Gillie Kleiman was away and kindly allowed The Shrinking Violets to host one of her Coffee Mornings at Chisenhale Dance Space on 17th January 2012.
The stipulated topic was Working Conditions and various themes and offshoots emerged. Below are some thought-provoking highlights. Coffee Morning is billed as ‘Rant. Chat. Eat.’ The eleven of us that attended certainly did that!
We realise that each subheading scratches the surface of the topic and so we offer them as a sense of what the morning was and importantly, as seeds to get us thinking and researching for future debates and articles.
Vulnerability and regulations
Christopher Matthews started us off by recollecting an experience of an audition he had just attended. It involved the vague instruction of ‘get as high as you can’ and also a task of dancing with your finger in someone else’s mouth at all times. Chris couldn’t locate the reasoning behind the entire 3hr experience which seemed to be offloaded from choreographer to eager-for-work dancers without the slightest tact, or options for those less willing to perform a task as invasive as contact with another’s body fluids. Those of us discussing were far from prudes but could plainly see the need for choreographers to contextualise their work more – provide variants in terms of exploring an idea – and conduct themselves more responsibly by perhaps discussing the issues of the work in the audition so that the dancers are informed of what will be asked of them and then working any intimate moments or requirements of the work out during the more in depth rehearsal process.
The lack of regulations that protect dancers in auditions seems to be excused by the fact that dancers are constantly on the look out for work. Dancers readily walk into auditions or workshops (which are frequently undercover auditions) ready to do their best, ready to fulfil the auditions requirements, ready to please the choreographer (just like we fought to please our teachers when training).
I saw an audition post last week which alongside the expected ‘strong physicality and contact skills’ and the mandatory requirement to ‘work inventively and creatively’, ‘the applicant must also be willing to take physical and emotional risks.’
Hmmm…On the first day? Does risk actually have an identifiable, aesthetic product? What position does a dance company believe itself to be in if they can demand physical and emotional risk-taking from their workers? Is there a qualified councillor on hand??
Are we expected to take emotional risks in a room full of strangers to get a job? If this was a self-help group then fine but an audition is the equivalent of a job interview. Would a law firm be so irresponsible as to ask their applicants to take emotional risks as part of their essential requirements?
I had a look while writing up my notes. Some skills looked for in prospective lawyers are listed below and are a great deal more realistic and respectful of their candidates:
Being able to stay calm under pressure.
Having interpersonal abilities.
Having competent written and spoken communication abilities.
Having high attention for details
Those at the coffee morning realised that dancers frequently subvert our own authority. Audition notices and audition experiences like the one’s above persist because we don’t raise our voices and say, ‘Wait a minute…You want me to do what?’
We carry on and we dance with our fingers in other people’s mouths because everyone else in the room is and because we need the work.
Work in exchange for vulnerability…Surely we are being short-changed! This cannot be a good deal!
Industry versus community
The group realised that part of the problems around working conditions and lack of known regulations could arise because we frequently identify dance as a community not an industry.
noun, plural -tries
1. any general business activity; commercial enterprise: the Italian tourist industry.
2. trade or manufacture in general: the rise of industry in Africa.
3. the ownership and management of companies, factories, etc.: friction between labor and industry.
4. systematic work or labor.
5. energetic, devoted activity at any work or task; diligence: Her teacher praised her industry.
noun, plural -ties.
1. a group of people having cultural, religious, ethnic, or other characteristics in common: the Protestant community
2. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the ): the business community; the community of scholars.
3. common ownership or participation
A mixture of the above definitions define how dancers group themselves, what classifies our attitude to work and the kind of work we do. The distinction apparent in definition 2 of a community with a characteristic that separates it from larger society, has various implications. Dancers distinguishing ourselves as different to other social groups can serve to strengthen our artistic concerns and enquiries. A position of being outside of something can facilitate the artistically valuable opportunity to look in from the margins and comment on society or craft alternative solutions. However, separation can isolate us from frameworks already in place that protect us as workers – trade unions, minimum wage, clear laws about break times and injuries, for example.
Industry can carry the same sense of belonging to a particular group as community can but overall, the implications of the word are more professional. Industry is systematic and enterprising. There is a general sense of rules and established laws with a certain degree of transparency and accessibility. The closeness of the dance community, the sense of care and willingness to explore new territory, as well as a community with more than profitable concerns, are not qualities we would want to quash but dance can learn from other business models and workforces when it comes to improving the working conditions of our group.
Is it paid?
One day we hope that the question will either cease entirely or at least change into ‘How Much?’
You would NEVER ask a doctor ‘Is it paid?’
Does our training instill in us a sense of making ourselves as available as possible? Availability to work doubtlessly accompanies a fruitful freelance lifestyle but does it also mean that we accommodate sub-paid contracts and rarely turn down work? Has anyone walked away from a contract? Does the rarity of this act stem from a fear that we are a very replaceable workforce? As we sit with our classmates, we already know (because we are frequently told) that there are not enough jobs for all of us, therefore, if I say no, there is a queue of dancers behind at the ready.
We were quick to sort out that on many levels, dancers cannot be replaced. Choreographers frequently build up relationships with dancers over time, and dancers are more and more interested in the specific ways a choreographer works. Perhaps once we have the job, the fear subsides. Maybe it is in the chase for the job, that we still look over our shoulders and compare our own availability and willingness with those of others.
Today’s structure of choreographer and dancers
The hierarchy of choreographer says/makes and the dancer does, is not as much in evidence within dance circles as it once was. Watch dance work now and there are overspills in material with regards to what the choreographer or dancer has been involved in making. The role of choreographer is to perhaps, facilitate, inform and organise. Arguably, they still have the final say. As current Resolution! fever demonstrates, dancers undertake a large portion of marketing for the events alongside the choreographers and institutions.
If workload is a little more equal in terms of dance material and creative process (although the choreographer doubtlessly owns the intellectual copyright of the original idea) and business suffers, who is to blame?In something like Resolution!, who covers the loss?
We could all agree that choreographer and dancers should split the profits but when discussing the scenario of a loss, the coffee morning group divided. If the work was so shared, who bears the responsibility? Should dancers have to contribute towards the cost of recuperating costs?
In terms of the responsibility of theatres, if the show is cancelled, the audience gets a refund.
The dancer and choreographers may lose out on payment and are rarely covered in such circumstances.
I have a dance company
We got onto talking about dance company names and whether or not this is quite ridiculous given the fact that many not registered. Is it a bit of a farce to have a company but not be able to pay your workers? And then, whose responsibility is it to make sure that funding is able to be secured? If you can’t pay your dancers, do you refuse to make work??
There was a general agreement about the need for more statistics on what dance brings into the economy and society. This is an area we will undertake and research further with the help of Chisenhale Dance Space.
You Me Bum Bum Train can be seen as an enormous success. They sell out every night. They offer a wonderfully innovative experience for the spectator. The team have famous audience members with Stephan Fry and Johnathan Ross singing the production’s praises. They are successful and breaking into the mainstream but no one gets paid. The set builders, technicians, designers and performers all work for free. It’s producers/artistic directors survive on their benefits. They are a well funded project so is it a question of distributing the funds more appropriately into workers pockets or do the funding bodies need to realise that for this kind of work to be sustainable, more money needs to be found? Furthermore, can funding bodies really be comfortable with the ethics of permitting a project like this to continue when even minimum wage isn’t being met, night after night?
The chosen ones
It was felt that the big companies that sell out and regularly get programmed (New Adventures and Rambert for example) doubtlessly contribute to dance’s economy. They put bums on seats and cultivate a loyalty among audiences. They create work that is mainstream i.e. palatable for a broad public. Are there more ways for these established artists to use their visibility to support less established but equally ambitious choreographers besides favouring the (male) few?
Are these flagship companies the best thing for dance/audience development? Do we want everyone in the country to participate in contemporary dance? To push the artform forward, isn’t it reasonable to expect a certain impossibility of pleasing all? Are the current concerns of smaller scale dance companies too specific, or is it that they are not financially supported? And then, here is the million dollar question: if all dance performances were free, would more people actually come?
Can dancers unite?
Emerging or established artists, can we rally? Do we care enough about our industry to start making changes to how we work and how we are expected to finance our work? How can we start to put words into action? Watch this space.
Equity are the only performers union in the UK that protect dance artists. However, I know only a handful of performers who are part of it. Why? I have the sense that even if I was an equity union member, if I demanded Equity pay from every contract, I would be laughed out of the door or at least politely turned down. Paying dancers sub-standard wage is so entrenched in our value system. Dancers need to gather together somehow. I think the benefits of a dancer’s union can be gleamed from Rowan Atkinson when he talks about the benefits of Equity as a trade union and the appropriateness of it’s existence in the performing arts industry.
‘The very nature of entertainment and theatre is that almost anywhere can be a venue and almost anyone can be an employer, or self employed. It’s an extraordinary loose and unpredictable profession and it seems to me that it’s a good thing that there is someone trying to impose or negotiate a degree of regulation, even if it’s just in terms of hours you work and lunch breaks and the desire for even the most ordinary acting job to be reasonably paid. I just think it’s good that there’s an organisation that can draw this very disparate band of brothers and sisters together to try to maintain good and safe and reasonable working conditions.’ Rowan Atkinson
Among one of the impetuses for the theme Working Conditions came from Sara Wookey’s An Open Letter From a Dancer Who Refused to Participate in Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Performance. It is well worth a read. BELLYFLOP Magazine are currently running an interesting debate on You Me Bum Bum Train since 22nd December 2011. Read how it unfolds here.
Thank you to all who attended our coffee morning. We hope you will leave your own thoughts from the morning below. It goes without saying that there is an open invitation for anyone else to do so also.
28th Feb is the next of Gillie’s Coffee Mornings. Chisenhale Dance Space will advertise the event in due course.