I was watching Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen’s choreographers’ commentary video of their work, ‘Underworld’. The dancers move through a fast-forward warmup sequence – a comment on a world that values speed and efficiency above all else. Their cartoonishly fast walking, abbreviated sit ups and aggressive hamstring stretches overlap and intersect as each performer tracks silently through their individual course. It looks like a scene from one of my lockdown walks through the park – single people dotted about repeating singular motions with the single-minded determination that they once applied to something urgent, but that now gets expelled at the park.
In the commentary, Sarah says speed makes the difference. Doing these simple gentle movements that are intended to ready the body for expansive movement, but just faster, actually has the reverse effect, inhibiting fluency and making you feel tighter than before you began. Sometimes in my own warmups I lie on the floor, frustrated that my hip needs an hour of careful mobilisation to feel ready – ready to forget its pathologies enough to dance. The mind wanders and agitates to get going, and then I realise that warmup will need to take even longer, because now everything is agitated.
I’m 36 and I have things to do, but my body pursues an inverse agenda – to be listened to – with patience and curiosity.
It’s now the end of Melbourne lockdown, and I have a renewed appreciation for circularity and slowness. I don’t want things to speed up.
In lockdown I confronted different rhythms, aside from my own thoughts, and tried to make sense of them alI: watching Beau Travail and listening to the old Corona song, This is the Rhythm of my life; analysing the soundscape of home – noises repeated or interrupted, discernible patterns, multiple registers. The hum of the fridge underneath the rattle of a plastic peeler, and phrases in my head. I left the pursuit of efficiency behind, and, wallowing in time and space at home, attended to other things.
The body lays its own (il)logics and diversions over everything. This stubborn unknowability is part of why I love dance - its temporality can be inefficient and unpredictable, its sequences perplexing. To watch a new dance occurring, identify some kind of vague, nebulous signal, and then draw out choreographic structures and rhythms from this dance, is a familiar process to me - I can listen, I can do it. But extracting meaning from my moment-to-moment, fridge-carpet-chair tracks is unnerving, and I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet.
With the steady Jobkeeper income, I’ve had time, so I felt as though I should use it by dancing, or at least re-discovering what dancing is, at home. And I have been. But, in leaving my pre-COVID arts worker crazy rhythms behind, I realised how much I ‘fit dancing in’ around everything else I had to do in order to make dancing real.
Even in my mind, dance has loomed so large as to become fuzzy and incoherent - and now it’s breaking down, I’m not sure I understand what to do with the shapes. So much of the work being a dancer is not actually dancing. The world demands that I spend my time talking about its $ value, while not being paid for it.
A friend asked if she could interview me for an article she’s writing for her journalism course (another dancer retraining for a ‘real job’). She wanted to write about dance, the industry, and the problem of it all. She wanted to talk about TTDA, and how we can collectively dream up ways to change the status quo, so we had a chat. Afterwards, she sent an email asking for a couple of specific examples of what I meant by ‘unsustainable working practices.’ After sitting on this for a few days, feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of articulating and teasing out what, in fact, I did mean by this, I began writing. True to form, I found it very difficult to tease out one problem from another, and one phenomenon from the conditions and parameters that created it. The uniquely convoluted structures of our arts funding system and its many moving parts, had come to shape how I moved through dancing, work and life. I have to own that I have become good at ‘gaming’ the rhythms of this system. I can’t say if my dance work is better or worse as a result, because these are simply the conditions I have adapted to, and in which my ‘practice’ has materialised. I do know that I don’t wish to continue to fall into step with the rhythms of the system – they’re bad for my finances, my mental health, and my capacity to care for others and myself.
I don’t think the rhythms that characterised my working life as a contemporary dance artist are atypical or exceptional. The current paradigm of Australia’s professionalised arts industry demands a lot – perhaps not least because it seems principally geared toward a young, go-getter type of hustling mentality. This has flow-on effects to the type, size and shape of the artwork that gets made and valued, as well as the people who are allowed to make it, and, inevitably, how dance as a form evolves, develops and considers itself. It’s huge. Since the halting of so much art production during COVID, many of us have been better able to grasp the extent of this issue and have called for a mass-scale reassessment of the direction of our collective art lives: a re-imagining of the sector that embeds dance within local communities more intrinsically and meaningfully. This will be ongoing work.
In this piece, I’ll talk about what it’s like, now, or at least how it was before last year, before I took a step away and started studying Speech Pathology. I am unravelling a perspective based on a career that has, it seems, necessarily entwined itself with our particular institutionalised arts framework, and is trying to disentangle itself. I am writing this and framing this, in part, for people who don’t know the industry shorthand and who aren’t embroiled in its pressures and processes. There are also those already working in the sector who might benefit from a first-hand account, whether that’s as a reflection of their own experiences, or as a piece of new information.
Mental Health and Precarity
Before Covid-19, I think I was living in a sustained low-grade mania – induced by the precarity and hyper-short-termism of our arts funding system and the lifestyle demanded from those who interact with it. This feeling intensified with the knee-jerk influx of ‘quick response’ small grant callouts that accompanied the initial lockdown, then calcified into resentment as I realised that this ‘urgent support’ was the splutter of a dysfunctional system in crisis – a system with no recourse during a pandemic but to ask artists to crawl over one another for crumbs.
Before the pandemic I had come to accept that it was not possible to plan my life more than a few months in advance, because almost everything in it was pathetically uncertain and subject to external authorisation. And everything that wasn’t - the relationship, family, friends, future children, needed to fall in line with that overarching blueprint, filling in the gaps. I acknowledge that one can’t totally blame their inner rhythms on external rhythms, but the lack of perspective afforded to working artists who are stuck on a ‘survival’ treadmill, means I am compelled to frame it that way. In discussions around artists’ mental health (a hot topic at the moment), the ups and downs of rejection, the pressures of performing in front of an audience, the late nights, all receive a lot of airtime, but there is a very insidious problem that results directly from what we term ‘flexibility’. The imperative to be flexible and adaptable, which is levelled at artists more than anyone else in the arts ecology, manifests in diminished agency and a myopic perspective – coupled with a desperate kind of psychological distancing from the latent financial stress. For me, the artist, this is complicated further by having to muster and project clarity and certainty in my work and its value at all costs. Out there, words like ‘process’ and ‘research’ are tolerated, but clearly the product is what really matters in this economy - a dissonance that artists carry and confront repeatedly.
Funding - An Outline
Individual artists are subject to government, council and philanthropic funding bodies’ timelines, including application deadlines, waiting periods and notifications, with ‘the project’ at the centre. A standard ‘project’ might encompass a few ‘creative developments’ over the course of a year or two, leading up to a performance or public outcome. Other grants are directed toward professional or career development activities (travel, mentoring, workshops etc.). Artists seek funding by making applications, via writing, budgeting, videos and support letters, that advocate for their work within the specific guidelines set out by a given funder. There isn’t enough money to support all the worthy applicants for these funds. Funding/grant success rates vary greatly but 20% is probably the upper limit, and most are less. Artists wait anywhere from weeks to months for notification of the outcome of their grant application, depending on an array of factors that are out of their control.
Because funding bodies stipulate that they will not be the sole funder/backer of a given project, artists must simultaneously seek and secure support from other funding sources, in kind partners and venue partners. As the central communications axis for that project, they will then correspond with multiple organisations at once - responding to requests to fill out paperwork, contracts, surveys, marketing forms, timetables, biographies, publicity requests and more, all within the terms and in the manner set out by that organisation.
The administrative burden on a dance artist/sole trader, whether pursuing their own project or engaged in somebody else’s, is immense and ongoing. I scroll through grant and artist opportunity callouts every other day on various newsfeeds and newsletters, and I’m tired before I’ve finished reading them. Tired and, increasingly, somehow offended by the tone, the apparent promise of them – bright, sunny, crisp. Callouts that expect me to be overjoyed and spurred into action at the prospect of $5000 – enough to pay myself and one other person to work for two weeks. And many that don’t even mention money because the onus is on the artist to inquire - ‘how much?’ which risks looking troublesome and means feeling guilty.
The mounting administrative load in recent years is common to many occupations. During my decade of work on the retail frontline, I noticed that the proliferation and specialisation of roles at Head Office meant I was increasingly tasked with excessive paperwork - targets, reports, measurements and online communications, that I was not paid extra for.
As an artist, I am not paid for it at all. ‘Normal’ people in normal occupations aren’t expected to re-apply for their job every two weeks and be grateful for the opportunity. I have been working in dance for 15 years. I don’t mean to sound entitled but I know I probably do. Something that keeps all us artists quiet is the pervasive idea that we ought to always be grateful for the opportunity to do something we don’t hate for a living.
Most artists cannot, and never will be able to, make a living solely from their art (even really ‘successful’ ones), under the current system – which is project-centred, not person-centred. Most artists have other jobs that are either ‘arts aligned’ or outside the industry. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the demands on a professional dance artists’ time – from the various institutions, funders, audiences and peers that they must interface with to sustain a career, are such that balancing any other employment with this load is difficult and financially untenable. How can you be a ‘professional’ dance artist when there is no ‘professional’ remuneration? We manage somehow, but we have our limits.
Many dance artists have casual or contract-based side jobs in the hospitality, retail and education sectors; the terms of which enable them to stay afloat financially while reserving time for periodic contributions to the dance industry. I include in this category ‘Company Dancers’, as all dance companies in Victoria (with the exception of the Australian Ballet) only offer short-term project-based contracts to artists. It’s difficult to retain an ongoing presence in the field if your side job has rigid contracted part-time or full-time hours, as the work of a professional dance artist is sporadic and unpredictable: often subject to changing timelines at short notice; full-time hours for weeks at a time; weekend commitments; travel and attendance at other performances, events, classes and forums. Even a weekly teaching job is difficult to sustain if you are frequently called away on dance contracts – appointing cover teachers and potentially disrupting the students’ learning. Gig-work begets gig-work. Flexibility demands more flexibility. You end up being very flexible, and extremely insecure and time poor. There is also the necessary administrative and emotional labour that comes with delicately handling expectations, availability guidelines and apologetic communications within one’s ‘day’ job.
Working to be Available
How does one ‘get’ work? It’s not just getting an agent and attending auditions (this is perhaps characteristic of a commercial dance career, however, not something I’ll talk about here). There are very few auditions in the professionalised contemporary dance industry. Most work comes through persistent relationship-building and presence within the field. Being able to dance and make dance work means regularly turning up to dance classes, events, festival talks, conferences, shows and workshops, where you will be networking and ensuring your visibility. I acknowledge this is a mercenary slant on what is also an essential community-building practice that is vital to the health of the artform, but it’s also essential for competing in the field as a ‘sole trader business’. Just like the paid work that arts programmers and producers do; representing venues and festivals, staying up-to-date with industry developments, establishing networks and partnerships, and sharing information and resources, independent artists must develop relationships with producers, programmers and peers, cultivate informed language around their ‘product’ and then follow this up over a long-range timeline. The difference is that artists regularly do it for free. This is in addition to the unpaid administrative load of maintaining practice.
If you’re not visible and audible in ‘art marketplace’ forums (even informal ones like foyers at peers’ shows), you’re less likely to get work or land opportunities to create work. Dance artists schedule time for this unpaid work, outside of their other jobs, and on top of any dance work they might already have. For example, I’m careful not to take on too many ushering shifts in a given week, even if they’re offered, because I need to remain available for the necessary work of ‘showing up’. Being available and prepared for work is its own kind of work. This creates income problems. Dancers and choreographers are subsidising the dance industry, and Australian ‘Creative Industries’, with their in-kind labour.
To manage this administrative load, artists are increasingly encouraged to professionalise their practice and ‘capacity build’ via endless workshop offerings from arts institutions on every facet imaginable – marketing, budgeting, grant-writing, networking, arts law, risk management, etc. Some are free and some you have to pay for – it is rare to find a capacity building workshop that pays artists to attend, and, even then, you will likely have to spend unpaid time writing the application to get into it. Welcome efforts are currently being made across the sector to address this wage inequality through honorariums, but it needs to go further.
On the face of it, ‘upskilling’ seems like a step in the right direction – artists who are fluent in the economic parlance that government understands, will stand a better chance at forging a so-called ‘sustainable’ career, and can contribute to the growing push to legitimise arts practice along the priority lines of capitalism. But, without an accompanying increase in the available funds and opportunities for artists to get the paid work that they’re now equipped for, this only serves to make everybody more competitive, steals time and energy from the actual art, and locks out more diverse applicants/participants/workers from the arts. People who have limited capacity to work for free (whether that’s attending workshops or spending two weeks writing a grant application) will continue to struggle to gain a foothold in the arts. If you are not white, English-speaking, university educated and able-bodied, or if you have caring responsibilities, you will face barriers to participation. Even if you do manage to acquire all the right skills and be that savvy sole-trader-hustler, you will have difficulty gaining recognition for this expertise in ‘the real world’, for example, if you want to sidestep into arts admin, copyrighting, producing, or management – because you will be in line behind administrative professionals with more ‘experience’ than you, and who are able to commit to full or part-time work because they don’t have to drop everything and be a dancer for 3-6 months of the year.
If an administrative and bureaucratic skillset is ‘essential’ knowledge for participating successfully in the sector, (while it doesn’t have to be, I believe that at the moment it is) then let it be compensated. We need to collectively advocate for a new model that places arts practice at its centre, but, while we do that, as we try to rebuild the sector post-COVID, let’s not persist with the gaslighting of artists – the wholesale denial of how they actually spend their time – how they design their lives and their arts practice around the vicissitudes of arts management and governance. I have spent countless ‘studio residency’ hours at a desk answering emails to people upstairs, and uploading marketing photos to online boxes, during what were ostensibly Creative Developments. We must acknowledge that the imperative to measure, justify and report has changed the shape of work for everybody, including artists – we are no longer ‘just’ artists making art projects. Either we need to be paid for this labour, or we find a way to pay artists to make art.
Time in Space
A dance contract or a creative development will often take place in condensed blocks of time (around 2-4 weeks). This is in accordance with timelines that are more-or-less standard across organisations, festivals and funding bodies.
Artist ‘Residencies’ are blocks of time in space, offered by organisations to artists free-of-charge, to develop and rehearse work. Independent dancers typically don’t have their own studio space, because rent is a very high ongoing expense, and while many of us spend more time on admin than on practice, it doesn’t seem worth it. Because venues want to support as many artists as possible and keep their spaces full, artists are offered space at times that fit within the organisation’s programming schedule. Sometimes the schedule changes in response to activities and priorities higher up the chain, as well as around the needs of other independent artists and their creative teams, so everyone has to be flexible and open to compromise, making it difficult to plan in advance.
You may successfully apply for a residency at a venue, or maybe a presenting organisation has offered you in-kind space to create a work that they have commissioned or programmed. You want to make the most of this time, so you try to be there as often as practicable within the terms of the residency. Depending on whether the venue is offering payment or a stipend, you may need to balance this commitment with other work outside the residency hours - more than a full-time load. Venues sometimes offer a stipend or fee towards the project. If they do, the amount usually doesn’t cover all of the artist’s project costs/labour, and so artists make up the shortfall by applying for other government funding, fundraising, or by working for free or less than award rate. Sometimes, funding application deadlines and the time it takes to assess grant applications, means timelines don’t align – there may be no funding programs that fit within the timeline of a scheduled development or presentation. It is then the artist’s ‘choice’ to either work for free or less than award rate, or pull out of the festival/show/residency/program entirely. Given this choice, most artists will fulfil their commitments regardless of the terms of remuneration, because opportunities to partner with venues and festivals (even ones that can’t pay you properly), to bring a platform to your work, are in high demand, and also because, if you never accepted sub-optimal conditions, you would never work.
The prevailing ‘Festival’ culture in Australia (densely programmed cultural activity across a hub-like collection of venues over a few weeks), intensifies the competitive nature of the grants system and the project-based funding model. It means that artists are working intensively in the lead-up to a performance season and competing with one another for funding, publicity, rehearsal and venue space. They are trying to make, rehearse, bump in and tech a performance in a highly-pressurised few weeks, devising convoluted schedules to fit with other artists, companies and performers – some of whom are working across multiple projects at the same time.
When I presented a remount of my work in the lauded (and now cancelled) Dance Massive Festival with my two collaborators/co-creators, it was a battle to keep it all together. The year before, we had successfully applied for state and philanthropic funding to augment the commissioning fee from our presentation venue, and had just enough money to make up a ‘viable’ budget. At the time, we were advised to be careful not to apply for too much funding, in order to be competitive, especially given this was a remount and therefore not as ‘urgent’ as other premiere works in the festival. (Australian opera and ballet companies receive millions of dollars in funding to present remounts ad nauseum but this is different for some reason).
We were lucky to receive the money and budgeted the show modestly. On paper all looked fine, but the reality is that our work began and ended outside the bounds of the ‘funded period’. It has to, for a high-stakes festival of that heft and calibre, and with a work of the scale that we were undertaking. Festival-induced restrictions on venue availability demanded that we fracture our rehearsal schedule, holding scattered preparatory rehearsals with performers earlier in the year, then cramming a lot of work into a week at the venue, then vacating it to make room for other shows and rehearsals and then bumping in again two weeks later to present the show, with no financial or venue provisions for those two weeks in between. We had to just be ‘show ready’.
So, we held occasional rehearsals during this two-week holding period at an alternative venue (at our own expense), so that the performers could maintain the choreography as best they could, but we didn’t have the funds to pay them for these rehearsals so couldn’t demand anything. Dancers are people who care deeply about their work, so many of them did, in fact, work for free, around their other jobs, shows and caring responsibilities. I chose not to work in my casual job across these two weeks, because it was necessary to direct my time, energy and focus toward the show.
Around all this, we three creator/collaborators were working overtime: liaising with producing, marketing and technical staff; writing, editing and approving show copy; connecting with, and issuing invitations to audience members and stakeholders; liaising with hire companies; driving to collect and source props, sets and equipment; meeting with visiting international programmers; networking with fellow choreographers and artists; coordinating with collaborating designers; writing and distributing schedules for production staff and artists; fundraising; making social media content; making publicity appearances on radio; and attending other shows and events in the festival, all while trying to make and rehearse a show, and be in top physical form for performance. This superhuman effort took a physical, emotional and financial toll on us, but everyone else who worked on the project shouldered some version of this overload.
Add to this, trying to hold down a casual side job, write funding applications for future projects, or plan for work or income in the weeks following the performance, and you have a stressed-out sector. I’ll add that neither myself nor my fellow creator/collaborators have family caring responsibilities, in which case this undertaking would be close to impossible.
This situation could have been alleviated if: (A) the work of maintaining form and familiarity with the dancing was financially remunerated; (B) the work of being a significant administrative backbone of the project was financially remunerated; and (C) if venues, funders and festivals acknowledged artists’ need for sustained rehearsal space and time in order for a show to be at a professional standard, and to not continually shift the load onto artists – out of sight, out of mind. If dense Festival schedules require producers and presenters to work miracles with venue timetabling, then the artists, who are on the other end of that transaction, are doing their fair share of juggling as well. This must be accounted for somehow – it is unreasonable to expect performers and choreographers (and everyone else working on a production) to perform at their best under these conditions – it doesn’t allow for the unique challenges and physical risks that dancers take on in these settings, while their health is so intrinsically tied to the work they do. It goes without saying that provision for an understudy is never a possibility in independent dance, or in many small companies for that matter – you just have to keep going. One of the dancers in our work, who was also performing in another work in this festival while trying to maintain a teaching job, got sick and had to miss a performance. We performed the show without her, and without a replacement. This was not an isolated incident – across the Festival, dancers were getting sick and shows were cancelled, no doubt due in part, to the chronic strain of performing under these conditions. It is a credit to independent dancers everywhere that they manage as well as they do, but it should not continue to go on like this.
I came across a piece of writing by Kathryn Lowe from 1993. Kathryn was an early Dance Officer at the Australia Council for the Arts, and also the Chairwoman of the Dance Committee in the 1970s. Prior to this she was a practising choreographer, dancer and teacher, so had first-hand knowledge of the profession, as well as an established appreciation of the inherent requirements of dancing bodies. This excerpt from ‘The Artist and the Arts Bureaucracy’ was written before ‘project-based’ work became standard in the field:
‘If you are a professional dance company, you need subsidy just to survive each year. Dance is an expensive art form to mount and sustain. Permanency is needed to ensure effective development. A dance company cannot assemble a new cast of players for each production as can a drama company. Most dance companies are repertory in nature and it is necessary for dancers to train and rehearse together over extended periods of time. Paintings don’t get down off walls and walk away. Dancers do. Company Managements must be able to offer long-term contracts at equitable awards.’
She uses words like ‘must’ and ‘necessary’ but doesn’t feel the need to justify or explain these needs – they are simply assumed to be understood. 1993 was not that long ago. While I acknowledge that many things have changed, including the idea of a ‘repertory company’ (it is possible for a dance company to ‘assemble a new cast of players for each production’), the labour, cost and risk of maintaining a dance career in between contracts doesn’t just disappear, it’s simply transferred onto the dancer. This project-based working model is a neo-liberal one, that should not be the only model available to performers and choreographers. The needs of dancers and choreographers have not changed, it’s just that now the bill is picked up by the individual instead of the establishment, so this entire dimension of our practice and labour has become invisible. The body doesn’t cease to require training, healthcare, maintenance, time to explore and just ‘be’ in a room with other bodies. At its core, dance and choreography are communal, relational and sensorial practices: the stuff of our work is not being honoured by the current system.
Scarce funds in a product-driven culture foist a lean, capitalist operation onto an art form that is inherently at odds with it. ‘Festival’ culture propagates product over process and bang for buck: reduce rehearsal and development periods to the bare minimum and pack as many shows into a short space of time as you can. This puts pressure on the dancer and choreographer to work quickly – potentially impeding the quality of the work, putting performers’ health and careers at risk, and reducing everybody’s earnings – as they are scheduled for less rehearsal hours.
In a traditional dance company structure, where dancers are employed on full-time contracts, dancers are paid not only to rehearse and perform work, but to further their technique. There are myriad facets to dance ‘technique’ that can’t be exhaustively listed, but that constitute practical methods of maintaining a dancer’s ability to move, create, perform and work with other dance artists, over the long term. Company dancers can retain their capacity to perform to a certain standard because their employer engages teachers and physical therapists who work with the dancers regularly. In this context, the dancers’ work is accepted and treated as an inherent requirement of the job, and is therefore compensable.
In the absence of employment with a company, independent dancers absorb the responsibility and cost of maintaining technique and warding off injury. For example: A dancer is engaged to perform in a work in a major festival alongside works by large international companies. She is functioning in a high-profile, high-stakes context without the backing of a funded company structure. In order to rehearse the work to standard, she is required to assume the schedule of a full-time professional dancer for a month or so (the duration of the contract), without any financial provision for this professionalism outside the bounds of that contract. This means she will likely need to have another job – with a very understanding employer who can do without her for a month and still give her shifts when she needs them. There is no preparation for the strenuous athletic and artistic demands of a performance season in this dancer’s day-to-day. Independent dancers are expected to perform at a professional level without a bedrock of support, and their bodies bear the brunt of this.
I was injured during a performance season in the Melbourne International Arts Festival, where I was performing 3, sometimes up to 5, shows a day. While the shows were short in length, they were intensive, with a rapid turn-around, a quick remount/rehearsal period and no understudies. I was lucky to be contracted properly and received Workcover allowance. Workcover was some of the most stable long-term income I have ever had. It enabled me to spend a Christmas period with my family instead of in a retail store. It is ironic that crises such as the current pandemic (where some dance artists are receiving the most stable income of their careers through JobKeeper/Seeker) or getting injured, means dancers have the income, treatment and benefits that they cannot get when they actually work. Most dancers carry around some variation of an injury or ongoing ‘niggle’ that requires attention, care and vigilance, in their day-to-day. They have all developed intelligent, informed strategies for dealing with these niggles through years of learning and prioritising sustained, deep engagement with their bodies. Without the financial resources to rely on physiotherapists, osteopaths and massage therapists, dancers educate themselves. They effectively ease the burden on Workcover, and on companies and presenters, by teaching themselves and one another, to pre-emptively cushion the impacts of rigorous and unforgiving work schedules. Obviously, being less likely to get injured is a useful competency. It is, however, work and expertise that dancers are not paid for or given credit for. This bodywork, whatever form it takes, takes time - time off other work and other responsibilities. Just as you can’t just smash out a warm-up in 10 minutes and expect to be ready to dance, you can’t read this stuff online or in a book and ‘know’ it. It is years of real work, located in time and space, that is being exploited.
An independent dance artist’s schedule will frequently and drastically change rhythms – from intensive rehearsals/performance at peak physical condition, to nothing, once the contract is up. Or rather, to an unremunerated baseline of paying to attend class three days a week, doing a lot of sedentary administration while trying to get the next thing off the ground, and working a side job. Eventually another contract comes along and the cycle starts again. It’s a jarring rhythm - the body/mind never has a chance to establish flow, because as soon as you are sufficiently fluent in the language of your form to perform a work well – you have to switch gears to something else.
Within this rhythmic pattern of arrested momentum, you’ll be more susceptible to injury, less able to retain a steady part-time job outside of dance, have more difficulty planning for the future, and less capacity to care for and spend time with friends and family. All these sacrifices are unacknowledged by venues, festivals, funders and society at large. Also, the form of dance is stymied as the work adapts to fit the model; more explicitly concept-led, less research-led; the dominant mode of thought changes - more languaged, less embodied; the people change - more solos, less ensembles. When the form is allowed to stagnate, with a limited spectrum of dancing/dancers valued, there are further barriers to disabled, ageing and culturally diverse people entering into and contributing to it.
As an emerging artist with boundless energy, navigating or ‘gaming’ this rhythmic framework might seem plausible, but with age and experience, strenuous and unpredictable work patterns place extraordinary pressures on a dance artists’ time, making them susceptible to physical and mental health issues, and in turn, impacting their family life. It’s not surprising that the demographic of the Australian Dance population, according to statistics in The Australia Council’s ‘Making Art Work’ report, skews young (median age 32) and female (69%) more starkly than in any other artform. Without subsidy from a supportive partner or family member, sustaining a dance career post-childbirth is exceedingly difficult. This cannot be written off as an ‘ageing body’ issue. Internationally, there are many women dancing into their 40s, 50s and 60s. Here, the dance community loses its most experienced and accomplished female artists just as they are hitting their stride. This, again, is a huge topic with implications for the diversity and maturation of the art form, which the Australia Council could feasibly produce a focused report on. Obviously, dance is so much more than high legs and agile hips, and we need to understand this if we are to address the shadow of ableism and ageism over the form. We lose our lineage when we lose dancers - a body of accumulated knowledge and experience - an archive that won’t be held within the community.
Independent dance artists are creative artists engaged in an ongoing art laboratory with themselves and their peers. They spend time and energy in research - contextualising their practice in the ‘now’, as well as in a historical lineage through vast amounts of reading, writing and critical thinking. This intellectual rigour is necessary to enrich their own and each others’ work, but also to help them compete for scarce government funds. The only way that independent artists can be paid to make work is by writing – to funders, presenters, and organisations that distribute funding to artists, asking for money. Before they have begun dancing, which requires time, space and people, they must convincingly argue their value through writing, budgeting and scoping. Government, local council and philanthropic funding programs demand high standards of accountability and impact for comparatively small amounts of money. This presents obvious challenges for younger artists without an established practice, and for artists whose main practice is dancing, not choreographing, as they have limited access to conceptual, ‘issues-based’ rationales for undertaking the work of dancing. The overwhelming emphasis on ‘creating new work’ in these funding contexts means that it’s difficult to get support for anything that isn’t ‘new’. Therefore, if you are a practising dancer who doesn’t also create work, you have few opportunities to be paid.
Most dancers in full-time major companies (again, there are none of these in Victoria) do not undertake this work alongside their dancing commitments, as they are paid to do the (very valid) work of dancing and to “interpret” a singular artistic vision of the choreographer or artistic director. Independent artists do it all.
Obviously, artists are free to eschew this model and just ‘get on with it’, by developing their work on their own terms. And many of them do – but this costs time and money, and perpetuates the problem of the arts being the domain of the privileged – those who can afford to work for free. It also undermines the ‘professionalism’ of their work in the view of the public and arts institutions, who continue to publicly insist that artists are paid professional award rates during the limited term of their contracted engagement, (thereby fulfilling the ‘job creation’ figures often cited in economic arguments for the arts), while turning a blind eye to the fact that, most of the time, this isn’t the case.
Because they undertake so much labour to clarify and articulate their ideas and motives across various contexts, Independent dance artists contribute large amounts of research, writing and experimental practice to the form, and to the culture. They often teach or facilitate dance and somatic practices alongside performance and choreography work, introducing their own creative, research-driven methodologies to their students and peers, who in turn, fold these new approaches into their own work, and so on. In the absence of a thriving culture of dance criticism, and negligible funding or outlets for arts’ journalism, independent artists do this work, too. They contribute their expertise, insights, words and questions to one another, and to the wider world, to push the form forward.
If ‘independent’ meant what it purports to mean – an entrepreneurial person who chooses to practice outside of established norms and make their own work according to their unique working rhythms, the term wouldn’t be so fraught, and the circumstance wouldn’t require so much explanation. The reality is that ‘independent’ is a misnomer, founded on the 20th Century presumption that touring dance companies and ensembles are the default model and independent artists exist on the margins. This does not reflect the current paradigm - where most artists function in a gig economy.
We ‘independents’ are a mixed crowd – some dancers, some choreographers, some teachers, some writers (many of us are all these things), some who have chosen this path, and some who are dubbed ‘independent’ by default, because the system treats them as contractors and sole traders rather than employees. We are the majority of artists, and we are all, to varying degrees, living lives that are beholden to broader structures.
The term, ‘dance company’ as the layperson understands it (an ensemble of professional dancers that work together throughout the year performing works and touring), is also a misnomer. None of the companies that truly operate like this are based in Victoria, except for the Australian Ballet. This means that all contemporary dancers in Victoria are subject to the working conditions outlined above. All the dancers in our most high profile and long-standing ‘small-to-medium’ Victorian dance companies – Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin Inc and Balletlab, as well as every independent artist who presents work in major Arts Festivals and centres, are not employees of a company, and are subject to the above outlined conditions. Even dancers who have worked on a contract basis for these companies for many years, who are some of the most highly-regarded artists in the country, do not have regular income, physical therapy and paid leave benefits, and must seek casual or temporary work to support themselves.
In order to service a mass of independent dancer/choreographers with no company ‘home’ or feasible pathway to permanent employment, these few surviving small companies now offer residencies, choreographic commissioning programs, public classes, workshops and all manner of professional development programs to the dance community, in addition to making and touring their own work, in order to keep the form alive. Indeed, if the ‘company’ dancers were employed full-time as per the ensemble model, the rest of us would arguably be in an even worse-off position, with no resources left over. But at least we wouldn’t all be kidding ourselves that this half-way place was sustainable - just a stopover on the way to something more secure. A severely diminished funding pool for everybody has changed the definition of ‘company’. It’s now pretty obvious that establishing a new company in the traditional sense of the word is no longer possible in this country. The new normal – moving from project to project as well as making and performing in one’s own work, is arguably good for the diversification of the form, but when longevity and security are compromised, careers and people suffer. More money and more options are required. Companies and artists should have the choice to conduct their work in a way that best fits their practice and their circumstances.
Why is the independent artist condition so mis-understood, and so diminished, as though we’re all on an aspirational path to something better and more secure, when there is no such path available to us? Despite all the impediments I mentioned above, independent dance artists consistently punch above our weight, and are deemed ‘successful’ by every conventional measure except our ability to earn a wage – including being programmed in festivals, receiving critical praise for our performances, winning major awards, presenting and performing work in high-profile arts venues, and being the primary innovators of the art form. Why are the dancers in major companies paid a salary while we struggle to survive? Wouldn’t the whole sector be better off if its workers were paid? Aren’t we limiting the scope of everything that dance can and ought to be when we take dancers for granted? How can we collectively build a sector that offers a legitimate, viable and dignified career path to dance artists?
We are currently experiencing an ecosystem collapse on many levels. Some of our longest-serving established dance artists are leaving the profession to retrain in other careers. Mid-career artists are staring down a future with no hope of gaining the security that would afford them a family and a stable income. Many promising emerging dancers and choreographers are prematurely leaving the industry to return to full time study, because they glimpse the struggles of their elders and peers and cannot see a future for themselves. From emerging to mid-career to established, dance artists are on the brink of leaving the sector en-masse. This sounds drastic, but it is already happening. The dominant rhetoric from many arts institutions amidst COVID-19 has been of the ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptability’ of the arts, with calls to ‘rise up’, as though this situation were uniquely challenging. The arts may well be eternally adaptable, but artists, unfortunately, are not. Artists age, burn out and leave. While the industry treats them as, by turns, magical and expendable, their disappearance will barely rate a mention.
This is all underscored by an Australian public that, by-and-large, neither understands nor values the role of artists as much as they could, for various reasons. I won’t try to broach this topic here (this is something that warrants a book), but I want to briefly point to anthropologist David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, that describes a pervasive attitude to work: that if your motive for work is toward anything other than money, i.e., if you enjoy it, or if it helps other people in some way, then this is its own reward, and you needn’t be paid, enough or at all. I believe this absurd messaging around work – that it’s something one does in suffering or sacrifice, enables a certain internalised hostility toward artists, who are people who have the audacity to believe they can both enjoy their work and be paid for it. I do enjoy my dance work (most of the time), and I trust in its value, and I take pleasure in all the wonderful things that other dance artists in my community do. This work brings demonstrable value to the world – to the festivals that present it, the government ministers from our ‘Culture Capital’ who make speeches at these festivals, the ancillary administrators and crew who make their living from it, and to adjacent businesses in tourism and hospitality. But the aspects of my work that can’t be commodified, that are labours of caring, facilitating, maintaining and researching, are the most valuable parts. Until we have an economy that recognises this, we will need to continue to advocate for subsidy – to be paid – to have a right to a living wage.
Last year’s parliamentary enquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on the arts sector asked for submissions from the community that speak to the economic, social and intrinsic benefits of the arts, how to measure them and how to grow them. Any survey or inquiry into the role and impact of the arts – and how we can leverage this as a nation, is redundant while it ignores the reality that the practising artist sector (its essential workers) are already subsidising the $111 billion Australian Arts Industry with their unpaid labour. There are plenty of figures available on the outsized contribution of art and cultural activity to Australia’s GDP (economic arguments for arts funding have already been called for, answered, proven and ignored by a government that obviously isn’t interested), but not nearly enough data on the $ contribution of working independent artists to this figure.
There are intractable inequalities embedded in the current system which have real and lasting effects on people’s lives. We can only work together as a unified arts community (rebuild, replenish, restore, etc.) when we internally acknowledge that the majority of our workforce are impoverished, and that this should be addressed. Under the JobKeeper allowance (which I seem to have managed to get by accident, because it wasn’t designed to be accessible to artists), I have earnt more per week than usual, even while $750 is below the industry award. It has been enough though; I’ve had space enough to think, write and imagine - including working my way through this piece, pulling it apart and turning it over, moving away from it and back towards it again. I still have work to do, but right now, we should attend to the collective work of re-designing the systems that perpetuate unsustainable working rhythms for professional dance artists. Because it shouldn’t go back to normal.