Rant and Rave: Collective Thinking
About a year ago, in November of 2011, I attended an audition for Marina AbramoviÄ‡, 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 AbramoviÄ‡, 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 AbramoviÄ‡/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 ï¬eld by speaking up in the face of unfair working conditions; secondly, to consider the greater good of the ï¬eld 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.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
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.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
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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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.