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By Sara Wookey
About a year ago, in November of 2011, I attended an audition for Marina Abramović, the pioneering performance artist who had recently attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for her durational solo The Artist Is Present. She had now been invited to create a performance for the annual gala at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)—a notoriously lavish affair—and was looking for movement artists to participate.
I was interested in working with an artist whom I admired, in a museum that didn’t often show live art. But as I recounted in the “Open Letter to Artists” that I wrote after the audition, working with Abramović, despite her prominence in the art world, would have meant accepting a number of unfair labor practices, such as low pay and an unsafe working environment. Performers would be asked to remain motionless for up to six hours, staying in “performance mode,” even if harassed by viewers. The compensation for 15 rehearsal hours would be just $150, plus a one-year MOCA membership worth $50. Meanwhile, the event would raise upwards of $2 million.
In the letter, I made a call to artists to consider a more collective consciousness when taking or refusing work. What I mean by this is that if you take or reject work in the field, you are contributing to setting standards for your cohort. For example, when I was selected to perform in the gala and refused—when rejecting such low-paying and potentially unsafe labor—I was doing so with my community in mind. As long as we take underpaid work, there will be underpaid work. Payment can take many forms, such as networking, gaining new experience, and resumé-building. Yet, in this particular case, since the focus was on raising money for an arts institution, I felt it was wrong to not compensate those very people—artists—who keep the institution alive.
One incentive for my letter was the realization that we have no national labor standards for artists who work with their bodies outside of the dance company structure. Therefore, I also urged independent dance artists to organize themselves. The letter elicited over 6,500 “Likes” on Facebook and hundreds of online comments from within Los Angeles and as far away as India, Africa, and South America. Clearly, the subject of labor conditions touched a global nerve in our field.
I ended my letter stating that “art is not immune to ethical standards. Let’s have a new discourse that begins on this thought.” In order to create and uphold those standards, dancers and choreographers across all generations and genres must place a higher value on our skills, stand up for ourselves, and organize in innovative ways. Society as a whole tends to undervalue dance as compared to other art forms, and as a result, some of us dance artists begin to do the same. Only by recognizing and reclaiming what we have to offer can we avoid the gross inequalities exemplified in the Abramović/MOCA situation.
My call to us is threefold: First, to forge alliances with other dance artists in order to share resources and create transparency in our ﬁeld by speaking up in the face of unfair working conditions; secondly, to consider the greater good of the ﬁeld in our individual choices; and finally, to realize our skill sets, worth, and needed talents, in the places where we dance, live, and work.
During the past year, my own work has shifted as a result of my letter and interest in the sustainable future of dance. I’ve been a part of collective and curatorial projects where we share authorship and negotiate fees as a group. As my practice has evolved, I’ve begun to question: What would our professional conditions look like if we started asking how we determine worth in our field? And, How do we align our creative impulses with contributing to the future of our field?
Dance artists have the unique skill of making something from nothing. As innovative thinkers and doers we hold value in a world hungry for new vision, sensitive organization, and creative solutions. How do we move from where we are now to a better future? Dancers, I believe, know how to do this. The value of our work is influenced by the way we communicate what we do. Therefore, it matters that we have a voice as we keep moving.
Below are some organizations and resources that have done an excellent job of speaking up for the rights of artists. Get involved! As you consider your own role in the dance field, think about what you can do so that the next generation of dance artists will have it better than we do—and so, too, the society at large.
Resources for Dancers’ Rights
• Dance/NYC Junior Committee
• Dancers’ Alliance
• Dancers Forum Compact
• Performers’ Rights Initiative
• Working Artists and the Greater Economy W.A.G.E.