Transcript, Episode 90: “Chicago” at 25, Dance as Renewable Energy, and “Good” Costumes

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. This week we will talk about the 25th anniversary of the Broadway revival of Chicago, and the role that show has played in both shaping the way musical theater dance looks, and also in cementing Bob Fosse’s legacy. We will discuss a fascinating story about a club in Glasgow that is using dancers’ body heat to generate renewable energy. And we will talk a little about what makes a “good” dance costume from the perspectives of multiple dance world creative folks.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m going to keep the housekeeping super brief this week. I just wanted to give you all a quick reminder to rate and review and subscribe to this podcast on your listening platform of choice. We’re especially into reviews, first of all, because we just love hearing your thoughts, and second, because they can actually help more dance nerds find this little podcast family that we’ve built. So, if you have a minute, please do let us know how you’re feeling about what we’re making.

All right. Now it’s time for our usual dance headline rundown. Here we go.

Lydia Murray:
An inquest has heard that the choreographer Liam Scarlett, who passed away this year, took his own life after feeling humiliation over facing sexual misconduct allegations, The Guardian reported. Scarlett had been a dancer with The Royal Ballet beginning in 2005, then became its artist-in-residence in 2012 and was accused in 2019.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This story continues to be devastating. We’ll link to The Guardian article that has more about the inquest in the show notes.

The issues plaguing the global supply chain have not spared the dance world. Last week, Chicago’s Harris Theater said they had been forced to cancel planned performances of Akram Khan’s XENOS after shipping delays held up the production set.

There’s a bigger conversation to be had here about how the supply chain problems are affecting dance more broadly. We know our magazines have at least one story in the works about those effects, so stay tuned.

Lydia Murray:
The Māori tribe Ngati Toa is calling for anti-vaccine proponents to stop using its ceremonial dance. The tribe has legal control of its unique form of the haka, called the Ka Mate, which is meant to show tribal respect and unity. Brian Tamaki, who is a right wing activist and member of two Māori tribes, was believed to be planning to teach the Ka Mate haka to anti-vaccine protestors.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. Shifting to the happier news portion of the headline rundown now. This year’s Out100 list, which honors queer and trans people who are making change, includes a whole bunch of great dance artists. The ever fabulous Ariana DeBose is one of the issue’s cover stars. And then the list also features JoJo Siwa, who is absolutely everywhere; choreographers Sean Bankhead and Sean Dorsey; Native American dancers Sean Snyder and Adrian Stevens; and the dance folks of Pride House L.A.—that’s Mollee Gray and Kent Boyd and Jeka Jane and Garrett Clayton. I think I’m actually missing a few, even, there’s so much dance on that lineup. Love to see it. So we’ll have the full list for you in the show notes.

Lydia Murray:
The Broadway revival of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, which will be directed by Camille A. Brown, has a premiere date. Previews will begin on March 4th, 2022, and the show will open on March 24th at the Booth Theatre, where the original play debuted in 1976.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, can’t wait to see the brilliance Camille’s going to bring to that revival. That’s so exciting.

Lydia Murray:
I know!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. So, our last headline item: Chita Rivera and the Art Attack Foundation have created the Graciela Daniele Dance Scholarship, which is named for Tony-honored choreographer Graciela Daniele, to support young dancers. The scholarship will be offered to dancers aged 14 to 20 of all disciplines, with applications opening in February 2022. Daniele has, of course, had a huge impact on Broadway, and she and Rivera have a long history together, which includes performing in the original company of Chicago, where Daniele created the role of Hunyak and Chita, of course, originated Velma Kelly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And I did not even plan it, but that is actually kind of a perfect segue…

Lydia Murray:
That’s the perfect segue! Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
…into our first discussion segment today. This week, the Broadway revival of Chicago celebrated its 25th anniversary, on November 14th. And to mark that anniversary, the New York Times talked to a bunch of people who helped shape the revival, including some very famous Roxies and Velmas—Rivera herself and Bebe Neuwirth and Brandy Norwood were on the list.

Chicago is now… It’s basically a New York City landmark. And it’s also famous for rotating celebrities through its lead roles. But its first production back in 1975 actually got a pretty mixed reception. The luminaries in this Times story had really interesting things to say about the evolution of critical opinion, for starters, and also about just how important Ann Reinking was to making that revival such a success. I mean…I miss Ann Reinking so much.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, I know. I mean just what a towering figure.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Lydia Murray:
And the shift in critical opinion that happened with Chicago was interesting. When the revival happened in 1996, the critic Ben Brantley was one public figure who praised it. He wrote that when the play opened in 1975, it had seemed a little bit too cold to really be loved. It was dark, it was kind of cynically and brazenly about murder, greed, corruption, et cetera. But also in ’75 it was overshadowed by plays like A Chorus Line, which was new at the time, along with older, more established favorites like Cabaret and Oklahoma.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean you could not find two shows more tonally different than Chicago and A Chorus Line.

Lydia Murray:
Absolutely. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And it says a lot about the critical climate at that moment, where earnest, openhearted shows like Chorus Line were in vogue, and gimlet-eyed shows like Chicago were not yet. Which is interesting, because I feel like movies of that period were sort of further evolved in a lot of ways. They were already exploring the way that cynicism can tell some truths that earnestness can’t. And maybe that’s why Fosse’s Cabaret film, which actually came out a few years before the Chicago Broadway production, succeeded where Chicago didn’t. Then, of course, by 1996, the whole culture was thoroughly on board with Fosse’s brand of darkly funny storytelling.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s an interesting observation. That definitely makes sense. I was thinking in terms of culture, or pop culture, and current events, and how there were these really dark themes that were dominating the news and dominating pop culture. The Vietnam War was ending around that time, and Nixon, Watergate, and all that stuff was happening. It seems like when that kind of thing happens, people can either gravitate toward those sort of darker themes or they want a relief.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Escape.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Some kind of escape. And I don’t know whether, for whatever reason the theater-going crowd leaned more toward earnestness. And I don’t know, but…

Margaret Fuhrer:
I liked John Kander’s quote that touched on that in the Times story. He said, “There are two ways of dealing with catastrophe. One is you can pick up banners and yell about it. And the other is to do the same thing by simply holding the evil up to ridicule and making an audience feel entertained before they realize what it is they’re seeing.” That’s Fosse in a nutshell, the latter. And I think that’s a really hard thing to do in dance specifically. Because I don’t know, I feel like dance, by its nature, it’s easier for it to be open and vulnerable. But to be able to physically embody his sardonic sense of humor—I think that was Fosse’s genius, or part of it.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, absolutely. And it almost seems like we might be a little bit more open to that now because we’ve seen that in dance and we’ve just seen that, I feel like I keep saying culturally, but we have kind of seen it, I think, culturally—more that willingness to look at ourselves through a different lens and to be more self-critical and to maybe be more open to seeing these negative aspects of how society can be, really.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Antiheroes are our bread and butter now.

Lydia Murray:
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. I feel like with the pandemic, we’ve just seen such dark sides of humanity that we maybe wanted to deny or ignore. And it’s still relevant, it’s been relevant through so many different eras, which is also part of the appeal.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s one of those shows that seems to speak to the times, no matter what times you’re living in—there’s always that point of connection.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. The issues and themes are just timeless.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Let’s talk about the “stunt” casting too. Because I think there’s been a lot of eye rolling over the years as people… I mean, I remember when Ashlee Simpson, in particular, came in to play Roxie, everyone was a little like, oh, here we go. And I get it. I mean the sense that a show is like grasping for relevance can make you feel a little suspicious, maybe.

Lydia Murray:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
On the other hand, I feel like Fosse himself would’ve loved that so much. Bringing in celebrities to razz up a long-running, maybe a little bit tired musical—that is so in line with the actual world of Chicago.

Lydia Murray:
Right!

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think some of those stars, like Brandy in particular, brought so much real value and insight to the show. Just the tongue-in-cheek meta-ness of seeing this huge success story in real life, like Brandy, playing this unsuccessful striver, like Roxie—that’s some great built-in tension. I think she really leaned into that.

Lydia Murray:
Agreed. I haven’t seen Brandy’s portrayal of Roxie, but I read about it in the article and elsewhere. But I think bringing in those other kinds of artists really helps to, I mean, not just expand the production’s audience, but they definitely bring some uniquely important qualities, I think. And I like that there’s some creative variety there.

And not to call any of these entertainers lowbrow, because that’s not the case, but for some of them who come from areas like reality TV, that’s still not considered high art, just generally speaking that does fall in line with that fusion of high and low that Fosse was so known for. That’s so important to his work.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Totally.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, Ann Reinking was instrumental in adapting the original play for the revival because she was so familiar with the choreography and the spirit of Fosse style. And her direction to the performers was so warm and generous that it helped fine-tune the production. And as the Times article also mentions, there was initially little interest in bringing Chicago back to Broadway because there wasn’t enough spectacle, like in other popular works. But the Broadway producers, Fran and Barry Weissler were so impressed with the Encores! production that they were able to take the show on with pretty much no competition.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. And that was Annie who got that—she was the one who understood that a bare-bones staging would actually allow the choreography to carry the story and sharpen its edges. And I think that’s baked into the way we think of the Fosse aesthetic generally now, too. I think that’s also thanks in part to the Broadway show Fosse, which of course Ann Reinking was part of that production top to bottom too.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. It’s so precise and it just really doesn’t need the bells and whistles.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, we love this show, we hope it never goes away. Please do read the Times feature talking to all of these stage legends, which we have, of course, linked in the show notes.

Next up today, we wanted to get into an idea that sounds like utter common sense and also like something out of a sci-fi novel, simultaneously, somehow. Last week, the UN Climate Change Conference happened in Glasgow, Scotland, and in the same city, a club called SWG3 was getting ready to try out new technology that can convert dancing clubbers’ body heat into renewable energy. The technology, which is created by a company called TownRock Energy—it captures the heat generated by these thousands of dancing clubgoers, and then allows it to be reused to either heat or cool the club. So it’s like the power of dance, literally—the literal power of dance. And I’m more than a little obsessed with this idea.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. The literal power of dance. I just love that. Here’s how it works essentially: So, the club has air collectors in the ceiling to absorb the heat that clubbers generate on the floor. And this is standard, but typically the heat that those collectors would capture is carried outside the building, which creates waste. And that’s what would happen with traditional heating technology, which used gas boilers. So instead, body heat is taken from the ceiling and transported into one of 17 large bore holes. Each one is drilled as far as 650 feet deep. And from there, the heat warms the surrounding rocks, which function as heat batteries. And the energy can also cool the club down when it’s hot without needing air conditioning, which is really innovative and interesting. Another thing this reminds me of is the sustainable dance floor, which is…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh, yeah! I’d forgotten about that.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I think that was in the news back in 2008 or so. It’s an energy-efficient dance floor that’s made by a company in the Netherlands called Energy Floors, fittingly. But yeah, overall this has really interesting implications for green energy and nightlife and theater. Will we see something like a New York City Theatre Greening Grant being used for this in the future? What potential is there for costumes even to incorporate thermoelectric technology later on?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Ooh. Yeah.

Lydia Murray:
In just the past few years there have been wearable items, like a t-shirt and a wristband, that can do this, that can convert body heat to electricity. So, it’s an interesting space.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean the idea of harvesting human body heat for energy is very Matrix-y, but it’s also totally real. It’s actually happening already. And yeah, as you were saying, Lydia, if we can figure out ways to do this sustainably on a broader scale, it could be kind of game-changing.

All I can think about now is all the summers I spent in heavily air conditioned dance studios, when all of us dancers were generating all this heat energy that was totally wasted. And then additional energy was expended to cool the air. Closing that loop, harnessing the energy of the body itself, that’s so brilliant.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And nobody makes more body heat than dancers. [laughter]

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I wonder maybe even the body heat of people who are just sitting in the audience too, even though of course it won’t be as much, but yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But it’s something, yeah. Don’t let it go to waste. Anyway, this is a fascinating model with potentially wide-ranging repercussions. There’s a BBC story about it and also a Fast Company story about this club’s experiment that we have linked in the show notes.

So finally today, we’d like to talk about costumes, which is a topic that tends to elicit a lot of passion from people on all sides of the dance world—I mean, dancers, audience members, designers, choreographers, you name it. Dance Magazine posted a short but fascinating story online this week about what makes a “good” dance costume. The piece asked a wardrobe supervisor, a dancer, and a dance critic that question and got, naturally, very different responses. And actually Lydia, you and I, as people who are, or have been, dancers and audience members and dance journalists—I think we have an interesting perspective on these questions too.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. For me, the best costumes are the ones that make you feel connected to the character as you envision it to be. As a dancer, they support your unique portrayal. And even if you’re doing a piece in which there is no story, you’ll probably have an idea of what you want to convey. So I think it helps the production as a whole too, when the costume aligns with and enhances the dancer’s ability to do that. And John Taylor’s comment comes to mind, where he said that a good costume incorporates the concept, the right fabric and a conversation with the dancer. Those are really key elements.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. You know, one perspective that isn’t in this story is a choreographer’s point of view. And I think that side of the discussion is also fascinating, because the ways that a costume can, or “should”—heavy quotation marks—compliment or enhance or expand on a choreographer’s vision for a dance work, different choreographers have totally different approaches to this.

Some seem not to care about costumes at all. Some have developed long-term relationships with costume designers who just get their vision—like, I’m thinking of Paul Taylor and Santo Loquasto, who worked together for years. Some enjoy collaborating with visual artists who maybe don’t have a ton of experience with costume design and seeing what that generates, like the Merce Cunninghams of the world—Merce Cunningham did so much with that. And then some…I mean, we talked about this in our discussion of the New York City Ballet gala, where Sidra Bell gave designer Christopher John Rogers essentially free reign, and said, Hey, I will build my dance around your costumes. The costumes came first in the process, which is also fascinating. Lydia, I know you said you were thinking a lot about that piece.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. Those costumes really have stuck in my mind, and how central they were to the dance, and how that relationship between the costumes and the dance was so strong. At least I felt like it was, it was really strong. And they were just so visually striking.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, totally. I also think—this is a totally different tack, but I think there’s another conversation to be had about costumes versus regalia. Because in Native American dance forms, the dancers’ clothing is not a costume. They’re not pretending to be anyone else. Their regalia is an expression of self. That way of thinking about what is on your body as you’re performing, I think is also really important to recognize.

Anyway, there’s so much to talk about here. We’ve linked to the original Dance Magazine story, but we’d also love to hear your thoughts on costume design and what makes for an effective costume and how costume can enrich a dance. So, let us know on Instagram @the.dance.edit or Twitter @dance_edit if you are so inclined.

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.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.