Lose Your Self to Dance

American ballet, and its labor practices, at the breaking point

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One of the last pieces of dance I saw before New York’s Covid shutdown, in March of 2020, was Brendan Fernandes’s Contract and Release at the Noguchi Museum. Traversing the concrete expanse of the institution, his dancers moved among patrons and Noguchi’s spherical sculptures, stopping to hold poses and “contractions” in the style of Martha Graham. Suspended in statuesque stoicism, often with the aid of sculptural “training devices,” the positions drew attention to the dancing body and its labor, a particular focus of the artist’s work. Fernandes, who turned to Graham technique from ballet and then got injured, frequently places dancers in close proximity with viewers, making it so that you can hear breathing, feet brushing against the floor, and the exertion that goes into making the body appear at a quiet ease in movement. “I’m trying to emphasize the mastery, the labor, and the athleticism of dance,” he said in an interview with Artspace in 2019 about his ballet-focused work The Master and Form. “Dance is just sort of seen as this romanticized, beautiful, ephemeral endeavor, but it’s about athleticism and labor.”

From a young age, ballet dancers dedicate their bodies to their craft, which requires years of training, fastidious personal upkeep, and extreme physical and mental work. At its best, the form allows for expression that transcends language through the perfect coordination of kinetic movement and emotion. It can provide structure where there is none, freedom where there is restriction. But it is also a job, with training that begins early—before many can understand the hazards.

I Wanna Dance for Somebody (Who Loves Me)

The pandemic has laid bare the need for additional protections for dance workers. When the industry shuttered last year, I watched in dismay as performing arts centers canceled events around the country, severing workers from their livelihoods on and off the stage. With venues dark, many performers, especially those stringing together gigs to create a semblance of security, suddenly found themselves uncertain they’d be able to afford rent, food, and access to health care—a fact that stings all the more considering dancers give their bodies to the industry.

The immediate financial fallout of the pandemic threw into sharp relief issues of class and labor in an industry notorious for its faltering crawl toward equality. This was only made clearer when, after the murder of George Floyd, calls rang out to undo or at least recognize with urgency the structures of white supremacy that dominate the art form. At present, the dance industry collects its dollars from donations and ticket sales, relying on a fragile business structure that values the ephemeral forms of performance above all else. Without adequate government support—money allocated specifically for the arts as well as the necessary resources to live without employment—the industry must now square the image of prosperity it projects on stage with its opposite.

Supported by negotiated protections, dancers in unionized companies stand to fare better as the industry scrambles, though “force majeure” clauses complicate this security. The force majeure provision allows for companies to dip out of contractual obligations because of extreme circumstances, like an act of God, war, or a global pandemic. It’s this clause that allowed, for example, Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera—which had an annual budget of $308 million pre-shutdown—to furlough his entire union staff, including orchestra members, chorus singers, and stagehands.

Adjacent to the Lincoln Center Plaza at the David H. Koch theater, the Met Opera’s neighbor, New York City Ballet, also failed early on in the pandemic to provide sufficient funds for its dancers and union members, despite its status as the top ballet company in the country by budget. To help raise emergency financial support for the ninety-nine dancers and two stage managers, company members launched an initiative last year dubbed Dancers of NYCB.

“New York City Ballet has made its best efforts to support us throughout this crisis, including the establishment of the NYCB Relief Fund,” the collective explained. “However, the loss of revenue from multiple canceled seasons means the company still cannot provide us with adequate financial assistance to sustain us through the end of the pandemic.”

The organizers also wrote poignantly of the struggles facing those who make up the industry:

The dancers feel this financial burden in myriad ways: international dancers are unable to receive government assistance, young corps de ballet members are ineligible to collect full unemployment benefits, and the immense cost of living in New York City means that even the most senior dancers are struggling to afford housing and other basic necessities.

Among other concerns of basic survival, the pandemic quickly raised practical questions as the dance world shifted to a bizarre work-from-home mode that saw professionals clutching countertops and pirouetting on surfaces of varying degrees of slipperiness. And as companies ramp up to in-person performances, whenever and wherever those may occur, there are questions about who bears the risk and responsibility for dancers’ safety. Griff Braun, director of organizing and outreach at the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union that represents singers and dancers, told me that since March of last year, the union has been “essentially negotiating all of our contracts all at the same time, which is something that’s never happened before.” The outcome of these talks has varied from company to company, but Braun shared that all dance organizations under AGMA’s representation have at least been able to agree to maintain health insurance coverage for their artists for the time being, and most companies agreed to keep paying dancers. Meanwhile, the sudden drop in revenue has hit all parts of the dance industry hard, especially those workers without representation or the benefits of a company. Data gathered by arts groups over the first months of quarantine painted a grim landscape—and the picture hasn’t gotten any better with time. A recent report indicated an unemployment rate of 54.6 percent for dancers and choreographers in July–September of last year—up from just 10.7 percent in 2019, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Writer Garnet Henderson, a member of Dance Artists’ National Collective, a freelance dancers’ group that has been gaining traction in advocating for unionization, pointed out in an op-ed that these numbers may not reflect dancers who can’t afford to dance as their primary job.

“What Covid has done is make it clear that dance workers and organizations and businesses, regardless of structure and genre, must work together,” Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, executive director of the New York nonprofit Dance/NYC, wrote to me over email. “If we are not actively engaging in the conversations that build the systems wherein which we work and live, it will come at our harm and detriment.”

Rich Fantasies

Ballet’s well-heeled audiences and reputation as an art form reliant on decorum and gentility often call up the ghosts of aristocracy. And a company can get away with a lot behind the scenes while blinding its audiences with Swarovski Crystals. When viewing it in a classical setting, it’s hard to ignore the wealth of ballet—the glistening costumes, the elaborate sets of story ballets, the perfected bodies. Indeed, a large sum of money is poured into a performance, from training and material costs (one pair of pointe shoes will set a dancer back $65–$75 on average, with prices often exceeding this range and professional dancers going through 100–120 shoes a season, though companies often foot this bill), to the enormous funds required to stage large, expansive works in the classic repertoire. Add to this ballet’s designation as High Art with no tangible product that can be foisted onto a wall or tucked into a climate-controlled storage facility, and the image of an otherworldly apparition waltzing in another realm emerges.

A ballet company can get away with a lot behind the scenes while blinding its audiences with Swarovski Crystals.

Though our visions of ballet depict a rich fantasy, most dancers are not wealthy (not from dance, anyway, though it’s worth noting the gap between artistic staff and dancers often found within companies). In the United States, the median salary for a dancer clocks in at around $34,000, though the range for ballet dancers specifically varies dramatically depending on company and circumstance. To compare, in 2018, the average compensation of artistic directors at the top fifty ballet companies by budget was $224,435 for men and $136,612 for women. And the restricted benefits and tough working conditions of the job—physically difficult and necessarily short-lived—can be a drag.

“Arts and culture is generally one of the industries with the least number of labor protections, this is especially acute for the dance sector specifically,” Duque Cifuentes said. “Dance does not yet have a robust infrastructure that includes fair, living wages and access to healthcare. Our business model is heavily dependent on earned income, which prioritizes the instance of performance—performance as product—as the revenue generating mechanism. In practice, we are a process-based industry, where the main investment is the development of the dancer and the development of pieces that are often not fully supported or funded.”

The stretch toward perfection, as its devout know well, is never-ending in ballet, a form lauded for its steadfastness and precision. The technique (in addition to a demand for faster feet, higher legs, quicker turns) required to meet dance’s benchmarks take decades to hone, with dancers beginning their training at ages in the lower single digits. The culture demands utter dedication to the form, sacrificing time and the “typical” trappings of childhood to take on an orientation to labor typically reserved for adults in demanding jobs.

What’s more, the financial and mental burdens of developing the precise kinetic vocabulary needed for ballet often rest on the dancer, a weight he or she carries to retirement and beyond. There are the obvious preparations required to be ready for the stage, such as technical training and learning choreography, but these also include an economy of nutrition, rehabilitation, extracurricular training, and education that extends beyond the studio. Even in the most well-funded tiers of the industry, and with insurance or medical care provided by ballet companies, dancers will go into debt trying to deal with injuries or to rehab their minds and bodies, fueled by the intense desire to return to the stage. Others simply go without.

“I don’t think the situation has changed much in the twenty-two years that I’ve been practicing medicine. The obstacle has always been affordability of health care and insurance policies,” the Manhattan-based internist Dr. Wendy S. Ziecheck told me. Dr. Ziecheck has overseen a range of quarantined dance residencies, including a series for the Guggenheim’s Works & Process program and a three-week program for Dance Theatre of Harlem. When I asked if she’s seen cases where dancers could not get treatment for conditions because of out-of-pocket costs, she responded, “If a dancer is fortunate enough to have health insurance, then they might have more incentive to seek medical care when necessary. I can think back to the nineties, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when accessibility to care was an obstacle, especially for struggling artists with little financial resources.”

“We still have these issues, but fortunately, the Affordable Care Act has made insurance slightly more affordable, especially for low-income people, such as dancers, whose instrument is predicated on good health, to seek medical attention when necessary,” she said. “But dancers are no different than the rest of the population in seeking medical care when affordability is an issue.”

Last year, a study rated dance as the most physically demanding job in the United States, just above like structural iron and steel workers, roofers, and construction laborers.

Beyond one-off injuries and ailments (think stress fractures, busted ankles, broken backs, bloodied toes, ripped tendons), ballet’s persistent toll on the body can be ruthless. Plagued by injury and the limits of the skeleton, dancers and their bodies are subjected to the gruesome reality of being mortal, even as the art form presents an image of godliness. Famed dancer Maria Tallchief said in a 1978 interview that she always hurt—though she dismissed some of her pain as psychosomatic, asserting that the aches would go away once she was on stage. “I never danced in my life when I felt really, absolutely, 100 percent well. There was always either the knee, or the back, or I’d wake up with my neck, or the ankle, or something was wrong. And it was just a natural way of being.”

A dancer at a major ballet company in New York City I spoke to confirmed the grueling realities of the practice, saying that during the height of a season, she would be in pain while merely lying in bed. Though aches are unavoidable when concentrating one’s muscles to defy gravity, dancers can find themselves brushing against destructive extremes where their expendability is pegged to ticket sales. In the studio, the ability to be stoic in the face of injury or harsh conditions becomes currency. Dancing on injuries, or pushing through the pain, is also not uncommon, and performers face tremendous pressure not to miss performances or let fans down.

Largely because of this wear and tear, the average retirement age of a professional ballet dancer is now between thirty and forty, depending on where a dancer falls in the hierarchy of the company. Corps de ballet members, who hold the lowest rank and dance the most in a given season, are more likely to have a shorter career, for example, than those who rise to the heights of a principal dancer, a position that, though saddled with great pressure, affords relative power and the ability to focus in on a specific role.

To hammer dance’s difficulty (both in ballet and beyond) home, last year, a study on Insurance Providers Dot Com rated dance as the most physically demanding job in the United States, just above steel-toed professions like structural iron and steel workers, roofers, and construction laborers. The study, which measures stamina, strength, flexibility, and coordination, doesn’t account for the mental and physical demands that go into making all of this labor seem effortless.

Red Shoes, Black Swans

Missing the stage but tired of streamed performances, I recently watched The Red Shoes, a 1948 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. One of the best and most adored depictions of dance on screen, the plot follows young ballerina Vicky Page as she pursues ballet, her life’s passion, to a disastrous end. Early on, our aspiring star is asked by the all-powerful ballet director Boris Lermontov why she wants to dance. She volleys with a question of her own: “Why do you want to live?” In a swift pas de deux of dialogue, his answer, “Well, I don’t know exactly why . . . but I must,” offers her the support needed to land the quip, “That’s my answer too.”

If ballet is life for Ms. Page, it’s a religion for Mr. Lermontov, who nearly grows ill at the sacrilegious thought of the art form being performed in a parlor room. But Mr. Lermontov’s beliefs don’t have him kneeling to a benevolent god. Instead, the moment Ms. Page expresses her dedication to the art form, she enters one foot into a deal with the devil. The other step lands when she’s cast in the principal part of the eponymous ballet, a role that catapults her into stardom and, eventually, off a balcony to her death when she’s forced to choose between love and dance.

The cautionary tale of a ballerina quite literally dancing herself to death offers another way of looking at a time-honored question: What happens when our job subsumes our entire life under the guise of passion? The dangers of worker exploitation in the name of love are not unique to ballet or to dance in general, but when the human body is the primary “instrument” of the work and its presentation, the stakes get raised. Even more so when you consider the age of the workforce, which tends to skew young, with dancers entering the profession in their teens.

“Dancers also love what they do, which sounds like a great thing, but it’s also something that can be exploited. That’s not to say that there are like evil artistic directors out there—although there may be a couple—that are trying to exploit dancers,” Griff Braun explained when I asked why dancers in particular need unions. “But it’s just sort of a fact of life. These folks love what they do. They know there’s a finite amount of time that they can do it because it’s such a physically demanding profession . . . there’s an urgency to it, and that can be exploited.”

When I asked Braun, a former dancer himself, what this workplace abuse might look like, he responded that it means “they can be asked and they will often work for very little or no money, and they will work in unsafe conditions, long hours, dangerous conditions, because there’s an urgency to doing the work.” To be clear, not paying dancers is abuse. Dance is a job, and its workers—like all workers—should be compensated. But in the underfunded, undervalued world of dance, many are still pressured to work for exposure. And when there isn’t a lot of money flying around in the first place, this presents a tricky scenario: do the thing you love and submit to perpetuating a system of free labor or miss out on an opportunity that may very well land you your next gig. “That’s not going to change,” Braun said, “unless there’s a critical mass of those dancers that are willing to say, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to do it, and you’re not going to find others to do it either. We’re going to make sure you don’t.’”

Add to this the fact that there are scores of overqualified, overeducated workers vying for a pittance of jobs—a condition familiar in the plight of the highly educated, overqualified workers in corporate America. “There’s not a lot of work, and it’s not supported by the government,” Braun said “And so there’s always this mentality, the scarcity mentality; I’ve got to take this job, even though it doesn’t pay me what I deserve or what I need to live, even though it’s maybe not the best conditions, it could be dangerous. I need to take this job because I don’t know if there’ll be another job. There’s a mentality of scarcity around funding of the arts and just the work itself as a result of lack of funding for the arts.”

The fruits of this exploitation manifest in snarled versions in popular media. Do a fouetté for every time you’ve seen stereotyped eating disorders, self-harm, or frenzied flights of vengeance and you’ll have enough turns to complete the famous Black Swan coda many times over. It’s not that these things don’t happen—mental illness, performance to the point of injury, and abject competition absolutely exist—but the salacious versions drawn up for the screen narrow the focus to the sensationalized actions of the individual dancer, rather than the Eurocentric foundation that shapes the industry and the art form in history and aesthetic.

The dangers of worker exploitation in the name of love are not unique to ballet or to dance in general, but when the human body is the primary “instrument” of the work and its presentation, the stakes get raised.

The subtle ins and outs of the long-ingrained hierarchies that place an outsized control in the hands of artistic staff, such as rehearsal directors, might make for banal television, but they inform the quiet pressures placed on dancers to keep silent in the face of workplace shortcomings and injustices. Solidarity allows those who would otherwise be too afraid to speak up—often out of legitimate fear of being reprimanded or replaced—to have a voice.

“The foundation of the practice is based on the movement of the physical body and not the voice,” Duque Cifuentes told me. “Dancers are not often trained [or] encouraged to talk. That is an issue. Because there are so few opportunities and folks are struggling so much to find work to stay alive, they have accepted these unspoken rules that have and continue to cause harm.” She added that the organizations with the most resources to tackle these issues are predominantly white, with largely white workforces. With fewer opportunities already, especially in ballet, dancers of color can be further discouraged from speaking out. When we speak of workplace safety, it must also include protections against racism and sexism within the field.

No Final Bows

Dancers and advocates, in recent years, have been instrumental in shining a light on the labor failures and difficult working conditions within ballet companies. Last year, a French dancer named Chloé Lopes Gomes publicly denounced how she was treated by Staatsballett Berlin, where she was the first—and only—black female dancer. She detailed how a tenured and “untouchable” ballet mistress repeatedly made inappropriate remarks about her race and forced her to apply whitening powder to her skin for a production of Swan Lake despite her objections. Widely covered in international publications, the allegations called attention to workplace safety problems for dancers of color, ballet’s tendency to honor “tradition” over individual needs, and the displacement of power in companies from the dancer to the artistic staff, a culture written about by Theresa Ruth Howard in Dance magazine. Though the story took place abroad, Lopes Gomes’s words resonate in the United States, where dancers of color face more bodily scrutiny than their white peers.

“There is still this idea in the ballet world that you have to suffer to make it,” Lopes Gomes told Laura Cappelle for Pointe magazine. “We—the younger generation—can’t accept that anymore. Ballet must reflect society. I don’t want to be abused just to be able to dance. I want to be happy in my life, not just when I step onstage.”

The advocacy initiative Final Bow for Yellowface, started five years ago by Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin, has made a concentrated push for ballet to rid its stages of racist Asian stereotypes. In a medium in which roles are inherited and interpreted through the body, the need for characters that encapsulate depth rather than caricature goes beyond representation on stage; it also affects the performer inhabiting the part. Recently, the initiative increased its scope to include a call for companies to hire Asian choreographers for mainstage productions.

But as months of lockdowns fray already cash-strapped organizations with no definitive end in sight (once we’re back, there’s the additional hurdle of getting people to attend the ballet), demands for the arts to be recognized and artist-workers supported by the government continue to swell. In New York, dance advocates with the Dance Artists National Collective have evoked the Works Progress Administration Act in their calls to support arts workers directly. And though some relief has come in the way of stopgap stimulus packages, much more is needed.

“In the United States, people love the idea of dance and they love the idea of dancers and the profession and everything about it,” Braun said. “But it’s almost impossible to be a professional dancer.”

If we want to protect dancers’ bodies, funding on the level of the New Deal’s Federal Dance Project from the late 1930s, a national program dedicated to the advancement of dancers, which could provide employment opportunities to the thousands of unemployed dancers, would be a good start. Until then, the ballet industry will carry on in a hazardous economic position while dancers, reaching toward the infinite, face the shortening of already limited careers.

Britt Stigler is a New York City-based arts, culture, and performance writer and editor. She co-runs Ballerina Book Club for WNET, New York Public Media’s ALL ARTS.

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