If choreography is the arrangement of patterns and relationships then decisions about what to charge people for taking part in our work are surely very much part of the choreographic process. The following post is in relation to my own work in particular and to exchanges of artistic practice (classes, workshops, laboratories) in general. Whether these exchanges are clearly distinct from performance I’m not sure.
Last year I organised a series of three hour workshops reflecting on political themes like power and borders using choreographic exercises and scores. The workshops were inspired by the New Dance Group, founded in 1932 in New York, dedicated to social change through dance and movement. Declaring ‘Dance is a Weapon’, their school boasted 300 students taking their ten cent classes combining dance technique with discussions about Marxism. Allowing for inflation, ten cents is about $1.88 today equivalent to £1.10. Which is what I charged for each of my workshops. This was intended as device for bringing attention to the economic systems in which the work took place. But it wasn’t enough to cover my costs and pay me for my time. Afterwards I asked people how much they would be willing to pay for similar workshops in the future and answers varied from the same price to £10 (and £20-30 for a day). So when I decided to follow up these workshops with a series of longer one-day events I had some sense that people would be willing to pay a little more.
So now I’m charging £10 for a one day event. If 12 people come in one day that’s £120 which is still short of the day rates recommended for newly graduated artists by a-n (£191) or for choreographers by Equity/ the Independent Theatre Council (£143). But the reality is that that fewer people will come and my day rate, taking into account the amount of preparation involved, should be higher.
But even if I felt I could get away with charging up to £80 that is typical for a one day workshop in London I’m not sure I would. I want to work with people who might not normally be into this kind of expanded choreography, so I’d rather not have cost as another barrier (it so often is for me). I’m even offering a couple of free places if people really want to come but can’t find a spare a tenner.
It feels like the most likely way to make workshops that pay but are still affordable for participants, is for them to be subsidised.
So I applied for a small grant (a couple of thousand pounds) from Arts Council England (ACE) which would have paid for some of the time invested in the process. It also meant that the participant’s fee needed to be at a certain level to generate the match funding that ACE required. In the end they said I met all the criteria but they “preferred other applications on this occasion.” Not able or willing to wait until they preferred my application, I went ahead and hoped I could find another way to pay my rent.
Fortunately there are organisations who can offer their resources to artists, often thanks to public funding. Shoreditch Town Hall gave me wonderful space for two events, I believe as part of their Evolve programme (funded by the Arts Council) that supports the creation of new work.
Chisenhale Dance Space also gave me some marketing and production help as part of their Allotment programme which nurtures projects led by their members. This kind of support without lots of strings might be relatively small beans for an organisation, but is critical for an independent artist trying to make work on a tiny budget.
As the Arts Council announces its new National Portfolio I am reminded of artist Li E – Chen’s #inventingthefutureofartandculture appeal from 2012 that “the UK’s leading venues, such as the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Barbican Centre, Southbank Centre, and Tate Modern to name a few, should offer a free and non-selective Open Spaces in which artists could come together as equals to explore different arts and learn from each other.”
Suck it up
Another way to make workshops that pay but are still affordable for participants is to subsidise them ourselves. Ideastap recently reminded us, fatalistically, that if you’re working in the arts “You will probably at some point have to exploit yourself or be exploited to get what you want”. Or as Andrew Simonet’s writes in his excellent (free) new book Making Your Life as an Artist we might tell ourselves “Someday I will make it, and I won’t have to worry about money anymore” or “I am lucky to be an artist, and I don’t deserve to be paid well for my time.”
I don’t think this is right but it’s often in the back of my mind.
As well as the romantic notion of artistic will that justifies this underselling – “Nothing makes you a real artist except your devotion to making” writes Simonet – might there be a place for reciprocal altruism amongst artists when offering exchanges of skills and practices? So we’re sharing skills and attention and time but not (so much) money.
I asked Antonio de la Fe about his experience of fees. Antonio runs OPENLAB, a model for professional self-development for performers which is also run on a pay what you can basis here at Chisenhale Dance Space. OPENLAB is interesting for lots of reasons but one of those is that it operates a bit like a co-operative in which everyone has a stake in a shared practice. Antonio told me:
“I started asking for people to share the load of the expenses of the space primarily and to give an incentive to anybody who facilitates OPENLAB. That’s also the reason why I asked people to pay what they possibly could.
I think the model of pay-what-you-can is fair and share the ethos of a collective lab… I don’t think numbers and the interest in the sessions are influenced by this, and people like the idea of contributing.“
I also spoke to Kitty Fedorec who runs the professional Technique Exchange also at Chisenhale. This is also is run on a pay what you can basis but unlike Openlab, Technique Exchange has guest teachers offering different practices each week.
Kitty has blogged about this already but I wanted to know a bit more:
“A few years ago I was very ill and found myself in a position where I wasn’t earning for an extended period of time. One of the things that became an unaffordable luxury was going to class. As a professional performer this is problematic; not only did I loose a great source of pleasure, it is by maintaining and extending your skills that you can be a successfully practicing artist. When I couldn’t afford class I felt alienated from my community, I felt alienated from my body, and I felt alienated from my own work.
Dance in vocational institutions is often taught with a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude. But I think an artistic community can support each other without the individual members losing anything.”
This feels like a key point to me: is there way for artists to share a diversity of skills and practices with each other affordably? Which would mean for example that if I earn less from offering cheap workshops, it doesn’t matter so much if I also have to spend less on workshops being offered cheaply by other people.
Any maybe this is then moving towards something a bit like Timebanking a system in which hours ‘earned’ though work like mentoring children or caring for the elderly, being neighbourly can be ‘spent’ on other community services. Normally this works with the exchange of common skills that have little value in the market. Although we are trying to get dance related skills properly valued in that market there might still be a place for exchanging practices that are common amongst the dance community (e.g. simple body work) or that do not have a high economic value.