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The Poorest Art: Dance And Money (II)

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A recent NPR Marketplace Money report cited $60,000 as a starting salary for ballet dancers. Where this number came from, unless it was abroad (where dancers are better paid) or the New York City Ballet, the top company in the U.S. (and one with a 52-week contract), I can't fathom. But then, much in this report, which focused on the ballet Grand Prix film First Position, describes a dance world I don't recognize, and one in which I suspect ballet parents are being bilked for all they're worth.

For example, tutus can cost, as this report notes, $2,000 to build, but few dancers own their own. In fact, many companies don't own more than a few; they rent or borrow for tutu-intensive productions. I remember being a Sleeping Beauty fairy in a costume that sparkled from a distance but up close looked like it had been salvaged from a shipwreck. The local civic ballet still trots out the same Sugarplum tutu built for the company's very first Sugarplum -- who is now directing the company, and whose adult daughter wore the costume (clanking with rows of hook-and-eye armor across its bodice) last year.

Let's turn to another aspect of dance and money: dance companies. Most people think dance companies make money on performances. If you recall that most dance companies are nonprofits, you'll realize this can't be the case. So maybe the performance breaks even -- but that can't be right either, or what would all those donations be for? The unavoidable truth dawns: despite the box office, companies lose money on performances (with the sometime exception of The Nutcracker).

How much do they lose? Ananya runs a company with a budget of $115,000. Some of this money pays for the company's one full-time employee, and some goes to touring, outreach, and workshops. Fully $70,000 to $80,000 of the budget is consumed by the company's one annual performance (three or four shows of a new evening-length work). Box office receipts, once the ticketing agency has taken its cut, amount to $7,000 or $10,000. The company loses $60,000 to $70,000 on the performance.

Tell non-dancers this and they're flummoxed. What if the company performed a few more weekends? Wouldn't they take in more? No: theater rental, equipment rental (the portable flooring dancers need, sound equipment), and support staff (stage manager, box office, tech) would eat up the extra receipts. Could Ananya spend less? That $70,000 to $80,000 covers a lot -- costume and set design and building, music, any major collaborators, publicity and documentation, not to mention the dancers. Cut the amount and you cut the look and feel.

Ananya's hardly a spendthrift: her $115,000 budget, though it may sound like a lot, actually puts her below the lowest rung at which the state arts board offers organizational support --regular funding that puts a company on a firmer footing. Ananya has only one sure source of income, which offers $15,000 a year. For the other $90,000, she starts from scratch, every year. What is this like? "It's the most frustrating and scary thing on the face of the earth," she says. She chases grants of all sizes and types. She hunts for donations, but her work -- political activist -- and the convictions from which this work arises keep her from applying for the corporate support (from 3M, General Mills, Target) that funds many larger dance companies. Her company's patrons and friends don't have money; she's never gotten a donation of even $5,000. This year, for the first time, she's trying a Kickstarter. It's a good thing Ananya has a university job, because she can't afford to pay herself, even though for the three months leading up to a performance, she puts in at least 40 hours a week; her time goes in the books as an in-kind donation.

Little companies like Ananya's, below the bar of semi-permanent funding, face the abyss every year. But as she points out, bigger companies trade artistic freedom for financial security. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ballet, the most expensive and, by no coincidence, most conservative dance form in America. You want to innovate in ballet? Fine, but remember who's going to sign the checks, and what they look for when they go to the ballet, and keep your innovations apolitical, mostly heterosexual, upbeat (a little gloom and grit is sexy, but steer clear of real despair), and easy on the eyes.

One of the better-known American ballet companies came to town a few years ago and packed the biggest local auditorium. Being a critic, I was down on the floor, among glittering sorts I never see at the cabaret. They practically sighed with relief and pleasure when the curtain went up and out stepped money -- gorgeous costumes, astonishing dancers, clear hierarchies, familiar values. But what I saw was shocking: all the talent and hard work of these dancers given over to the performance of vacant schlock -- not ballet classics, which, with their icy strangeness, can offer their own sort of challenge to audiences, but modern junk, new work for people who think they know better but in fact only know less. It was heart-breaking, disgraceful, a tonier So You Think You Can Dance.

Some choreographers in America, funded by ambitious contemporary arts centers (the Wexner, the Walker, BAM), can do radical work fearlessly. Ananya calls them "the anointed few;" there are, she says, no more than 50 people in the U.S. in this category.

Ananya's been running her company for 10 years. Ten years of bold new work, community outreach, dance training, invention, heart, sweat. She doesn't know how long she can keep going. But "If I'm going to survive, I'm going to survive like this," she says.