Transcript, Episode 84: Lizzo’s TED Talk, Rethinking Arts Admin, and NYCB’s Fashion Gala

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

Lydia Murray:
And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in today’s episode, we will discuss pop icon Lizzo’s TED Talk about the history and the heritage of twerking. We will talk about new and creative ways to think about arts administration, as prompted by a great article by friend of the pod Christy Bolingbroke, who’s the executive and artistic Director of the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron. And we will get into the history-making New York City Ballet fall fashion gala, which, Lydia and I actually went to together last week. Attending a gala in person together—it felt a little bit wild, almost!

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, our first time seeing each other in person since before the pandemic, which was just, wow, okay!

Margaret Fuhrer:
We almost could not process the idea of physical presence. [laughter] But it was so good to see you.

Lydia Murray:
It was so great to see you, too. It was so much fun.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which starts with a bombshell of a lawsuit.

Lydia Murray:
The University of North Carolina School of the Arts is facing a lawsuit from seven alumni who are alleging unchecked sexual abuse at the school in the 1970s and 1980s. The suit is being filed by Gloria Allred, and says that staff and faculty should have better protected students.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, the allegations are devastating. It’s of course good that these dancers are having their voices heard. And wow—I mean Gloria Allred, they have quite a champion in their corner. We’ve included links to The Charlotte Observer‘s comprehensive coverage of the suit in the show notes.

Now some not-so-great Broadway news: After reopening last Tuesday, Aladdin was forced to close on Wednesday night, following breakthrough COVID cases in the cast. Then the show was back on stage Thursday, and then after more cases were detected in the company, it canceled performances from Friday, October 1st through this Sunday, October 10th.

I mean, I guess the silver lining is that this proves that the testing and monitoring system in place does seem to be working. Oh, and everyone is still getting paid while the show is closed too, which is as it should be. So, fingers crossed they’re okay now.

Lydia Murray:
Fingers crossed. And in some brighter news, this week’s episode of “Dancing with the Stars” featured Britney Night, in which all contestants danced to songs by Britney Spears. But there was another noteworthy event—this one was not fun at all: Cody and Cheryl both tested positive for COVID. So as a workaround, they performed a duet that was filmed separately from their respective homes on opposite sides of the country. The dance style was jazz rather than a ballroom dance, which helped it to flow relatively well, I thought. Despite a bit of a rocky start, they earned a score of 18 out of 30—not bad. It was an unusual turn of events, of course, but the show went on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It was so weird, and yet I don’t know how they could have pulled it off in a better way. It was sort of…they just made the best lemonade they could with those lemons, I guess. I hope they’re both feeling okay—I can’t believe they’re both performing while positive with COVID.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Hoping they’re doing well too. But yeah, I was impressed with their ability to pull that off as well as they did.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, two pros. And also—Cheryl’s wind machine!

Lydia Murray:
I know. The Beyoncé-style fan—I was living for that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Loved it.

So, there is another dance reality show in the works: Fox has picked up the dance competition “The Real Dirty Dancing,” which, yes, is based on the 1987 film. It will actually be shot at the real location used for the Kellermans’ lodge in the movie. And it’s going to follow a group of celebrities—including, some sources say, Corbin Bleu—as they learn the film’s famous dance routines. Some sources also say that Stephen “tWitch” Boss will be hosting, which—what is he not hosting these days? I love that new path for him. The other thing I’m wondering is if Kenny Ortega is going to be involved, since he was the original choreographer for the film.

Lydia Murray:
Good point. It’s also interesting that this is happening, because there was a similar show called “Dirty Dancing: Living the Dream” back in 2006.

Margaret Fuhrer:
OK, I’m so glad you brought that up. I didn’t know if that was too deep a dive, but yes! How are those two things related? Are they related?

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. It’s interesting. And Artem from “Dancing with the Stars” was on that one.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep.

Lydia Murray:
But looking forward to checking this new one out, very curious.

And sort of staying in line with the “Dancing with the Stars” theme, since this next artist is on the French version of “Dancing with the Stars” right now: Dita Von Teese’s first ever streaming burlesque show, “Night of the Teese,” happened this past weekend. It was a digital event that was available for three days, and it co-starred several other burlesque icons, including Pearl Mower, Dirty Martini, Marawa, the amazing Frankie Fictitious, and Jett Adore, along with Dita’s backup performers, the Vontourage. And the Vontourage choreography was done by Fatima Robinson, Adrian Wilcher, and Alec Polinsky. We love to credit choreographers, as you already know, as listeners of this podcast.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes! Yes, please.

Lydia Murray:
And I just loved it. It was visually stunning. And you already know how I love burlesque.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to say, Lydia, resident burlesque expert, thank you so much for putting this on my radar. I was shamefully unaware of it until you mentioned it.

So we now know a bit more about the companies that will be participating in World Ballet Day this year, which is coming up very soon, actually, on October 19th—or rather it technically starts the evening of October 18th for those of us in the US, since the first company up is The Australian Ballet, which is of course 14 hours ahead of the East Coast here. Nearly 50 other dance organizations across six continents will be taking part, including, from the United States, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. You can find the full list—or the full list so far, it’s being continually updated—at pointemagazine.com, and we’ll include the direct link in the show notes.

Lydia Murray:
And over at Dance Spirit, we recently announced our Cover Model Search finalists for this year. Congratulations to Kayla Mak, Reed Henry, and Iyanna Jackson.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yay! Go vote for them on the Dance Spirit page, please. They’re so talented.

Lydia Murray:
Vote, vote, vote.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are closing out the rundown with two obituaries this week. Salsa artist Roberto Roena, who started as a dancer before becoming a percussionist and then a really influential band leader, died late last month at age 81. And Colin Jones, who was both a Royal Ballet dancer and a celebrated photojournalist of social history—and also, for a few years, husband to ballerina Lynn Seymour—he died recently of COVID at age 85. The phrase “of COVID” makes that even more upsetting. Get your shots and wear your masks, everybody please.

So, in our first longer segment today, we want to talk about a pretty extraordinary TED Talk on twerking, given by pop superstar Lizzo. Which—she actually gave the TED Talk back in August, but the whole thing was just released online this week. And it’s fostered a whole bunch of varied responses. So in her “TED Twerk” presentation, Lizzo traced twerking’s roots in Black culture, which date back to West Africa. She talked about how twerking was appropriated by non-Black entertainers, and how that led to the erasure of its heritage. And she also talked a little about how twerking helped her sort of embrace her own body.

Lydia Murray:
So Lizzo’s talk gave an overview of the origin of twerking and linked it back to West African dance traditions, and she traced it through African-American dance history. And one interesting thing she mentioned was the parallel between twerking and the West African dance mapouka. There’s actually a New York Times piece from way back in 2000 that talks about the popularity of that dance style and the controversy surrounding it. It originated from a traditional dance, but its modernized form created concerns about indecency, even while it helped young women take pride in their bodies. And it was banned from public display in the Ivory Coast from around 1998 to 99.

And it also, would’ve been interesting for Lizzo’s talk to go even deeper into the social class-related complexities of twerking.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm.

Lydia Murray:
She made reference to this kind of dance as being part of Black culture, which it obviously is, but it specifically grew from working-class Black communities. And I think that distinction matters, because it contributes to how so many people perceive twerking and its importance even in our own community.

And another interesting thing she referenced was seeing Beyoncé booty bounce in the “Crazy In Love” video when she was growing up, and how it struck her that she could twerk and still be considered as she put it classy. That scratched the surface of the complicated respectability politics around twerking, I thought. It showed how she started to love her body, which continued when she learned to twerk in Houston teen clubs, but it also raised questions like, why is it considered okay for people like Beyoncé to do that, but not necessarily everyone? Was that kind of dancing acceptable for her because of its connection to Blackness or in spite of it? Was it overridden by the ways in which she does have privilege, like talent or conventional attractiveness or complexion, for example?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The TED Talk was 15 minutes long, and I wish she’d done an hour long or longer version just to dig a bit deeper, agreed.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Time was definitely a constraint.

And twerking as we know it today is also heavily associated with sexually charged self-expression, and it went mainstream because of its appearance in music videos and clubs and dance parties and celebrity performances, and Lizzo touched on that. And I think it can be hard for a lot of people to shake—no pun intended—the sense that anything sexual…

Margaret Fuhrer:
No, please intend that pun! [laughter]

Lydia Murray:
But yeah, that sense that anything sexual is less than, or not legitimate or shameful. And there can be a tendency to focus on the other aspects of this kind of dance, even when that element is blatant. And I think it’s important to accept that. And I know that that tendency isn’t solely rooted in shame. I think it also comes from a desire to protect yourself from being sexually objectified for one thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Lydia Murray:
And also the talk itself is getting mixed responses. I’ve seen a lot of support, but I’ve also seen a lot of comments on social media, both from non-Black people who view it as disgusting and beneath the dignity of the TED foundation, to Black people who see it as monstrosity, because she was twerking barefoot in a relatively formal public setting for a predominantly white audience. So it’s worth noting that the speech alone taps into these age-old conversations about what kinds of movement and public presentations of the body have value, and why, combined with the race, and class, and sexual issues that we talked about.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. There’s definitely a lot to unpack here. We’ll link to the full TED Talk in the show notes, so you can take a look yourself.

All right, so next up today, we want to discuss a piece that Chrisy Bolingbroke, who is the executive and artistic director of the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron, wrote for Dance Magazine. And her essay proposes doing away with some stale ideas about “best practices” in arts administration, and instead embracing administrative habits that, first of all, reflect dance artists’ creativity, and second do a better job of actually supporting their creative needs. And if you listened to our interview with Christy back in episode 41, a few months ago, then you heard her talk a bit about these ideas, and about how NCCAkron is building on them. Because there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement in the world of arts admin.

Lydia Murray:
I appreciated when she said, “There are a lot of practices across the professional world that we employ because we think it’s what we are supposed to do, like a bunch of adults playing office.” And I think office work in its various forms doesn’t always come naturally to people in the arts, or really anyone for that matter. It’s not necessarily a natural way of being. So we adhere to tried and true rules. And in the dance world, we have a tendency to think of ourselves as creatives, and many of us pride ourselves on being progressive and able to reimagine reality in different ways. Which is why we might not always be likely to realize or accept when we’re doing the opposite, and staying stuck in practices that don’t actually serve us as well as they could.

And it reminds me of one of the issues in Silicon Valley, where you have this hotbed of brilliant creative people who often view themselves as forward thinkers, but who can still have a limited perspective of what startups are worth funding or supporting. It seems kind of like a similar thread here, but just applied to dance.

But NCCAkron seems to really be doing it right. It was interesting to read about the change of getting the choreographer Helen Simoneau to adapt her pre-pandemic movement workshop to suit presenters digitally, and how that fostered more collaboration within the team.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, totally. Yeah. And and one of the reasons that Christy was writing this essay now is because NCC Akron just launched this new Creative Administration Research program that actually pairs dance artists with—they’re calling them “thought partners,” it’s basically agents, managers, funders, curators, with some experience in the field—to help the artists consider what they actually need administratively, not just what they’ve been taught to think that they need. Because nearly everyone in the dance world, yeah, already knows how to do this type of creative thinking. They do it all the time when they’re making work. So the idea is to bring that creativity out of the studio and into the admin side.

NCCAkron is doing so much great work. When you have a moment, do go back and listen to Christy’s interview in episode 41, that’s from last December. She’s one of those behind-the-scenes dance heroes who doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves.

Alright, last up today, we are going to—not review, we’re not critics, but we’re going to share some like thoughts and impressions about the New York City Ballet’s fall fashion gala, which happened last Thursday night. It was a performance that actually it made history in more ways than one: Sidra Bell became the first Black woman to choreograph for the company on the stage, and choreographer Andrea Miller and composer Lido Pimienta became the first all-female team to be commissioned to create a piece for the company. And then of course, because this was the fashion gala, we had Christopher John Rogers making costumes for Bell’s piece and Esteban Cortázar designing for Miller’s piece. So, lots to think and talk about here.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. This was such a rich fusion of powerful, hugely talented artists across disciplines. In one of the Times pieces about this, I appreciated learning about how the Miller and Pimienta piece came together, for one. They were connected through a mutual friend, and this was Pimienta’s first time composing for the theater. And the score included elements of vallenato, which is a popular genre of Colombian folk music, and dembow from the Dominican Republic, and classical instruments, like the harpm were also used to create this beautiful multitextured sound. And I thought it worked exquisitely. And the way Pimienta visibly felt the music in her body when she sang enhanced the performance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh. Totally. She was my favorite dancer on that stage—which is crazy to say, considering that that cast included Taylor Stanley and Sara Mearns, who were also, of course, incredible. But I could not stop watching her move.

Lydia Murray:
Absolutely. Yeah, it really added this beautiful layer to what the other dancers were performing onstage, I thought. And Miller mentioned that the score and the story that Pimienta created brought to mind Marc Chagall’s work along with the magical realism of Columbia and those elements were well represented in the choreography and costumes, in my opinion.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. She talked about how there was a little bit of a story that she imagined where a seed fell in love with a storm, and Taylor Stanley was the seed, and Sara Mearns was the storm. And I sort of loved that particular onstage dynamic for Taylor and Sara, these two forces of nature drawn to each other in a way that felt like timeless, almost—kind of cosmic more than romantic. That made sense for their personalities in a way.

I also that Esteban Cortázar’s costumes were sort of lovely in—I mean, we’ll get to Christopher John Rogers’ costumes in a minute, but they were lovely in a quieter way than Rogers’ costumes were. I kept thinking as of them as like the most chic version of the Watercolors ballet dresses we were all obsessed with as trinas.

Lydia Murray:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It was also kind of crazy how many of them he made! Everyone had like six costume changes. And I think maybe there was just a little too much muchness generally in the work. There were too many ideas, too many costumes, so much there. It sort of wandered a little bit; maybe it needed some more focusing.

But let’s talk about Sidra Bell’s piece and the Christopher John Rogers costumes too.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, I loved the Christopher John Rogers costumes as well. And I liked how they had sort of a Teletubbies-meets-period costume appearance, and they worked well with Bell’s choreography.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Teletubbies tutus!

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. And as Marc Happel said in the introduction—in so many words, it’s not a direct quote, but—the costumes aren’t usually supposed to overpower the dancing, but that can kind of shift for the fall fashion gala. And I thought there was a great interplay between the costumes, dancers, and movement here in this piece, where they all kind of took turns sharing the spotlight.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, totally. In that same video package that Marc Happel was in—which, by the way, was beautiful, shout out to Andrew Michael Ellis who directed it—in that video, Bell also talked about how she essentially said to Rogers, go as big as you want, do whatever you want. I will build a dance around your beautiful costume art. Which, I so admire that kind of generosity, because that’s a really difficult thing to do as a choreographer, to build a dance around costumes. I think I sensed a little bit of smallness in Bell’s choreography as—perhaps in a response to the largeness of the design. But there was a lot of interesting stuff in there too.

I think I was saying to you Lydia that I kept seeing birds in these like small staccato gestures that she used, and then, viewed through the lens of the vaguely period dress costumes, with all the neck ruffs, those gestures started to look a little bit like old-world court mannerisms, all the bobs and the bows. And I started to think about, maybe this is a commentary on how mannered the world that gave birth to ballet was and how mannered ballet itself is as a result. It had some interesting play with that.

But I also—when all the dancers just walked across the stage in rainbow order according to their costumes? I’m such a sucker for that kind of visual. I absolutely loved it.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, I like that too. And for some reason I just was kind of feeling…I was kind of thinking about the plague with the costumes, in terms of just the period element and COVID. But I think I just had COVID on the brain.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But everybody does!

Lydia Murray:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think, in the end, it doesn’t seem like either of these ballets will stay in the repertory for very long. I don’t think they’re quite strong enough to stick around. But as fall fashion gala premieres go, it was just such an exciting night—like, exciting in the bigger picture, historical sense, and also in terms of what was happening on stage.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. It was like: ballet is back.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes!

Lydia Murray:
It had this celebratory air, I guess, or energy.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It felt like a party. A great big party.

Alright, that’s it for us this 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.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.