From the August 2020 Issue. Read the rest of the issue here.
5 a.m. alarms. 7 a.m. start time. Hazily jamming a bacon, egg and cheese and a bodega coffee into your system as you grind through a five, six, maybe seven hour shift to then be asked, “What are you doing after this?” The slew of answers run through your mind: grant and festival applications, scheduling rehearsals, renting space, finding costumes, fundraising, but instead you answer “I just have rehearsal later.” You leave tired yet excited to finally be able to attack the decisions ahead. Should I sacrifice more of my paycheck to rehearse closer to home or get home at midnight but the space was cheaper? Is this festival worth it even though they make me pay for video and photo? How do I pay my friends? Oh, I guess I’ll take a fourth job. All these questions (and some of the absurd answers) were sneaking around my mind straight out of college when my professors at the time said “ You can do, be, make anything. And we’re confident you’ll do great.”
If it weren’t for those 80’s-motivational-poster-style words, I would’ve never had the courage to pursue movement as a career or move to New York or even to put my work out there. This was my first realization that I wasn’t alone in this. Even though it was just sharing words, this type of support lead to major personal and artistic growth. It wasn’t this grind that was building my character (although working four jobs does really make you think about how you can take a better nap in 10 minutes), it was those experiences where someone was either lifting me up or putting me down that shifted my career into different extremes.
In an era where New York City is highly saturated in all art forms, it seems like finding these genuine systems of support would be impossible and improbable. In a search for these experiences that provide genuine and positive career possibilities, I sat down with four freelance movement artists to talk about their experiences navigating the NYC dance scene and beyond.
Choreographer Javi Padilla
Photo by Andres Rios
For many, our first experience with substantial systems of support, alongside an embedded network (or bubble, depending on who you ask) is with educational institutions. Alexis Robbins, tap artist and freelance maker, commented on how the support she received during her time at Hofstra led her to pursue a career in choreography. “In terms of support of what I wanted to do choreographically, I was always 100% supported and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.” I, too, received similar pushes towards my passion for choreography which ultimately lead me to pursue a career in New York City, just like Alexis. Zachary Dennison, freelance dance artist, actor maker, saw a place where these institutions can improve, however. “The acting institution that I went to wasn’t preparing students for what the business of theater was as opposed to what the art of theater was.” While Zachary trained in theater formally, the structures in play remain the same in dance and I couldn’t help but agree with that sentiment.
Educational institutions carry internal politics that put tenure above progress. While tenure was created to promote academic and creative freedom, it has transformed into a roadblock of progress. Newer professors should be hired, promoted, and supported just like their tenured counterparts. They bring in educational offerings that are current with industry needs. I am not advocating for the end of tenure, but I am calling for institutions to keep their hiring processes current and supportive for newer professors.
Maleek Washington, dancer for Camille A. Brown and Sleep No More, commented that, “colleges fear that the newer people don’t have enough experience. But how do they get experience if you don’t give them experience?” He circled back to institutional support that comes in other forms. One such experience he had was with Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where they maintain relationships with former students (Like Washington), asking them to come back and choreograph for them. This is an enormous opportunity that can provide the individual with proper documentation, choreographic experience, and exposure at an institutional level. Maleek also briefly mentioned how important being in spaces where he was fully allowed to be seen, such as Harlem School of the Arts, provided a foundation for him to investigate himself artistically and find his personal worth.
Alexis Robbins performing in her own work at Dixon Place, NY
Photo by David Ovitsky
Dancer/Choreographer Cameron McKinney
Photo by Alice Chacon
This idea of being “seen” or “heard” is difficult to encounter outside of education where support isn’t “guaranteed” (I use the word guarantee loosely as many people might say that you are paying to be supported…but I digress). Exiting college and wanting to be a choreographer or a maker of some sort leads to a search for systems of support. Cameron McKinney, Director of Kizuna Dance, mentions how they applied for everything regardless of a fee or not, a common practice for freelance makers. “When I first started applying for things, I (had) just moved here and I had no money…if the application fee is $40, that’s a whole rehearsal.” Which begs to question: What are those $40 even getting you? Am I paying for “a guy in the last row with a Go-Pro,” like Cameron mentioned later on in our talk? Am I paying for the space? The tech crew? Application fees like this are problematic. They carry the assumption that everyone has the financial means to apply.
If an application fee is necessary, I would appreciate seeing a breakdown of what the fee is being used for. In my experience of things I’ve applied and paid to be in, my only return was the opportunity to show work. In one instance, there was a cut of the box office only if you sold a certain amount of tickets. If you did not sell those tickets, you were expected to pay the difference the moment you stepped off stage. A call for transparency sets up a precedent for the artists who have and will apply. If I know that they’re using this fee for a video and photo package, am I going to support paying the $60? Maybe. But am I going to pay $60 to cover the space? I wouldn’t particularly be drawn to that.
Producers have the task to produce; artists have the task of making. Why should we have to pay for space to rehearse and space to perform? Which brings the role of the producer into a new light. Alexis Robbins asked producers to search for their intentions when setting out to produce a show/festival/showcase/etc.: “What is your ‘why’ for producing other people’s work? What is your impact? It (the application process) is not an open process, so we get used to it, and we don’t ask questions, and then the application I worked on for hours feels like it didn’t get seen, and then we all go home.”
All this comes from a lack of open conversation and dialogue. There is always a party that is left unseen and unheard and we take it as the norm. “I’m here to show up and show my work and that is reward enough” is not a sustainable (or fair) frame of working. When starting out, these opportunities present themselves and we take them out of our innate hunger for creation. Yet as we continuously “emerge” into our individual artistic paths, we aspire to grow with our work. Not to remain in the same systems of support we had when we were first starting out. I call to aspiring dance festival producers/residency holders/venue curators to have open dialogues within their application processes regarding what support systems will be offered. Whether these systems are financial or technical or opportunities to extend past rejection emails and give feedback to artists. I call to educational institutions to have conversations about their hiring practices. For both groups I ask, are we staying current? As we artists have been paying these fees, have we been replicating these unfair faults on our own?
This is not to say that there are no positive experiences out there, but it’s disheartening to know that in a community that is filled with love and camaraderie, we are conditioned to believe that our careers are unsupported as a cultural norm. Maleek Washington closed out his interview by saying:
“If you take care of your community, your community will take care of you.”
Dancer/Choreographer Maleek Washington
Photo by Whitney Browne
I believe that to be true, it’s up to us to demand these conversations with whatever system of support we’re trying to reach so that the artists after us can come in knowing they’re safe in that space. It’s a learning curve that we all have to encounter. It will be full of tough conversations and uncomfortable moments but it will inevitably lead us to break the cycle and create a supportive and sustainable arts landscape that is as inclusive as it is diverse.