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Reflections on Room of Mirrors

Ballet has long been imbued with a mysterious air. It’s a closed-off world, one that—despite many hopefuls—admits only a select few. Audiences are led to believe that what goes on behind its closed doors is a kind of magic. And when the curtain closes, the beauty they’ve experienced remains.

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In some ways, that’s true. For me, ballet has been a lifelong love. Even after realizing I’d never be a professional, attending class and performances became a grounding constant in the seemingly ever-changing world. But, despite this, even those of us who love it know ballet is not immune to the issues permeating our wider culture.

When Erika Lantz decided to focus on ballet for the second season of her podcast, The Turning, she wanted to dive into some of these realities, exploring “power dynamics” and “how much people are willing to give for something they believe in.” She also wanted to touch on the beauty of ballet and the ways it instills a deep passion in those who come into its orbit.

“I think it’s a really magical, special art form,” Lantz told Fjord Review. “We try to illustrate that as much as we can without any visuals in the podcast. And then we also wanted to talk about issues that are really pressing in pretty much every industry.”

In The Turning: Room of Mirrors, Lantz uses George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet as her lens, and interviews many notable figures in the dance world, like journalist Chloe Angyal, author James Steichen, and former NYCB dancers including Stephanie Saland, Kathryn Morgan, and Sophie Flack. An award-winning reporter and audio producer, Lantz is also a former ballet dancer. Her personal history brings a level of understanding to the storytelling that only someone who has loved ballet deeply—and also been hurt by it—can.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The first season of The Turning focuses on Mother Teresa’s Catholic Order, the Missionaries of Charity, and the sacrifices the sisters made to join the order, plus what it meant to leave. Do you see an overlap between the culture and community of the Missionaries of Charity and that of ballet?

Erika Lantz, host of The Turning, Room of Mirrors

Erika Lantz: I always am a little wary of comparing them too much, just because they are different communities with different issues and the two sort of figureheads in these two seasons are Mother Teresa and George Balanchine, which on paper couldn’t be more different from each other. But I think some ways in which they are similar are, first of all, the fact that they were so revered by their followers, to the extent that people who wanted to be part of the communities led by these figureheads really were willing and excited to sacrifice everything to be part of this vision or this mission or—for ballet—this art form. The sisters or former sisters who joined Mother Teresa’s order had to leave their families behind, and they couldn’t visit except once every ten years. Ballerinas aren’t forbidden from visiting their families, but to get into George Balanchine’s ballet company you have to go through the School of American Ballet and you might have to move to New York at a young age and kind of leave behind the world that you had known and basically start devoting all of your time to ballet.

The other thing is that I think both Mother Teresa and George Balanchine started to have this otherworldly, almost divine nature to them. So many dancers have compared Balanchine to being a god for them. It’s been amazing to me, in the interviews, how much religious language gets used when people are describing their experiences, how much they’re comparing things to a religious experience, and so I think those overtones are just there—and then the themes of, in order to enact this mission, you have to give up some aspects of your sense of self because you’re focused on the group and the greater good. And it requires a certain level of obedience—sometimes it requires some pain. And sometimes it requires self-abdication or sacrifice, and I think any group that requires those things can then start tipping into requiring too much and going too far. And so I think some of what we’re exploring is “Where is that line?” And how do we start to recognize when the power differential, the people who are in charge and the people who are following, starts to get too big?

You studied ballet yourself, which you expand on in episode six of the podcast. When did you start having these realizations about ballet? And when did you start reflecting on how you’ve been affected personally?

I think it's something I've been somewhat aware of before, how ballet may have impacted me as a person, but this has definitely been an eye opener for me in understanding my own nature, my own personality, who I am. I didn't really expect to go on that journey, and in a way, when I first started this season, I didn't think of it as super personal for me, because I didn't think of myself as part of the dance community, because I left. And I didn't even give that any space. I was like, “Oh, I'm not a dancer. I'm not a dance critic. I'm not a dance historian, like who am I to have opinions about this world?” Working on it more, I started thinking, you know, this has affected me and yeah, it was years ago, but in your childhood, they're such formative years. And so if you spend those formative years in a ballet studio every day, of course that's going to impact your development.

I see more and more dancers and former dancers speaking up about exactly some of the themes this podcast addresses—and the personal observations you make during episode six. What about this moment do you think has made it right for dancers to talk?

I imagine that the #MeToo movement has definitely helped—I think there’s more conversation around a lot of these issues and dancers have been speaking out. I think in general in our culture, there’s a greater analysis and understanding of power structures and hierarchies and how they affect people, and so I think, to some extent, our culture has more of the tools at its disposal to analyze some of these things. The other thing is that, some of this has been written about this whole time. Many, many ballet dancers have written memoirs in which all of the stuff we're describing is just completely laid out—it's there for anyone to see. But I just think that people reading that and the people writing it may not have seen the problems the way we're seeing them now. I think we're just coming to a greater cultural understanding as a society of the impacts of the hierarchical nature of ballet.

George Balanchine watches rehearsal in New York, 1960s. Photograph by Ernst Haas

In the podcast, you speak to former Balanchine dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt about the lack of separation between personal and professional life during her time at NYCB and the School of American Ballet—and whether these blurred boundaries ever went too far. Frankfurt says: “Well, I wasn’t conscious of that, so I don’t know. I don’t really know anything else.” Often, dancers are so ingrained in ballet’s culture that they may have feelings similar to Frankfurt’s. For me, this made it hard to ask questions, even when I first became a dance journalist. What was your personal process of learning to ask questions?

Typically in ballet classes, you're basically silent the whole time, which I can find to be really meditative—there's something really nice about that, just dance and you don’t have to frickin’ talk all the time. But at the same time, it does kind of teach you to just absorb, absorb, absorb. And I do think that I'm someone who assumes that someone else knows better than I do. And I'm more apt to question myself, than I am apt to question someone else. And that's really dangerous. Because who's to say that person does know better than you do? So I think that's been a lifelong journey for me, realizing that I might actually know what I'm talking about. And I might know more than I give myself credit for. There are many reasons why I went into journalism, but I think I knew that there was so much to learn from others. And so I love listening to others and trying to absorb their expertise. And in a way that might be more comfortable than trying to share my own opinions on things. But that's something I'm working to do more. And I think in this season of the podcast, sharing my story and reflecting on it and even having some opinions on it—it's sort of a step in that direction.

Sophie Bress

Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.



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