Transcript, Episode 96: The Best of 2021, Part 2

Hi, dance friends, and welcome to another special holiday episode of The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer, and I’m here on my own again today for this final episode of 2021—the last one! Without my co-hosts around this week, rather than doing the usual news round table discussion, we’ve got part two of our Dance Edit “best of 2021” retrospective.

As I mentioned last week, we’re looking back at some of our favorite interview moments from 2021, because we talked to a whole lot of brilliant dance-world folks over the course of the year. Some of these clips are from interviews that aired during regular podcast episodes, but some of them are from our new premium interview series, The Dance Edit Extra, which launched this fall on Apple Podcasts. And if you’ve been enjoying the Edit Extra previews, I hope you’ll head over to Apple Podcasts to subscribe to the series, because we have some really great stuff planned for The Dance Edit Extra in 2022—and you’ll only hear it if you sign up for that separate podcast feed.

Alrighty, without further ado, let’s get into our first clip of the episode. It’s a good one: We’re starting with Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard, who talked with us back in episode 68, back in June. Ayodele is a tap icon, Torya is a brilliant director and producer and creative consultant; they are both art partners and life partners, and the two of them are every bit as generous in an interview context as they are in their artistic work—which, if you know their artistic work, you know it’s always rooted in generosity and joy. I wanted to share a portion of the conversation where they get into the importance of dance as community art, because that’s really at the center of what they do. Here it is.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want to talk about the idea of dance for the community. Because so often dance performances, they are this insular, exclusionary thing—it’s happening in a theater, or some other closed-off, rarefied space. And I think one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it’s pushed a lot of dance either outside, where it kind of automatically becomes a community performance, or online, where it’s accessible to a much wider audience. …So how can the dance world kind of grow and reinforce that idea of dance as community art? And do you think that shift will stick as the pandemic subsides?

Ayodele Casel:
Oh, I mean, I would love for it to stick. People have often asked me, “Oh, what’s your favorite venue to play in?” I like to be with the people who want to be with me. Right? And that has happened from everywhere from the six train station, in Hunts Point in the Bronx, literally right outside the platform, to, when I was younger, in the platform—I was just dancing and people would gather. And then also The White House and Carnegie Hall. I’ve done that all. And I think it’s really important and really energizing and really humbling and a beautiful experience to just spend time with people in all environments. And I think that we have underestimated—not only artists, but even institutions have underestimated the value and the beauty of that, of connection with human beings, period, no matter what container we happen to be in….

I think I find power in it originating from me, the artist, to maybe request that and demand that and to create those spaces, you know what I mean? To say, no, it’s important, I love being in a theater, and it’s beautiful, and the lights and all that, but also, there’s value in literally setting up your board and being in the park and engaging in that way as well.

Torya, what do you think about that?

Torya Beard:
Well, I think dance was born in community. It is something that happens with people and their families, every type of celebration, and it marks most all occasions, right? And so the fact that it has been taken away from the community in some respects, and put in these rarefied space is curious, right? Why has that happened? We are the same people, no matter where we perform. The artistry that we carry with us is the same, whether we’re dancing in the middle of the street, for NY PopsUp or in whatever theater, on whatever stage, right? And so, I don’t know, I mean, it may seem like a simple question, but I think there’s so many layers to this.

And the shortest answer I can give is that, yes, I hope this continues on. I hope we start with the idea that dance for the community, or we move away from the idea that there’s a certain type of dance that is created for community consumption, and there’s another type of dance that is created for theaters, and to be programmed for a season ticket holder. Because there is something troubling in that I think, it creates a disconnect within our society. I hope we continue with this type of generosity and this type of sharing. And everybody’s saying, “What’s going to happen when we go back?” and—that is very triggering to me. I love to think of it as when we go forward. And I hope we move forward with this same type of energy that we are emerging with.

[pause]

We might be returning to stages, but we’re going forward, we’re not going back—I love that.

Next up today, we have the extraordinary Rena Butler, the dancer and choreographer who recently became Gibney Company’s first ever choreographic associate—a position that is sort of quietly revolutionary in its design, which combines both choreographing and performing. Actually, “quietly revolutionary” is a good description of Rena herself, too: she is a deeply thoughtful and compassionate practitioner who sees dance as fundamentally intertwined with advocacy. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation in which she gets at not just the things that are broken inside a lot of dance institutions, but at what can be done to fix those problems.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
There’s been a lot of conversation, especially during the pandemic, about how traditional dance institutions are broken, and that they don’t support dance makers in the ways that they need to be supported. And especially people who, like you, are looking to be agents of change, who have other interests. What else do you—what should the dance community be doing to address this institutional dysfunction?

Rena Butler:
That’s such a great question. We were just talking about that actually in rehearsal, because I feel it’s not just dance makers that face this. I think it’s dancers in general. And how we prioritize the coin or the money over the wellbeing of the face of the organization, essentially. ….And it’s as if every organization—not every, but most—when they hire dance artists, it’s this act of just releasing sense of self and being a part of the group in the ensemble. So we’re not promoting individuality. 

….We decenter ourselves to make art happen, but not in a healthy way at all. And then, also, just whatever energy is at the front of the room is still important. And I think in spaces—organizations, because of the clout around a creator or a choreographer, yield to whatever energy the choreographer’s putting at the front of the room. And I’ve been in situations where I’ve had terrible experience with a choreographer being at the front of the room and not necessarily knowing how to manage maybe their feelings or insecurities, which are then projected onto the dancers, and we’re expected to take them.

So, I think it’s also… It’s like a prism. I think it all folds into each other. And I feel what sticks out to me most in what you’re asking me is, how do we prioritize mental health? How are we supporting the dancers that maintain the work, humanizing them? If you’re not feeling emotionally ready today, okay! How do we navigate that? What are some creative solutions, other than suck it up and just put your tights on and go, which is the culture?

And I’m starting to understand what my boundaries are, too, as a dance artist. And I think being older now, being in my 30s—well, I told you, I’m like, the knees ain’t bending like they used to, and the back is not arching like it used to either! So I’m really needing to go, “I understand where you’re going, this is great, but today the conversation with my body, my body is telling me no.”

So, and then also as a choreographer being on the other side of the room, am I really aware enough, am I really present? Where I am giving the dancers, and I’m asking so much from them, space to be themselves. I think it’s really a question of how are we holding and sharing space. And this is a phrase we hear a lot of, and I think it really rings true.

[pause]

There is so much richness even just in that short excerpt—I really hope you have a moment to go back and listen to the whole interview, which aired in episode 58, from this April.

Our third clip today comes from Ephrat Asherie, who is actually a Dance Edit Podcast veteran. Ephrat—who is a club dancer, a b-girl, a concert dance performer, a choreographer, a scholar, all of the above, just a fantastically smart and versatile artist—you first heard her voice on the podcast in 2020. I think she even made our best-of roundup for 2020, in fact! This year, she returned for a more in-depth interview for The Dance Edit Extra, but we started the conversation where she’d left off, essentially, in her 2020 appearance on the pod. Here’s the clip.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
You left a voice memo for us last June, June of 2020, as part of a voice memo series that we were doing—little messages in a bottle at the beginning of shutdowns. And your voice and the recording was actually hoarse because you had been out at Black Lives Matter protests. You asked in the recording, “What does it mean to be a white person whose work is rooted in Black vernacular dance?” And I’m wondering if you can talk about how you’ve continued to consider that question and potential answers to it in the ensuing months.

Ephrat Asherie:
Yeah. I mean, it’s always in the work. Even before, yeah, like last year, this global reckoning and really sort of coming together to fight for Black liberation, globally, I mean, which is—wow. But I think for any white artist that’s in the underground scene, that has been blessed with being part of a community where you really feel like that collective consciousness is celebrating each individual’s voice, and everyone is valued so uniquely for who they are—that space has the vision or the potential of a sort of utopic ideal of what it means to be really together. If you don’t see that as a call to action, if you don’t see that as a magnifying glass to the injustices above ground, specifically against the communities that have created this space that you are now a part of, that you are now a guest in, that you are now fortunate to be in this really meaningful human relationship with the people, the music, the lineage, the ancestors, right? The DJs, everything—if you don’t understand that as a call to action and as a responsibility for you to keep fighting for all of those who don’t have the same access to opportunity and to education, and to just security, healthcare, all those things that if you’re white in this country, you have more access to. If you’re not fighting on that level, then something’s wrong, then you missed the mark. You’re not really seeing what the community is.

So I don’t know if that answers the questions, but it’s just always there. And it’s always as scrutinizing, as a white Jewish woman leading this company, it’s like, I’m always checking myself, looking for any blind spots and stuff. And we talk about it a lot within the company. And it’s just, this is part of the work, it’s not separate from the work.

Margaret Fuhrer:

Yeah. Yeah. It’s baked into it. Yeah, of course. The idea of the dance floor as a utopic space, as a space that we should aspire to in every context—I love that.

Ephrat Asherie:

Yes, exactly. And it is a space that shouldn’t make you complacent. It shouldn’t be like, “Oh, I go to the club. Everything’s great. Now I’m good.” No. It’s like, no, you go to the club, you get to experience this. What is it? How do we take those ethos and that values and bring them out, above ground, into the light? I just keep thinking of a call to action. It’s that.

[pause]

The dance floor is a call to action! I feel like I want to tattoo that somewhere, it’s so exactly right.

So, last but absolutely not least in our best of 2021 series, we have Jamar Roberts. Jamar was a longtime star at Alvin Ailey, beginning in 2002; he’s also the company’s first-ever resident choreographer. We talked just before his last performance as a dancer with the company, which happened earlier this month. Jamar has this unusually balanced perspective on performing, and where it fits into his life: it’s not his entire identity, and neither is choreography. He has always had myriad artistic interests beyond dance entirely, actually. And his work is always informed by bigger questions he has about the world at large—it’s always connected to a greater humanity. Here is an excerpt from his Dance Edit Extra interview where he talks about that.

[pause]

You were on the cover of Dance Magazine earlier this year. And the story included this quote from Robert Battle, from the Ailey director, about how he’ll sometimes see you and know that you’re “brewing,” was the word that he used—that ideas are percolating. I think he meant, in that context, dance ideas. But at this inflection point in your career, which is coinciding with this inflection point in the wider world too, I’m wondering in a bigger-picture sense, what ideas and questions are brewing in you? What are you ruminating on right now?

Jamar Roberts:
You know I’m a very honest person, so to answer this question…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Is dangerous? [laughter]

Jamar Roberts:
No, it’s not dangerous. It’s cool.

I think one of the bigger questions is… I’m on what feels like such a fast track right now. Everything feels a little bit speedy. And when that happens, I think for me there’s this desire to want to slow down. So when I think of slowing down, it comes with questions like, So is this it? You’re just going to make steps until you die? You’re just going to be on the fast track forever? Where is this going to go? How is this going to move with you as you mature? Even in the last year, I feel like the amount of exhaustion or effort that has to be put into everything, it wears on you, especially energetically. So I’m thinking of like, okay, if you are still doing this 10 years down the line, how are you going to manage that? And what’s that going to look in terms of the work that you’re making?

I don’t know. I’m asking questions like that because I think it would be nice to prepare, instead of getting to the age of 50 and being like, “I’m done with this.” You know what I mean? If I can anticipate what will be the tougher points, then I can start to do the work to smooth them out now. …

Things like that. There’s another thing that I’m circling around that’s big picture like, “What are you doing?” [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, just that? [laughter]

Jamar Roberts:
What are you doing bigger picture? What are you doing and why are you doing it? Are you even making a dent? I think that largely, maybe there’s an aspect of the work that I make that wants to heal or take care or bring awareness to this feeling, or, I’m aware of this situation. So it can then incite some type of taking care of whatever the situation may be. So I’m thinking of… what is the issue now with dance, or where do you feel dance falls short, and how and what are you doing with your work that you think can help level things up a little bit or help?

[pause]

What are you doing and why are you doing it? Those are really the most important questions to ask ourselves as dance artists, or educators, or administrators, or enthusiasts—really just as people, period. Thank you for that, Jamar.

On that philosophical note: Thanks also to all of you for tuning in for this holiday special. Next week, we’ll be back in our regular format, discussing the news that’s been moving the dance world. In the meantime, keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing. And happy New Year, everyone.