Transcript, Episode 87: Race on Broadway Stages, Burlesque-topia, and K-pop’s Dance Love

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 today we are first going to talk about how several long-running Broadway shows, as they return following their COVID shutdowns, are rethinking and restaging their depictions of race. And then we will discuss two topics that I know are especially near to Lydia’s heart. The first is how burlesque is becoming an outlet for many performers, women especially, from the concert dance world. And then the other is the critical role that dance plays in the K-pop industry—why K-pop just isn’t K-pop without choreography. I’m very excited to hear Lydia go off on all of that! [laughter]

Before we get into those topics though, we wanted to do a little plug for the next episode of The Dance Edit Extra, which is our premium audio interview series, because it’s coming out this Saturday on Apple Podcasts. This time around we have the multitalented Comfort Fedoke, who of course is a “So You Think You Can Dance” legend, and is now both choreographing for and acting in the new Fox series “The Big Leap.” Which is kind of an art imitating life moment for her, because the show follows a dance competition that has quite a bit in common with “So You Think You Can Dance.” So Comfort is in some ways playing a version of her previous self. And she talks about that, and then she discusses the importance of not just inclusive casting, but also inclusive choreographic teams, in these kinds of entertainment industry projects.

I really hope you’ll tune in for this one. You can subscribe to the Edit Extra on Apple Podcasts, and you can find out a little more about the series at thedanceedit.com/podcast.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which—not a lot of items this week, but it is an intense group of stories.

Lydia Murray:
Yes, intense indeed. Eight former staff members and students of the prominent dance company Break The Floor have accused its employees of widespread sexual misconduct. The company is launching an investigation and has released a statement that references the steps it is taking to improve its culture.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, the allegations are significant and they reflect a broader culture of sexual abuse in the dance competition and convention industry. We’ve linked to the Toronto Star‘s really extensive reporting on all of the allegations in the show notes.

A math teacher from John W. North High School in Riverside, California has been placed on leave after imitating a Native American dance during a trigonometry lesson. A video of the incident went viral last week, but it looks like this actually wasn’t the first time this teacher had used this particular teaching tactic: There’s a 2012 yearbook from the school that includes a picture of the same teacher doing the same thing. A big mess. We’ve included a link to some coverage of that in the show notes as well.

Lydia Murray:
I still can’t believe she thought that was okay or that she was doing this for so long.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, the fact that it was an annual tradition—yeah. It does boggle the mind.

Lydia Murray:
But moving on: the former English National Ballet principal dancer Yat-Sen Chang has been sentenced to nine years in jail for sexually abusing students. He had been convicted in May on multiple counts and was jailed this month.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That was a very grim beginning to our headline rundown. So I’m relieved now to take things in a less grim direction. I mean, a more surreal direction maybe, but a less grim one.

Last weekend, Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, apparently bought out a performance of Lucinda Childs’ 1979 masterpiece DANCE at The Joyce Theater in New York City. And according to Page Six, he brought an entourage of 12 people with him, including producer Swizz Beatz.

I just…I don’t know how to feel about this. I mean, the man has excellent taste, and I love this artistic cross-pollination—those worlds don’t intersect enough. But ooh, I don’t know, what’s going to come of this?

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Yeah.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has been in New York City guiding The Phantom of the Opera through its reopening on Broadway. He’s been giving detailed direction, and this sort of close involvement from a composer is very rare for a production this established. It typically only happens for newer shows. But because the pandemic caused such a prolonged shutdown, the show’s return is being treated almost like a revival. And Webber seems very much in his element, which is great. He’s been one of the most vocal public figures about the challenges facing theater throughout the COVID era. So it’s great to see him and Phantom back in action. And he was also DJing outside the Majestic Theater, which is where the show is performed.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, let’s talk about that!

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, that was cool! He was DJing on opening night. I genuinely love to see it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What did the guy on Twitter? “New York’s hottest club is Andrew Lloyd Webber deejaying outside of Phantom”? Yeah. I mean Andrew Lloyd Webber, never not everywhere. Bless him.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. That’s like career goals: never not everywhere. Isn’t it? Anyway. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Pretty much. Pretty much.

So we’re closing out the headline rundown today with two obituaries. Kariamu Welsh, a dancer, choreographer, scholar and educator who wrote and edited seminal works on Afrocentricity and Black movement traditions, has died at age 72. And Thomas Dwyer, the dance artist who helped shape Dance Exchange after joining the organization in his 50s, died recently at age 87.

Okay. After that rollercoaster of a headline rundown, for our first discussion segment today, we wanted to get into a recent New York Times piece about how several long-running Broadway shows are rethinking their depictions of race. Because a whole bunch of big hits—I mean, Hamilton, The Lion King, The Book of Mormon, Jagged Little Pill to some extent—they’re all returning from pandemic shutdowns with script and staging changes that address criticisms that, in some cases, have been floating around for years now, but all of which intensified following last year’s protests against racism and police brutality.

And this actually ties in, I think, to what you were talking about earlier, Lydia, with Andrew Lloyd Webber—this idea that a lot of these comebacks are essentially being treated as revivals. It’s not uncommon for newer shows to get this kind of tweaking repeatedly in previews, or for classic shows to get updated when they’re revived. But it is different for a bunch of smash hits to be adjusting their content in essentially mid run. That is something new. And it seems like it might be one of the silver linings of that long pandemic pause, that it gave the creative teams behind these big, slow-moving Broadway machines time to rewrite and restage and rethink things.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I definitely think it’s an advantage. There have, of course, been longstanding concerns about racism specifically in several of these productions, as you said. And those were largely going unheard before the pandemic and before this racial reckoning. And in terms of some of these subject matter issues, like take Hamilton for example: one of its glaring problems has been its depiction of the US founding fathers as more progressive and less privileged than they were. And for years some historians have critiqued the way that it paints Alexander Hamilton as an abolitionist, as a supporter of the underclass, when he wasn’t. He even bought and sold slaves for his in-laws.

Thomas Jefferson is also portrayed in that play—the only time in the show when the name of an enslaved person is spoken takes place during Jefferson’s big song, and the enslaved person was Sally Hemings. So that’s where one of the changes has been made. Because in the past Hemings’ character had flirtatious undertones. She was presented more through the eyes of Jefferson. She didn’t have any lines, instead she performed choreography. But now instead of doing a battement, which is used suggestively, she faces away from him and she cradles her arms, which evokes the image of the children that she had by him. So that bit of choreography now perhaps better represents her perspective.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I think it’s interesting that in Hamilton specifically, the changes that have been made are mostly to the choreography. It is that choreographic moment that makes the biggest statement in the show—that movement can have that kind of impact even though it’s a relatively small tweak.

And I think there’s another tweak in Hamilton too, where—there’s a moment when Jefferson arrives at Monticello, and the ensemble used to wear white gloves and pantomime the actions of enslaved people at work. Now the gloves and their minstrel connotations are gone. And some of the ensemble members, instead of doing that choreography, just stand there quietly without singing. So, small but impactful changes, mostly to movement.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Right. Yeah. And it’s amazing how powerful those small changes can be. And with all of these shows, are these tweaks enough to fix every diversity related issue involved? Probably not. But they’re a step in the right direction. And the idea that a show no longer needs to be “frozen,” so to speak—it doesn’t have to be locked into one final version, and it can evolve with the times—that’s pretty significant.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. And it echoes ideas that we’ve heard circulating in other parts of the performing arts world that deal with long-running works or pieces that are considered canon, especially in ballet. This idea that just because something has been popular for a while doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be re-evaluate—and actually, being good stewards of these classics, that responsibility should include updating over time. So it’s nice to see that mentality come to Broadway as well in such a significant way.

Lydia Murray:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So next today, we’re going to discuss a recent Dance Magazine piece about burlesque. And specifically the story looks at how more and more performers from concert dance backgrounds are beginning to find a different kind of freedom and support in burlesque. Because it’s an environment where women’s choreographic voices and women’s bodies are more likely to be celebrated.

It’s not quite a utopia. And I think the feature does a good job probing some of its shortcomings, too. But burlesque does seem to offer a much wider range of self-expression than other kinds of dance performance. And it also just seems more open to the idea of change.

Let’s be clear: This story happened because of Lydia.

Lydia Murray:
No, no! I’m not taking all the credit. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Credit where credit is due!

Lydia Murray:
I mean, thanks. I’m so glad and honored to have consulted on this piece, which was wonderfully written by Rachel Rizzuto. And I’ve been championing burlesque behind the scenes at Dance Magazine and stuff. So I’m just really happy that this happened.

But yeah, so getting into some of what the story covers. First, just a little bit of an overview of burlesque history. So burlesque dates back to the Victorian musical shows in the second half of the 19th century. And the predominant version of burlesque today is most similar to the vaudevillian style that was popular in the early 1900s. It thrived during prohibition and then it got shut down due to censorship laws in the late 1930s. And then it came back in the ’40s and ’50s. And it’s had these periods of decline and revival for decades, but it never really fully dies.

Regarding its connection to dance, burlesque performers do not need to be trained dancers. I know a lot of people think that they do; they don’t. A lot of them are. But it’s a field that allows for more individuality and creative agency than what’s typically possible in dance. Burlesque is a very DIY, do it yourself, endeavor. Rather than solely being a cast member in someone else’s production with little to no creative or administrative control, burlesque performers create their own act. And what goes into an act is up to that performer. So they decide the concept, the costume. They often make their own costumes. They usually create their own choreography, for those who do have choreography. And they decide wherever they want to perform it. They still need to apply or audition to be in someone’s show most of the time, but there are less reliant on someone else to cast them and to help them shine. It almost… I think of it like being a musician and getting booked for a show, in the sense of being part of nightlife.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I love that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that’s baked into burlesque because, yeah, it gives performers so much control over what they do, and the way they look, and how they present themselves on stage. It’s all them, it’s all their choices—which I can imagine being refreshing for a lot of people coming out of concert dance, where you are told exactly what to do and what to wear and where to be and how to look most of the time.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, yeah. Which, that’s something that appealed to me when I was briefly doing it. But of course that has its downsides. Like the performer Jeez Loueez mentioned that you have to promote yourself a lot, and that’s an expectation. And you have to promote the show that you’re in more specifically. I think, as she put it, if you worked at Walgreens, you wouldn’t need to say, “Hey, come to my location.” [laughter] So it’s definitely different in that regard as well from dance basically.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Although I do feel like that kind of hustle culture is probably pretty familiar to a lot of independent dance artists too. You’re also your own marketer.

Lydia Murray:
Yes. Very true. And several performers have found that burlesque is more accepting of diversity, particularly in body type, than the dance world. One of burlesque’s icons is Dirty Martini, who was one of the pioneers of the burlesque revival in New York city in the ’90s. And she has a dance degree from Purchase College, but she faced difficulty finding work because she was a size 14 or 16, despite being so talented. But as Jezebel Express pointed out in a story, plus-sized performers are still often made to feel like they can only do comedic routines and they have to, as she put it, deflect their sexuality. So you can get to the top if you don’t have what is considered the standard, I guess, body type or the body type that fits the mainstream beauty standards. But your opportunities can still be limited, which is a drawback.

Delia Rose, who’s a very prominent Black performer, said that she feels like she gets pigeonholed into being the token representation card, which is another very real issue. Jeez Loueez also addressed how that affects audiences. She said, producers will ask her, how to get more diversity in their shows. And her answer is essentially, “Well, you cast mostly thin white ladies. So people who don’t see themselves reflected in that, won’t go to your show.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Put more diversity on stage, you’ll get a more diverse audience.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think whatever the flaws of the burlesque world, I think the key thing is that because of its emphasis on individuality, because of its encouragement of self-expression, that does seem to make this whole scene just more open to change generally. It’s more aware of its own shortcomings. And I think that’s another reason why concert dance performers might find it so liberating, because that’s just so unlike a lot of other dance environments. There’s more hope there, there’s more room for growth, it feels like…I say to the expert who’s actually been in the scene! [laughter] Would you agree?

Lydia Murray:
I mean, it’s been years since I was really consistently active. I’ve watched from the sidelines for a long time. But it just seems like often in burlesque there will be these conversations that are sometimes sparked by a particular incident that causes outrage and nothing really changes or things don’t really… Things are still slow to change, which isn’t actually that different from the dance world. But I think because there’s a little bit more openness to different… I guess there’s enough openness to individuality baked into burlesque that even when that happens, it’s still doesn’t have… It’s still not quite as oppressive, I guess, as what you see in dance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. An issue of degree, in some ways.

Lydia Murray:
Another thing I noticed when I was more active on the scene is that some shows seemed to want to adhere to that old-fashioned burlesque aesthetic, but that just perpetuates the discrimination of that era. But solutions are in place. Like Jeez Loueez produces an event—Jeezy’s Juke Joint, A Black Burly-Q Revue is the whole title—and that spotlights Black performers. And there’s another major artist named Perle Noire, who isn’t mentioned in this piece. But she created an event called The Noire Pageant, which was born out of a desire to create a platform to help BIPOC burlesque artists become, to quote from the website, “headliners, educators and savvy entrepreneurs.”

And because Black performers have been erased from burlesque history—that’s also something to note. There was Jean Idelle, who was the first Black exotic fan dancer in the 1950s and the early 1960s. She attended the Katherine Dunham School of Dance. And when she became a burlesque artist, she not only rose to headliner status, but she helped integrate the white-only clubs. So dance and burlasque have been intertwined for a long time and with a lot of these complex layers. And that’s it for my soapbox.

Margaret Fuhrer:
No, I love the Lydia soapbox! Lydia, seriously, thank you so much for your perspective on this, because I don’t know, you sure are educating me. I’m feeling like you’re educating a lot of listeners too.

The Dance Magazine piece about this, which Lydia consulted on, is also very clear-eyed in its assessment of burlesque. So please do go check it out. We’ve linked to that in the show notes so you can read the whole thing.

So in our last discussion segment today, we’re staying in very Lydia territory.

Lydia Murray:
This is just my episode today!

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is the Lydia variety hour, and I love it so much! [laughter] So we’re looking at the marriage of music and dance in the K-pop industry. Because another recent Dance Magazine feature points out that it’s very much a co-dependent relationship. K-pop just isn’t K-pop without dance, and dance has been central to it from the very beginning. I mean, performers are expected and trained to execute complex dance sequences; most K-pop songs are just indelibly associated with their accompanying dances.

So, how did that dance culture evolve? What is it like to be a choreographer working inside it? How has it shaped the larger K-pop world? These are all questions that the Dance Magazine piece explores. And Lydia, I’ve been looking forward to hearing you talk about this article since I first saw it on the editorial lineup.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I was so excited that this one happened!

So just because I’m going to use this term a few times, I just want to give a quick note that K-pop stars are called “idols” for anyone who doesn’t know. And K-pop artist development is paramount and it is thorough. We don’t really have a system exactly like it here in the States. Before someone becomes an idol, they typically audition to become a trainee. And this is somewhat similar to the conservatory or boarding school or traineeship programs that we have in the concert dance world, but it’s still different. So in K-pop a young aspiring artist will attend an open audition. And if they’re selected, they’ll undergo an extensive training period in which they’ll learn to sing and dance and speak foreign languages. And whichever you’re best at will typically determine your primary role in the group.

And most K-pop artists start out in a group. They don’t usually go solo immediately. The groups typically have the same structure. So there will be singers, dancers, rappers, and visuals. The visual is the best looking member of the group, just sort of put it plainly. And they can overlap. Someone could be both a dancer and a rapper and that kind of thing.

So unlike here, where it’s hit or miss whether a pop star will be a good dancer or will even value dance moves that much, it’s part of the model in K-pop, and it’s used to help fans engage. And the difference in levels between members means that they can do simpler steps that their fans can do at home, and they can do more complex moves that’ll keep the audiences really enthralled in the performances. And both kinds of moves will often be part of the choreography for any given song.

The choreographer who pioneered that fan-friendly style of K-pop choreography was Shaun Evaristo. He noticed the lack of space in Korean nightclubs when he first started working in Korea, and how people had to do these small movements when they danced. So he incorporated that idea into his work, and it stuck. He said that he wanted to make it so that the dance would be synonymous with the song. So you’d have to think about the dance every time you thought about the song. And I think that relationship between the song and the choreography has maybe even been reinforced in the era of TikTok

Margaret Fuhrer:
Tailor-made for TikTok.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, yeah. It really works well there. But even before TikTok, I can’t even hear someone say the song “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” by BLACKPINK, for example, without doing the little finger gun move. So yeah, the relationship between movement and music and K-pop is just so strong.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I don’t even have anything to add, Lydia. This is Lydia’s masterclass. I love it.

I mean, the other… I guess the other thing that the Dance Magazine story touched on was the sort of mishmash approach to choreography that can sometimes happen in these videos, where multiple choreographers will send choreography submissions, and then the entertainment companies will mix and match bits and pieces. And so sometimes the choreographers themselves won’t even know what’s made the cut until they see the video. That’s interesting, and can make crediting really complicated.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. That I didn’t know about until reading this piece, which is really interesting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I have nothing to add! I’m just paraphrasing the story. [laughter] Once again, Lydia’s knowledge is incredible. And we also are directing you to read the story, which incorporates a lot of the things she was just talking about. Kristi Yeung did a great job on that piece for Dance Magazine.

Lydia Murray:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ve linked that one in the show notes too.

All right. That’s it for this week. Thanks everyone for listening to the Lydia variety hour! [laughter] We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Lydia Murray:
See you soon, everyone.