Transcript, Episode 95: The Best of 2021, Part 1

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to a special holiday episode of The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer, and it’s just me this week—my co-hosts are getting a much deserved break. Without them around, rather than doing our usual news roundtable discussion, for this episode and also for next week’s episode, I’ve put together a little Dance Edit “best of 2021” retrospective. 

This isn’t a “best of the news” roundup. Instead, it’s a look back at some of our favorite interview moments from 2021. Because over the course of the year, I’ve had some really illuminating conversations with dozens of the dance artists who are shaping the headlines—dancers, choreographers, directors, administrators, educators, all of the above. 

Some of the clips I’ll play during these year-end specials are from the interviews that we used to air at the end of each regular episode—we did that up until the summer of this year. So those might be nice walks down memory lane for you. But other clips are from our new premium interview series, The Dance Edit Extra, which launched in the fall on Apple Podcasts. And for those of you who aren’t already Edit Extra subscribers, well, these excerpts are our little holiday gifts to you. We hope they’ll entice you to head over to Apple Podcasts and find out what The Dance Edit Extra is all about.

OK, so, let’s get right to the first clip. We are starting things off with the one and only Martha Nichols, a choreographer and dancer who’s worked all over both the concert and the commercial worlds, whose interview aired in episode 51 back in February. She is incredibly thoughtful and purposeful in both her movements and her words, which is why this excerpt seems like the perfect bit of her interview to highlight: Here is Martha talking about dance as a language, and how we use that language to communicate.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk about the “why” of your creative process? When when you’re making things, especially dance things, what is it that drives you?

Martha Nichols:
I would say on a presentational front, always the balance of the message and the music. Through a purposeful perspective, definitely the message, the intentionality, and the experience. I firmly believe that if dance is a language, everything we use while I create is me speaking. So, what am I actually saying? And if I don’t know what I’m saying, then I won’t continue. My friends actually laugh about it, where I’m like, “I have to cancel rehearsal. You can all go home.” But I’m just going to stand in the studio and figure it out. So, definitely the message, the experience, the spirit of it all, all of that definitely is heavily important to me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This idea of dance as a language—the way that we use language is so important, and people are increasingly aware of that. Can you talk about that a little bit more in a dance context?

Martha Nichols:
Absolutely. I feel that every…everything I create, and not from an egotistical standpoint, but from a creative and existing standpoint, I see it as a contribution. And so, what my question to myself is always, what am I contributing? So, I’m creating this piece. Why am I doing it? And what am I saying? Of course, the boundary lies within… I can be… I am responsible for my level of clarity, I’m not responsible for the style of comprehension for those who are receiving whatever it is I’m contributing, but I am responsible for my level of clarity.

And so, if it is a language—and I do believe it is a language—my mother taught me that words… Well, I was raised to believe that words either build or destroy. And so, I never want to destroy, even if it’s unintentionally. Unless I think it’s something that needs to be just completely demolished, then I’m coming swinging. But as far as a healing, and an offering, a giving, an enhancement standpoint, dance is a language. And so, I always am accountable to what it is that I’m saying, whether it’s through movement, through spirit, through music, through staging, through costume, through lighting, through direction, I’m speaking on every level. And it is my responsibility to make sure that every aspect isn’t necessarily on the same note but it is in the same chord, so that when it all comes together, there is this beautiful sense of harmony.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Creating beautiful dance harmonies—that’s what Martha does. How wonderful is that?

All right, next up, we have the just terrifyingly smart Chloe Angyal, whom I spoke with in episode 61. She is the author of the recently released book Turning Pointe, which gets into ballet’s many ailments in a way that manages to be damning and hopeful at the same time. Chloe is a journalist who also has a degree in sociology, so while her book covers a lot of the ballet-is-broken territory that’s familiar to those of us immersed in the dance world, she is able to unpack and explain those issues from a different perspective. Here she is discussing all of that.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
You bring a sociologist’s perspective to ballet—I think that’s something that doesn’t happen enough. What does that particular lens reveal that journalists and historians and other dance writers and dance people might miss?

Chloe Angyal:
Ballet is absolutely ripe for sociological analysis. I mean, sociology is the study of people in groups, and dance is its own world. It’s its own culture, literally with its own language, with its own rules, with a very particular power structure. And it almost cries out for translation, not only for people who are outside of it, so they can understand this fairly insular world, but also for people who grew up in it, “This is just how the world works.” And then once you are able to step outside of it and have someone explain to you, “Well, this is this is what the power structure looks like. And this is why these rules are set up the way they are”—you come to understand yourself and your own experiences in that world differently. Once you can step outside of it and have that explained to you rather than, “Well, this is just how the world works. This is how it’s been since I was four and I don’t know any different.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I think that’s where a lot of our listeners are. They have grown up inside this world and have internalized a lot of the dysfunction within it to the point that they just take it for granted. It’s just the way things are.

Chloe Angyal:
And I felt that way as well. And one of the things that was most surprising was even as someone who… I wasn’t a serious ballet student. I’m very upfront about this in the book. I was not a serious ballet student. I was never pre-professional or professional material. I did ballet. I was on pointe for a couple of years. And then I just did it as sort of maintenance technique for everything else that I was doing. But even I managed to internalize a lot of that dysfunction and to see it as normal. And I thought I was sort of free of that by the time it came to write this book, and then I would repeatedly have this experience of interviewing someone for the book, a dancer who’s talking about dancing on an injury or an artistic director who was talking about dismissing dancers who were too big for his liking. And in the moment I would listen to their explanation and I would sort of nod and empathize and I would think, “Yeah, I can rationalize that. That makes sense.” And then I would send that chapter to my editor or I’d go out to the kitchen and tell my fiancé about it, and they’d be like, “That’s awful.” And I’d be like, “Oh, my ballet brain took over.” My internalized ballet logic took over for a sec there.”

And I think this book is going to teach people who don’t know a lot about ballet, they’re going to learn a lot, but I also hope that people who do know a lot about ballet, and have sort of spent a lot of their lives explaining away some of the things that are wrong with it, will be able to see it all in one place and then sit back and think, “That doesn’t look right.”

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Next on the docket today, we’ve got Sydnie L. Mosley, who—when I say she’s a multihyphenate talent, I do mean multihyphenate: she is an artist-activist, an educator, and a writer, and she is a prominent voice in each of those spheres. During the pandemic, I think a lot of us have found a lot of solace in Sydnie’s words in particular—in the writing that she has been doing for Essence and Dance Magazine and The Brooklyn Rail, which is always incisive and lyrical and revelatory. Here is Sydnie talking about one piece that struck a particular nerve with thousands of Dance Magazine readers, and about how her collective, SLM Dances, has coped during the pandemic.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
You recently wrote a piece for Dance Magazine about why you’re waiting for the pandemic to end to produce a performance, and about how dance artist should give themselves permission to rest right now. You expressed feelings that clearly resonated with people—a lot of people are feeling these kinds of feelings. How did you put words around those feelings? What’s the story behind that piece?

Sydnie Mosley:
I think I was feeling a bit frustrated in a lot of different ways. I felt like as soon as the pandemic hit, we got smacked with all of these online dance classes and online performances, people trying to figure out how to salvage what they were planning to present in real time and real space to the virtual space. People were grieving, because all of a sudden all their work was lost. There was all these things happening and it felt like no one had taken a beat to process what was happening and just be present with that. It just felt like people felt the need to continue this go, go, go, when clearly the powers that be were asking us to take a moment and stop and rest. I remember those first few weeks of the shutdown and they were getting all of these environmental reports about like, how the dolphins were swimming and the trees were regenerating, and it was like, oh, because people stopped, and they stopped polluting the air!

I was definitely feeling a frustration around that. I think the energy in the dance field has gone up and down since then, in terms of how much people have chosen to engage or not engage. But I still feel this overwhelming push, push, push to reopen, push, push, push, to keep producing, push, push, push. I’m not sure that what people are pushing for is actually in alignment with what they really need, or is in alignment with their artistic practice. It just feels like pushing for the sake of pushing, which is unnecessary.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s such a classic dance thing too, to always be on the treadmill—if you stop moving, you lose momentum, everything’s over. Which, I guess maybe part of that is the sense of maintaining a connection with your dancer body and maintaining that kind of conditioning. But that doesn’t have to be reflected in your creative process. They’re two completely different things.

Leading a dance collective—figuring out how to keep not only yourself but also your creative partners activated and inspired and, most critically, paid—it was hard enough in the before times, before COVID changed everything. How have you approached that work during the past year with COVID as this huge, additional stressor? How has dealing with the pandemic changed you, maybe, as a leader?

Sydnie Mosley:
The pandemic actually has not changed me as a leader. It actually has fortified me and affirmed me as a leader in a lot of different ways. One is that this year I realized that, oh, I actually built a container that could withstand crisis. Part of that is because we’ve never had a lot to start with. We have had very few monetary resources over the past, almost 11 years now of making work. The fact that we figured out a way to sustain one another, and to sustain our relationships and our art-making, means that we were ready for a really lean moment in the general economy.

I also just want to name that we took the time to honor our grief. We took the time to be there for one another and to really be a soft place to land at the end of the really up-and-down dynamic days, the rollercoaster days that 2020, and now even into 2021, has taken us through. We literally started to tell—at that point in pandemic, where all the days started to run together, we were all keeping time by, SLMDances day or not SLMDances day. We meet twice a week, and it was like, “Okay, that’s how we’re telling time together.”

I think for us—I said to my co-leadership, my co-leaders, we’re going to pay people until there’s nothing left. I’m not going to end these contracts. I’m not going to stop supporting people in their time of need. I was actually really frustrated at how bigger institutions that had way deeper resources than we did really didn’t consider that, or maybe they did and struggled with it. For me, it’s always about the people. How can I keep supporting my people to the bitter end?

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s always about the people—thank you so much for helping to keep us focused on that, Sydnie.

OK, last up on this first half of our Best of 2021 list, we have none other than American Ballet Theatre star James Whiteside, who was featured in our very first Dance Edit Extra episode, in early September. James came on mostly to discuss his book, Center Center, which is a recounting of his life in and around dance, inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl and David Sedaris—it walks this great line between hysterical and grotesque. But towards the end of the interview we also talked more about his own artistic explorations of gender, and about some of the shifts he’s seen happening in the larger ballet world. Here’s a part of that discussion.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
It does seem like there’s an evolution happening in ballet where there’s a growing movement to rethink the gendered aspects of ballet technique itself. And you do have this interesting perspective on all that as someone who is playing with gender in various aspects of your creative life, while also playing these hetero princes on stage. Can you talk a little bit more about how you sort of navigate all of that, and how you think about ballet’s cultural and technical relationship to gender?

James Whiteside:
I support evolution in art fields. This makes sense. Why would we do the same thing forever? I also support honoring legacy, and the morphing of what was always. And for me, I just essentially liked to play. So this sort of curiosity serves me quite well because I can express myself and not be ashamed.

It’s so weird. When I first started doing all of these self-expression projects, it was met with wariness and “oh, that’s inappropriate, that’s strange.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Wariness from your bosses at ballet companies, or from what direction?

James Whiteside:
From peers, friends, patrons, you name it. And it was never very direct, but I could feel it. And then you do something for long enough and it becomes sort of this celebrate-able thing. It’s so weird to me. I’m like, well, where was this 15 years ago? So, note to everybody, if someone’s expressing themselves, don’t sh*t on them. Pardon my French.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s the pull quote.

James Whiteside:
Yeah. I don’t really know where ballet is headed, but I do appreciate people’s willingness to explore. ….And I think the more we accept change into our world as ballet dancers, the more relevant our work will be. I mean, I’m not talking about ticking off social issues in a dance; I’m talking about genuine representations of the world we’re living in, in beautiful, artful ways. We can do that, and we must.

[pause]

That’s pretty much the perfect note to end on, I think. And James, we’re sending you lots of healing vibes. He suffered a serious knee injury during a Nutcracker performance over the weekend, which he is of course handling with his typical good humor—he’s calling himself the Cracked Nut—but we hope he can get back to dancing soon.

Thanks everyone for joining us for this holiday special. We’ll be back next week with more of our favorite interview moments from 2021. And in the meantime, keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing. Happy holidays, friends.