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.
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.