Transcript, Episode 92: Remembering Sondheim, “The Nutcracker” Evolves, and Osipova’s NFTs

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 in this week’s episode, we will add our voices to the huge chorus of arts world folks paying tribute to Stephen Sondheim, the massively influential lyricist and composer who died on Friday at age 91. We will talk about the return of The Nutcracker, because we are fully in Nutcracker season now, and examine how productions of the show have changed this year due to COVID restrictions and also due to ongoing and increasingly urgent conversations about racial stereotypes. And we will discuss the new NFTs offered by ballerina Natalia Osipova, because that is a fascinating and rather unexpected move with some potentially significant implications. So, quite a range of topics this week.

I’m tired of boring you all with housekeeping right at the beginning of the episode, so here’s everything I have to say in 10 seconds or fewer, I promise: Don’t forget to rate and interview and subscribe to this podcast. Give us a follow on Instagram @the.dance.edit and Twitter @dance_edit. Courtney’s timing me. She’s making me nervous. And make sure to check out our exclusive audio interview series, The Dance Edit Extra, on Apple Podcasts. We’ve got some super delicious episodes of the Extra coming soon, so do check that out. Did I make it?

Courtney Escoyne:
You know what? I made you nervous, so I’m not going to count it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You cut me some slack. Okay. [laughter]

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

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. Members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies and a youth dance team were among those killed and injured when a car drove through a holiday parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin on November 21st. Three Dancing Grannies lost their lives: 79 year old Virginia Sorenson, aka Ginny, who did a lot of choreography for the troupe; 71 year old Leanna Owen; and 52 year old Tamara Durand. Several members of the Waukesha Xtreme Dance Team were wounded. Five of those children were admitted to the ICU. And both of those groups have set up GoFundMes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We will link to those GoFundMes in the show notes. Just so incredibly tragic.

We have a rollercoaster of a headline rundown, as we usually do. On a decidedly happier note, American Ballet Theatre has announced that Janet Rollé, currently the general manager of Beyonce’s media and management company Parkwood Entertainment, will become its next CEO and executive director. Rollé will be the first person of color in this kind of leadership role at the company. At Parkwood, she helped produce Beyonce’s history-making Coachella performance, and the Homecoming documentary about that performance, and the film Black Is King, among many other accomplishments. She begins work at ABT on January 3rd, and there is so much excitement in the ballet world about this appointment. I mean, so eager to see what her vision will be for ABT.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and it’s one of those things where there’s so much to say here, but also I think we’re all just eagerly awaiting to see what she does and also what she does in concert with whoever ABT’s next artistic leader is going to be.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The next big question for ABT, yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
And many ballet companies right now.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And half the ballet world. Yep. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
The former home of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is reopening as a new art center in Manhattan. Chelsea Factory will function as a popup initiative for five years, offering residencies to artists working in music, dance, theater, and film, and providing rehearsal and performance space to help accelerate post-pandemic recovery for the arts. The first cohort of resident artists includes Hope Boykin and Andrea Miller, who will each receive $10,000 stipends, studio space, and production support. There are also plans for collaborations with the Joyce Theater and to offer subsidized rehearsal space rentals to individuals and community organizations. Performances are set to begin at the center in January. It’s really cool seeing that space getting used in this way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was just going to say—it’s great news all around, and I know that it’s a relatively minor part of it that it’s the old Cedar Lake space, but it does just feel right. It feels kind of lovely. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, it’s a fantastic space. It’s good that it’s getting used in something that’s going to support dance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yup. So, over in what feels like an alternate arts universe, aka Hollywood: there is another Magic Mike movie coming. Both Channing Tatum and director Steven Soderbergh will return for Magic Mike’s Last Dance, which will premiere at an as yet unspecified date on HBO Max. And in case you’re out of this particular loop, Magic Mike has become a huge business since the first film premiered back in 2012. The franchise now includes a live stage show and, premiering December 16th, a reality competition series called “Finding Magic Mike.” And all I really have to say about this is that tWitch, Stephen “tWitch” Boss, had better be on the cast list for this new movie. He was the best part of Magic Mike XXL. Let’s bring him back.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which, high bar, because there’s some incredible talent in those films.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Pretty fantastic dance talent there. Yep.

Courtney Escoyne:
Lin-Manuel Miranda recently told CNBC that despite conventional wisdom saying that filmed versions of Broadway shows make audiences less likely to buy tickets to see those shows in person, all indications are that the summer 2020 release of Hamilton, aka #Hamilfilm, on streaming service Disney+, only increased the show’s popularity and amplified the demand to see the show live. So that news obviously isn’t surprising to us, but it is encouraging to hear that we were right, for a lot of reasons that we’ve gone in depth on in this podcast.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I guess the caveat is that Hamilton isn’t exactly your average musical, so slightly different rules might apply to it. But still, yeah, this is exactly the outcome we were all hoping for and thinking would happen when these filmed versions of shows began dropping.

All right, I’m going to do my best to channel Lydia for this next headline item. This week, BTS returned to live in-person concerts for the first time since 2019. Right now they’re at Los Angeles’s SoFi Stadium, and by all accounts they’ve picked up right where they left off. They have an intricately choreographed two and a half hour set which, by the way, features a big crew of dancers from the Lab, including our favorite Sienna Lalau, who’s great. I mean, obviously since their last time on stage in front of a live audience BTS has achieved even more massive mainstream stardom, just a different level of global cultural influence. So anyway, it’s great that they’re back out there doing what they do best again.

Courtney Escoyne:
Iconic indigenous Australian dancer and actor David Gulpilil recently passed away at age 68, 4 years after being diagnosed with lung cancer. After his breakout role in the 1971 film Walkabout, he had a long and distinguished career as an actor and dancer, appearing in films like Mad Dog Morgan and Crocodile Dundee, and performing at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. He was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 1987 and received a lifetime achievement award from the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee in 2019. It’s a huge loss, but I think we’re very lucky to have so much of him and his performances recorded on film.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Oh, man. A heavy start to the episode this week because in our first discussion segment today, we want to take a moment to remember Stephen Sondheim, the genius who just fundamentally altered the shape of American musical theater. He was not of course a choreographer or a dancer, but the musicals that Sondheim put his pen to—in particular West Side Story and also a number of the works he did with the director and producer Hal Prince—they offered so much richness and so many opportunities to dancers and choreographers. And then Sondheim helped inspire and support a whole new generation of musical theater artists, including dance artists, who followed his lead in helping to revitalize the form.

Courtney Escoyne:
I keep thinking that this news shouldn’t have felt as shocking as it did. Sondheim was 91, but I think everyone’s reactions showed just how… It’s a thing. I think people are still grappling with how to even process and talk about, Stephen Sondheim has died. And it was very sudden. It wasn’t as though he had been ill. He had just been in the theater the week before seeing plays that were about to close.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He did a double-header!

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Seeing plays that were about to close, going to the Company revival on Broadway. He was still very active. He just announced a new show he was working on back in September. It’s wild to say that someone who was 91, his death was untimely, but it feels that way.

But also, as some friends of mine have pointed out, I think Sondheim’s huge body of work also uniquely prepared us as a community to honor and let go and process the grief of this. His work really is uniquely suited to that. I keep thinking of… There’s a line in Into the Woods: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.” That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. I feel like half the tributes I’ve been seeing to Sondheim are just his own words, how his own words best capture the grieving process.

Courtney Escoyne:
Who could say it better? Well, I also think… because here’s the thing, right? Sondheim is a composer-lyricist. He is not ostensibly a dance person—although honestly, if he had just done West Side Story and that was it, I think we would still need to be shouting him out. But obviously he did so much more than that. His web of influence, it is so vast that I think if you take away Sondheim, American theater today just looks unrecognizable. The butterfly effect is so huge and it’s unimaginable. Without him, we don’t get Jonathan Larson and Rent. We don’t get Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton. And even less directly in the lineage, we don’t get A Chorus Line, that kind of show that’s psychological and character-driven and emotionally complex and it pushes at the structures of what theater can be and whose perspectives a musical can show. That’s Sondheim.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And we can talk in a more direct way too about his influence on the way that dance has evolved on Broadway specifically. I don’t even think we have to talk about West Side Story—obviously that’s had a huge influence. But don’t forget that he also wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, another Jerome Robbins project. And some of those are dance staples. Can you imagine a dance competition without at least one routine to “Let Me Entertain You” or “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”? I have not seen a single one without a routine to one of those songs. [laughter]

Then, of course, his collaborations with Hal Prince, some of those were also collaborations with Michael Bennett. They helped launch Michael Bennett. He choreographed Company and Follies. Follies was majorly dancey—it’s like everybody forgets how dancey Follies was. And then these works and revivals of them have offered opportunities to all kinds of choreographers and dancers. They’ve reached into all corners of the musical theater world.

I also just love that Sondheim was such a proactive cheerleader of the younger creatives who were either taking on musicals that he’d written or making their own new works. As you were saying, Jonathan Larson, Lin-Manuel. He was always interested in what was new and next.

I just watched tick, tick… BOOM! And I don’t have entirely positive feelings about it, but I thought it captured that incredibly well… His mentorship of Jonathan Larson, and specifically that voicemail scene, which I didn’t realize until after I saw it, that was actually Sondheim’s voice in that voicemail recording that he’s leaving for Jonathan Larson encouraging him.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it’s not what it was that Jonathan Larson wrote. It is—Sondheim wrote it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Sondheim’s writing. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which… What a gift. And if we could and should take anything from Sondheim, it is that effort to be present in your community, regardless of what your place in it is, and to be encouraging of other people in your community and taking the time, even if it’s just two sentences, to be like, “Hey, I saw your thing. I appreciated it for this reason. Keep going.” I think if we all took the time to do that whenever we felt that we would have a much richer and even more supportive and wonderful community than we already do.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s the other kind of tribute that’s been all over the place, is people posting the typed letters they received from Sondheim.

Courtney Escoyne:
That beautiful signature.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We’ll link to several different Sondheim tributes in the show notes.

So in our second discussion section today, it’s time to talk once again about The Nutcracker, because it is really and truly back. It is full-force happening. Live Nut performances have returned pretty much everywhere, but many of these productions look very different this year. And there are two main reasons for these evolved Nutcrackers. One is COVID precautions, just making sure that all the people and especially the children, both onstage and in the audience, are safe. And the other is a reconsideration of the way the show portrays Asians, with more and more companies finally eliminating racial stereotypes in the Chinese and Arabian divertissements in favor of updated choreography and costumes that celebrate rather than caricature Asian culture.

Let’s start by talking about the COVID updates.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So several different companies have taken different tacks on this. Because obviously Nutcracker tends to feature a lot of child performers. One of the big pieces of news that broke around all of this earlier in the fall was that New York City Ballet was saying, “Okay, you have to be fully vaccinated in order to participate.” And because of where vaccine statuses were at the time, that meant anyone under the age of 12 was automatically off the table. So that meant those eight to 11 year olds who normally would be getting to come in and do roles weren’t getting to do them. But it also meant that the younger teenagers at School of American Ballet were getting to come in and do these roles, which created a whole cadre of logistical things to figure out and work out. In addition to… I did not realize this until recently: Apparently SAB and City Ballet opened up casting to beyond just SAB, to other New York City area ballet schools, which is wild and never would’ve occurred to me that this would ever happen.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But I hope they keep doing it. I hope that becomes a tradition, because I think it’s fantastic.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. But then other companies did keep children in the cast, and they are doing things like coming up with custom masks to match the costumes, reducing the number of dancers in certain roles or certain scenes, asking that hair and makeup be done by parents before they come to the theater so that the kids are in the theater for less time. So there’s a lot of different approaches that have come out of this and there’s also testing protocols that are in place, vaccine mandates for those who are old enough to have gotten them from the beginning of the process. So there’s a lot of logistical considerations that are coming into play to try to make this happen safely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Going back to the City Ballet story—I’m sorry. I know we’re all City Ballet all the time on this podcast. It’s just because we’re in New York City.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s because we live in New York. We see it a lot.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We see a lot of them. But the Times piece took as a given, “Oh, well of course in the past they didn’t cast older people because they’re just too tall for the costumes.” They could never overcome that hurdle. That was the baseline of the piece.

That shouldn’t be as big a deal as it is. Featuring older, taller dancers… It’s counterbalancing this terrible thing that usually happens, where really eager, gifted children are told, “Oh, you’re just too tall to be cast.” For some of these kids, that’s the first of what will unfortunately probably be many times they’re told, “Your body doesn’t fit.” And it took COVID to break that cycle, but the breaking of it seems like a net positive to me.

Courtney Escoyne:
I can’t help but agree, because I think that the given logic of, “Oh, well the costumes aren’t going to fit,” is the same logic that people use to justify companies continuing to weigh dancers, continuing to have “fat talks,” but hiding it under more currently acceptable terminology. But it’s the same mindset and culture that allows that to happen. And I do get the desire for verisimilitude for sure, but I do think there’s a certain point where it’s like, “Well, hey, our suspension of disbelief is already at a certain point. There is a tree that grows to be ginormous sized and there’s giant rats.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to say—we do have people as rats. So I think we can make the leap. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
There’s a suspension of disbelief already happening here. So, it’s theater guys. We can keep going with this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. We could talk about this for a long time, but let’s move on, because the other half of this is also important, talking about the changes to the way the many productions are depicting Asians.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Which I think is something that was talked about a lot last year in our year without Nutcracker, and something Phil Chan, one of the co-founders of Final Bow for Yellowface, who has been so instrumental in all of this…

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, shout out to Final Bow for Yellowface. I feel like we’re just perpetually shouting out Final Bow for Yellowface. And we should be. They’re doing excellent work.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, they’re great. But I was seeing Phil on Twitter and elsewhere being like, “Hey, you got the year off from Nutcracker. Are you going to take the time to rethink the way you guys are doing these variations and these stereotypes that you have in place?” And a lot of places, the answer ended up being yes. And that is so heartening.

In particular, I love Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new Green Tea Cricket. The costume is so charming.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And doesn’t that feel so right with the music, too?

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes!

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s ingenious.

Courtney Escoyne:
And they were able to get the changes approved by the Balanchine Trust, which was a factor and a hurdle that they overcame. But there are across the board a lot of changes being made to make these seem less like caricatures and make it less alienating.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And what a great opportunity for creativity this is, too. Not just to correct wrongs, but also to make interesting and respectful new art. It’s all around, all around such a fantastic thing. We’ll link to the New York Times story about the companies re-imagining their Chinese and Arabian divertissements in the show notes.

All right. Finally today, we’d like to unpack the news that star ballerina Natalia Osipova is auctioning what are purportedly the ballet world’s first NFTs. And no, Courtney, I’m not going to make you explain NFTs again.

Courtney Escoyne:
Thank you. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
When we were talking about possible discussion topics, Courtney was like, “Don’t make me do another NFT explainer!” Actually, if you want to hear her first NFT explainer, which is very good, you can go back to listen to that in episode 69. But I’ll just give the bare bones basics: NFT stands for non-fungible token, and what an NFT does is transform a digital work of art, or some other kind of digital collectible, into a one of a kind verifiable asset stored on the blockchain. I think that’s all the detail we need for this story.

So between now and December 10th, three NFT videos of Osipova are being offered by the auction house Bonhams. And just that news itself is fascinating. I’m not sure I’d have put my money on Osipova as the first ballet star to sell NFTs for starters. But the Guardian story about all of this also included interesting information about what Osipova and her partner Jason Kittelberger plan to do with the funds from the auction. And there are questions here too about the larger potential of these kinds of alternative funding sources for dance, and how bringing ballet into the crypto world might broaden its appeal. There are also less positive aspects to this kind of development. Courtney, I know you have thoughts.

Courtney Escoyne:
I do have thoughts, but just starting with what this news even is because, whoa, that’s a whole thing. [laughter] So there are three pieces, essentially video recordings of Osipova dancing, that are going to be up for auction as NFTs, two of which are from Giselle. One of them is the act two entrance. The other is a solo from act two. And then a third longer-form piece is a piece that was choreographed by Jason Kittelberger. It’s a pas de deux for the two of them called “Left behind.” And it will be a video of a live show of them dancing that and that is going to be what the NFT is.

The Giselle pieces are currently estimated to be… They think they’re going to go for between 8,000 and 12,000 pounds. And “Left behind,” which is going to be a longer piece, they’re estimated between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds, which is bananas. Just saying those amounts just stopped me in my tracks a little bit.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, here’s the interesting thing though, is that right now, as we speak, the auction is underway, and there’s still about a week left in it, but the current high bids on those videos… The Giselle ones are at 5,500 pounds each and “Left behind” is at 8,000 pounds, with a week left to go. So there is some real demand here.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s wild. I don’t know what else to say other than wild. And I do think it’s a fascinating opportunity, right? Because the thing that I think really first grabbed our interest in the dance world about NFTs was it being this alternate approach to ownership and also to monetization of ownership of a dance anything. Although the licensing does go entirely to whoever purchases it, which creates a whole other interesting—I can imagine a future quandary of, “Well, they’re allowed to display or use this in any way they see fit once they have that full licensing. So what are they going to do with that?” I can totally imagine there being problems with that at some point in the future. It’s going to be really fun to watch that play out in court. Maybe not with this specifically, just with something potentially.

And I think it’s fascinating that Osipova is saying that what they want to do is fund their own dance company, because so much of her career has been really characterized by her wanting more independence, wanting to shape her own career. So as an idea of a potential funding source for a dance company, this is fascinating. And also the idea that they are considering doing more of these to continue funding it: fascinating.

The places where I have hesitations are, one, creating NFTs in the first place, huge startup costs, which is not going to be available to a lot of people in a lot of organizations. Second thing, NFTs are based on cryptocurrency, and cryptocurrency mining is terrible for the environment, which I don’t want to get into a whole thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s a different podcast.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s a different podcast. People who are smarter than me have talked about it. So…it’s complicated. The TL;DR for all of this: It’s complicated.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is complicated. I think there’s some smart reasoning happening when you talk about the amount of speculation happening in the crypto world right now and trying to tap into some of that and using it to benefit dance. Okay. That’s a good idea, at least in principle. I think—when you started to talk about copyright issues that might come up down the road, I was actually thinking about copyright issues that might have come into play as they were choosing which pieces to feature. Because Giselle stuff I think is all in common domain right now, so that’s relatively kosher, but the “Left behind” piece, the duet that they’re doing, seemed like an odd choice. And a part of me was wondering if the reason they chose it was because they had the rights to the choreography, the music, and the video. When you’re talking about dance NFTs, you have to consider all of those things, unless it’s a silent NFT.

Courtney Escoyne:
Again, and we’ve talked about this many times: Copyright law in the United States when it comes to dance is so behind. Just so behind.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Extremely complicated. Yeah. Anyway, so yeah, lots to talk about, lots to think about here. Very curious to see how it all goes and what the NFTs go for.

Courtney Escoyne:
The final price! Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We have linked to the Guardian story about this whole adventure in the show notes.

All right. 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.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.