Op-Ed: The Grant Cycle Is A Biased, Oppressive Lottery—But I'm Still Playing To Win
My life has five seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall and rejection. During the season of rejection, you can probably find me in one of the following places: lying in bed my sending 'F them, why not me' texts to my closest friends; emailing very salty 'why did you reject me, and can I puh-lease get some feedback' emails; or pacing my apartment, cleaning, trying to rationalize to myself why I'm just not good enough, yet.
I'm talking about the "Grant Cycle" or what is known among my peers and colleagues as "The Lottery." It's a grueling, never-ending process of trying to make three-dimensional art fit into a two-dimensional surface that can only hold the CliffsNotes version. It's meant to appeal to a group of discerning, qualified and unbiased people who are asked to do the civic duty of deciding where coveted space, time and money goes. The same space, time and money they too want and need.
Recently, I received my 162nd rejection letter. Now, I am not entirely sure if that number is correct. But I apply to about 20 grants/residency/arts support organizations every year, and 20 times eight—the number of years I've been applying—is 180, and I can surely count that I have received at least 15 post-creation awards.
So at my 162nd rejection I got fed up and I went on Facebook and "sheetcaked." Based on Tina Fey's appearance on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, sheetcaking is the act of engaging in equally indulgent and compulsive behavior as a way to pretend that feeling sorry for yourself is helpful to those with less privilege than you.
My "sheetcaking" was writing the following status update: "I've never received a grant."
At first I wrote it because I was whining and upset. It is so frustrating to feel like you have to ask permission to be an artist. That receiving a grant or residency is some sort of approval. And not getting these markers feels like a sign: Stop making work. You're just not good enough. Don't try. Try harder.
The words, "I've never received a grant" were a cry for attention. Especially because I was sure there were many people who also got rejected that day. I needed camaraderie.
Turns out, so did a lot of people—and for a long time. I quickly realized my 162 rejections are as little as a quarter of the amount of rejections some artists face. While this makes sense, what's difficult is when you see someone else who seems to get all of the resources.
Kelly's COLOR ME, WARHOL. Photo via thefeath3rtheory.com
I explained to a friend my tribulations of grant writing. I spoke of the 10+ books I've read, the English teachers I've reached out to, how I've compulsively studied my colleagues' successfully funded applications, how I hired a team of designers and editors to up the quality of my work samples, and how I find some way to attend every info session.
Most importantly, I explained just how important it is for me to make work—that it is for sure my calling and how I will find a way to realize my productions but that it feels particularly strange to be to an artist who is given post-creation awards, but not supported with development funding.
My friend told me that my "sheetcaking" did not really do my colleagues or myself any justice. Do people realize how art is being made now? Most artists are co-producing if not self-producing their own work. This should be recognized. My friend encouraged me to write my story, to reveal that though there are a lot of resources out there, it doesn't mean that they are being spread out; that having a show doesn't mean you got a grant to do it; that when artists do Kickstarters, it's because they really need the money.
Rejection season really hurts when you get the email notification.
Dear so and so,
Thank you for your interest and for applying. We loved reading your application.
You didn't get it.
And because so many people applied, and we have limited resources, we can't give you feedback.
Please apply again.
Please support our venue.
While I understand this letter just can't say, Hello I'm sorry you didn't get it, the niceties of saying they enjoyed reading the application just doesn't feel genuine. When these templates say, "due to the number of applicants," it implies that I am not completely aware that me and everyone I know are applying for this opportunity. And then when they mention that they can't give feedback, it's just so clear that they know they should give feedback, but that they won't.
Kelly's Drella. Photo via thefeath3rtheory.com
Here Is Some Feedback I've Received:
- From a studio that did not give me a space grant, after I requested feedback:
"I admire your work very much and have for some time now (as did the panelists) but truthfully the concern was that your schedule is quite full and your work is already receiving a lot of attention. The grant program is an ideal incubator for an artist who has not shown work much yet, who is still in the process of emerging onto the scene, and/or who needs the help of the group to really hone the craft of their work through the feedback of their fellow grantees. This group of panelists also really considered the dynamics of the four artists who ended up being selected as a cohesive cohort."
I'd like to add that the people that they selected were far more advanced in their careers than I am.
- From a very large granting organization:
"Project showed a self-assuredness and confidence, but the questions posed are not so original. Free agency is important but panel was not convinced that the idea was well thought-out. Panel did not feel that this was a pivotal moment for this artist since he's been working steadily on 10 Warhol projects."
- From a colleague who sat on a panel:
"Hey I saw your post about grants. I sat on the ____ panel in 2016 and fought hard for you, citing your skills as a choreographer and your brain and production value, but there was I think one or two people who saw it differently. One thing that was mentioned was that your work sample "didn't have enough dance in it." Unfortunately less than half of the panel had seen the production live, and the panel rules were strict about what we were allowed to say. People said personal stuff anyway. The whole thing is really f***ed up and factional. You're the real deal, grants or not, though I know nice words don't pay bills."
In 2016, I wrote a sarcastic letter based on all of the feedback I'd received that year, and sent it back to the organizations that had rejected me:
Dear Raja Feather Kelly | the feath3r theory,
Due to the high number of applicants this year, last year, and just about every year, we regret to inform you that you were not selected for our program this year.
It always amazes our organization that so many people in NYC need time, space and money (among other resources) to create performance. We see so much "heady" work in the dance-land space that it is simply baffling that performers and creators just can't imagine themselves the resources they need. Much to our chagrin, we assume there is an abundance of space that creators like yourself can afford. Are performance makers really this needy? We are wrong in thinking they are not. This explicitly explains why so many apply.
We're sorry that we always say, "due to the high number of applicants" but the numbers always catch us off guard.
While we're doing sorrys, we should also say that the feedback we plan to offer you won't really help. It will be subjective, lack a specific rubric as our panel changes every year, and aside from the one or two Raja-specific things we'll add, we'll basically say the same thing to everyone. Just ask your friends who have also applied. We simply change your names.
Additionally, we're sorry that we haven't yet found a way to define "emerging." In some cases it could be an artist making work for two years up to at least 15 years. The point is we need people to apply. By keeping a vague definition of our terms, we allow artists to self-select—fingers crossed that our panel this year vibes with you.
Some personal feedback:
Raja, haven't you exhausted pop-culture? What impact will the study have on your work now that you have been thinking about it for more than five years? We understand that you think pop-culture is constantly shifting and developing, but eh? We don't value its value as much as you do. Sorry, not sorry.
That said, we're unsure why you, of all people, aren't making your work more explicitly BLACK and QUEER. You do identify as black and queer, don't you? We couldn't tell from your work. I guess we missed the memo.
Lastly, you have great marketing. And from the looks of your Facebook and newsletters, it seems you're doing quite fine. Perhaps if you posted some of the struggles and difficulties you face, your need would become more apparent. We're not trying to tell you how to live your personal life. It's just a suggestion.
Thank you so much for your artistry and work, Raja. We hope this helps. And we hope you might apply again next year.
Please visit our Facebook, follow us on Instagram, and subscribe to my new Tumblr page.
Please be assured that we are dedicated to making sure that artists like you find the resources they need to make the beautiful work that you all make. Help us help you by making a $25 donation to our annual campaign. Link below.
Yep, I sent this to the organizations that denied me grant funding. If I keep sending emails like this, it will no longer be a surprise why I don't receive grants. But at least then it'll be transparent; right now I have nothing to lose.
I'm not exactly sure what can be gained from making all of this information public, other than to start a conversation about how the funding opportunities for artists is a lottery—a biased, systemically oppressive lottery that I am still playing to win. #That'sAPartOfALongerConversation
Kelly's Another 37 Reasons To Cry (A Warholian Production). Photo via thefeath3rtheory.com
Here's What I've Learned:
The granting system is messed up. And there seems to be virtually nothing we can do about it (or is there?).
In response to my Facebook post, Sydnie Mosley asked: "Why do we want grants—why do we want to participate in a system that doesn't actually want to support us."
I want a grant because, to me, the money is worth it. And the badge of funding credit is also currency. I want to be able to make work, I want to be able to pay my dancers fairly, I want to be able to pay myself reasonably, I want to be able to tour my work so that other people can see what I have to contribute to the field. Sometimes people make me feel like this is not an okay dream.
Don't you notice that once one person gets one grant, mysteriously they start to get other grants? I don't think this is coincidence; I think it's how organizations and our fellow artists start to understand what's worth funding. When one organization chooses to fund you, another organization sees you differently. I know that I'm going to work hard; I want my foot in the door so that someone else can see that and help me to do that.
Doug Varone, Ash Yergens, me and Kyle Abraham: In that group, there's one artist who's making their very first piece, and one who has been making work for what seems like forever. We are all applying for the same funding.
Need is not taken into account. And need is not comparable. It's just as biased as merit.
It is personal—our colleagues are deciding who gets what. This year I sat on panels with other artists and helped decide where money, time and space was going. Our personal preferences, our likes and dislikes, and our knowledge of each other's work all went into that decision-making. And in the end, what we decided was just an opinion. Further, the people who ranked above us made final choices outside our recommendations.
Nepotism does exist. If someone is managing for someone, and he's friends with someone else, and also the director of programming for someplace, chances are he's supporting the work he is hired to support, even when sitting on an "unbiased" panel.
The visual art world and the performance art world are different. Funders complain to me that my obsession with Andy Warhol is outdated and boring. I used to think, "No one would tell a visual artist to stop painting squares." I recently learned that visual artists don't apply for grants, lessening their need to defend their obsessions.
What I'm Going To Do:
- Keep making work!
- I'd like to develop a panel of people who will reach out to funding organizations and ask to take notes about work and make sure that the artists who are not funded get those notes. Even if someone doesn't get a grant, I think transparency in decisions is helpful for the entire field.
What Should You Do?
- Wash your hands—subways are gross.
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."