OGDEN — As an associate professor of theater at Weber State University, Jennifer Kokai said she feels awful when students come to her years after a performance with stories of sexual harassment backstage.
“Performers become kind of like a family and really close and love each other and spend a lot of time together, which leads very easily to crossing boundaries that other disciplines don’t have to deal with,” she said. “If I were a math or chemistry professor this wouldn’t be my problem in the same way.”
Kokai was one of several visual performing artists who discussed the continuing impact of the #MeToo movement at a round table discussion at Weber State, Thursday, Nov. 1.
Kokai said while all theater students participate in harassment prevention training, it’s important to be cognizant of what’s happening with your cast and what you’re asking them to do.
“It’s not just about skills and about the art of theater, it’s about the ethics and boundaries that have to be in place in order to make theater in a morally acceptable fashion,” she said.
New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht has been with the company for 18 years starting when he was a teenager. He said most dancers start young and grow up in a structure that’s far different than a professional corporate office.
“A lot of people were parented by their colleagues in their company,” he said.
The New York City Ballet has seen turmoil in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Two principal male dancers were fired from the company in September after being named in a lawsuit for sharing inappropriate photos of a female dancer. A third male dancer named in the lawsuit resigned in August, according to the New York Times.
All this came after Peter Martins, the head of the New York City Ballet, faced accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse in late 2017. An investigation cleared Martins, though he retired in January 2018.
Ulbricht said the search is ongoing for Martins’ replacement.
“It’s about being able to pivot an organization like the New York City Ballet into the century we live in, which includes on and off stage caliber and standards of conduct,” Ulbricht said.
Whitney Collins just started the Atlas Dance Collective in Lehi, a project-based dance company. Her choreography aims to raise awareness of human trafficking, but she said her group is so new and its members so fluid she hasn’t had them sign any official conduct-related document.
“This kind of dialogue is helping me with getting my company known and getting ideas to help develop a code of conduct for my dancers,” she said.
The panel also discussed whether it’s appropriate to alter or censor art given the #MeToo movement.
Ulbricht brought up the mid-1940s ballet “Fancy Free” where there is a heated moment between three men and one woman. He said there have been ongoing conversations in the last 20 years regarding that one moment and whether to alter it.
“This is a moment that has to be delicately handled,” he said.
Kokai said there are some people who don’t have a problem with plays that glorify violence against women and would argue what happens on stage isn’t real life.
“I don’t know that any play is sufficiently awesome enough for me to want to go watch a woman get abused,” she said.
Paige Davies, the round table moderator from the Weber State Women’s Center, said Odyssey Dance Theatre removed two violent segments from performances of “Thriller” in the wake of the murder of Lauren McCluskey on the University of Utah campus.
Panelists said there have been changes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which went viral in the fall of 2017 when allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein became public.
Alicia Washington, co-founder of Ogden’s Good Company Theater Company, said the Actors’ Equity Association reached out to renegotiate contracts to ensure actors were being treated fairly and safety. Kokai said she has seen a rise in intimacy coaching for actors, which is similar to combat training but specific to acting out intimate situations.
“I know the conversations are happening for us and I know it has made me a lot more present as a co-director and as a producer for these productions,” Washington said.