The EvilImp™ 'Essentially Worthless?'

It was suitably ironic that following our feature piece last week concerning the problems with professional dancers trying to find properly paid, full-time jobs an audition landed in our inbox from The Royal Opera House in London.

This particular audition, seeking 6 female dancers for the staging of an opera called 'Anna Nicole', was offering a weekly pay level of just £358.72.

The situation echoed a previous incident from 2012 when English National Opera was caught out paying professional dancers even less per week. On both occasions the weekly amount and the additional, also very poor, performance fees were negotiated by Equity, the performing arts union.

Article19 published the audition notice to highlight the comically bad pay level, particularly for dancers working in London. Ultimately it has to be a dancers decision whether or not to apply for a job but in this instance the pathetic amount of money being offered needed to highlighted.

Unusually, The Royal Opera House responded directly on Twitter when Article19 and many others pointed out the poor level of pay;

You know you are on the wrong side of a particular argument when your only defence is little more than "yeah, we know this is terrible but these other guys said it was ok so don't blame us".

The defence deployed by the communications team at The Royal Opera House is one typically reserved for commercial corporations caught dumping toxic waste in a river. Yes the waste was toxic, they would say, but the regulator says it's ok as long as we only dump a little bit of toxic waste.

Irrespective of what a regulator says surely we can all get together and agree that no amount of toxic waste dumping in a river is ok?

The salaries of senior executives in large scale organisations like The Royal Opera House are determined by "renumeration committees". Essentially, a group of people have a long chat about what a particular individual is worth.

At some point the renumeration committee at the ROH decided their Music Director Antonio Poppano was worth over £700,000 per year. Mr Poppano is the conductor of the opera that wants to pay 6 professional dancers a basic wage of just £358.72.

The Royal Opera House receives more than £20Million in annual subsidy from Arts Council England and at some point a meeting was had that determined these 6 professional dancers were pretty much worthless.

Poverty of Ethics

Following the publication of the audition for the ROH we received two further notices from project based companies, one based in the UK and one based in the Republic of Ireland.

Both of those companies were offering pay levels in excess of £500 per week and, in one instance, accommodation costs for those not based in the company's local area.

Why is it that project based companies with incredibly tight budgets can afford to pay more than the mighty Royal Opera? The answer is fairly simple.

The choreographers on those projects ignore Equity and all of the other advisory bodies and budget their dancers pay at a level that is as fair as they can possibly make it given the constraints of their budgets.

More often than not the dance makers sending out these auditions are dancers themselves and know only too well the problems of low pay and trying to survive as you move from job to job.

Determining the level of pay for an individual is just as much of an ethical and moral decision as it is a financial one. As one individual said during the recent furore over dancers not being paid to appear in a music video for Kylie Minogue; if they don't want to pay you, they basically think what you have to offer is worthless.

Dancers living and working in London have to cope with some of the highest living costs anywhere in the world. Even a single room in a house share can cost in excess of £800 a month. It is these simple and irrefutable facts that make the Royal Opera House's pay offer even more pathetic.

Today Article19 received an email from the Chorus Manager of the Royal Opera; Dermot Agnew. He asked us to amend the notice because they had received a large amount of interest in the jobs being offered.

This is as depressing as it is predictable.

In the job market the dancers are always at a disadvantage and employers like the ROH know this. It's how they get away with it.

Mr Agnew said he had a "lot of girls inquiring". He was informed in no uncertain terms that not only was the notice not going to be amended, but referring to professional dancers as "girls" was something he shouldn't do ever again.

The complete and utter lack of respect is palpable.

  • E

    ..a couple of things... negotiation is about leverage, and Equity currently have ZERO leverage in any negotiation for dancers. Why? Because barely any dancers are members!! Because barely any dancers complain!! ENO, ROH essentially pay dancers whatever they want, because they know they can get away with it. Not because Equity aren't doing their job, but because the companies will drop Equity contracts for dancers altogether if Equity demand too much. They have no requirement to use Equity contracts, because we don't demand it as an industry and as individual workers!

    What can we do?

    Don't just NOT apply out of protest.! That will not change anything. If you want the job, then apply, audition, and accept the job. Make sure you are an Equity member, then request (from Equity) to find out the cast list and find out who your colleagues will be.
    Then NEGOTIATE the rate AS A GROUP! This is the only affective, professional way to change anything without risking becoming 'the one who causes trouble' which everyone is terrified of, incase it makes you unemployable.
    Dancers need to start using the Equity Deputy system like everyone else in the industry, then employers will know they can't just get away with these crappy, outdated, non-living wage rates, and Equity will have leverage when it come to negotiating!
    This system was initiated for the first time for dancers in opera last year on two productions. Equity are working hard towards changing these situations. But the opera contracts are short, and you have a new cast for each production to try and unionise. Equity are launching a new campaign to tackle this later in the year.. watch this space.

    Dancer mentality needs to change.

  • Sorry but you don't get to blame this on professional dancers. Yes, there is a lot to be said for speaking up and demanding change but the rates in both cases were negotiated by Equity. They said these rates were ok and when we spoke with Equity about the ENO situation not once did they come back with the excuse that they had no leverage because not enough dancers were members.

    Also, the whole point of the union doing the negotiating is to prevent the type of situation you highlight, an individual being singled out as a trouble maker. If Equity are so concerned about their contracts being dropped, as you put it, because they demand proper wages then that is a situation Equity needs to address. Have they been specifically threatened with this type of retribution? If so they need to say so and do something about that. Again, when we spoke to them they made no mention of any of this.

    At this moment in time Equity does not have the negotiating chops or the strength to stick of for the dancers who are members. So dancers look at Equity and think, why bother?

    It works both ways.

  • E

    ..the long and short of it is that Equity, like any other Union, is a democratic structure, and its negotiations are made by its members. By the members who are on the committees and council. If there are no working dancers on those committees, then they are going to be crap negotiations. And currently there is not even a designated Dancer committee!

    I don't mean to blame professional dancers at all.. There was an open meeting for dancers working in opera organised by Equity at the time of your article, and it was my very clear impression that if dramatic wage increases were demanded (which is what is required) then yes the house agreement could be dropped, and then Equity would have absolutely no influence over conditions/future negotiations whatsoever.

    I know that there are members working very hard with Equity to address this, and we had success in renegotiating an improved rate mid contract last year.
    All I'm trying to say is that there is no option for Equity to say "this cast should take strike action if 'the company' continue to offer £325 per week" because you are only likely to find 1 Equity member in a cast of 10 if you are lucky, and they are not able to represent the other 9.

    I agree there is definitely more that needs to be done by Equity, and they are.. I just think we need to work with Equity, and ENCOURAGE people to use Equity if we ever want things to change.

  • Lostones

    Some basic maths.... £700'000 p/a = £13'461.54 per week, Which is over 37 times more than what a dancer could earn... Surely he's not THAT valuable? Or if he is - and although its a LOT of money, and this is the ROH after all and its a national flagship for British culture (apparently) it hardly in the leauge of bankers and so on... shouldn't they aim to be paying dancer MORE than the equity minimum... In fact... Can we talk about equity as well... Does it/Can it DO anything about raising minimum wages with big ballet companies and institutions... It doesn't seem like it can

  • Judging by the response of Equity to the last scandal of low pay at English National Opera then we wouldn't hold out much hope -->

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