FeatureA Convenient Truth

Published on Monday, 14 June, 2010 | Comments



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Tuesday, 19 January, 2010

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The United Kingdom may well be unique in the wide world of dance thanks to the, so-called, National Dance Network, a group of dozens of dance agencies located all over the country, mostly in England.

If we look at the agencies funded by Arts Council England (ACE) alone they absorb more than £8.5Million in funding in regular grants. Adding individual grants, money from local authorities and other sources both public and private the numbers will easily push well beyond £10Million annually.

So what do we get for this money?

Well, looking beyond the blurb on the "about" page of their websites what we get appears to be quite a lot. Community classes, professional classes, performances, workshops, youth training, seminars, festivals, etc. You name it they probably do it.

Associate Artist

Both DanceXchange and Dance East run associate artist programmes. When asked by Article19 neither organisation could provide any documentation that detailed what an associate artists could expect to recieve in terms of support from the NDA.

DanceXchange said they do have documentation but declined to provide it.

There are no written agreements so, presumably, any support given could be withdrawn without notice or protest.

Do they do it well? Nobody knows because ACE won't let us see the evaluation documents but they're doing it none the less.

Looking through the funding agreements many of them have with ACE you you get a never ending list of professional development this, associate artist that. It's all very impressive, or at least it looks impressive.

No doubt about it. The country would be shy several thousands community classes and other opportunities sans the National Dance Network.

Beyond Hyperbole

As ever though we, here in TheLab™, always want to ask the next question, and then the next one to get beyond the hyperbole and the press speak. We want to see what these organisations really think, and what they actually do when it comes to a particular issue.

So, as we did for our piece 'An Inconvenient Truth', we put three questions to seven of the UK's National Dance Agencies to see what answers we could conjure up on the issues of dancers jobs, pay levels and health care.

The questions were as follows;

1. Beyond employing professional dancers to teach class what, if anything, has your organisation done to advocate, lobby or otherwise persuade or influence funders, the DCMS and local or National Government with regards to the creation of full time jobs for professional dancers?

2. What, if anything has your organisation done to advocate, lobby or otherwise raise the issue or influence funders, the DCMS and local or National Government with regards to pay levels for professional dancers?

3. What, if anything has your organisation done to advocate, lobby or otherwise raise the issue or influence funders, the DCMS or local or National Government with regards to health care issues affecting professional dancers.

The NDA's we asked, Dance East, Dance City, DanceXchange, The Place, Dance Base, Dance 4, South East Dance and Yorkshire Dance.

Each of those agencies has differing budgets and facilities but they all do basically the same thing. All but one are funded by Arts Council England (ACE), Dance Base is funded by Scottish Arts Council.

Off To The Races

Now, getting these guys to respond to questions that are way outside their comfort zone is no easy thing. Dance Base, via their Chief Executive, immediately took umbrage with our questions and assumed that we should know exactly what Dance Base does, just because. After much back and forth and a little bit of arguing they eventually agreed to answer the questions.

Dance East retreated to their hardened bunker and refused to come out until we went away. To date they have refused to answer the questions as have Dance City, now under new "leadership" in the shape of Anthony Baker, an AD permanently ensconced in meetings of one description or another. Why refuse? Well, often times when you don't speak, you have nothing to say.

DanceXchange, Yorkshire Dance and Dance Base did supply some detailed answers. As for Dance 4 and The Place? See the side bar for more about them.

Will Dance for Food

On the subject of full time jobs for dancers Dance Base (AD Morag Deyes) and Scotland's only National Dance Agency said;

"Full time permanent jobs may serve to stifle creativity and flexibility by restricting options for developing new artistic relationships and vocabularies."

Yorkshire Dance, overseen by Wieke Eringa, said almost same thing;

"Your question implies that you place the highest value on 'creating full-time jobs for professional dancers' when in fact most dance artists that we work with (pay, commission, support) chose to have a freelancing career in which they can combine performing with teaching and choreographing."

Somewhat confusingly Ms Eringa went on to give examples of four dance companies that she claimed employed dancers on a "permanent" or "near permanent" basis.

When contacted however none of the companies mentioned by Ms Eringa, (Vincent Dance Theatre, Rafael Bonachela Dance Company, Tavaziva and Russell Maliphant), backed up that claim. On average employment times were approximately 6 months.

DanceXchange (DX), helmed by David Massingham, told us this;

Well, there's no real point in telling you what DX said in response to this question because they didn't answer it. All we got was 200 words of press release spin. They did mention they were employing "50 dancers across various different projects within the International Dance Festival Birmingham on short term full time contracts."

Communications 101

Writing a piece like this requires reasearch and asking a lot of questions. In some cases it can take weeks to get an organisation to wise up and speak. Dance4 took 4 weeks (ironic we know) to provide an answer that was so pointless it's not worth publishing, and then 2 weeks more to answer a simple follow up.

The Place's answer was similarly vapid in terms of content although they only took a few days to respond.

With that in mind here's a handy three point tip for the National Dance Network when confronted by scary journos asking questions.

1. Do we have a position on this issue?
2. Should we have a position on this?
3. What is our position on this issue?

Keeping those three points in mind it's pretty easy to come up with answers to any questions that we, or anybody else, may throw at you.

They won't give you substance for your answers but they might at least stop us from calling four or five times to find out if you're still alive!

Also, never assume that we'll get bored and give up, because we won't, ever!

Point by Point

Let's take the point raised that dancers like the short-term, part-time, freelance aspect of their careers first.

Freelance versus full time contract employment is not something that's unique to the arts. In most walks of life you have full time employees and freelance contractors. The freelancers generally enjoy the autonomy they have to move around from job to job but for the most part, in many industries, it's a choice.

In the ACE funded dance industry things are very different because the freelance option is not a choice, it's the only option. A dancer has to accept it whether they like or not. Dancers are not given to complaining to agencies and their directors because if they do, this being the real world, they will almost certainly start burning their bridges.

Recent graduates and younger dancers may, initially, enjoy their freelancing career, with all the uncertainty and problems it brings, but as they move on in their career that's going to change. They'll seek out stability and consistency the only problem being there's nothing they can change to.

As for the pre-determined freelance career path "stifling creativity and flexibility"? Again, the dance companies contacted by Article19 disagreed. Most stated that having their dancers full time would be hugely advantageous to the way they create work, tour and carry out education projects.

In fact the short term contracts that dance companies have to employ their dancers on cause a number of problems for them. Touring in the small and mid-scale sector is, often times, sporadic so many companies have difficulty retaining dancers throughout a given tour and many have to turn down tour bookings and education work because their dancers are "off contract" and they can't afford to get them back again or the dancers are, if they're lucky, working for somebody else.

One company, Russell Maliphant, did tell Article19 that working with new dancers could provide creative variations from project to project although in some cases this was not ideal.

However, were it the case that dancers were on a normal full time employment cycle from year to year they would inevitably move on to new companies anyway. The talent pool would be constantly shifting, as it does in any other industry as dancer sought out different challenges and career advancement. It would just be shifting more slowly.

Scaling The Pay Wall

When you start asking questions about dancers pay the agencies and administrators really start pulling out equivocation by the truck load.

Phrases like; "Recommended industry standard", "appropriate", "optimum levels", are all delivered to order.

For the record the "industry standard" as set by Equity, the performing artist union, for a professional dancer not working in the West End of London, is just £380 per week. That's £19,760 per year, before tax and national insurance, if the dancer was in full time employment. Not much for a highly skilled profession.

David Massingham, AD of DanceXchange based in Birmingham, gave a response that for us, here in TheLab™, proved more than a little baffling;

"Market forces often determine what people are paid, and unfortunately an oversupply of dancers versus too few jobs can mean suppressed wage levels."

Strange, we thought dancers pay levels were suppressed by a lack of funding. Surely dance companies are not keeping their dancer's wages low because they think they can replace them easily?

So we asked for a follow up response, just to clarify, surely some mistake we thought? Mr Massingham did not back down however;

"All wage levels are suppressed in the arts as it is perceived as having a high reward factor therefore the arts has a ready supply of skilled people willing to work at a lower rate than in the private sector, so this is true of dancers too.

Older dancers are rarely rewarded for their experience (except in larger year round funded companies). This is due to an oversupply of younger performers that can be called on (with a relatively good set of skills) which restricts more experienced performers asking for greater remuneration"

When we contacted a few dance companies to ask them about this (Siobhan Davies Dance Company, Scottish Dance Theatre and Motionhouse Dance Theatre) they were swift with their rebuttals.

One particular point of contention was that the dancers within their companies could be easily replaced by less experienced graduates. Mr Massingham, with the above comments, implies that all dancers are created equal and, should they choose to do so, a dance company could easily replace a dancer with a dozen years experience with no problems at all and for no other reason than to save some money.

Fundamentally the dance companies disagreed that their dancers are nothing more than an interchangeable pair of arms and legs with a head attached.

Louise Richards, Executive Director of Motionhouse Dance Theatre told us;

"We strive to pay the dancers as well as we can using industry standards against which we benchmark but more importantly, we seek to pay the best wages we can that we can sustain in the longer term - it is not an arbitrary equation but an important part of business planning.  We pay well in excess of the ITC/Equity recommended minimum.  Clearly grant aid is an influencing factor as it determines a large proportion of our operating budget."

In one further comment Mr Massingham said;

"... it is a natural factor of economics that a lower supply of potential performers would help stimulate wage levels and that the bargaining power of the performer is affected by the market conditions."

Article19 would argue that such a statement is demonstrably false.

For example: If a dance company needs seven dancers and there are one hundred dancers to choose from they can hire seven dancers and offer to pay them a certain amount of money. If the dancers band together and say they want more money then the dance company could, in theory, say "tough luck" because there are plenty of dancers to replace you (putting aside the implications of employment law or contractual obligation to the dancers).

If there were only ten dancers in the employment pool to choose from then the employed dancers would be in a stronger bargaining position, according to Mr Massingham, because the company couldn't replace all the dancers!

The only problem with that theory is the economic position of the company. Simply because there are less dancers in the employment pool overall doesn't mean they magically have more money to spend. The dance company still needs seven dancers and still has a fixed budget.

Funding for subsidized organisations is controlled by ACE, their funding is controlled by the DCMS, hence the original question!

Eat Your Greens

On the health care front we have a whole lot of mis-understanding and not a lot of action from anybody.

DanceXchange provided, once a again, about 200 words that had nothing to do with the question. It was all about ".. achieving national and regional health priorities.".

Now that would have been fine if we were spinning the whole "dance is good for you" issue but the question pertains to health care issues and professional dancers. IE: they get hurt a lot, physiotherapy is expensive, the NHS is not much use for on-tap specialist medical care, etc, etc.

DanceBase told us they have treatment rooms that will provide treatment for professional dancers at discounted rates, no fees or figures provided. They also worked out a deal for dancers to get money off from a local physiotherapy practitioner. This "deal" amounts to a £5 reduction on a £45 treatment cost. So that's fixed that problem then because 5 treatments will run the professional dancer £200 from the £380 wage they receive if they're lucky.

Yorkshire Dance told us; "At Yorkshire Dance we have invested heavily in a Dancer's Health project (2008-2010) which was exploring a 'northern' answer to/version off the Dance UK dancers Health Programme."

After some further enquiries it turns out that this "heavy investment" was not money, unsurprising since Yorkshire Dance receives one of the lowest subsidies of all the NDA's, the investment was in time. The outcome of this time investment wasn't made clear.

Many of the NDA's mentioned DanceUK in their responses. Citing that, basically, it was their job to do this lobbying activity and not theirs although they fully supported Dance UK in their endeavors, but not in any tangible way they could illustrate to us.

We first reported on the "The National Centre for Dance Health and Performance" proposed by DanceUK more than three years ago. At the time of writing it is no closer to becoming a reality, mainly because of a lack of funding and vocal support from pretty much anybody.

Three years ago DanceUK put the cost of the programme at £400,000. That's about 1/20th of the cost of the National Dance Network as a whole.

The Tale of the Tape

Throughout the responses we received from the NDA's is a slightly puzzling defensive attitude. Article19 wasn't questioning the need for the NDA's to exist we were asking questions about their position on three particular issues.

Perhaps it speaks to the bunker mentality or the protectionist attitude of arts organisations in the UK that any question that doesn't start with the line "Hi, we would really like to kiss your ass" will be greeted with suspicion and dread in equal measure.

Sadly, the responses paint a picture that the leaders of many NDA's are more than happy with the state of dance in the UK when it comes to these three issues. Even if they were not happy then, evidently, there is very little they could or are willing to do.

Many NDA's are part of the CAT (Centre for Advanced Training) programme that actively encourages young people to seek out a career in professional dance. There's a heavy dose of irony there, somewhere!

Words can go a long way however and simply handing off responsibility to DanceUK at every turn is nothing more than professional buck passing. Yes, their job is one of advocacy but advocacy is gifted a stronger tone when delivered in unison by a rousing chorus of many voices.

It is disappointing that not one agency offered not one single iota of progressive thinking, new ideas or just some plain, old fashioned, crazy day-dreaming.

Nothing along the lines of, for example, recognizing professional dancers as a "special class" in the arts to recognize the fact that their particular skill set and the risks involved in their job may, perhaps, require special treatment by ACE? That means more pay, health insurance, etc.

How about ring fencing DanceUK's funding with the full force of the law so they can really take the gloves off and start pummeling ACE, Equity, DCMS and the NDN cabal as and when they deserve it to really push the issues home?

What's the matter, scared of a little criticism? We could think of them as the National Audit Office for the dance profession.

Let's just remind you one more time, for luck, that the thread holding this profession together is made up of professional dancers. They are not interchangeable, disposable, indestructible or homogenous. If they all sit down as one and say "we're not doing this anymore", the National Dance Network would be royally screwed!

[ Photo by Southside Images ]

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