Where dance fans can escape from our 'sci-fi horror' moment

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Where dance fans can escape from our 'sci-fi horror' moment
The writer and choreographer Jack Ferver in New York, May 3, 2020. Ferver and his long-time friend Reid Bartelme are providing their fellow dance mavens with essential stay-at-home relief via their bicoastal podcast "Dance and Stuff." Matthew Leifheit/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Reid Bartelme loves podcasts. Jack Ferver doesn’t even listen to the one they host together.

Yes, they’re different, but their ability to dish out one-liners and eloquent descriptions of just about anything — from a George Balanchine ballet to the Netflix series “Cheer” — comes out of a long friendship. (Theirs goes back to their teenage years at Interlochen Center for the Arts, in Michigan.) Listening to “What’s Going on With Dance and Stuff,” their chatty and illuminating podcast, feels like being with good friends — and that’s a rare lifeline in these days of social isolation.

Ferver is a writer, choreographer and director whose psychological works explore the fine line between darkness and humor. Bartelme is a dancer who has performed with ballet and contemporary companies and also is a sought-after costume designer. What they have created is more than a weekly podcast; it’s a community.

We may not be able to watch dance in a theater, but in the “Dance and Stuff” universe, it can live through voices, and that is a balm for the moment, which Ferver described as “the worst and slowest sci-fi horror movie.”

“We’re in the parts that they skipped in between the action parts,” Bartelme said. “It’s like in that movie ‘A Quiet Place,’ where they’ve been silent for years, but we don’t see that part.”

And then, though on either side of a continent — Ferver is staying at a friend’s house in upstate New York, and Bartelme has relocated, for now, to Los Angeles — they burst into laughter, a soothing and familiar sound if you are a regular listener of their podcast.

Along with a trove of interviews with dance artists and episodes like “Pandemic,” a two-parter in which dancers around the world recorded voice memos about their current conditions, the podcast features a healthy assortment of “stuff.” That can include reviews of ’90s movies, talk about design, television, Martha Graham and astrology (always astrology and lots of Graham), or serious stories about their lives, as when Bartelme described his experience with cancer.

A recent conversation touched on books that the pair read in middle school, including “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Flowers in the Attic,” which, as Ferver observed, seems right for the times “because the protagonist continues her ballet training in the attic.”

Ferver said he was thinking of staging his own version. “Reid would absolutely be the twins,” he said. “I am absolutely the older sister who’s learning ballet. And then her brother who is kind of like her lover — it’s gross. I think that’ll have to be played by a pillow.”

They have only one rule for the podcast: It has to happen in some form every Friday, which it has since it began in 2017.

And now “Dance and Stuff” is growing, finding ways to keep art alive in a trying time. In addition to the podcast, which is produced by Ferver’s partner, Jeremy Jacob, the pair have been appearing on Instagram Live on Tuesday evenings; recently, they presented their show, directed by Jacob, on YouTube with choreographer Pam Tanowitz as a guest.

In a recent conversation, Bartelme, 39, and Ferver, 41, spoke about “Dance and Stuff” — and its malleability. “I’m not interested in picking one category and one lane,” Ferver said, “and sticking true to it to the ends of its last breath.”

That approach seems to be working. As Bartelme said, “We sort of have an understanding of what our listeners are willing to put up with, which is basically anything.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter what they are talking about so long as they are talking. Even during our phone interview, Bartelme received a message from a Kansas City listener who told him that the podcast was good for “this ex-New Yorker’s soul,” helping to “keep me invested, sane and joyful during this time.”

Maybe it will for you, too.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: The “Pandemic” reports really crystallized a moment in time. How did that come to you?

BARTELME: I was working on two sets of costumes in Idaho right as things started to get really crazy. The morning of the dress rehearsal, the Australian choreographer, Craig Davidson, was like, “My flight back to Zurich got canceled.” And then I went to the dressing room where Brett Perry, who was staging the Lar Lubovitch piece, said, “I have a feeling this show’s not going to happen, and I also have a feeling that you should get out of here as quickly as possible.”

I immediately changed my flight. I was like, I want to reach out to all my friends around the world and see what’s happening with them.

Q: Does “Dance and Stuff” give you a different sense of artistic freedom than you experience designing or choreographing?

FERVER: Absolutely. And I think a part of that is that it’s such a turnaround.

BARTELME: Because it’s not our job and it has to fit into our real lives in a secondary way, some of those episodes are truly exercises in creativity. How on earth do we make an episode this week? I guess I’ll record a voice memo about (the film) “Red Sparrow.” The format leaves us open to do anything, and the quality of it can range and it’s OK — just as long as there’s something to listen to every week.

Q: Why is consistency important to you?

BARTELME: For a podcast to skip a week immediately shows that they’re not invested in their listeners. You rely on it being there at the same time on the same day every week.

Q: Isn’t it somehow like old-school radio?

FERVER: Yes! I feel it’s this time we’re really in: people huddled around the radio together. We also bring in things that happen in pop culture because to say that those don’t influence our viewership is a lie.

BARTELME: And I would literally be bored to death if we were just talking about dance.

FERVER: The original genesis of the podcast was also about the choreographers who we know, who we adore, who are not necessarily shown that much outside of New York City. I feel I’ve always been driven by having grown up in rural Wisconsin: How do I get any material to that little queer kid? It has to go through the internet.

Q: How important is humor to you?

FERVER: A sense of humor helps open things up, as well as just take out that snotty elitism that Reid and I are both so stridently opposed to. And there’s people who want that from art and from dance and that’s fine. But that’s not what our podcast is about.

Q: What have you taken away from it?

FERVER: Something that’s been exciting for me is the different ways that Reid and I talk about dance. I’m always looking for the catharsis in the relationship with it. Reid can really enjoy something from a pure aesthetic.

BARTELME: I think I’m having a similar kind of catharsis, it’s just through different contextualization. I’m sort of stunned when I’ve taken Jack to see things that I have a sense that he’ll like, and it moves into his universe of conversation. Sometimes I am shocked by the amount of language he comes up with around the thing. I’m like, “Stop talking about it.”

FERVER: (Laughs) It’s also my bent in psychology, right? That’s my in.

Q: You were both fellows at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where you ended up listening to a lot of oral histories. Did that lead you to take your podcast more seriously?

BARTELME It had never occurred to me that our podcast was important beyond just bringing joy and regularity to people’s weeks. But it is a series of oral histories. Even if some of it is, you know, fluff.

Q: What do you mean?

BARTELME: We don’t claim to know everything. We speak through our own opinions, and sometimes we’re wrong, and sometimes we come back the next week and we’ll correct it. But we definitely push back against people who hold us to historically accurate standards. It’s just not what our podcast is about.

FERVER: And it is also a fallacy, with a form that is not language-based, for someone to say that they know everything about a work or about an artist. That is not true. What kept bringing me back to dance is that it picks up where language ends. I need there to be mystery because that is what is true. We couldn’t be in a time that proves that more. We do not know.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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