Why Rockette Phoebe Pearl Is a New Dance Hero
We never know where our heroes will come from.
On January 10, the Bessie Awards held an event at LaMama theatre, where Phoebe Pearl, the Rockette who spoke out against dancing at the Inauguration, appeared. Pearl remains the only current Rockette to speak publicly under her real name, and the dance community responded to her courage.
In an emotional speech, she said that chose not to perform at the inauguration, and that she was just standing up for human rights. She then toasted the first amendment, to the cheers of about a hundred people in the dance community.
Phoebe Pearl speaking at a Bessies event, photo by Heather Robles
I’m sure you know the story by now. Just before Christmas, the Rockettes learned they would be performing at this Friday's Presidential Inauguration. Donald Trump, who has bragged about sexual assault and entered dressing rooms at beauty pageants he owned to “inspect” the women, will soon be inaugurated as president. Many entertainers have refused to perform, but the Rockettes will be there, a decision made by their owner, Madison Square Garden.
In December, Pearl posted a complaint on Instagram, saying she was “embarrassed and disappointed” at the prospect of performing at the Inauguration. Because of the reaction, she had to change her Instagram settings to private. Another Rockette, using the pseudonym Mary, was quoted in Marie Claire and other publications: “It's the people in our wardrobe and hair department, some of whom are transgender. These are our friends and our family, who we've worked with for years. It's a basic human-rights issue. We have immigrants in the show. I feel like dancing for Trump would be disrespecting the men and women who…we care about."
James Dolan, executive chair of MSG, and the dancers’ union, American Guild of Variety Artists, eventually came to an agreement that any of the dancers could opt out of the performance—that went for both the full-time Rockettes (of which there are about 13) and the many more who are brought in just for the Christmas Spectacular.
There is still a worry that the dancers who choose not to perform will lose their good standing. An MSG spokeswoman says those rumors are only hearsay: "We had a very productive meeting with the Rockettes and while we will keep the details of that meeting confidential, we can say, it was made very clear to all that participation is voluntary and there will be no repercussions if anyone decides to decline participation."
However, Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, who worked in the ballet company at Radio City for 12 years, knows about retribution. Her bold act of speaking up in 1978 actually saved Radio City but cost her her job. (To find out more, read her book, Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story.) In an email she wrote, “I am very proud of the women who were opposed to performing for a man with such low moral standards. I am also concerned about the consequences that these talented woman might have to face.”
In an NPR segment on January 7, MSG was quoted as saying more dancers volunteered than they have slots for—which means that at least 18 out of 90 or so are on board. But Mary said that none of the dancers of color signed up.
If that's true, it will be a lily white line-up. We will find out on Friday. That would be sad because the Rockettes have worked to cultivate diversity in the last few years. But I suppose that would just be another sign of the new regime.
Photo © MSG Entertainment.
Back to the LaMama event last week. Lucy Sexton, director of The Bessies, explained, “As an organization dedicated to supporting dance and dance artists, The Bessies wanted to celebrate Ms. Pearl with a toast to the First Amendment of the Constitution. It is this essential American freedom of expression that dancers embody in their physical work onstage. Dance and all artistic expression are by their very nature personal and political, and a critical part of our national cultural dialogue.”
At the event, she said, “To Phoebe Pearl, to her fellow dancers at the Rockettes, know that we support you, that we salute you, that we stand ready to fight for your—and all of our—rights under the Constitution, especially the precious right of Americans to freely express ourselves."
Avant-garde icon Yvonne Rainer also spoke: “I applaud and celebrate Phoebe Pearl for her courage and audacity in her refusal of and resistance to the present political calamity.”
And here is an excerpt of Pearl's talk, caught on video by dancer/activist Salley May:
“People have been calling me courageous, but I don’t see it that way. …I’m just standing up for human rights….standing up for what we all deserve, and how we treat each other. As artists we all owe it to ourselves, owe it to the community. It’s our obligation to use our platforms to do what’s right. This isn’t political, this is about human rights. No matter where you come from, your sexual orientation or race, you deserve respect, you deserve love. We live in a country that grants us the right to speak against something that’s against that.” Then she raised her glass and toasted the First Amendment.
Dance writer Eva Yaa Asantewaa, who attended the event, posted on Facebook that she was “moved almost to tears to hear from dancer Phoebe Pearl, one of the outspoken, resisting Rockettes. In order to keep going these days…I have to keep people like this and the examples they set constantly in mind…. Phoebe, we are so proud of you, and we've got your back. People, don't ever underestimate a dancer!”
Correction: January 17, 2017
This post has been updated to reflect a statement from an MSG spokesperson about allowing dancers to opt out of the performance without repercussions.
Back in July, the Bolshoi Ballet grabbed international headlines after canceling the scheduled premiere of a new full-length ballet just three days before opening night. The ballet was Nureyev, and, as it was centered on the life of an openly gay male dancer who defected from the Soviet Union, it was widely speculated that the decision was an act of censorship.
Further theories of political motivations arose as Kirill Serebrennikov, the project's already-controversial director, was being questioned in connection with an embezzlement investigation. But according to the Bolshoi, the ballet was pulled due to it simply not being ready, and was not canceled but postponed; a tentative premiere was set for May 2018.
But it looks like Russian audiences will be getting to see the new ballet far sooner than they might have hoped.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?