Transcript, Episode 88: Assessing Arts Journalism, Dance Companies’ COVID Scars, and the Case for “DWTS”

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

Courtney Escoyne:
And I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and we have some good stuff in today’s episode. First we’re going to talk about the reality of dance journalism today, because it’s a field in which paid opportunities are continually shrinking, and yet there’s still some room for optimism…the dance journalist says hopefully. We will discuss a Washington Post story looking at how the pandemic has affected the traditional company model in modern dance, which was already in decline pre-COVID, but now that’s been accelerated. And we will ask a question that a lot of the internet has been asking ever since Horror Night on “Dancing with the Stars” last week, which is: Is “Dancing with the Stars” not just a campy guilty pleasure, but actually good art?

That’s such a good mix of topics that I’m not even going to do our regular housekeeping segment today. I just want to get into it. So let’s start with the usual dance headline rundown, which is actually also full of interesting stuff this week.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So, Boris Charmatz will be the next director of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, pending final approval from the city of Wuppertal. So if I’ve done my math correctly, when the choreographer takes the reins next September, he will be the company’s sixth artistic leader since Bausch’s death in 2009. There’s been a lot of turnover and not all of it has been…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Friendly.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. It’s been a lot.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I admittedly don’t know Charmatz’s work very well. It seems like he lives in the same theater-dance space as Pina Bausch, which is unsurprising. But, yeah, hopefully this brings the company some stability—although a part of me wishes they had chosen a woman…

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And then another interesting thing is it looks like—he will be creating his own works on the company and also stewarding the works of Pina which is a huge part of what that company does, but another interesting thing in the press release that I got was talking about establishing a dual home situation, where they’re going to have more presence in France—still be based in Wuppertal, but also be a more international company. Who knows.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Who knows. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Shrug emoji. That’s the only reaction that I can have, is shrug emoji.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, for sure.

All right, so heading back stateside now: the lineup for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which will be open to live spectators this year, was announced earlier this week. We’re going to see the Broadway casts of Six, Moulin Rouge, and Wicked, they’ll all be performing. We’ll also get some kind of preview of the upcoming TV event Annie Live! And we’ll get to see performances by Ballet Hispánico and, as ever, The Rockettes. I’m personally really excited that Ballet Hispánico is getting this big national platform—that is fantastic.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, I honestly just can’t wait to see what they’re going to be doing. Because they have such an interesting mix of choreographers and their reps, so…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And Six also is going to blow the metaphorical roof off the place, I can’t wait for that.

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh absolutely, it’s going to be so much fun.

And sticking in our Broadway theme: Bollywood is coming to Broadway, at least eventually. Come Fall in Love: The DDLJ Musical will be based on a beloved 1995 Bollywood rom-com, and will follow an Indian-American woman who convinces her strict father to let her have a summer adventure in Europe before her arranged marriage to a family friend. Of course, that does not go as planned, it’s a rom-com. The Indian and American creative team includes Tony winner Rob Ashford as choreographer with associate choreographer Shruti Merchant. Current plans are for the musical to premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe next September, with sights set on a Broadway run in the 2022 through 23 season.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s almost hard to believe we haven’t already had a Bollywood musical on Broadway, right?

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, I can’t wait to see what this is going to be.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, for sure. All right, so in TV news, choreographer Laurieann Gibson, who is very busy these days, is developing a new reality TV series called “Icon.” It’s designed to discover and cultivate the next pop star via a super intensive training camp. Which, nobody does “intensive training camp” like Laurieann Gibson.

Courtney Escoyne:
Facts.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So that’ll be fun.

Courtney Escoyne:
And New Dance Alliance is continuing its Black Dance Artists Space to Create residency. The 2022 recipients are Ama Ma’at Gora, Kayla Hamilton, and Nile Harris. Each will receive a one-week residency at Modern Accord Depot in Accord, NY, as well as living space and a $2,000 stipend, plus unlimited access to New Dance Alliance’s studio space in New York City throughout the 2022 season.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s great news. I can’t believe it—I think our whole headline rundown this week is positive stuff. Because our final item is a shoutout for Misty Copeland, whose most recent book, Black Ballerinas, came out on Tuesday—congrats to Misty. Black Ballerinas is a look at 27 groundbreaking black women in ballet. They’re Copeland’s artistic forebears and peers and inheritors. It’s an extraordinary book. And our fellow podcast host Lydia Murray did an excellent interview with Misty about how it all came together for Pointe magazine, which we will of course link in the show notes. Please check it out.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, two brilliant women in conversation and we get to read about it, how wonderful?

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re so lucky! It’s so great.

All right, so our first discussion segment today concerns a topic that, for obvious reasons, is deeply important to us hosts, and that is the current state of dance journalism. Not one but two different essays went up online this week, from two prominent dance writers, both of them mourning the ways the profession has been diminished in their eyes. Marina Harss wrote a relatively measured piece for Dance Magazine, and then Elizabeth Zimmer did a rather less measured piece for The Village Voice. And they arrive at some different conclusions, but they do agree on one central premise, which is that people used to be able to make a living at dance writing, and over time that’s become impossible as the field has imploded. Now there’s only one full-time dance writer at a daily paper, and that means that today most dance writing is happening online, and most of it is unpaid. So the whole landscape is increasingly fragmented. And all of those things are only more true thanks to the pandemic.

This is not a new story—this is a story that’s been unfolding for the past two decades. And it’s also of course not unique to dance journalism, or to arts journalism, it’s the whole world of journalism. But I think it’s worth taking a beat at this crossroads moment, where we’re reevaluating everything, to look at where things stand in our field today and why. And also to talk about not just the bad, but the good that’s come out of this whole digital transformation.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, so I think we both have a lot of thoughts and a lot to say about this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Uh, yes.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think one of the biggest, most major points that Marina alludes to a little bit but doesn’t necessarily super get into, right, is the idea of dance writing no longer being a profession, the way that honestly a lot of journalism is not necessarily a paying profession anymore. One of the inherent issues that comes into play is the whole idea that in order to practice this, you have to be financially stable by some other means. It’s increasingly become something that, because you are not getting paid to do it, you are essentially donating your time to do this thing because you believe in it, because you love it, any of those things, and what that ultimately translates into systemically is folks who don’t have a partner who can support their writing career or maybe don’t have the parental support financially or anything like that—it makes it much more difficult for them to actually be able to devote the time, and it limits the diversity of voices that we are reading and hearing from, especially in mainstream publications that do still have dance writing.

Which, okay, diversity in and of itself, yes we champion that. But why do we champion that in this case? And I think it’s important, right? Because it’s borderline impossible for any given person to be an expert in every genre of dance that they see, right? I might have a ton of ballet knowledge and be able to connect the new work in front of me back through the forms history and point to the departures it takes and note where the technique presented was strong and where I was lacking and because I have a whole bunch of context from which to speak. And it’s based on years of studying and being steeped in that particular mode of performance and the culture that creates it. And if that is my only knowledge base, and I walk into something steeped in kathakali and bharatanatyam, there are things that I’m just not going to catch, because I don’t have that same context.

And that’s fine as a spectator—I’m a big proponent of the idea that we are all bodies moving in space, and so your response to a piece of dance performances as valid as my response. But as a dance writer and as a critic, helping bridge that gap between a spectator who might not have the context or the training or the practice that translating what they’re seeing into words is the whole point. And so if there’s a lack of depth on the part of the critic, that can lead to a dismissiveness, both on the part of the critic and on the part of people reading. And that becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, in which the styles and genres and artists who have always been at the forefront of the conversation remain at the forefront and too bad for everyone else. So maybe it seems like a relatively minor point, but it does have these massive ripple effects.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, absolutely and what Marina basically says is, how do we attract the different types of writers that we need—a more diverse group that understands that there’s life outside of Western concert dance—how do we attract them to this profession if it is no longer a profession? How do we give them the support they need to build the deep knowledge base and give them the platforms that they need to reach the audiences that they’re hoping to educate?

On the more positive side, though: the upside of the digital transformation is that now the social media platforms in particular mean that all of those voices do have a place to be heard if they want to be heard.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, gate keeping has largely been taken out of the equation because you can go on TikTok and talk about X, Y, and Z and potentially that can be super amplified.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And there are some brilliant dance folks on TikTok who are making videos about dance history, about the problems in the dance world, about their experiences with those problems, their feelings about them. They reach completely different kinds of audiences, younger and broader audiences, than traditional dance media.

And I was just thinking some of my favorite cultural critics these days are actually meme accounts. The Instagram account, @somatic_based_content_only, aka Felden Krisis…

Courtney Escoyne:
I repost them constantly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s just hitting on the dance zeitgeist in ways that a lot of the professional journalism world is not…

Courtney Escoyne:
And in some ways is not able to.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Is not able to! Exactly. Yeah. It’s just that none of those voices are getting paid. So…

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah and that’s the thing, there are all these brilliant voices and okay, cool, the internet has given them a platform, is there a way that they can be supported so that they can keep doing this? Because it is work, it is labor and yes, it can be a labor of love, but also I think we are all, even more so than usual these days, have learned to value our time and our labor. And this is a huge ongoing theme in the dance world and everywhere else, valuing that time and knowledge and labor. And I want the people who are doing great TikTok criticism right now to, 20 years from now, be able to still be commenting with that breadth of knowledge, and to have been able to grow through it. I want to see that. So how do we support that?

Margaret Fuhrer:
How do we make it happen? We don’t have the answers, we just have questions.

Courtney Escoyne:
We have so many questions. That’s our job as writers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But we’ll link to both to Marina Harss’ piece and Elizabeth Zimmer’s piece in the show notes so you can read them yourself.

All right, so our next discussion segment today is also about the pandemic accelerating structural shifts that were already happening in the dance world. Sarah Kaufman recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post that talks about, first of all, the modern and contemporary dance companies that did not make it through the pandemic. And I don’t know—at least some of that information was actually news to me. I didn’t realize that Taylor 2, the Paul Taylor second company, had shuttered, for example. But the story also talked about how the pandemic has basically threatened, or further threatened, the fiscal and business model that many US modern dance companies relied on for the past several decades. And I say “further threatened” because that whole single-choreographer-and-a-consistent-group-of-dancers structure was really becoming the exception rather than the rule well before COVID. But yeah, let’s talk about all the ideas explored in the story.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and the companies that she specifically highlighted as having shut down: Taylor 2, that second company; Aspen Santa Fe Ballet; Rioult Dance New York; 10 Hairy Legs; Madboots. Saying that all in a row is breaking my heart all over again.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, it’s intense. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and there is something to be said about the heartbreak of this particular perfect storm taking away some of these consistent dance gigs that were still holding on and still existed. However, the reality is that for the last 20 plus years, having a single company job that pays all your bills and that being your career, especially in contemporary dance and especially in New York, that’s become wildly rare. It is much more normal if you are talking about having a contemporary dance career here to be talking about, hopefully I have three choreographers I work with consistently and it all adds up to enough pay and can work around my survival gig as well, and I can work around their rehearsal gigs and make them work together. That is a much more common story. So there is something to be mourned here. I do feel like there is a little bit of a gap of, Okay, but this was already happening, in the story.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I feel like the bigger-picture question is really, what are the inherent values of that old school company model? What parts of it are worth saving, and how can we save them if the model itself is not sustainable? Salaried jobs, consistent weeks of work, benefits, opportunities to tour, close and consistent contact with a like-minded group of artists that allows for the development of an artistic language—I think many, maybe most, performers value those things, want those things. Do we have to stick with the old model of a year-round dance company led by a single choreographer to get them those things?

Clearly we have to address funding issues for dance generally. No model that provides dancers with salaries and benefits will be possible without more money and resources than the dance field is getting right now. But I did think it was interesting that the Washington Post piece concluded with quotes from a couple of dancers who had been members of these companies that recently shuttered, talking about the gig work that they’ve been doing since then as freeing and refreshing. So how can we allow dance artists to choose the type of path they want without having to hustle day in and day out to support themselves? I feel like it’s just the pandemic re-raising that question, which is a question we always seem to be asking here in the United States.

Courtney Escoyne:
Absolutely. And then I think also something that I appreciated that was gotten into in this story was talking specifically to Pascal Rioult about the closure of the Rioult Dance Center in Queens, New York, which had just opened, which was going to be a home for the company. There was a program for young students, that was also offering rehearsal space. It was like a very cool and needed thing. But they talk in the story about having to shut it down as well, shut down the company, because it was still so early in that venture that they weren’t at a point in the business plan where it was breaking even before the pandemic, and the pandemic just cut off all the lifelines, essentially. And because it and the company were tied together financially, when it went under the company went under with it, and it was something that—perfect storm. Had the pandemic not happened, they would probably be doing all right, in theory. But you can’t predict a global pandemic, who knew.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. This is another one of those stories that raises a whole bunch of complicated questions that we can’t answer. But yeah, please do read the Washington Post story, which we’ve also linked in the show notes.

All right, last up today, we need to talk about “Dancing with the Stars.” And I both do and do not mean that in the We Need to Talk About Kevin sense.

Courtney Escoyne:
Good reference.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Had to do it. I think a lot of people generally, but dance people in particular, have gotten used to dismissing the show as schmaltzy, circusy camp. Or sometimes something even worse—like, when it troll casts Sean Spicer, that’s significantly worse.

But last week, the show had a Horror Night episode that prompted an existential crisis across a particular swath of the internet. Because the whole episode was brilliant, and two routines in particular were actually incredible. JoJo Siwa’s Pennywise the Clown, and Iman Shumpert and Daniela Karagach as Untethered—you have to watch the routines to get it, and we’ve linked them in the show notes. But basically, we don’t think of “Dancing with the Stars,” usually, as a show that’s going to produce excellent dance content. So what happens when it does?

Culture writer Kevin Fallon did this really great piece in The Daily Beast unpacking all of these feelings. And Courtney, I know you have an interesting perspective on all of this as someone who has basically been unable to bring herself to watch the show, right?

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and it’s one of those things where this piece in The Daily Beast actually helped articulate some of the things that I was—like oh yeah, this is why I just have never quite bridged the gap of being like oh, this person that I’m theoretically interested in is on this show, I should watch it, and then I never quite make it to watching the show.

And a lot of it honestly I think has to do with, there’s almost like a disconnect, right? Because a show like “Dancing with the Stars,” especially one that’s long-running, it has so many different cooks in the kitchen in order to make it happen and exist. And the agenda of producers and exec types—which is, essentially, get as many people to watch the show as possible, even if it means doing horrible troll casting and editing and angling the show in a way that is either going to inflame people’s feelings in an angry way or really feed into a specific fandom or a specific demographic—it’s done in a very calculated way that I don’t necessarily always agree with. Sean Spicer is the most obvious example of this. Lots of great thought pieces around when that was happening have gone up, so I don’t need to get into that further.

And so there’s that side of it, which feels so totally in some ways divorced from the side of it which is like, there are actual dance artists who are working with people who are non-dancers for the most part to teach them how to put on a show. And also the incredible craft that goes into making a 90 second snippet of a dance that looks good on television and also meets the non-dancer’s abilities and showcases them. It’s a very specific skill set and craft. And I think what this week’s episode showed what “Dancing with the Stars” is capable of doing on that level, which is crafting these really brilliant bite-sized pieces of dance that super play to what the stars’ abilities are, and also doing it in a way that taps into okay, what is happening in culture right now? JoJo Siwa as Pennywise the Clown, brilliant.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I know. I want to talk about the pros on the show, because honestly that was the thing that first got me into it, was the idea of these incredible dancers, ballroom dancers, getting this kind of platform on national television. That’s essentially unheard of. And it’s launched a lot of them—they don’t get paid as much as they should, but they do get paid pretty well, and it’s launched a lot of them into this different type of celebrity, where now we have ballroom dancers on the cover of People. Because of “Dancing with the Stars”! That’s extraordinary, so credit to the show for that.

I should say I’m in a very different place than you, Courtney, because I have watched the show fairly consistently from the beginning. And that’s partly because it was my job to do so for all the years I was working on Dance Spirit. So, that obligation can breed its own resentment sometimes—I very much have a love, hate relationship with the show.

I don’t know, I feel like we should just acknowledge that the premise of it is pretty ridiculous. But it knows it. It has no illusions about its own seriousness, to its credit. And that makes its good moments, when they happen, transcendent—partly because they’re so unexpected. Like, the cognitive dissonance is part of the thrill.

So for me there are different categories of celebrity contestants—let’s talk about the celebrity contestants.

Courtney Escoyne:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
There are different categories that appeal to me. First, there are the celebs who are actually good dancers. I lived for Alfonso Ribeiro’s season. I thought he was fantastic—a person we forgot was a great dancer then getting to do this dance on network TV, love it.

Then there are the people that you think are awesome outside of dance who come into this crazy environment and make the absolute most of it. I’d put Johnny Weir from last season in that category, he was fantastic.

And then there are people like JoJo, JoJo Siwa, who are both great dancers and personalities that a lot of people love. Look how many people dressed up as her for Halloween, my gosh.

Courtney Escoyne:
So many, just so many.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And then by the way, she’s making queer history on the show. Great! That is all great.

And the perfect “Dancing with the Stars” storm happens when you have a fun personality, a good dancer, and some great TV choreography. On Horror Night, with JoJo’s routine…in a moment like that, do I love “Dancing with the Stars”? I sure do. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
I think that’s that weird disconnect…for me it comes from a place of, I want to support the dancers and the storylines that seem valuable, but I also don’t want to support the absolute BS that these producers sometimes pull.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Totally.

Courtney Escoyne:
And at the end of the day, it’s, ratings are ratings and engagement is engagement, and I don’t think they much care what it’s coming from, and so it’s difficult for me at least. It has always been a difficult thing to reconcile. But it is cool whenever I get to hear about, hey JoJo Siwa did this really cool thing, and I’m like, cool, I’m going to go look up that routine.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’ll go watch that one routine on YouTube.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, there’s a ton of push and pull happening. That’s always the case in reality TV.

But…all right, I’m going to stop myself. Because I could seriously keep talking about this for days.

Courtney Escoyne:
We could actually do this for the rest of the afternoon and then it would be a completely uneditable episode and then… [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Please do go read Kevin Fallon’s piece in The Daily Beast. It really does articulate a lot of the salient points here brilliantly, and also hilariously.

All right, that’s it for 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

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.