It’s All About Resilience – Jo Cork

A contemporary dancer in London, I make the same checks the vast majority of us do; regular visits to the Juice, Article 19, and various other websites to look for auditions. A few weeks ago I caught myself after complaining to a fellow dancer about there being so few posts; Actually, I’ve not checked in about 3 weeks ‘cause I’m so used to there being nothing! Feeling slightly panicked- with a tinge of guilt that maybe there had been heaps of opportunities that I’d let fly by whilst indulgently complaining, I grabbed my laptop and went to my bookmarks. But, as luck would have it, I hadn’t missed a thing! Just two new posts- in 3 weeks- one for a male dancer, one for a mature dancer over 35- I’m out then; feeling both relieved that my complacency hadn’t cost me, and rejuvenated in my frustration and concern that there are so few auditions being advertised at the moment.

We’re in bad times; we all know that. Companies who have contributed invaluably to the industry have been denied their regular funding, start up companies stand slim to no chance of gaining funding, more dancers are out of work so companies are asking artists they know to join them rather than holding an audition, and small project work is few and far between and often paid at a low rate- if at all! I asked myself, what do I need to survive this? -I need to satisfy my creative and artistic needs. I need money. I need to feel positive and active in my professional development.

This Summer, with my internship starting, I’m excited to invest my time and continue to develop my wider skills within a dance space I’m keen to develop a long relationship with. I’m not so chuffed about all the teaching work that gives me a decent living income, ending for the next 10 weeks.

Hang on a minute though- I have my internship; if I wait tables 3-4 days a week, say preferably the afternoons and evenings, I could go to class in the mornings then work, do my internship- and I do have the strong potential of a collaboration with a musician which I’ll have time to explore the other one to two days a week- provided I can afford space hire- ah!- waiting tables will cover that!- Not a bad Summer given there’s no work anyhow! Creative exploration; money; wider skills development and time to take class- ticks in all boxes!

And yet, I purse my lips. Why on earth am I so averse to taking a ‘regular’ job which will afford me the money be an active dance artist!? And why do I have pangs of guilt- even shame- about trying to financially sustain myself when the low pay and lack of work in our industry is something all of us are all too aware of?

We often hear “It’s all about resilience in this industry.” But how exactly do we keep going, and keep growing as artists, whilst surviving financially in times of little or no performance work? And can we retain our pride and self-worth as “artists” while doing so, and not feel judged as failing or giving up? In this blog I’m going to be discussing and exploring what it means to be a resilient dance artist, how we ensure our survival and growth and what we think of ourselves- and others- when we do it.

When I graduated, I felt eternally grateful to my lecturers for teaching me the value of gaining wider skills and the importance of striving to become an independent dance artist. I would hear, and read about their work, and marvel at how they seemed to pull things off; “We just sorted out that space, then contacted these dancers, had a friend of a friend do some advertising materials, played in the studio and off we went into a performance piece that’s been written about umpteen times since.” What initiative! And guts- they made things happen… by themselves! Plunging head on into unfamiliar territory, they disassembled barriers in their way piece by piece and ploughed through the motions, learning along the way, in order to perform but also, produce, direct, market, and manage their event, and ensure the further growth of their vision by inviting appropriate people, networking, facilitating forums and artists’ dissemination, and documenting and archiving their work.

In my first few months out of training, I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to train as, and become, a dance in health practitioner on a fantastic project working in partnership with the NHS. I was proud to widen my experience; I considered it artistic growth; an alternative application of the skills I’d worked hard for; money off the back of it (enough to fund going to auditions and paying for additional courses and classes) and great professional development of skills that could become, or feed into, a long-term dance career when performing became impossible or lost it’s appeal. Never once did it occur to me that this would make me any less of an artist, or worse, a failed artist!

In thinking on the issue of jobs for dancers, it occurred to me that being a dance artist is a much bigger, or broader, thing than being solely a dance performer, which, actually, very few people successfully do. When past your best performance years, a dancer only concerned with performance will most likely re-train in an unrelated field, or begin- at that point- to develop their teaching, choreography and/or management skills. Being a dance artist requires consistently seeking- and bleeding dry opportunities to become an independent artist who, when not performing, is able to financially survive and satisfy their artistic needs. A dance artist actively seeks longevity! They seek to grow as broadly as possible and value the opportunity to expose themselves to the many facets of our industry through wider training, and to allow those experiences to nurture and enrich their practice.

A dancer who develops a strong interest in inclusive dance: Perhaps they decide “For three years, I’m going to invest my time in becoming a brilliant Inclusive Dance practitioner- teach lots, maybe down the line, look at doing some community projects, and then look to set up my own business.” Is this person any less of an artist because they’ve actively decided not to perform or create? By whose merits?! Aren’t they simply following their own creativity to find their place of belonging in the industry- to satisfy their artistic needs? To build their resilience and create a situation where they can use their dance skills and artistic practice on a daily basis in a way they choose to?

How can it be that only performers and choreographers, who do solely that, are the only ones who can be called artists when actually, it is the development and application of wider skills which has made so many of the well-known people in our industry come to fruition? Take Green Candle Dance Company for example, or Candoco, or Siobhan Davies, Jasmin Vardimon- there are countless!

And so again I find myself thinking about the dull old ‘regular’ job and whether taking it over Summer, as a job which doesn’t directly feed my wider skills, really does label me as failing or giving up. Is it really okay for an ‘artist’ to do a ‘regular job’? If they do, can they still call themselves an artist?

My gripe with this is that I have that longevity in focus… If a ‘regular’ job, and the financial support it offers, is part of a construct that enables me to afford the costs of creating with collaborators, training, developing through my internship and growing whilst I don’t have my regular income, can anyone validly claim taking that job inhibits me from being an artist? And importantly… If they do, do I agree with them?- Or am I confident enough in my intentions and execution to know my place as an artist is not questionable?

Acknowledging, following and indeed, valuing, your individual artistic path as one that will lead you toward being the best artist you can be, seems paramount in becoming truly resilient. Feeling self-assured in your direction is what will help you escape feeling judged by others.  –If you know where you’re going, do you really care if others don’t see your path?

There are many different facets to being a dance artist. It’s not simply about being a technician who can retain movements and somehow develop and transpose a relevant performance quality into the sequences they execute.  Perhaps, at the risk of being controversial, this is what a ‘dancer’ is; in itself an admirable feat- but anyone who proudly calls themselves a dance artist will undoubtedly endeavor to have a broader experience of the world of dance.

We all know artists who shock us when they say “Ah, I’m struggling for performance work at the moment”- surely they should be fighting off offers all year round?! Such is this precarious industry of ours. The only way we can financially survive and surface with pride in careers, and ourselves, is to find many a pie in which to dip our fingers!

The very nature of our industry forces us to instinctively employ our creativity in how we seek opportunities, particularly in times of little or no performance work; finding websites for artists of different mediums to look for that possible collaborative opportunity; learning new skills, perhaps circus or acting, for that all-important versatility; exploring different practices, like somatics, to add depth and substance to our knowledge and artistry; emailing companies to request to join company class or to observe rehearsals, knowing that sometimes an introduction at the right time is all you need; agreeing to unpaid, or low paid, Research and Development periods in that hope that we all know so well: Maybe something will come of it… We seek to make our own work, seek support from peers and colleagues, and to offer them our support; we develop our teaching skills, writing skills, perhaps for reviewing or article writing, we muse, enthusiastically; we find that before we’ve realized it, we’ve put ourselves in the position of Project Manager, or Publicist, or Designer, and with covert panic are suddenly teaching ourselves on the job… Is it not this quality, this intuition and tenacity, which separates us from the dance artists who love what they do, but don’t quite love it enough to willingly withstand the slaps in the face the industry so generously offers up? Is it not this quality, which defines our resilience and allows us to successfully continue as active artists?

And yet my friend, a demonstration of the qualities latterly described, can admit that they feel embarrassed about telling fellow artists about their subsidy job; that they actively avoid telling others about it at all. Why, within our own circles of people who live the same lifestyle, do we judge and feel judged?!

There is a very prominent problem when I attempt to compare my success with that of high school friends; my pay grade and employment status may not bare any correlation to my job satisfaction or success… Last year I was called by a University Student Destination surveyor: What’s your main job? You mean the job that earns me most money, or the job that I value most at the moment? Err… Well aren’t they the same thing? No. Oh. Ok, the job that you consider most important… But you earn more doing the other?… I’m really sorry, I don’t understand… Fair enough- I say- with familiar exasperation.

At the time I had seven different jobs; some paid well, some poorly; together they gave me financial stability and broad experience, fulfilling me artistically and giving me endless opportunities for growth. But truly valuing low-paid jobs is, understandably, a difficult concept to understand for those in the ‘normal’ world of work.

Is this where the shame some of us feel for doing that regular job outside of the arts arena, comes from? The knowledge that those pure money-earners are predominantly jobs we could have skillfully done at 16 years old? Perhaps. But like the surveyor, when explaining our situations to non-artists, and even fellow-artists, do we become preoccupied with the money-earner being the ‘main’ job and forget that actually the value in our careers is often in the short-term, unconfirmed, sporadic, or unpaid pies we have our fingers in? The pure money-earners aren’t ever intended to be a valued part of our career plan; they may be integral in that they allow us to financially survive and afford our artistic endeavors; but they certainly go no way to defining our success or failure.

Are we foolishly getting caught up in the habit of ‘being aware of our audience’ and forgetting what we value when telling people about our work?!

Perhaps the solution lies in opening our minds a little to the term “dance artist”- not being so brazenly hypercritical of the ways artists- the ways we– handle our difficult financial reality and strategically build our wider skills and potential for longevity- and respecting a little more, the massive commitment and drive it takes to be that ”resilient artist”, who in the face of adversity will employ all their ingenuity to create or find opportunities to satisfy their artistic needs and to seek greater career and artistic development; who will do what is necessary, be it teaching or bar-tending, to pay their bills and space hire; who will fight to become an integral and esteemed part of the structures within the dance industry to make themselves independently steadfast in their career status, without ever getting close to genuinely considering the option of ‘giving up’.  Let us value that resilience far over the functional coping strategy of a ‘regular job’, so that the mention of subsidy work is not perceived- or projected– as a defining factor of our artistic success.