Pay to play: the costs of carving new space for danceby Benedict Nguyen
What about all the artists who don’t register on the curatorial grid? The recently defunct Createquity has published a lot of research on who gets to be an artist and how saturated the field is with aspiring creatives. Many dance makers are finding space to present or perform their own work outside of the usual venues. Culling from my own experience as a dancer and administrator, as well as interviews with independent choreographers who have produced their own festivals, I tried to quantify: what does it take to make a dance? In New York City? During mid-January—one of the busiest weeks for dance in the year? What does this work mean for the dance ecology at large?
So, let’s do some math. If a good batting average for choreographers is one booked show out of four applications, then to book one show, you, a budding dance maker, would have to pay as much as 4 × 25 = 100 dollars just to apply to be in one of the dozens of self-produced festivals I researched in writing this piece. And that’s just an average application fee.
Let’s say you’re committed to paying your dancers because you used to be a working dancer, too. You remember how much it sucks to show up to someone’s rehearsal and leave poorer than when you got there because you had to pay for subway fare and coffee because you were tired from working side hustle number three until late last night. You still remember. You won’t be one of those choreographers who never broaches the conversation. That’s another story. So let’s say you pay five dollars per rehearsal. Not much, but it’s what you got. Let’s say you have four dancers. That’s twenty dollars per rehearsal.
Let’s say you rehearse once a week for three hours at a time. Not the consistency you want, but it’s more than some. Let’s say you have access to a space but don’t have a fiscal sponsor or non-profit connection, so you pay twenty-five dollars an hour. That’s seventy-five dollars per rehearsal. If you put a piece together in six weeks, that’s $75 × 6 = $450.
Let’s say the festival that accepted your ten to twelve minute piece (work-in-progress, okay, but let’s be real, what you’re gonna show is gonna be pretty polished, since you want to make more moves) charges a modest production fee of fifty dollars. Also another fifty dollars if you want a video. Obviously you do—to use as a sample for an application to another festival or one of the few non-restricted grants and fellowships you can apply for. Or social media.
It’s the last rehearsal before production week. The piece is coming along. You remind your dancers to rest but go full out in run-throughs even though Twyla is nursing a wonky shoulder, and they’re all overworked and tired. Someone asks about costumes!
You have sixty-five dollars left in your bank account, so you give yourself a budget of sixty dollars at Uniqlo to buy interchangeable tops and bottoms to go with your dancers’ provided bike shorts, socks, and tight tank tops. At least you edited your own music in GarageBand. Hopefully there aren’t any copyright issues.
It’s production week, which is actually just the day of the show. You’ve already written checks for fifty dollars per dancer to cover tech rehearsal and their performance fee. While waiting for the subway to get to the theater, you apply some filters to a recent rehearsal photo and post it to Instagram and Facebook and remind your friends to buy tickets to your show. Little to none of the proceeds will actually go back to you or your dancers.
Hooray! The show happened. Two of your friends flaked out, but luckily the house was three-fourths filled with the friends and families of your dancers and the other artists sharing the night with you at the venue. It could’ve gone worse. Jerome remembered to not mess up that phrase, and people clapped, which will sound good on tape.
Afterwards, everyone heads to a bar, and you insist on getting the first round because, of course, and charge five drinks (including your own) at eight dollars a drink to your credit card and leave a ten dollar tip because you used to bartend and it’s kinda slow tonight.
You remind everyone of the three-week break you’re taking (mainly because you can’t afford to rehearse for a minute) and that you’ll keep going. You made it. You’re home. You made a dance and showed it at a festival in the NYC.
FYI, here’s your expense budget:
Application and Production Fees: $200
Rehearsal Space: $450
Dancer Rehearsal Fees: $120
Dancer Performance Fees: $200
Food and Drink: $50
- Total: $1080
$1080. If you were snowboarding off the half pipe, that’d be three revolutions. Are you dizzy yet?
If you wanna cut back, just cut some dancers. Better yet, make a solo on yourself, and don’t worry about paying anyone. You gotta build your resume somehow, right?
And then what? Where does a dance maker go from there?
Five years ago, Diana Pettersen, Artistic Director and Choreographer of Sans Limites Dance, began producing her own biannual eponymous festival after a series of rejections from other festivals almost prompted her to quit applying. The festival’s Fall 2017 iteration, hosted by the Hudson Guild Theatre in Chelsea, presented over two dozen artists, including Segarra Dance Theatre Projects and Ainesh Madan. While participating artists pay a fee to cover production costs of the festival as well as for Sans Limites’ work, it’s not a simple boon to Pettersen. She shared via email, “My passion always has and will be with choreography. […] The time I have taken to manage all of the artists is compensated through my ability to create my own work.”
Choreographer (and former dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company) Erick Montes premiered a new work at this latest festival. In an emailed statement, he acknowledged that without receiving grants, he “relies on private donors to accomplish production goals—everything from studio space to costumes.” It wasn’t so long ago that being a former dancer for a major company was a big step up to getting a break as a choreographer. Take a look at any number of Merce Cunningham alums turned choreographers. Beyond the space, time, and money, having so-and-so precede you opened doors to press, hype, and connections to people who could keep giving you more resources.
And resources bring attention, keeping the circle of “who’s who” small and exclusive. The New York Times’ reviews and listings for January 2018 feature almost exclusively productions associated with Jan Arts NYC, an annual partnership of eleven festivals across the city. Usually referred to as APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals), which is technically just one of the eleven festivals, mid-January brings over 45,000 cultural workers to the city to hop from show to show and venue to venue for a week of seeing to be seen. Makers lucky enough to get presented in a showcase hope the marketplace for dance finds a few buyers.
For everyone else, good luck. Without valuable airtime in front of presenters, the artists who have always been scraping together funds and space and other resources to self-present or produce their work trudge on with little fanfare and no recognition of the arduous journey it took to make a work.
Like Pettersen, dancemaker Roxy Gordon was similarly disillusioned with applying for residencies and showings and so, decided to organize a new festival entitled embodied spaces taking place in January 2018. It was under the radar (but not part of the Public Theater’s “Under the Radar”) and still managed to sell out all four of its sixty-seat shows.
Gordon’s choreographic process prompted her to begin planning (and saving) early; she works three jobs, budgeting each income stream along the way, and was able to borrow money from her parents. Her budget allowed her to offer participating artists a portion of box office sales. In a phone interview, Gordon expressed wanting to “slowly build spaces for [our peers] to create work instead of relying on spaces that have already been there […] Realistically, it’s not about what we’re making; it’s about how few people get to do it.”
The boundary between giving a cost-effective platform for other artists and exploitation can feel nebulous. Createquity’s research highlights the inequities regarding who can tolerate the risk of creating, producing, and being seen and how this is embedded in art-making everywhere. That the playing field is slanted across race, gender, education, nationality, ability, and more should come of no surprise.
And while these artists are working with much less than the big names and big budgets, the capacity to organize resources—space and time as well as money—is both a privilege and an impressive feat. Pettersen, Montes, Gordon, and so many others are advocating for themselves through work, claiming space and bringing in audiences who may not know what APAP is but were able to see bodies in motion and artists at work.
Benedict Nguyen is a writer, dancer, and arts advocate currently based in the South Bronx, NY. They're a member of the National Center for Choreography's year-long laboratory on dance writing.