Transcript, Episode 98: Tamara Rojo, Injury Culture, and Britney’s Dancing

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

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and we have a ton to talk about in this week’s episode. First, there’s the news that Tamara Rojo will be San Francisco Ballet’s next artistic director, which is huge; we will also discuss her reimagined version of Raymonda. Next, we’ll get into a Dance Magazine story that asks what it would actually take for dance to change its injury culture, where dancers often feel pressure to hide or to push through their injuries. And last up, we have the recent New York Times article on how Britney Spears has used dance to assert her autonomy throughout her career, before and during and now after her really restrictive conservatorship.

We’re not doing housekeeping today because we have a very busy headline rundown to get through. Actually, before we begin, I’ll note that we’re not going to go through the latest COVID cancellations, of which there are, unfortunately, several. Just in the interest of saving airtime, we’re going to refer you to Dance Magazine‘s running timeline of canceled performances, aka the Listicle of Sads, which we have linked in the show notes. Okay, Amy, go for it.

Amy Brandt:
Okay. Over 20 acts boycotted a cultural festival in Sydney, Australia in response to the country’s Israeli Embassy funding a performance by Batsheva Dance Company at the event. The embassy gave $20,000 towards bringing Ohad Naharin’s Decadance to the festival. Artists pulled out in response to calls for a boycott by Arab, pro-Palestinian, and other activist groups. The festival organizers, while saying they would review its practices in relation to funding by foreign governments in the future, did not divest the embassy’s funding and Batsheva performances went on as planned.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We have linked to some coverage of that boycott in the show notes so you can read about it in more depth. Last week, Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet agreed to a $10 million settlement over allegations that a former teacher took intimate photos of students and released them without their consent. The class action lawsuit was brought forth on behalf of students who attended the company’s school from 1984 to 2015, so quite a long time. It alleged that Bruce Monk took nude and semi-nude images of them, some of which he published and sold. We have The Globe and Mail story about that settlement in our show notes so you can learn more there, too.

Amy Brandt:
This lawsuit has been a really long time coming. I mean, it’s been around for years.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. A really long time.

Amy Brandt:
Toledo Ballet’s artistic director and resident choreographer were suddenly let go last week. On January 4th, the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts announced that Lisa Mayer-Lang and her husband, Michael Lang, would no longer serve as the organization’s artistic director and resident choreographer, respectively. The ballet merged with Toledo’s symphony to create the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts in 2019. So it’s a new organization and a new vision. And that vision is one of the reasons the Alliance board presidents gave as to why they are looking for new directors at this point. The pair have been at the company for 15 years, and many of their students have gone on to compete at Youth America Grand Prix and other international competitions. One is currently dancing at New York City Ballet. And it seems to have made quite a stir at the school. A lot of parents and students have resigned in protest.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It feels like there are parts of that story that we don’t know yet. Keep an eye on that one.

National Dance Institute, the arts education organization founded by Jacques d’Amboise, has named Juan José Escalante its new executive director. Escalante comes to NDI from the José Limón Dance Foundation, where he was also executive director. And his career has also included executive positions at Miami City Ballet and New York City Ballet. He’s going to work alongside NDI’s artistic director, Kay Gayner, who, I mean, she’s been with NDI for decades, but she assumed that top role just last fall. So it’s really a moment of significant change at NDI. And I’m eager to see how Escalante will contribute to the organization.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, it’s a new era.

Though mired in scandals, the Golden Globes, which announced its winners on Monday via Tweet, did recognize West Side Story with three awards. The Stephen Spielberg-directed film won best motion picture in a musical or comedy. Rachel Zegler won for best performance in a motion picture, musical or comedy department, and Ariana DeBose won best supporting actress in any motion picture. Ariana had a great response on Instagram. She said, “There is still work to be done, but when you’ve worked so hard on a project infused with blood, sweat, tears, and love, having the work seen and acknowledged is always going to be special. Thank you.” So let’s hope this maybe serves as a prediction for the Oscars.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Seriously, let’s just give them all Oscars. I know the Globes are a big mess, but I also thought that Ariana’s response was pitch-perfect.

And there’s a lot of Ariana DeBose news this week. On Saturday, she will host the first “Saturday Night Live” episode of 2022. She’s fully a superstar now! Very excited to see how the SNL team makes use of all her many talents, by which I mean there had better be some dancing in this episode. [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
I hope so! Yes.

Theresa Ruth Howard, diversity strategist and founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, is launching a new initiative next week called Cultural Competency and Equity in the Arts to help arts organizations reshape their culture and standards. The membership-based program will allow arts leaders to work collaboratively with their peers to embed the foundational tenants of inclusion, diversity, equity, anti-racism, and cultural competence into their organizations and the performing arts field at large, according to the press release. One goal is to provide a measure of accountability that has been missing from many promises of change by a lot of these organizations by encouraging more transparency among its members. So, go Theresa.

Margaret Fuhrer:
More transparency, always good.

Along similar lines, but in a different corner of the dance world, the nonprofit Full Circle Productions, which is led by dancers Kwikstep and Rokafella, has received a grant from the Ford Foundation to support the creation of the United Hip Hop Vanguard. The Vanguard will be a network of leaders who host workshop programs that combat racial injustice in the breaking community. The idea is to center Black voices and perspectives and aesthetics. The press release outlines a whole array of goals for this initiative. It’s really comprehensive. So we’ve included that link in the show notes so you can get a sense of everything involved.

Amy Brandt:
Aerial dance pioneer Louise I. Gillette, founder and director of Trapezius Aerial Dance Company, has died at age 54 from complications of a brain tumor. She was a longtime teacher at Temple University and a fixture in Philadelphia’s dance scene. So she will be greatly missed.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, there was a quote in the obituary—it was a quote from her when she was asked about out why she got into aerial dance, and I think she said something like, “Oh, I just got tired of dancing on the ground.” Which is a nice sendoff quote as well, kind of beautiful.

So, moving into our first discussion segment today, which is actually about one of the biggest news stories of the past week: Tamara Rojo, the renowned ballerina who has led English National Ballet for the past 10 years, will become San Francisco Ballet’s next artistic director. Rojo will be the first woman to direct the company, which is major in its own right. And a lot of ballet-world advocates are also celebrating because she’s proved herself to be so forward-thinking at ENB. She’s prioritized works by female choreographers. She’s shown a commitment to innovative programming otherwise, especially in terms of reimagining classic ballets. So, we want to talk about what this news means, and then also we want to talk about her new version of Raymonda, which is about to premiere at ENB, because I think it really represents a lot of her values as a director.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, it does. It does. It’s, like you said, very forward-thinking, or, it’s a ballet for today.

As far as this appointment though, I mean, it’s really exciting, because of the major North American ballet companies, the really large national level ballet companies, we have another woman at the helm. I mean we can look to National Ballet of Canada as an example, with Karen Kain who just stepped down, but she has since been replaced by Hope Muir. There’s Miami City Ballet with Lourdes Lopez, and now Tamara at San Francisco. So it just helps even out the playing field a bit, although there’s still room for improvement in that regard as far as female leadership.

But even beyond her gender, I do think she’s very, very, very qualified for this position. I mean just when you look at what she’s done at English National Ballet, which has always lived in The Royal Ballet’s shadow as the touring company, she has really transformed it into a major player in European dance. I mean, everyone is talking about English National Ballet. Since she started there, a lot of people have sat up and noticed it. She’s lured a lot of major dance stars to the company. And like you said, she has a lot of accomplishments under her belt as far as bringing in new, fresh programming, commissioning work from women choreographers and doing this all while dancing at the same time and starting a family. It’s pretty great. And she’s not afraid of taking risks either, which I think can be an important quality in a leader.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, definitely. And I don’t say this to belittle ENB at all, but this is, SFB is a pretty significant step up for her in terms of budget. It has a much larger budget. I didn’t realize until this story broke that it has the second largest budget of any company in the United States, that only New York City Ballet has more money. I always assumed that ABT was either second or first. So, with those kinds of resources, her potential influence on American ballet is pretty enormous. I mean, especially given that she’ll probably stick around for a while. Helgi was at SFB for 37 years.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. One thing that’s interesting to note is San Francisco has a very rich Balanchine tradition there, they do a lot of Balanchine rep. Tamara does not come from that background. So it’ll be interesting to see how much she, as far as just all of San Francisco’s rep, what she decides to keep, what she decides to change, what disappears through the years, what dancers she’ll be bringing in. There’s just a lot to look forward to, I think.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And now of course, there’s the question of who will replace her at English National Ballet, the musical chairs domino effect continues. So we have to keep an eye on that as well.

But let’s talk about Raymonda, her new take on Raymonda, which ENB opens next week. And Amy, Pointe did such a great story on how Tamara has updated the ballet, because it definitely needed some updating.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. April Deocariza interviewed Tamara about her new take on the ballet. She’s keeping much of Petipa’s choreography, but she refreshed the storyline. And the original storyline, one of the things that Tamara discusses is that the character of Raymonda doesn’t really have any agency or really much of a personality. She’s a noblewoman, she’s a countless, and she’s in a love triangle, but those decisions are made for her. Otherwise, there isn’t much going on as far as decisions she makes throughout the ballet or anything. She’s waiting to be saved and all of that. And there was also—it takes place during the Crusades, the ballet. So there’s her betrothed, Jean de Brienne. And then there’s also Abderakhman, who is an Arab and he kidnaps her, and all of this stuff. There was just a lot of racist overtones in the ballet that will not fly with today’s audiences, I don’t believe.

So what she did was that she reset the ballet during the Crimean War, which was a very important war for the British people and also a war where England and, I believe, Turkey were allied together. And so in this love triangle, the two men are actually friends. And that takes care of the…

Margaret Fuhrer:
The evil Easterner versus the good Westerner.

Amy Brandt:
Exactly. Yeah. Christianity versus Islam, et cetera. And she’s in love with both of them and needs to make a decision. But she’s also a career woman. The character of Raymonda is inspired by Florence Nightingale. She’s a war nurse, so she makes the choice to leave her country and to travel to be on the front and serve her country as a war nurse. And she really enjoys that career. And so there’s also that element where she’s choosing her location and she’s choosing between the two men. And so I’ll be really, really interested to see the production.

One thing I do wonder about though, is that act three has that amazing, wonderful Hungarian music that is just so danceable. And I’m very curious about how she incorporated that into the story, if she worried about it or what.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. An opportunity for creativity!

I love this idea of—one of our perennial themes, again, never throwing away classics. You bring them into the 21st century, but you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And I know a lot of people loved the Akram Khan Giselle that Tamara commissioned for ENB. And that approach is a different way of doing that: drawing on the same story, but with new choreography, whereas this approach it’s the same choreography, but an altered story. And this latter approach, it reminds me of what Phil Chan of Final Bow for Yellowface is working on with this new Bayadère that’s conceived as a Western, preserving the Petipa choreo. In both of those approaches, it seems like, yeah, there’s so much potential for creativity and innovation. It just—it feels like it’s all upside.

Anyway, great signs of hope and progress in ballet. We need those right now. Congrats to Tamara. In the show notes, we have links to all the stories we’ve been referencing about her appointment and her new Raymonda.

So next up today, we wanted to discuss an excellent piece that Dance Magazine just posted online about the problem of injury culture. Because in much of the dance world, dancers are expected to downplay their pain and often pressured either implicitly or explicitly to keep going when they’re injured. That’s bad for what seems like very obvious reasons, but the issue is persistent. And it’s an issue that ties into a lot of our perennial podcast themes—that harmful “show must go on mentality,” the idea of the artist being less important than the work, the idea that dancers should expect to suffer for their art. All of that.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I definitely could relate to this story on many different levels as a former dancer who had a couple of significant, I mean, I had a couple of significant injuries in my career that I had to struggle through. And I certainly know the feeling of being afraid that you’re going to miss out, of feeling your career is short and being afraid to miss out. Oh, this choreographer may never come here again, I may not get a chance to work with them—can I work through this pain that I’m having right now? And sometimes you can, if it’s not too serious. But there were other times where I think I wasted a lot of time pushing myself through rehearsals when I really should have gone to a doctor and gotten something figured out and gotten some sort of treatment plan figured out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, that’s part of what makes this so complicated is that it’s a mix of internal and external pressures. Both of those things need to be addressed.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And I also, I have definitely had some experiences too with people who were coming into the company who I didn’t know very well, who were casting. I had a couple of pretty bad experiences with a choreographer and a stager who acted like I wasn’t committed because I was open about and very upfront about some pain I was having and things like that. That definitely still exists too.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That was the part of this Dance Magazine story, the aspect of it that I found most upsetting, is that that’s still happening. Julia Radick, who danced with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal and Northwest Dance Project, talked about how she would call in sick instead of admitting she was injured for that reason, because she was worried about being shamed for being injured. Her quote was, “Anytime I’d spoken up, it resulted in me losing out on parts or opportunities and just feeling like I had done something wrong by getting hurt.” Which, yeah. Yikes.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And sometimes that’s because leadership makes you feel that way. Other times, it’s because they do have your best interest in mind and they want you to take the time and not have you worry about pushing through. But when you’re dancing, it’s hard to see it that way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And the stakes are even higher here if you’re a freelancer.

Amy Brandt:
Yes. And I definitely experienced that when I was freelancing. For a lot of ballet dancers, Nutcracker season is their bread and butter. I mean, I depended on the money I made doing Sugar Plum guestings to take me through a good chunk of the year, because my employment was always waxing and waning. And I had to learn how to fill those gaps. And I got a foot injury about three weeks before I was supposed to leave for all these weekends of Nutcracker guestings. And I remember being in the bathroom at Steps, in the dressing room at Steps, and a very smart dancer counseled me and said, “You need to take care of yourself. You just need to cancel these Nutcrackers. You just need to take care of yourself and take care of your body.” And I remember being like, “Yes, I know, but… ” The financial impact was for me at the time, too great. And I really felt the pressure to just push through. And I did. I mean, I somehow got through it. And it didn’t do my recovery from this injury any good at all. I mean, I think it just ingrained it into my body. But I don’t know. I don’t know what I would do if that same thing were to happen again, because the financial dependence was so great.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And there’s no safety net. What are you supposed to do?

So the second half of this Dance Magazine story talks about, how do we stop this cycle? How do we change this culture? And some of it, it suggests, is better education about injury prevention and rehabilitation. That would definitely help. More money to put towards injury prevention gear and therapy would be great. More understudies would be great, which again means more money. But I especially liked what Sarah Edery-Atlas, who’s a clinical specialist and a physical therapist—she pointed out that what we really need is better communication between artistic staff and medical staff. So that for example, healthcare providers could talk to choreographers about, what are the physical demands of this new piece going to be? And then design an injury prevention program specific to those demands. Which I think is actually already happening at some companies. Atlanta Ballet was cited as an example in the article.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I would be really interested to see how that develops. I think you would need a lot of resources for that kind of program, but it would be great.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, it would definitely require more resources, as you noted. Everything needs more money. It’s going to take some time, but at least we’re talking about all of this more openly now. That’s step one. Please do read the Dance Magazine story if you have a chance. We’ve got it for you in the show notes.

Finally today, we’re going to discuss Britney Spears’ dancing. And actually, there’s a connection here to the injury culture discussion we were just having. It’s in the issue of bodily autonomy, of a performer’s body being a vehicle for expression, but also something that’s not under their own control all the time. There’s been a lot of talk on social media recently about a New York Times article from last week that looks at how Spears has used dance as a way of fighting back and connecting with her audience. Even when she wasn’t able to say what she wanted to say, even when the conservatorship was dictating pretty much everything else about her life, she could assert her power by dancing. And that story, by the way, was on the New York Times homepage for almost the whole day on Friday, which was pretty awesome.

I know we’ve talked before on this podcast about how Britney’s found freedom through dancing, but this article offered some further insights into all of that. And also some really good quotes from the dance artists who’ve worked with her.

Amy Brandt:
In the article, it actually links to Instagram video of her in rehearsal with her dancers for her Britney Domination show that was supposed to happen…

Margaret Fuhrer:
The one that never happened.

Amy Brandt:
…in Las Vegas. Yeah. I think it was from 2018. But there you can really see how in control she is. She has her dancers’ complete respect, she’s being a leader. I mean, you wouldn’t think she had this conservatorship controlling her every thought and spoken word by watching this video. She very much looks like she is in control.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Because when she’s dancing, she’s the boss. That’s really what it is. Back in her early days when there was this intense scrutiny of her body and all this talk about her virginity, when she was dancing, that gave her some time to be completely in control of her own physicality. And then during the conservatorship, when we started to see her Instagram dance videos, it was like she she was searching for a different kind of freedom that was about more than just her body—trying to escape. I know that some people find those videos a little upsetting. I find some of them upsetting, because they do also seem like a cry for help. But that’s also a means of expression.

Amy Brandt:
I think in the article it says that she would dance like that for hours to the point where she’d have to tape her feet to keep them from blistering.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’m also grateful that the story took a moment to note that a lot of people didn’t take Britney seriously because she was “just a dancer.” This idea that she wasn’t as important an artist because she was not only focused on the music—that drives me absolutely bonkers, that whole mentality.

I do think it’s changing a little bit. I think that as music becomes an increasingly visual art, thanks to all of these visually-oriented social media platforms, YouTube and Instagram and TikTok, and then also as especially dance-centered forms like K-pop become more popular, people are beginning to recognize the significance of dance and music culture. But I mean, Britney knew it all along. She was always doing it.

Amy Brandt:
There’s that great line in the story. It says, “Everyone knows there’s no such thing as dance-syncing.” And that’s so true. I mean, you can’t fake dance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can’t bluff it.

Amy Brandt:
Nope.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Just ask Dua Lipa: you cannot fake it. [laughter] Anyway, it’s a great story by Madison Mainwaring. Hats off to her. And it is linked, of course, in the show notes. 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.

Amy Brandt:
Bye, everyone.