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Daniel Pratt considers Conversations on Dance

Posted on February 8, 2018

January is a time for reinvention and renewal. Looking back over more than a year of this blog, I wrote in my first post that I wanted “to reveal something of the voice of the dancer”. Bringing that intention into fresh focus for 2018 is Conversations on Dance, a fantastic podcast I discovered last year. Created by friends and dancers Rebecca King Ferraro and Michael Sean Breeden, the podcast is an energetic look at ballet through the eyes of dancers, keenly analysing our craft with both the vigour of new perspectives and clear reverence for heritage.

As noted in my previous blogs, the way people interact with ballet is changing dramatically. The audiences’ experience does not exclusively occur whilst they’re sat in their seats at a performance. This is due, in part, to social media but also to the increase in additional content companies produce to support their programming. “There is a need for this,” Rebecca tells me during a telephone conversation with both her and Michael. “People think ballet is tutus and tiaras; it’s boring; it’s old. We’re showing the human side. That’s what makes it interesting.” From my point of view, that’s what also makes it relevant. The dance world is filled with beautiful works of art, but you need a human body with flesh, bone, and a point of view, to enjoy them. Conversations on Dance is an outlet that gets close to the kind of discussions I have with my colleagues, offering an arena to articulate the real feelings a dancer experiences over a career. “That’s what makes us unique,” says Michael. “We’re dancers with prominent careers… coming from a place of understanding.”

We all agree dance should be viewed through an academic lens, but dancers bring an intimacy to the subject that shines a quite different light. Rebecca and Michael’s podcasts are testament to dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s belief that we are moving away from “times past… when dancers felt shy of speaking analytically… about the subjects they knew better than anyone else.” Macaulay’s episode for Conversations on Dance from the Vail International Dance Festival, along with an episode from June 2017 by Jennifer Homans, shows that this is dance talk at high volume: you’ll listen avidly as each new episode is released.

Rebecca and Michael met at Miami City Ballet when directed by Edward Villella, joining in 2007 and 2006 respectively. It was company policy to give pre-performance talks, often hosted by Michael, which sparked the idea for Conversations on Dance. Rebecca also hosted some talks and began to wonder if there was a way she and Michael could utilise their natural personal affinity and shared passion for ballet in a new way. Podcasts and digital streaming was a “rapidly growing industry”, and the pair realised they were “often only one degree removed from dance ‘celebrities’” not only working “with so many people during our time at Miami City Ballet,” but also profiting from connections made in formative years, Michael having trained at the School of American Ballet with classmates including Justin Peck.

Reaching out to potential interviewees occurred in a warm, easy-going fashion. “We are not investigative reporters,” Rebecca resolutely says, the aim being to talk to people in the dance world in an honest way, capturing a raw reflection of their personality. There is rarely anything contrived. Initial episodes from summer 2016 centred on bread-and-butter topics such as auditioning, injuries, or the realities of life as a professional. These eventually evolved to incorporate incisive discussion with a range of interesting figures in the US dance world. There is a level of legitimacy now that comes from releasing over 70 episodes with a roster of names including Sara Mearns, Julie Kent, Kevin McKenzie and Patricia McBride. Now, Rebecca and Michael do not have to do so much chasing when it comes to scheduling interviews for new episodes. I asked about the logistics of interviewing. Michael now lives in New York full time, whilst Rebecca remains dancing in Florida. “A lot of it is luck,” says Rebecca. “We’ll organise a tour, like the one we did to New York… we try to make ourselves available. It’s always better to interview someone in person,” though this can’t always be the case, so interviews can be recorded over the phone instead.

It is inspiring to see two dancers start and maintain their own business. Much is written about a dancer’s range of transferable skills, but I was curious to know what some of the challenges of maintaining the podcast have been. “Finding funds” to cover the cost of the podcast is Rebecca’s answer, which usually takes the form of sponsorship from companies such as Body Wrappers/Angelo Luzio. Additionally, companies are noticing that Conversations on Dance has something to offer them. Whilst increased appetite for new content is positive, is also pressurises ballet companies in new ways, especially if they don’t have the resources to devote to producing content. Outsourcing this to Conversations on Dance, therefore, becomes an attractive prospect. Michael and Rebecca have already produced podcasts from the Vail International Dance Festival, which, in itself, is an impressive annual event that casts new perspectives on ballet. The festival takes place in Vail, Colorado, and is directed by former New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel. Michael and Rebecca will be working with San Francisco Ballet on another set of special podcasts in April. Rebecca astutely adds that, “It’s very difficult to tour to small towns, so there’s a whole population of people that don’t see dance”. In its own way, Conversations on Dance helps fill that void, being downloadable for free to your personal mobile device from whatever app store you use.

This highlights an important aspect of Conversations on Dance I hadn’t anticipated. Rebecca points out that, “the things we talk about are good things to know,” for parents and young dancers alike. When I began to train seriously for a career in dance, the volume of questions my parents had was overwhelming. Something like Conversations on Dance would have been an informative resource to draw upon, because it offers deep, forthright perspectives on what might be encountered. Episodes such as the one with Susan Pilarre, from September 2017, are also valuable in this way because they look at the changing roles dancers face in their lives. “I could have talked with [Susan] for hours about a teacher’s perspective,” Rebecca joyfully tells me, reflecting how she herself is now doing more teaching and coaching in her professional life.

I got a real sense of how easy Rebecca and Michael make people feel during interviews. In Michael’s view, “there is a natural line of questioning from person to person. You get a feeling; if people want to go there, they will”. How do they see ballet changing? Are we entering a stage where dancers in classical companies have more agency within their own careers? Both agreed that in the coming years, almost all major companies in the US will face a change of leadership, mostly due to the advancing age of current directors; new voices will come to the fore. My own generation is facing a shift, and I believe it is our responsibility to ask questions of our art form. In her episode, Jennifer Homans queried: “What is this art form to us today?” Podcasts like Conversations on Dance are helping to contribute answers. Continuing, Homans asked three more questions that stuck in the mind: “Why should people devote time to it? What are we doing? How can we make it good?” There are no hard-and-fast answers, but when you hear of the commitment and passion of Heather Watts in her episode – a personal favourite of both Michael and Rebecca – you get a sense of where the answers might lie.

Photograph: Rebecca King Ferraro and Michael Sean Breeden. Photograph by Brian Maloney.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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