Dancers as Activists
Gibney Dance Company empowers its members to create their own social-impact initiatives.
Nigel Campbell teaching at Move(NYC), his tuition-free summer program. PC Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney.
What if your full-time dance job required more than rehearsing and performing? What if it also asked you to create new ways to give back to your community? The six members of New York City–based Gibney Dance Company have been empowered to do exactly that, as artistic director Gina Gibney expands the troupe’s mission beyond its traditional performances and domestic violence outreach. Each member will now direct his or her own “advocacy fellowship,” with Gibney’s oversight. “I’ve seen so many young artists who want to make a difference but didn’t have the resources available to them to make it work,” says Gibney. “Being advocates for the field is now part of their job description.”
The dancers are being guided by Gibney’s staff, board members and outside partners at every stage, from planning to production. They started by drafting their own program designs, case statements, timelines and methods to evaluate success. While funding for this extension of the company—in particular the dancers’ salaries—comes from Gibney donors, the dancers are actively participating in the fundraising for their own projects. Programs range from an organization that helps dancers through tough career moments, like negotiating a contract or getting injured, to youth dance programs. Some have already tested their ideas through pilots: Nigel Campbell is one of the first company members to roll out his initiative. With co-founder Chanel DaSilva, he started Move(NYC), a tuition-free summer intensive for advanced dancers from New York City’s five boroughs. “We wanted to help dancers who have the drive to become professionals, but may not have the means to do so competitively,” says Campbell. Under their program this summer, 30 students, ages 13 to 18, studied under dancers from Batsheva, Kidd Pivot and Hamilton, among others.
Campbell is happy to have a job that doesn’t just emphasize giving back to the community, but provides him with the resources he needs to achieve it. These outreach projects are part of the dancers’ new 52-week contract (up from about 36), which includes a paid, one-month sabbatical in August, given so that the dancers can study elsewhere or take on other creative projects. “It means I can focus on helping my community as well as my art,” says Campbell. “I don’t have to run to bartend or babysit. I know that a paycheck is coming every two weeks. I don’t have to worry about that—I can commit my time, energy and focus to where it really matters.”
Though Gibney is realistic about the tough economic challenges dance companies face, she hopes that other groups will someday be able to take on this model. “Dancers have such an incredible ability to bring people together. To give people a better understanding of their world,” she says. “If there could be more platforms for artists to realize their ideas, that’s my humble goal.”
Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets (AKA "the mattress dance") hasn't been revived since it premiered in 1965. Nor has Rainer had any wish to do it again, to ask performers to heave 10 mattresses around while carrying out 31 tasks that changed every 30 seconds. It was an unwieldy, difficult dance. (Even the title is unwieldy.) But Emily Coates, who has danced in Rainer's work for 20 years, became curious about this piece and was determined to see it again—and to dance in it. She will get her wish November 15–17, when the mattress dance will be performed as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.