There seems to be no discussion whatsoever. No negotiating contracts. Like being dumped over Skype text, employers are simultaneously arrogant and cowardly; a seething arrogance which assumes that dancers will stay in the relationship indefinitely and a cowardice which shies away from using their position as manager/director/producer to ask the big boss for more money. Instead, they keep the long distance relationship one hundred percent in tact and make dancers feel suitably powerless to change their working situations.
Dancers’ shamefully low pay has been gathering more media coverage in recent weeks. Contemporaneous with The Shrinking Violets hosting a coffee morning at Chisenhale Dance Space about Working Conditions, Matthew Hemley of The Stage wrote his article ‘ENO Dancers Protest at ‘Absurd’ Pay Conditions’ and Judith Mackrell gave dancers’ wages a brief mention with ‘The light fantastic? Ballet dancers and anorexia’.
Most recently on 7th March, Neil Nisbet published his article ‘The United States of Nobody Gives a Sh*t’. With the targeted venom that Article 19 do best, Nisbet’s article is not only well worth the read but conveys a startling and depressing set of circumstances where three major players in dance employment – ENO, ACE and Equity – repeatedly excuse current working conditions. Debate has mainly centered on the fact that ENO dancers in the production of The Death of Klinghoffer are being paid just £327 for a 40 hour working week during rehearsals. Article 19 have the sway to contact the institutions involved and garner a response. What I found so disheartening within Nisbet’s findings is that these institutions seem to have locked themselves into a kind of it-can’t-be-helped-because-of-budget-cuts mentality or display a sheer callousness and knack for missing the point all together with the argument that dance is not the ‘central focus’ of an opera production. If the budget cuts are so bad then hire 8 dancers instead of 12, reduce the budget for the set or the wigs…and with regards to dance not being the main focus, well yes absolutely but the ENO are still employing professional dancers as opposed to teenagers from amateur classes to work within their productions. Professionals. Professionals. Professionals.
The sole voice I have come across from an organisation, rather than writers or the countless dancers I have spoken to who sympathise and know we have a fight on our hands, is Caroline Miller of Dance UK. A strong advocate for the skills dancers possess who has spoken about the ENO dancers as providing a ‘vital element’ to ENO’s production. A beacon of hope.
I have just finished a contract with a separate opera production and the element that I want to contribute to the current debates is how non-negotiable payment circumstances are when dancers do request more money or refuse the present status quo. As a dancer, I was paid substantially more than the ENO dancers but there were two occasions when additional services were asked of me that weren’t in my original contract. The group of dancers rightfully expected communication and negotiation. No. No. No.
The first occasion of non-negotiables (new word, yes) surfaced when the cast was told that an opportunity for a live broadcast and DVD of a performance night had arisen. Our fee was to be £250. Equity minimum for a buy-out is £350. We were told that each member of the cast had to agree to these terms otherwise the filming would not go ahead. We would have the rest of the day to decide.
The company contributed a substantial amount to the fee to increase the amount originally offered by the television broadcaster and I respect this. I was told that this wasn’t a commercial venture on the part of the opera producers and my issue isn’t even with the fee anymore. However initially, the dancers said no. We said no and said we would be willing to sign a by-out for £350. The next day, we were told firmly that the amount was not up for discussion. It was £250 and we would have to say yes otherwise the opportunity would be missed by all. Again the dancers sat down and tried to come to some decisions. Most felt like in these set of circumstances, we should say yes because the company weren’t going to budge and it was a good opportunity for the singers in the cast. However, we were sitting among ourselves in an ultimately powerless situation. No one from the company was present to offer advice on any further options. The message was simply relayed that this was not an issue up for discussion. Like negotiating the sale of a house with only the buyer present, the atmosphere was aimless. We had to go with a majority vote, knowing that some of the dance cast were dissatisfied and I resented the divisions it created. Divisions created by a company who placed us in that position rather than dialoguing with us (all through the night if they had to) and reaching a compromise.
The second issue arose when some of the dancers had to cover members of the chorus in a movement sequence and asked if they could be paid a little more whenever they were needed for such a role. Dancers would find out on the evening of the show if and who they were covering and would then need to watch rehearsal footage to learn the pathways of the chorus etc. Again, payment was not up for debate. There was no money. It was not a specialist role. There would be no extra fee.
But the dancers were being asked to do additional material, at short notice, using their specialised skills of picking up material quickly and spatial awareness. The role hadn’t been part of the original job description or contract. A simple (token) fee of appreciation would have sufficed.
We could have refused to take the role but dancers by nature seem to be reasonable people with the concerns of the production at heart. Maybe this is a problem but it is difficult in these scenarios to know what to sacrifice, especially when the sense is that even if we did strike, there would be very, very little sympathy and understanding.
When dancers refuse or ask to discuss payment terms and the answer is a resounding and cowardly ‘No’, there is an unappreciation of how hard dancers work and laziness on the part of the employer to say a ‘No’ entrenched in that’s-the-way-things-are. An unwillingness to spend time questioning and communicating. Time after all is money.
A quality I ceaselessly admire in the dance workforce is our willingness and availability. We are frequently a-ok with rehearsal times running over schedule and are definitely not in the industry for the money. However, bring on a dancer’s union! London’s living wage is £8.30 per hour. We are highly skilled professionals. Money isn’t the only currency that our work revolves around but is nevertheless pivotal to feeling respected and valued.