Transcript, Episode 83: Tony Highs and Lows, Disappearing Dance Programs, and “Birds of Paradise”

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 I’m so glad that we have our resident ballet expert, Amy, here this week, because there is a lot of ballet-world stuff going on to discuss. So, in today’s episode, we’ll talk, first of all, about the soaring highs and messy lows of the long-delayed Tony Awards, which finally happened on Sunday night. We will discuss a crisis that’s happening in Arkansas, where the University of Arkansas at Little Rock recently eliminated the state’s only college dance degree program. And we will review the Amazon ballet thriller Birds of Paradise, which features the work of some very talented dance artists, but also plays into troubling and persistent stereotypes about the ballet world.

Before all of that though, we have some exciting news of our own: There is a new episode of The Dance Edit Extra coming out this Saturday, October 2nd—as in, two days from the day you’re hearing this. This third episode features the lovely and perpetually curious dance artist Garen Scribner. You might know him from San Francisco Ballet, or from Broadway, or from the PBS show “Broadway Sandwich,” or from the smart and funny dance video shorts he made during the pandemic, or all of the above. Garen is actually now at Harvard pursuing his master’s in public administration, and he’s hoping to translate all of his varied experiences into a new career in ethics- and policy-oriented arts leadership. It’s a great conversation—Garen literally hosts shows on PBS, so he knows how to do an interview! We hope you’ll subscribe to The Edit Extra on Apple Podcasts so that Garen’s interview will just pop right up in your feed on Saturday.

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

Amy Brandt:
This week’s premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera was one for the history books. Co-director and choreographer Camille A. Brown became the Met’s first Black mainstage director, and Terence Blanchard its first Black opera composer, in its 138-year history. The opera is based on the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, and—if you haven’t seen what I’m seeing online—it looks like an incredible production. So make sure you check out some of the Met’s video footage on social media. There seems to be a lot of dancing and movement, and there’s an especially great fraternity step routine.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh, the step routine! Yeah, please go look it up. Huge congrats to Camille. The production has been getting rave reviews. It’s such a great way to reopen the Met.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
In dance TV news: “Dancing with the Stars” is unfortunately dealing with its first COVID case. On Sunday night, just before the second episode of the season was scheduled to tape, pro dancer Cheryl Burke announced that she had tested positive with a breakthrough infection. She’s not actually out of the competition yet—in Monday’s episode, the judges ended up evaluating pre-taped rehearsal footage of Burke and her partner, Cody Rigsby, doing their salsa routine. There’s no word yet on how or if the pair is going to compete in this Monday’s episode, but at least both of them are vaccinated, so hopefully everyone will be okay. I guess it was only a matter of time before this happened.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I know. I’ve been wondering how they were going to handle that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
A court has ruled that avant-garde Belgian choreographer Jan Fabre will stand trial next year for charges of sexual harassment and indecent assault. Just to recap, in 2018, 20 dancers signed a letter alleging they had suffered sexual harassment and humiliation while working for him. He has defended his actions, saying he did not intend intimidate, or hurt people psychologically, or sexually, but prosecutors have referred the case for trial, which should be held in March or April.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Bringing it back around to happy news now: The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2021 group of MacArthur Fellows—aka “genius grant” recipients—and this year’s list of geniuses includes choreographer and educator and Urban Bush Woman founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who, my goodness, could not be more deserving. The fellowship comes with a $625,000 stipend—some very real money—and Zollar is, of course, also the recipient of this year’s Dance Teacher Award of Distinction. So…

Amy Brandt:
That’s awesome news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
…a banner year for her following decades of visionary work.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. Long overdue, I’d say.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
Dance/NYC’s upcoming Redefining Practice town hall series will explore ways dance artists and groups are prioritizing racial justice, safety and community care. It includes a variety of dialogues, from discussions among Asian-American choreographers, to those centered on returning to the studio with more awareness of physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. The five-part series will mostly be held online, but there is one in-person session, and they are free and open to the public, although registration is required. So make sure to head to their website for that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, we’ll include the link in the show notes with more information about the whole series.

The acclaimed online show Black Dance Stories is back this fall with a new series called Power Half Hour. It looks at how emerging Black artists are shaping both their own careers and the larger industry. New episodes actually started airing this past Monday, and they’ll continue through December 27th, with featured guests including Brooke Rucker, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, Cortney Taylor Key and Dre Drummond. And each of those artists will also be paired with an established dance artist who will serve as a mentor over the course of six months, so a great initiative all around. You can watch the episodes and find out more about the series on the Black Dance Stories Instagram account, which is @blackdancestories, and we have also linked that in the show notes for you.

Amy Brandt:
Maria Mendíola, who began as a ballet dancer before breaking out as one half of the chart-topping disco duo Baccara, has died at age 69. “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” was their big hit, and it was the first song the pair ever even recorded. She was first a ballet dancer with Spain’s national television broadcast company before she started her music career, so, sad loss there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We have a piece of late-breaking news to add here, and it is…not good. New sexual assault allegations have been filed against ballet star Dusty Button and her husband, Mitchell Taylor Button. They expand on the original suit brought this summer by dancers Sage Humphries and Gina Menichino. The new filing adds three new plaintiffs and explicitly names Dusty as a defendant—only Mitchell Button was a defendant initially, now Dusty is also named. The allegations in it are harrowing, and they’re similar in many ways to the allegations made by Humphries and Menichino initially. We will link to The Boston Globe‘s coverage of the suit in the show notes.

Amy Brandt:
Very disturbing stuff.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So for our first longer segment today, we need to talk about the Tony Awards, which aired on Sunday night. And, actually, I feel like I’m still recovering a little from the Tony Awards. First of all, they happened over the course of four hours on multiple platforms. We went from a streamed show on Paramount Plus, where most of the awards were presented, to the big “Broadway’s Back” special on live network TV that had most of the performances. And after such a long delay—because, remember, this was actually the ceremony recognizing the best shows of the abbreviated 2019–2020 season—after that long delay, and after all of the losses of the pandemic, it felt like this broadcast was trying to do everything. It wanted to be celebratory. It wanted to be mournful. It wanted to put on a show. And there were some moments, including some really beautiful dance tributes, that really hit home. But there were also some that did not do as well. There was a whole lot of eyebrow raising, and worse, happening on Twitter. So let’s talk about all of it.

Amy Brandt:
I have to say, I did find the setup a little confusing, with part of it on Paramount Plus, which I don’t have, and then part of it on CBS. It’s my understanding that most of the awards were given out during the streamed portion of this show. Because when I tuned in, I wasn’t even really aware that it was the Tony Awards. I thought it was a tribute to Broadway, and then, out of nowhere, they suddenly gave out an award. I thought, “Oh, this is the Tonys. Okay.” [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that was a complaint that I was reading a lot, was that not only was the way it was presented confusing with the different platforms, but also there was relatively little effective promotion in the lead up to it, just relatively little awareness that this was happening. And after such a long time, it’s like…you had all those months to get your act together! We all should have known that this was going on.

Amy Brandt:
Well, and it also made me wonder—and it could be because they just wanted to include so much in it—but it also made me wonder, like, “Why is this being streamed on a platform that isn’t as accessible as CBS?” You know? The bulk of the awards. Is it saying something about, “Oh, people don’t care about the Tonys enough,” or were they just trying to promote their new streaming platform and get people to sign up? I’m not sure, but it was kind of a bummer, because Best Choreography was part of the streamed portion and so I had to look up who won later.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. I mean, usually we at least get Best Choreography, not in the main telecast, but right after the commercial break—they show you the recorded thing that happened during the commercial break, of the choreographer getting the award. At least it shows up somewhere on network TV! Not this time.

Sonya Tayeh’s win for Moulin Rouge, by the way, was epic there. It’s bananas that even with such a small group of eligible musicals, that choreography category was so stacked—you had Sidi Larbi for Jagged Little Pill, you had Anthony Van Laast for The Tina Turner Musical. And I think the prize went to the right person. I thought her choreography for Moulin Rouge was brilliant.

I wanted to talk about what I thought was the most significant dance performance of the night, which was the segment honoring the Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s work for racial justice in the industry. And it featured Jared Grimes and Daniel J. Watts starting out with this high-octane flash tap routine that pretty directly referenced Nicholas brothers—tuxes, spats, jump splits, all of it.

Amy Brandt:
The splits, yup.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And then the music stopped, and the tux jackets came off, and Watts started this impassioned spoken word number that straight up asked, “What does your silence sound like?” while Grimes kept tapping in the background. But suddenly that tapping felt very different. One critic said it sounded like gunshots, which was exactly right. And the moment was especially poignant because it came after Slave Play—which had come into the night with 12 nominations—had been completely shut out. It won nothing.

Amy Brandt:
I was surprised about that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think a lot of people were. There was a lot of chatter online about how the show had a ton of commentary about the industry’s racial reckoning, but the actual winners list looked pretty much the way it always has: predominantly white. And I think there was also criticism about the broadcast not making more direct reference to some other Broadway problems that have been very much on people’s minds. Like, Karen Olivo’s recent statements about unhealthy body expectations in the industry, and about how little power the artists of Broadway actually have—that wasn’t referenced anywhere. The controversy about trans representation, and work conditions at Jagged Little Pill—that was all over social media in the lead up to the Tonys, but almost nowhere in the ceremony itself.

Amy Brandt:
I think Lauren Patten mentioned… referenced it a little bit in her acceptance speech.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That was the only way it got in.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, did you want to say anything about Robbie dancing for Ann Reinking?

Amy Brandt:
Oh, that was beautiful. You know, it made me wish that the majority of the tribute section had been done in dance form. I don’t know—it was so reverential, and it’s interesting because I didn’t know it was Robbie Fairchild at the time when I was watching, but I was wondering if it was Robbie watching him perform. But it was just such a nice tribute to the Fosse style and to Reinking’s legacy. And then, at the very end, he turns and gives a bow as her picture comes down on the curtain. It was just really touching.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, I’m with you—wouldn’t it be wonderful if they had an entire in memoriam segment done through dance?

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That could be so beautiful. Yeah, I think pretty much every Tonys broadcast is a little bit heavy on its feet, because it’s trying to coordinate all these big, slow-moving Broadway machines, but, I don’t know—whatever other thoughts, bravo to all the dance people, who nailed it, as they pretty much always do. The dancing itself was great.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Yeah. Especially Adrienne Warren in her Tina Turner medley there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh! Brought the house down.

Amy Brandt:
I cannot believe she does that eight times a week. Blows my mind.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know! Quite a workout.

So in our second segment today, we want to talk about the recent elimination of the dance major at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which… This might sound like just one more pandemic casualty story—not that that makes it less sad—but the stakes here are actually higher, because that program was the only college dance degree program in the entire state. Dance Teacher did some great coverage of this situation back in the spring of 2020, when the elimination of the degree program was first proposed. The actual official approval of the cut happened at a board of trustees meeting earlier this month. And then last week, a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette talked about what the fallout has been and why the loss is so significant.

Amy Brandt:
Well, I think, first thing, that these young dancers have no in-state college option anymore. They’re forced to seek out-of-state or private colleges, meaning they will have to pay a whole lot more, paying out-of-state tuition. So that means some dancers who may not be able to afford that will have to think twice about their future, and what they want to do with it, and what’s possible. For those that do leave, will they come back? It may lead to some creative brain-drain if they don’t come back to their communities to open dance studios, to create work, to direct companies, to contribute to the art scene in Little Rock or Arkansas.

And this whole thing was part of what they call academic retrenchment, or just a wider restructuring effort at the school, which apparently has been struggling with lower enrollment, budget issues, et cetera. And they determined which programs would be cut based on the number of graduates and credit hours, et cetera. So makes it seem like the dance department wasn’t cutting the mustard, or something, but that really isn’t how it is structured at all. So…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and that was so frustrating too, is that decreasing enrollment overall at the university has been a problem, but the dance department enrollment has not gone down over time. In fact, it’s remained almost constant. So even though it’s a relatively small segment of the campus population, it’s not struggling. That is a thriving—was a thriving dance program.

Amy Brandt:
It’s just the notion of dance as a career as this something not to be taken seriously, that a dance degree is useless and flimsy. I know in the past, Arkansas’s senator had publicly ridiculed the program after seeing a billboard featuring…

Margaret Fuhrer:
That billboard.

Amy Brandt:
…a University of Arkansas Little Rock dancer, and questioning where the tax dollars were going, and why aren’t we funding math teachers and…

Margaret Fuhrer:
STEM. Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Thankfully, that tweet seemed to have gotten a lot of pushback. So…

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. I love that they actually—someone set up an ironic scholarship in that senator’s name for the dance department. That’s great. Yeah, there’s a lot of community support for this dance program as well.

Amy Brandt:
And I think that the dance department itself was pretty shocked when they found out that it was on the chopping block. I think they were maybe expecting some budget cuts, but not necessarily complete elimination. And the students really rallied. They put together a petition, they got 11,000 signatures to save the program, but, I don’t know. At this point they’re still going to let it go.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, there might be hope: A former dance professor at the university, Stephanie Thibeault, is talking with other schools in the state to see if any of them might be willing to offer a degree in dance. And for what it’s worth, University of Arkansas Little Rock actually dropped its dance degree program once before—they killed their dance degree in 1999, then they brought it back 10 years later…and then killed it again. But maybe with enough continued pressure and effort, they will reinstate it one more time. I mean, fingers crossed. It’s such a huge loss.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. Finally today, Amy and I are going to take some long, deep cleansing breaths and talk about Birds of Paradise. We’re going to do it. It’s going to be okay. [laughter] All right. There’s been a lot of internet chatter about this new Amazon ballet thriller, and I think it’s fair to say that the trailer that came out a few weeks ago gave us both a creeping sense of dread, because it definitely seemed to lean hard into all of those “ballet dancers are homicidal, sex-crazed maniacs” stereotypes that the entertainment industry just loves to mine for melodrama. But the film does feature the work of some dance artists that we really respect, including choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall, and several great, real-world ballet dancers who are in the supporting cast. So we wanted to actually watch the film before passing judgment. And now we’ve watched it. And now we are going to pass judgment.

Amy Brandt:
I should say that Pointe did a preview of this movie where we interviewed the director and the choreographer, and we have gotten quite a bit of pushback on that story. So I think a lot of ballet dancers are really tired of these depictions in Hollywood of the cutthroat bunhead with the psychotic teachers, and everything being sexualized, over-sexualized.

I will say I was disappointed. I thought they really leaned into ballet’s dark side. And maybe it’s a film not for dancers, I don’t know—for the general public to watch, or whatnot. Just because there were a lot of things that felt like this fictitious depiction of dance training, which centers around, in the movie, it centers around what they call “the prize,” which is a contract with the Paris Opéra Ballet. And after ballet class, it seemed like the course of the dancer’s day was then, each of them did a variation competition style in front of their teachers, and then got ranked from first to last in a list, and that was posted, and that was a daily occurrence, which is not really how it happens at all.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Not really. Yeah. Amy, you were texting me as we were watching it together in different locations saying, “If they say the phrase ‘the prize’ one more time…” [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
And that’s when I was like, maybe they’re trying to make a general audience, who isn’t familiar with ballet… maybe that’s a term they feel like they’ll understand. You know? I don’t know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Maybe. Still not great.

Amy Brandt:
It’s like, “Why do they keep saying that?”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. You know, the trailer was very trippy, and based on that trailer, I think I was half expecting this to be a story set in a world that was very obviously not the real world—maybe the world of a blatantly unreliable narrator, like in Black Swan, which would, in theory, signal to the audience that, no, this is not how ballet really is, this is a fantasy. Although, even as I say that, I can hear people screaming “That was exactly the problem with Black Swan, nobody picked up on all those cues, and everyone just thought that was what ballet was!”

So when it came down to it, the actual Birds of Paradise was far less obviously detached from reality. There are some druggy scenes where people are obviously in an altered state of consciousness, but beyond those moments, it’s all supposed to be real. And using the Paris Opéra’s real name—which, by the way, very curious as to how they got clearance to do all of that—but that certainly added to that effect of like, “This is what the ballet world is really like. This is a real company we’re talking about.” And yeah, you’d like to hope that most viewers are smart enough to understand that this story is super soaped-up, this is a soap opera of a movie. But we just keep seeing these soapy ballet stories over and over again—hi, “Tiny Pretty Things”—people just keep making these stories. And, I don’t know…once the average media consumer sees enough depictions of ballet as a place where everybody’s murderously competitive, and sex-addicted, and drug-addled, and broken, that just inevitably starts to seep into their conception of what ballet is.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. One of my biggest disappointments in the film, I will say, was the amount of drug use that was in it, and how it was not really resolved at the end.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. It was just like, “Oh, here’s one more cliché to stuff into the sausage.” Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
I also found that—on a positive note, I found the dance doubling, and how they worked that in, to be very impressive. Because the two stars, Diane Silvers and Kristine Forseth, are not dancers. I mean, there are a few scenes where they’re… I think they’re being shown from the neck up, and they’re supposed to be practicing sautés or something, where you’re like, “Oh, wait, girl. Keep the chest up.” You know? But they’re very clever about how they incorporate the dance doubles in, where you can’t really tell at times. And I was wondering if it was something where they… like they did in Black Swan, where they digitally put pasted faces—Natalie Portman’s face on Sarah Lane’s body. You know?

Margaret Fuhrer:
It sounds like that is part… at least partly what happened.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. So the dance doubles for this film, I want to give them a shout out, because they aren’t really otherwise shouted out. Diane Silver’s dance double was Natasha Watson and Kristine Froseth’s was Noemi Verboczi, who used to dance with Stuttgart, and I think Dresden Semperoper, and also Agalja Sawatzki, another dancer. So perhaps she had two dance doubles. But Noemi’s Instagram is pretty interesting. She talks about how they painted Kristine’s face onto her face, because there are some scenes where you’re like, “Wait a minute. Who is that? Is that really her, or is that…” because they did a pretty good job with that, I thought.

I do wish there was more dancing. I mean, there’s dancing throughout, but it’s very short snippets, it’s…

Margaret Fuhrer:
We got 10 seconds of Osiel Gouneo doing Giselle—to the wrong music. It’s like, why aren’t they using the real Giselle music?

Amy Brandt:
That’s also very typical of dance films. Have you ever noticed that? Their dancers are never dancing on the beat. The music is totally random.

Yeah, I had hoped that there would be a little more dancing to help make up for it, some of the clichéd storyline. But there are some really amazing dancers cast in this movie—Solomon Golding, Daniel Camargo, Osiel Gouneo. And we do get to see them dance a little bit here and there. But it would’ve been nice…

Margaret Fuhrer:
But not enough! I know.

I also wrote down some things that I did admire about the film, just so I didn’t go into a negativity death-spiral as I tend to do. Claudia noted this in her piece, too: I did appreciate that they made some effort in terms of inclusivity. I thought that Stav Strashko, who is transgender, was fantastic as the school administrator. And I really appreciated Eva Lomby’s character too, who got some very real lines in the script about how, as a dancer of color, her body and her dancing are scrutinized so much more closely than the white dancers are, which, it is implied, contributes to her bulimia. I wish they’d dug much further into that, because there’s much more to explore there.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, final Birds of Paradise complaint: Oh my God, the doorknob buns! If you are in fact trying to paint a realistic picture of the ballet world, start by getting rid of the damn doorknobs. Sorry. I’ll probably cut that—I just couldn’t not say it! [laughter]

All right. That is it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining. 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.