State of the Arts, Or, Why Most Ballet Companies Will Close Down By The Middle Of This Century

My friend, Stephen sent me a link to this news story about the impending dancers’ strike at the West Australian Ballet Company and has triggered in me a response I’ve now decided to share on this blog. Whilst I have enormous sympathy for the dancers in their struggle to survive on what amounts to a pitiful wage given the level of training and sacrifice required to pursue a career in ballet (even if it is substantially above the poverty line), I think the problems with management of dance are much more complex than the parties at the West Australian Ballet can even begin to understand.

I’ve included part of my conversation with Stephen on this issue below, and have responded to some of his comments following up my email. I’m considering sending this off to a dance journal at some later point.

I think we do need to view the West Australian Ballet (WAB) situation with a perspective on the problem rather than on the victims. It is, after all, a dancer’s choice to pursue his/her career. Some would say it’s a calling (I certainly would have done when I was dancing) but the truth of the matter is that there is a choice, and that there are other options for dancers. As sad as it may be to consider their plight, it is the dancers themselves that willingly submit to the atrocious conditions of their training, their performance regime and, ultimately, their pay.

What we should be more pro-active about, is the rights of dancers and the promotional aspects of their training, as well as the business of arts performance. It is right to consider dancers next to sportspeople, not just because the training is at least as arduous, but because the vast majority of sports operate on a very low to tiny budget on an annual basis. Do not compare them with golfers, tennis players, cricketers or football players because the popularity of those sports fund their development. Instead compare them with lesser-supported sports such as hockey or equestrian events, bowls or softball. Even in these sports the opportunities to sponsor the training of young potentials is explored. Dancers are rarely, if ever sponsored, and only prima ballerinas and premier danceurs ever get commercials. Most of these sports agencies are incorporated associations and non-profit institutions under Australian corporate law, thus they have a strong marketing and management team that seek funding from appropriate institutions for the continuation of their sports. Yet ballet companies the world over are supported by telecommunications companies (why???), mining conglomerates (why???), newspapers and lottery companies. Oh I can understand why such companies want to invest in dance (arts investment produces both a taxation benefit and raises corporate responsibility profile), but why aren’t dance companies being promoted by cultural groups, dancewear manufacturers and makeup companies? And don’t even get me started on dancewear manufacturers not having enough money – they should have merged with major sporting manufacturers like Nike and Adidas YEARS ago.

In terms of arts management, theatres are not adequately supported entities, limiting regular staging of free or subsidised performances for the masses. Arts management is generally a process of 40% grant application writing and report writing to defend funding allocation. The industry itself is full of representatives who see commercialisation of dance as a reduction of creative spirit, instead of seeing it as bread-and-butter income to support creative enterprises. Then where creative spirit is financially supported, the failure rate of creative ventures (often due to personality issues and poor management techniques) is abysmally high. Venture capitalists and corporate sponsors don’t want to throw money at dance because the risk-return ratio is too highly skewed to ‘risk’.

The entire dance sector is an almighty mess. This is why Graham Murphy and Janet Vernon have finally decided to bow out of the Sydney Dance Company (another entity that will probably fall in to disrepair) – and also probably why they should NEVER have been allocated as much influence over company management in the first place. It’s why the WAB dancers are so poorly paid. And it’s why governments and sponsors are less and less likely to invest in the arts. Until the state of dance is given an almighty revamp, the dancers can strike as much as the like: they’ll all be out of a job before the century is half over.

My friend has suggested that dance companies should be appraised against a sport like netball, where there are a large number of participants in the activity to an amateur level, but that very few pursue the career professionally, and most of these have to work at other jobs to make a living at the same time. However, he notes that the competitive nature of netball continues to attract participation in the activity on a long term amateur basis, because people attend matches and support a team of participants. I would agree with that comparison, but I would also argue that there is no reason why ballet cannot also attract participants well into adulthood with adequate classes and opportunities to perform, and there’s also no reason why dance cannot pursue “team” competitive events. Dance companies could be assessed against each other (for artistic expression, innovation, quality and popularity from an audience perspective), and dance educators, physiotherapists, nutritionists and arts management coaches could participate in clinics at such events both to raise awareness and interest in the artform, as well as connecting sponsors with current and future dance stakeholders. This is, after all, how netball and many other sports operate.

My friend also suggested it may be useful for dance companies to call upon the expertise of sports administrators to more clearly benchmark the performance of companies. To some extent, the appointment of Board Members to ballet company executive bodies is supposed to give them that expertise, but clearly the roles and power of Boards and management teams of dance companies in revamping the industry is insufficient. After all, these structures are concerned with the operation of their own enterprises, and do not oversee industry-wide change. This is where a national dance review group may have a role. And certainly, the introduction of advice from sports administration and indeed media and communications company administrations may be of value. If such a body was given sufficient power to create and disseminate policy across ballet companies, both amateur and professional, it may be more likely that a cultural revival for dance would result.

But without such a body, and in pursuing the low intervention approach that characterizes the status quo for contemporary and classical dance in Australia, I foresee the closure, or at least the reduction of quality and investment (commercial or government) in dance over the next forty years. By 2050, I would not be surprised if the Australian Ballet is the only full-time professional company of the land. But the saddest part of this is that the industry itself will be at fault.

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