Follow the Money

Young dance artists confront the discouraging logistics of working in New York now

The choreographers the Voicesurveyed, who range in age from 23 to 52, report annual incomes of $15,000 to $20,000, rarely derived exclusively from dance. A few earn more, often through regular administrative gigs at law firms or investment banks. Alyce Finwall, who in 1999 founded the Dance Council Movement Theater, offers herself as example: "My friends call me a 'job whore' for being willing to do just about anything to produce my own shows and take class every day. That's when a sense of humor comes in handy."

Outside the time and energy spent at paying gigs, dancers must develop their craft and their art. Many dance artists pay $10 to $12 per class to study at studios like DanceSpace Center, which alone registers 3,000 students per year. DanceSpace and schools like those at the Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown studios act as self-contained communities, offering in-house performance opportunities, health insurance (for an additional fee), and even immigration sponsorship. The alphabet soup of student visas (F-1 or J-1 or M-1) is a key draw for foreign-born dancers, who must arrive with sufficient resources to pay for six to 12 months of study. (The number of international students has dropped since 9-11; at DanceSpace it went from 77 to 60 between 2001 and 2004.)

To save on training costs, other dancers work with the scores of smaller companies, where members sometimes take class free.

illustration: Ryan Sanchez

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Who's supporting the work of these small troupes and independent artists? By and large, it's the artists themselves. Their day jobs, grants, and audience receipts (often split 50-50 with the theater) underwrite their performing. Presenting organizations like DTW sometimes break a foundation's grant into sums as small as $2,000 and "re-grant" to a number of individual artists. A choreographer balances the chance of getting such support against the time and effort necessary to develop and file detailed financial forms, a statement of purpose, and a videotape of work.

Some choreographers entirely forgo the traditional company structure and nonprofit status, instead forming loose collectives under the umbrella of an arts service organization. Melissa Briggs, an MFA graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, works with a "core group" of four to eight dancers on a project-by-project basis. "For me, it's about making the work; I have no interest in creating a business that I have to manage."

Busy schedules and expensive studio space complicate the creative process, as choreographer Erica Essner explains. "I create work over a three- to four-month period. My process has become unrealistic in the New York climate where dancers hold three jobs and work for many other choreographers." So she's hoping to set new pieces on university students and bring them back to her New York dancers.

Kari Hoaas, 32, studied ballet and Cunningham technique. Her creative process, for which she is not paid, involves nine to 12 hours of rehearsal weekly for about two months. Finding a studio rental rate toward the low end of a $10-$25 per hour range, and paying dancers $10 per hour, the cost to develop an evening-length piece could come to more than $800 for space rental, plus an equal amount for each of her four dancers, for a total of about $4,000.

The cost for a weekend of three self-produced shows starts at about $3,000 and can run to several times that. The Cunningham studio, in the West Village, rents its theater for $475 for two required technical rehearsals, including basic lighting, plus $375 for each ensuing performance. Dance often does without set design, but a choreographer may bring in a lighting designer, at a cost of $200 to $800 plus equipment rental. Each dancer might be paid $50 to $100 per performance and tech rehearsal, and there are usually expenses for costumes and for advertising. It's necessary to sell a couple hundred tickets at $15 apiece to cover minimal production costs, not counting rehearsal costs and dancers' pay—and this theater seats a maximum of 99 people.

A key outcome of a self-produced show may be interest from a presenting organization —the next stage in the choreographer's progression. Hoaas starts to say it's no easier once a presenter produces you, then corrects herself: "You are better off than self-producing, definitely. You get a lot more support."

But the choreographer is working on a bigger show for a larger theater, which raises certain costs. Presenters cover basic box office and technical personnel, including operators of the sound and lighting boards, as well as advertising costs. But when glitches arise during technical rehearsals, the choreographers pick up a tab of $18 per hour overtime for each staff member. They are also expected to raise production values by paying $400-$800 apiece to some or all of lighting, costume, video, and set designers, as well as a composer or live musicians.

Musician Malina Rauschenfels, 25, has degrees in cello and composition from Eastman and Juilliard. She composes or performs for dozens of dance concerts annually, though she supports herself mainly through teaching. She earns between $200 and $2,000 composing pieces that run from five minutes to a 90-minute evening-length work, and charges anywhere from $25 to $400 to perform a Bach accompaniment, depending on the number of rehearsals. She tends to perform solo because, "I cannot afford to pay any musicians and I know dance companies can't either."

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