Most social problems humanity is facing today are the unsolved conflicts of the past, which have accumulated over the years and escalated due to the world crisis. The most famous examples would be the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, fighting racism and sexual harassment respectively.
Let us look into certain loud cases in the world of dance, which brought visible change and made theatres advance towards fairer conditions for their performers.
Yvonne Rainer, Marina Abramović and the exploitation of performers
In 2011, Marina Abramović was invited to direct a performance for MOCA Annual Gala, which is traditionally attended by stars, collectors and the museum’s donors. For this occasion, the artist reconstructed and expanded her famous performance “Nude with Skeleton” (2002): six naked people were put onto six different tables and covered with artificial skeletons; other tables, where the guests would eat and drink, were decorated with people’s heads (the performers’ bodies were hidden under the tables with only the heads sticking out). Other participants would dress the audience in lab coats and shout the artist’s manifesto when needed.
Out of 800 participation entries, Abramović only accepted 200. However, some artists later declined to participate. It turned out that while a single Gala ticket ranged in price from 2500$ to 10000$, performers were offered merely150$ for 15 hours of rehearsals and 4 hours of performance during which they had no right to react to any indecent interactions towards them.
A dancer named Sarah Wookey, who had also signed up for the show, informed her teacher Yvonne Rainer, a choreographer and a pioneer of American postmodern dance, of such conditions. Rainer addressed the museum with an open letter, in which she called it “exploitation, verging on criminality”, and spread it among her colleagues as well.
Although the Gala took place anyway, this incident raised awareness concerning the exploitation of freelance performers. Nowadays, most European countries have established organizations protecting the rights of independent artists by implementing floor rate, insurance, and pension support. Nevertheless, this spring has shown that despite all of these measures, conditions for freelance dancers could have been better. With most events canceled due to the pandemic, they are left adrift with no means of income of social protection.
Pension reform in France
In December 2019, French government under Emmanuel Macron presented a bill offering broad changes to France's pension system. The result of the system would increase retirement age of Paris Opera performers from 42 to 62 years. Their job specificity, though, was not suitable for it at all: a 42-year-old ballet dancer, who started back at the age of 10, is not physically capable of performing as skillfully as before, especially since they get injured regularly.
The government offered the performers to master alternative trades to take them up upon the end of their theatrical career. That meant that an ex-artist who reached 42 years old, if unable to perform, teach or choreograph, would be left at square one.
Ballet dancers, accompanied by musicians and opera singers, joined the December pension reform strike. Paris Opera had no choice but to cancel 70 shows, losing around 15 million euros. One of the most notable events of the strike was the performance of “Snow Lake” fragments by the opera’s dancers on the steps of the Palais Garnier in front of banners reading "culture in danger".
In January 2020, Macron suspended the bill, but the problem stays relevant, and not only for France, but also for many other countries. When it comes to Paris Opera ballet dancers, upon retirement, they receive monthly payments equal to 45 to 48 percent of their top salaries. Such system is “looked to as a dream or a fantasy” by American dancers, according to Griff Braun from American Guild of Musical Artists. Even top companies only sign dance contracts for a year, with the possibility of extension.
The recent years have brought to light the existence of small projects and organizations aimed at supporting former dancers in their retirement. New areas of dance industry are forming, such as dance medicine and dance therapy, which allow ex-dancers to stay in the field while also expanding the range of their activities and skills. Additionally, thanks to the Internet, many of them can find the audience to spread information about dance, share their experience and motivate others.
In 2018, The Guardian released an article called “Death of the dance dictators: ballet in the wake of #MeToo”. It described the ballet dancers’ allegations towards the seniors of big ballet companies, who have been crossing the line, and explained why it happens so.
Hierarchy is obviously inherent to the ballet world. You cannot bad-mouth a senior and think it won’t affect your career. In 2018, a group of 20 ex-participants of Jan Fabre’s dance troupe wrote an open letter accusing Fabre of bullying, sexism, and harassment. However, the present members of the troupe did not show any signs of support, despite the contents describing the events of the recent 15 years. “No sex, no solo”, “All forms of life must be respected, also women” are some of many of Fabre’s statements mentioned there.
The dance industry has already heard of some of his peculiar approach, like asking for quite intimate things even at auditions. Before #MeToo influence, the performers would rather leave the company when things started going too far. Fabre himself considers it his artistic strategy and thinks that accusations like the mentioned letter only ruin the relationship between the director and the performers.
The Fabre scandal occurred following his interview for VTR, in which he claimed that people are too sensitive nowadays and he cannot allow himself to do what he used to do back in the days. Royal Opera House artistic director Kevin O’Hare expressed similar opinion: “In the old days, we might have tried to smooth it over. Now, even if it’s a great choreographer we say, no, they have to go.”
Another steadily emerging problem is the extreme conditions of ballet schools, in which students are taught to accept any means of discipline. In 2019, Simona Noja-Nebyla was scandalously removed from the position of the managing director of Vienna Ballet Academy. An independent commission found out that the students were physically and mentally abused: beat, bullied, forced to starve and smoke for weight loss. The institution only engaged psychologists after a major scandal.
The genre of ballet emerged during the era of monarchy. Thus, rather than wondering why it is in such state, we should be wondering why it’s so slow to change, given modern possibilities. Progress gave us multiple ways to communicate our thoughts openly, so it’s not like the limits are getting stricter, it’s the people who can express themselves and bring up the problems more. It is true that every dancer and every choreographer has their own thoughts and opinions, those are often different and contradicting. But let us not forget that people in dance industry do not work on equal terms. If you used to think dancers have nothing to care about but weight, injuries and career success, now it’s time to reconsider.