Tuesday, November 6, 2012

(How) Do we value dance and dancers?

How does the current climate affect our lives and artistic work, and vice versa? What creative insights and understandings, structures and alternatives, have manifest during this time of financial challenge. 

Movement Research held its third annual town hall last evening at Joyce SoHo, hosted by Diana Crum (MR's Development Manager) and MR's Artist Advisory Council and moderated by Dana Whitco (Director, Center for Creative Research). The roughly three-hour discussion forum encouraged artists to share perspectives on the impact of the US recession on their personal and professional lives. Offering an overview of the evening's theme, choreographer Kathy Westwater spoke of "living in the worst economic environment of our lifetimes" but also noted that the arts have often flourished in times of economic crisis. "Does that create an opening for us?" she wondered.

In a structured forum--five minutes per speaker--Jen Abrams, Ilona Bito, Daria Fain, Jill Sigman and Enrico Wey shared varied experiences and ideas. These ranged from remarks on how both trust and fear are lodged in our kidneys and the necessity of changing our paradigms (Fain) to Occupy Wall Street as "performance score" (Bito) to a cautionary tale of how landing an apparently stable Broadway gig--thereby becoming "one of the 1%"--doesn't necessarily promote well-being (Wey).

Sigman--decrying the prevailing scarcity-mindedness of artists--redirected our attention to "what we do have" and described how a sudden awareness of the ongoing potential in trash led to her notable series of site-specific works, The Hut Project built around all kinds of recycled, re-purposed garbage. She spoke of how this new approach shifted her attention from conventional dance audiences and their expectations to people who share her values, who care about the same things. She found herself to be "not interested in meeting budget projections" but connecting to existing subcultures such as dumpster-diving meetup groups. She pondered how to "choreograph your values." Abrams--a co-creator of the bartering organization for artists, OurGoods--also chose to turn away from conventional channels of exchange and validation where, she says, artists experience a paucity of respect and acknowledgement. "How I know that my work is valuable is through the relationships I have forged with colleagues."

Underlying all of these sharings, and the subsequent contributions by others in attendance, was an often internalized conflict of values. In a money-driven society, artists feel pressured to fit their work--how they define it, package it, promote it--into a narrow, consumerist framework in which their only value, and the purpose of their creative labor, lies in growing into a strong economic engine for their communities. Fain noted our society's fixation on "stars." She said of more process-oriented artists, such as the ones drawn to Movement Research, "We're not perceived to be affecting culture."

The conversation circled back to issues of getting paid vs. not getting paid-- there are bills to pay, after all, and they can't be bartered away--and the fear of asking for what you need and deserve. How many artists feel empowered to ask about pay before they commit to a project?

Side discussions with Dance New Amsterdam's Catherine Peila during the break and, afterwards, with Peila and Fain led me to the conclusion that none of the opportunities hidden in crisis will be seized until dance artists reclaim a power ceded to others--presenters, funders, media--the power to name their own work and uphold their own values. I wish there had been time to begin this process last night. Perhaps Movement Research or some other community organization can hold a forum to create new language and tools to make this transformation possible.

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