Losing Pace: Poverty and the Professional Dancer

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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