we’re going to talk about in our next segment. I feel like they should just be awash in money, people should be clamoring to give to them, and that doesn’t seem to be the case, which is disheartening.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. We did a follow-up article, it was more of a service piece, in Pointe, about red flags to look out for if a contract seems shady or too good to be true or whatnot. And one of the things that I think Paul Vasterling is quoted as saying is, like, “Do the company’s aspirations or funding seem out of touch with the level of experience and the age of the company?” He mentioned that since coming onboard at Nashville Ballet, he had increased the roster to 26 dancers, but he’d been there for two decades. And he’d increased the budget, but it had been in increments, in stages. And I think most companies start out in a more modest place and grow and build from there, rather than starting out huge and trying to make it happen.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We’ll link to that story that you did too Amy because I thought that was such a great piece. I think that was, what, that was back in 2018? After all the fallout happened?

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay, so we’ll link to that piece in the show notes, and we’ll link to the Vanity Fair story, which is certainly a compelling read. But we’ll also link to some other thoughtful articles about what actually happened at American National Ballet, just to give you some further perspective here. Because it’s a very complicated story, and there are still a lot of missing pieces.

So, last up today, we’d like to discuss a recent Dance Magazine profile of Colleen Werner, who is a plus-size ballet dancer working to make the dance world a more body positive place. Werner is studying to become a clinical mental health counselor, and she’s also a dancer with Black Sheep Ballet, the company we mentioned earlier—it’s a virtual company that aims to make dance more inclusive. And her profile touches on a lot of ideas that we talk about frequently here, but I especially appreciated the direct connections that Werner makes between dance’s body inclusivity issues and the mental health problems that culture can foster. Like, to fix either one, you have to address both.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And I think Colleen’s own story is a great example of that. She’s talked about how her eating disorder has been very directly connected to her experience dancing. And she’s now taking that and trying to change the conversation about dance and mental health and also body inclusivity in ballet. Her work has been, Let’s put it out there. Let’s put it out there, out in the open, and talk about it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Transparency. Yeah, I know, it’s interesting: The goals that she tends to outline when she does interviews like this, they’re relatively modest, actually. She’s not trying to completely remold the entire professional ballet world. Instead of that, she’s asking for, for example, more inclusive sizing in dancewear, which is long overdue. She’s asking teachers to reconsider the way they communicate with their students, so it’s based on anatomy rather than, like, “suck in that tummy.” So instead of advocating for top-down change—like for some big ballet company to hire a plus-size dancer and say, “Look how inclusive we are”—she’s advocating for bottom-up changes that will affect actually a very large group of recreational or pre-professional ballet dancers, otherwise known as the vast majority of ballet dancers.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Because if you can’t even find the necessary clothing to wear to your ballet class in your size, that sends a very clear message that you don’t belong here. And so I really commend her for that work that she’s doing with, I think, Discount Dance Supply, and with Gainer Minden, encouraging them to see beyond the typical pre-professional elite ballet student who’s been selected for their physique.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Yeah. And I don’t think either of us is trying to say that we shouldn’t aspire for change at the professional level either. I think actually the idea of representation, of having a plus-size dancer in a major role at a major company would be fantastic. But I think Colleen’s perspective is, let’s take things one step at a time and try to reach the largest group of people we can with the changes we are implementing.

Amy Brandt:
Right. And one thing that I’ve been a little disappointed in is how threatened people in the ballet industry tend to become when someone who might be outside the typical dancer stereotype wants to have a piece of the conversation. I know we featured Colleen when she became a Gaynor Girl last year, we wrote a little profile about her, and there was a lot of negativity on our social media that was really sad to me.

In our story, she wasn’t claiming professional dance aspirations. She danced for the love of it. But she wanted to contribute to the conversation and question how things have always been. And it was like people couldn’t handle that. There were a lot of ballet teachers who were being particularly vocal, which I found sad. If we can’t allow a plus-size dancer, or really any dancer who doesn’t fit the mold—if we can’t let them comfortably take class and work earnestly and seriously and enjoy this art form they love without tearing them down, I just think that’s really sad.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We just need to make space for everybody. That should be doable, that should be a thing that we can achieve.

Colleen, by the way, is an excellent follow on Instagram. She has a huge following. If you’re not part of it already, please go find her @colleenmwerner. She’s such an important voice in this conversation.

All right, that’s it for us this week. 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.