Friday, March 27, 2015

DC/ Dance Considerations - American Modern Dance as a "Pyramid Scheme"?

I am writing from an adventure in Washington, D.C. This week, I have the fortunate pleasure to perform again with Gesel Mason Performance Projects at The Dance Place, D.C.'s hub for dance. Non dance-heads would automatically assume that The Kennedy Center is the place for dance in D.C. This is the home-grown place. This is the rooted place. This is the experimental and community-supporting place. I am so amazed by what their Founder and Director Karla Perlo has created. What is particularly intriguing about it is the business model of combining local, national and international presentation with community support. She accomplishes this in a way so genuine it makes me consider the idea of having a space. Considering I am less interested in presentation itself than supporting a specific kind of dance, this is likely not the right track for me, but I am still amazed that this place has made me think on it for a second when I never have.

Very smartly, they also have housing for their large staff of interns (not to mention, a solid internship program) and the artists that come through for residencies/ shows. They can CERTAINLY pay less to the artists when they are providing them housing that I am sure has paid for itself/ is worth it. I am saying this with entire positivity: artists often choose to accept a poor fee often having to use it to pay for housing for their dancers, which in turn causes them to tour small casts and create less jobs. The Dance Place has cut this pattern by including housing (or offering it for a MUCH smaller cost, I am not sure which). SO SMART. I hope that I have the chance to talk a bit with Karla, or at least to mention that I'd like to connect later (she barely had time to speak with Gesel for an hour, and they go way back). What a smart business woman-artist. There is 'scholartist.' How do we fit 'business woman' into that title too?!

One thing I'll offer question to is this; the large intern staff. On the website, information about the program notes that some interns stay on with the staff of The Dance Place:
  • "Transition into a job. Some interns have continued to work full or part time at Dance Place!"
How often? Just like any small non-profit, the staff is tiny. While this certainly cannot be argued with as a reason to cite, it is likely also an infrequent occurrence. This thought connects me to my own take of recent Dance/USA 'Green Room' blog post "Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?" At the heart of my thoughts, perhaps 'scheme' is not the right word for describing this collection of thoughts. I say this because I think, as many responses have acknowledged, that much of what the author said is factually true. That said, it also came along with a lot of opinion that I believe is indeed off-base. After reading many articulate and seemingly well-thought out responses to this article, I am feeling pressure to write a perfect manifesto in response. As giving in to this would keep me from simply getting out my thoughts (a reason I am posting on my unpublicized personal blog), and the pull toward that feels much stronger right now, I will go stream of consciousness and just get it out.

In a way, I am RELIEVED that the author put forth these ideas: I do think there is an amount of coercion of young aspiring dancers at the hand of university dance programs. But who can blame them?! When operating in a system where enrollment number is the MOST important of only a handful of measurements of success and funding decision, OF COURSE university dance faculty and staff are trying to get their numbers up. The question at hand should really consider how they go about this. To suggest that ALL recruitment lures in additional students for the purpose of profit, with no promise of personal gain, is short-sighted. To suggest that ALL recruitment is innocently based in embellishing liberal education while offering complete transparency about the current state of the dance world in the United States is also short-sighted. It seems to me that both of these are true, and that it is indeed difficult (and perhaps not worth) trying to measure how often the approach is the former or the later.

As a product of this system myself, I do find myself troubled even by my own use of the word 'system.' Yes, there is an amount of choice in the fact that we put ourselves into it. Yes, the amount of other choices also seems to be shrinking. There is truth to this statement. There is also truth to Tere O'Connor's response that notes the author's binary thinking as "intrinsically belligerent," and I'll say dangerous. It is a danger to creative thinking to suggest that choosing art means either winning or losing according to an old model of thinking about success. The author continually suggests that to "win" is to land a job in a modern dance company, and that to "lose" is to not land a job in a modern dance company. Is that all there is?

As a dancer who proclaims herself to land "somewhere between jazz hands and postmodern stare" on the continuum of concert dance, I find myself questioning this simplistic understanding of success within the field (and reductive definition of it, in alluding to all concert dance outside ballet and calling it simply 'modern'). I often feel as though I am wedged between an aesthetic rock and a hard place, uninterested in the spectacle of commercial and Broadway dance, yet uninterested in the ways contemporary-postmodern-avantegarde-callitwhatyouwant dance can be SO inaccessible to the populous. While it would be MUCH EASIER to let this rock and a hard place pin me down into wishing for a full-time performance or choreography job in concert dance, I've instead decided to think creatively about how to become fluid, dripping through this place to explore new crevices of the American presentational (and social) dance landscape(s).

I've chosen this career path not because I think the world owes it to me, but because I think I can offer something back to the world (or whatever parts of it I can manage to touch) through dance, regardless of how many prestigious grants I receive or Martha Graham dancers I train. Some of the most poignant experiences I have had as a dancer have been teaching youth and adults alike who do not go on to 'dance professionally,' but certainly hold their dance experiences dear as a part of what allows them success in thinking critically as a human. For aspiring dancers headed to university programs to think that those programs owe them a full-time performance job in a modern dance company is an entitled and also short-sighted way of thinking.

By exploring, defining and following my own interests in accessibility, musicality and social connection, I've developed my own projects like Rhythmically Speaking, which support both me and the work of other choreographers. Do these endeavors completely support my financially? No. Do I wish they did? Perhaps. Am I grateful that this has pushed me to become a well-rounded, many-hat-wearing artist who can not only make and perform a dance, but also write, organize, manage, teach and analyze with passionate fury? Without a doubt ABSOLUTELY. Having to be a choreographer-performer-teacher-scholar-coordinator has taught me that my time is worth anything from schmoozing with a funder down to scrubbing a toilet. I believe that this has made my life INFINITELY more interesting than it might have been just performing someone else's work or even just creating my own choreography.

I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge there was a piece of me going into college, and now still, that would LOVE to have a life like that. I'd be doing what I know, and it would be simpler. The great majority of me knows that being able to wear so many different hats with confidence has likely been much more fulfilling for me. While I have indeed followed the track that "Pyramid Scheme" has laid out (BFA, MFA, college teaching), teaching in a university program is just one piece of the many moving parts that make up my professional career in dance. I acknowledge that I am very fortunate to have found this kind of work, and also the volatility of such opportunities. That said, like most others that make this choice, this is just a piece of my professional interest and financial puzzle. 'The hustle' of continually looking for various kinds of dance work has become somewhat normal, and for that I am both resentful and grateful.

Coming full circle, I'll return to the Dance Place interns. With all of the above considered, I can say that I do not think having a large internship program is questionable. What is actually questionable in this and like situations is whether or not those applying for and accepting such opportunities seek out as complete of understandings as they are able to of the world they are entering. Dance programs and organizations do not owe jobs. Aspiring dancers owe it to themselves to gather as much honest information as they can while they work to make choices about their futures.

I'd like to acknowledge that, much like the original article I am referencing, nothing I am saying here is news to anyone in the trenches of the dance world. I am simply offering, having felt honestly compelled to do so,'? my own perspective to the conversation. Regardless of the issue, multiple perspectives are always better than singular ones. In this particular instance, I think the article would have benefited greatly from simply acknowledging that people go teaching in the university system for many reasons. While a more stable financial situation is certainly one of the reasons, another is true belief in the benefits of the liberal arts educational model. Both of these are reasons for me, and I am sure there are many other folks who could offer many more reasons. Roll-call?