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Losing Pace: Poverty and the Professional Dancer

March 20, 2012 · 2 Comments

The ones who suffer the most from these protests are young men and women who have no influence on whether the musicians are hired or not; who make no budgetary decisions for the company; and yet are the face, body, and spirit of the company itself. I am talking, of course, about the dancers.


By Brendan McCall

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “America’s poverty rate rose to 16 percent in 2010. This is 49.1 million people, the highest since 1993.” So what does $3.50 get you these days?

Well, if you were at Lincoln Center in New York this past Tuesday, it got you an evening with one of the most distinctive and enduring voices in American modern dance.

Paul Taylor Dance Company opened its first-ever engagement at the David H. Koch Theater this past week with a program featuring his commercial and artistic breakthrough, Aureole. Taylor celebrated this dance’s golden jubilee by making all of the theater’s 2,586 seats available for $3.50, the top ticket price at the time the dance first premiered in 1962.

Inside, graceful dancers loped and leapt like antelopes through Aureole’s satisfying stylistic signatures, while a recording of Handel’s baroque “Concerti Grossi” played through speakers in the theater’s jeweled interior. 
Outside, a brass quintet played, as members of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802 distributed leaflets in protest of the Taylor company’s decision to use recorded music. Union officials said that the “move marks the first time there has been a ´major performance’ in one of the main Lincoln Center halls without professional musicians,’’ according to Crain’s New York Business.

For decades, Local 802 has been fighting a growing trend among dance companies and Broadway shows to use recorded music instead of live musicians. In their view, “Paul Taylor Dance Company’s decision to replace musicians with canned music is the first step toward a gradual decline in the quality of performances at Lincoln Center,” a union representative told Crain’s, as well as one less potential job for their musicians. Tino Gagliardi, Local 802’s president, asserted to The New York Times that the Taylor company management “had no interest in using professional musicians.” 

John Tomlinson, executive director for PTDC, told the Times that “in fact the company dearly wanted to have live music” for its 21 performances, but that “unfortunately we were unable to find the resources in the current economy.” Tomlinson estimated the total cost to hire the musicians at union rates to be $450,000 to $500,000 — or one-third of the $1.5 million total budget for their Lincoln Center run.

More disheartening than the fact that money prevented these artists from performing together at Lincoln Center was the musicians’ surprising choice to target Paul Taylor Dance Company specifically. Given the exceptional talent of Paul Taylor Dance Company, I do not believe their performances are contributing to any kind of ‘decline in quality at Lincoln Center.’ Besides, if PTDC had the financial resources, then they would have hired a live orchestra to accompany them, as they have done in previous years at City Center. And finally, is Paul Taylor or his company management really to blame for a poor economy in New York and America?

Ultimately, the ones who suffer the most from these protests are young men and women who have no influence on whether the musicians are hired or not; who make no budgetary decisions for the company; and yet are the face, body, and spirit of the company itself. I am talking, of course, about the dancers. Where are they in this discussion? When they are not onstage taking our breath away with feats of physical prowess and poetry, how are they managing their lives offstage? Are Mr. Gagliardi and Local 802 aware of the facts of a professional dancer’s economy these days?

A clue may be found in a report published last month by Dance/NYC, a branch office of Dance/USA, which states that more than 40 percent of the dancers surveyed ages 21-35 in New York City work three to five jobs to make ends meet. While 90 percent of them have at least a college degree, 25 percent of them work in restaurants. Half of those surveyed live in Brooklyn, yet 94 percent of them perform in Manhattan.

This average professional dancer earns $28,000 per year, an amount “just above the nation’s poverty line.” But it gets worse. Of that income, only 55 percent actually comes from dance jobs — that’s only $15,400 per year.

Using these disturbing facts as a guide, that means that talented dancers throughout the city today may be earning something in the neighborhood of about $296 this week. Even before taxes, that’s hardly sufficient for any New Yorker to live on. How do these dancers pay for basics like rent, food, transportation, medical coverage, class, clothing, performances, and more? 
I believe dancers are losing pace with their historic and artistic companions. The musicians’ protests last week against Paul Taylor Dance Company highlight the economic challenges facing today’s performing artists in New York City. Larger questions about wages, work, union representation, and economic resources for all of these artists must be answered — but especially for the dancers. 

And if “the truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music,” as choreographer Agnes de Mille once said, then our performing arts community is in a state of torment and conflict. Let’s stop organizing protests against dancers who share their talents while literally living in poverty and let’s start working together to change the system for the better, for all of us. But especially, and most emphatically, for those hard-working, under-paid, indefatigable messengers of the gods: the dancers.

Brendan McCalls work as an actor, dancer, choreographer, director, and producer has been presented in over 25 countries on four continents. He is grateful to have danced for Alexandra Beller, Maureen Fleming, David Gordon, Sin Cha Hong, Paul Langland, Helena Lambert, Mary Overlie, Stephen Petronio, Aki Sato, and Keith Thompson. He has taught at the university, graduate, and conservatory level since 1994, including the Yale School of Drama, the New School for Drama, New York University, Danshögskolan (Sweden), and The International Theater Academy Norway. His articles have appeared in Contemporary Theatre Review (UK), Arche (Belarus), The Nordic Page (Norway), Contact Quarterly Dance Journal, and Movement Research Performance Journal. McCall is the founding artistic director of Ensemble Free Theater Norway in Oslo, and at present a visiting assistant  professor of theater at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He holds a BFA with Honors from New York University and an MFA from Bennington College.


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Tags: Commentary · Dance News

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daryl Fowkes // Mar 25, 2012 at 12:08 PM

    Great article. But let us not forget the bigger problem of our country's attitude to the Arts in general. America does not value institutions where a profit is not made; culture is seen as something elitist and frivolous. And in the hierarchy of the Arts, dance is at the bottom of the totem pole. One can barely make a living purely as a dancer unless they are employed in one of a few ballet or modern companies that provide yearly contracts. Many dancers, desperate to work, will take jobs with non-union companies thereby working for a tyrannical director who does not have to abide by rules of providing proper wages and hours. Dancers are seen by the very people who train and hire them as an expendable resource. Why invest in people whose careers tire very early -- it's a vicious cycle. It is not just the economy to blame but the teachers, choreographers and directors that perpetuate the usually horrible working conditions dancers find themselves in.

    As for Paul Taylor, I think it is a travesty that someone of his stature is using canned music. It is a disservice to the art of dance and shows the lowly status dance has among the Arts (one never sees an opera production sung to a pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment). Dancers need to be given the same respect afforded to musicians, singers and actors. Their internal lives just as honored and nurtured as any other artist. A better economy is not always the solution. Perhaps using Art as a means to cultivate the interior as opposed to a compulsive refinement of the exterior -- a predicament so common in the performing arts these days.
  • 2 Elisa Monte // Mar 30, 2012 at 12:44 AM

    It was very frustrating to read of Paul Taylors' woes with the musicians surrounding his Lincoln Center engagement. What should have been viewed only as a triumph was veiled with a plot to deny musicians work and undermine Lincoln Center's artistic integrity.

    Music is the muse of dancers. Why would any choreographer or dancer deny entrance to their other half, they wouldn't. There are many dance companies who have gotten themselves in financial trouble by indulging their muse in having live music for a season’s run. I have, and so have many others. We have all struggled to realize the pleasure of a season with musicians playing live. I have accomplished it on occasion, keeping the musical ensemble to a small group and much time spent on fund raising to find the additional money. Even with these efforts, reasonable compromise between the musicians and dance company were necessary if we were to realize the project we dreamed of. It was always a mutual effort, an agreement that all parties were invested in, interested, and excited by the project. We would sit, plan and dream on how to see the project through, sharing our knowledge and energy in a mutual effort.

    Shall we say it is no ones fault if it cannot be realized, sad for the musicians, dancers and audience, yes very disappointing for all. Instead of accusations a shared effort would be more effective.

    Economics should not be the driving force to performing arts survival, great art must be carefully tended by all of society. We can only create great art by keeping the creative effort the driving force. It is the responsibility of all party's concerned to nurture, support and indulge to insure it's continued success.

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