Editor’s Note: Dance makes great financial demands on young practitioners—and provides a very small return. Painters, writers, and composers can create their works alone in small studios, but a choreographer’s raw materials are big rooms with resilient floors and highly skilled human beings. The former, in New York, are expensive and scarce. The latter are legion, as the city is still a world dance mecca, but these artists must be housed, fed, trained, treated civilly, and looked after if they’re to perform in top condition. Actors and musicians face similar circumstances, but the dance world is our oyster bed. This week we’re touring its entry level.
For this special section, Jim Dowling, who has a Ph.D. in economics and organizes the Monday-night dance jam at the Children’s Aid Society in Greenwich Village, surveyed three dozen dance professionals, exploring aspects of their struggle to live and make art here. Josephine Lee, a labor organizer, and Kimberly Bartosik, a choreographer and former Merce Cunningham Company member, examine the recently released Dancers Compact, a bid for better interpersonal relations and working conditions. —ELIZABETH ZIMMER
Dance, like many other local industries, found its finances sliding after 9-11. According to John Munger, research director at Dance/USA (the national umbrella organization for dance presenters, companies, and foundations), corporations cut 2002 grants by 45 percent from the previous year, while foundation support slipped in 2003, and state budgets are finally showing the effects in this fiscal year. Beverly D’Anne, director of the dance program at the New York State Council on the Arts, notes that though her budget is substantially lower than 10 years ago, state funding for dance has “only” dropped from $2.8 million to $2.4 million since the attack on Lower Manhattan.
These losses hit hardest at the bottom of the dance food chain. In 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, organizations with budgets over $1 million—11 percent of the city’s dance companies and presenters—received 77 percent of contributed income, while the smaller troupes, with budgets under $250,000, made up 76 percent of the field and received 11 percent of the funding.
On March 9, Dance/NYC, the Soho-based satellite of Dance/USA, released the latest in a series of reports tallying spending by local dance audiences. Their final figure, $135 million spent annually on tickets-plus-dinner, is a key economic reality for dance presenters and major companies—but doesn’t speak to the circumstances of individual artists who keep producing work even as rents skyrocket, plum “day jobs” get harder to find, and health insurance premiums spiral out of reach.
Sarah Vasilas came to town for an internship, “and a week later 9-11 happened—my introduction to New York.” She describes days spent running between rehearsals, a paying gig at Crunch, bodywork, and a class she teaches. She’s putting together weekend gigs busting hip-hop moves with bar and bat mitzvah kids and their parents, and an upcoming piece for Riverside Church. “Even though it’s cutthroat, we can thrive, can really grow by working together.”
Job and apartment are the chicken and egg of life here. Dancers ante up $500 to $1,000 per month for apartment shares likely to be far from the studios of Manhattan, across an ever widening arc of neighborhoods including Red Hook, Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Flushing, and St. George; they now need $70 monthly MetroCards, instead of bicycles or shoe leather, to get around.
Aside from rent, health insurance is the largest expense they face. Dance Theater Workshop’s Artist Services program offers a standard HMO plan at $350 to $375 per month, so much that many choose to carry no insurance whatsoever. If they become ill or injured, delays in care can have devastating consequences, like the cancer that took Homer Avila’s leg three years ago. Too few dancers are aware they may qualify for free or low-cost government-sponsored programs such as Family Health Plus and Healthy NY, or get care at Bellevue and pay on a sliding scale, based on income.
Other living costs may come to $1,000 more per month. Dancers may spend $100 on classes, with some paying twice that; $20 to $200 to attend performances, though Theatre Development Fund vouchers help; $100 or so in food costs, if they shop at food co-ops and other discount outlets.
Other needs get squeezed out. Anne Gadwa, an emerging choreographer who supports herself as operations manager for Movement Research, slips into the third person when discussing clothing: “I get castoffs from roommates who are moving out. Anne needs a new pair of shoes, though.” Many cite debt from college or recent performances, with monthly payments between $150 to $250, and sometimes much more.
To cover costs, dancers work as administrators for presenting organizations, teach through arts agencies that send them to different schools each day, and in rare cases, earn close to a living wage at the more established companies. Eric Fogel, 28, dances with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, among other troupes: “Dealing with the logistics of being a dancer takes creativity. I have learned to market myself for all types of dance, from ballet, musical theater, classical modern, and postmodern to hip-hop.” He earns as much as three-quarters of his income dancing, and bartends to make ends meet.
Other dancers work as secretaries, life models, nannies, exotic dancers, waitpersons, or graphic designers. They take part-time gigs to accommodate rehearsal schedules, or work full-time to get benefits. A bright spot is the increasing demand for bodywork, including Alexander, Pilates, and various types of massage. Dancers trained in such techniques can develop their own practices or work for a chain like Sal Anthony’s. But hourly rates don’t account for unpaid travel to clients, time spent promoting the practice, or training.
The choreographers the Voice surveyed, 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.
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.”
While many companies claim their artists are paid, one dancer comments, “It depends on what you mean by ‘paid.’ ” Choreographers sometimes pay dancers only if they bring in ticket buyers. One inventive mid-career artist, who teaches at studios across the city, will leave town in the fall to complete his education and qualify for a university teaching job. He wonders, “How can I pay my dancers when I can’t pay myself?”
If Beckett’s character in The Unnamable were a dancer, he’d be racing down lower Broadway, carrying heavy bags and muttering into a cell phone, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Despite the impossible economic situation, dancers here are committed to the form.
Alyssa Alpine, a 26-year-old Columbia grad who’s been dancing for free in her friends’ work and supporting herself as a grant writer, asks, “Why do I choose a poorly paid, physically demanding profession without health insurance?” She cites the rewards of classes, rehearsals, and performances, as well as the benefits of collaboration. Frustration at the plight of dancers in New York has led her and Megan Metcalf to develop ArtistStaffing, “a subsidized employment agency that matches skilled, part-time administrators with understaffed arts organizations.” Kari Hoaas also proposes new solutions, including a type of union based on one in her native Norway, to improve the working conditions of downtown dancers.
Metcalf makes mostly solos now so she doesn’t have to pay anyone else. For her, dance is “an art, a sport, a way of thinking. It infects your body—you can’t leave it behind, even if you want to.”
Resources: Dance/NYC dancenyc.org
Dance Theater Workshop dtw.org Family Health Plus health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/fhplus/index.htm
Artist Health Source artisthealthsource.org NYC Dance Places nycdanceplaces.org
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 13, 2004