Is Dance Underfunded Because It's Undervalued?
I hate asking for money. I am tired of feeling like we, as dance practitioners, are constantly begging for every morsel of sustenance. We are often seen as the poor stepchildren of the arts, usually thought of as having nothing tangible to sell.
Even talking about money is partially taboo in our field. Once we don the "artist cap," and in this case, the "dance artist" cap, an old-school mentality takes over: the idea of "working for love," without decent pay, without decent circumstances, without decent conversation on the subject.
How did dance get stuck with this devalued image?
Maybe it's because we are such body-based creators and this gives the world (and ourselves) the impression that enjoyment and gratification should be enough, and that we don't need proper compensation. Or maybe the ever-present puritanical, tyrannical practice of body shaming keeps us feeling unworthy and less important.
Society does ascribe value and will use hard-earned money to watch bodies compete against each other in an arena—they cheer as people are beaten or maimed gladiator-style in popular sports. Similarly, large amounts of money are made off the backs of hopeful contestants on reality shows. They sing and dance and display a multitude of talents, but somehow audiences are fooled into believing they're watching entertainers, not artists.
Our societal values honor competition, and we march subconsciously toward the idea of victory, aligning ourselves with those we believe have what it takes to be victorious. What if instead we were taught in school to value the simplicity of witnessing and participating in life without the desire to conquer? Would artists start to be worthy of more mass appeal?
David Dorfman Dance in the world premiere of Aroundtown at Bates Dance Festival.
Adam Campos, Courtesy Dorfman
Enough complaining—for now. How do we ensure that all new theaters have sprung floors, that all professional dancers have benefits, that all touring companies at least break even? How do we cultivate both monetary support and dignity so that choreographers and dancers are valued as legitimate creators that are fervently contributing necessary cultural DNA for present and future generations?
Dancemakers: Talk about money with the same knowledge and passion with which we talk about our mentors, our dances and the art form's history. Research the roots of our current capitalist value system and know it intimately. We are the creative thinkers. Think and strategize your way into prosperity. Consider it a mind-set, which is what successful for-profit companies have mastered. Be rigorous about making art that teems with value. Connect with patrons, foundations, government entities and corporate sponsors. Sit down with people who have resources and believe you have something to offer them. Tell them what you need in order to make your art and how their investment will elevate our country's cultural fabric.
It's not about an Instagrammable moment, but about creating something of lasting substance. Art has the power to shift society, and you must believe you're responsible for doing so. Be willing to risk being "bad" at having important conversations until you become quite good at it; then repeat and mentor others.
I actually dislike the term "artist," as it strikes me as pretentious too much of the time. Let's think of ourselves more as artisans who are literally creating "things" (albeit ethereal) for people to take home with them—in their hearts, in their memories.
Let's acknowledge what the actual cost of making dances is, ask for the funds and negotiate until we get what we need. Perhaps a sea change will take place over the next decade, one that will create a different kind of world: Sprung dance floors become the norm, and dancers don't worry when a doctor's visit is necessary or if their lives can be full of abundance. A world where a dancer walks down the street believing they're of value to society.
If we reshape value, we're letting the world know that we add value to it—we are value. As I say to the dancers in my company and the students I teach: "Movement is necessary."
We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.
But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)
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:
It's a much-repeated part of Francesca Hayward's origin story that she discovered ballet at age 3, when her grandparents bought a video of The Nutcracker to keep her occupied and she immediately started dancing around the room. What's less well-known is that there was another video lined up next to The Nutcracker that Hayward liked to dance along to: Cats. "I really just did the White Cat bit and fast-forwarded the rest," she remembers. "I'd make my friends who came around be the other cats."
Twenty-four years later, she's not only become a Royal Ballet principal, but has been cast as Victoria the White Cat in Tom Hooper's new movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, out in theaters on December 20. "I remember the director telling me I'd got the part: 'Just to let you know you're the lead in a Hollywood film,' he said." Hayward laughs. "This is crazy!"
"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.