06/08/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

The Poorest Art: Dance And Money (III)

When people find out I'm writing about dance and money, they whisper bold-name stories off the record. I hear about poor-playing trust fund babies, rebels with golden parachutes. A friend uses her grant to pay off debt; the granting organization frowns. When the area's biggest dance patron walks into the room, another friend says, "people drop their baby, they drop their pants and run over."

"You need money to do this long," another concludes. But even if you have money, the trouble's not over, because nonprofits have to keep a certain balance of public and private funding; you can't funnel your trust fund straight into your company. The result: salaries in the books that don't get drawn, donation swaps, creative accounting.

Dancers past the age of wisdom husband-shop. Sugar-mommas and sugar-daddies: if no one knows how that choreographer pays the bills, it's a safe bet he doesn't. Or maybe you're desperate to have a child: look in the audience, not around the dressing room, for your sperm donor. A company director, finally divorcing her moneybags husband, is drawing her salary for the first time; everyone at her company scrambles.

Another dancer-choreographer tells me about the lure and trap of the service industry, one of the few fields in which being a dancer, with all that implies (physical fitness, attraction, style), is an advantage. Teaching dance is another, and teaching pays $25 an hour -- but this doesn't include prep time, travel, and parking, so unless you teach multiple classes at one school, you're barely clearing $8 an hour. So it's hard to resist service, even though it beats up your body, even though it leaves you with a resume that qualifies you for nothing but more service jobs.

One more story: a dancer-choreographer here fell in love with a big-name New York indie choreographer. He decided to quit his own art and learn high finance to support her. His last few performances in town, he wore stockbroker suits and refused to smile.

But it's right that financial pressure should drive some people out of art-making, isn't it? It's right that not everyone who wants to can make a living at this. Otherwise, we'd be flooded with dancers. In other countries other forces winnow the aspirants -- critical opinion, early auditions of the Russian ballet-academy type. Americans always stare in horror at the spectacle of ballet-mistresses picking through ranks of eight-year-olds, tossing out the pudgy, the knock-kneed, the inflexible. Here, we let the market sort things out.

If you don't like the numbers I've been tossing out, tough: this is what dance is worth here. Lots of people want to do this work, and Americans don't want to buy or fund that much of it.

So: come the dance apocalypse, what would last? Who are, so to speak, the dance cockroaches? Kristin is half of a duo known for performing in cabarets, under bridges, in any old tiny space, and also on some important stages: at New York's DTW, for one. Kristin and her partner have gotten just about every choreographic award you can get around here. But their budget is so tiny that they're not even a nonprofit -- and that's true of practically everyone in the contemporary dance scene (or call them postmodernists, avant-garde, downtown dance).

"Frugality is more efficient than fundraising" for Kristin. "The entanglements, the final reports" -- even state grants are off the map because of their ever-increasing paperwork, their false accountability. What you really want is to be able to stuff your work sample in an envelope, with "MORE LIKE THIS" sharpied on it, but these days you need a complete plan, with a budget and a timeline -- i.e., a bunch of b.s. -- testifying to how you will "feed the starving children with my dance," as Kristin puts it. What does this do to the work? For Kristin, the damage isn't worth the money.

Instead, she and her partner don't make big dances. They use themselves as performers; they wear thrift-store castoffs for costumes and do without scenery and set (except when they use a glue gun to paste together more thrift-store detritus); sound is lo-fi, self-mixed, and lights are basic white. They're so used to making work at this subsistence level, in fact, that they don't even know what to do with more when they get it. When they performed at DTW, designers were waiting on their commands, but they couldn't think of what to ask for. They have no annual budget. Money they get from teaching, the occasional grant, dancing for other people, etc., goes into a fund, which they dole out as they need it.

How much does Kristin make? $20,000. She's over 40. How do you survive? I ask her. She manages a bar, teaches, and lives "in a shithole." No vacations, no children, and "I'll never be able to retire. I'm making a decision to be that 80-year-old working at the 7-11."

So much more to say: how dance funding works in Europe, or the intertwined histories of dance and prostitution, how gentlemen used to go to the ballet to pick out their companion for the evening. If I were as forthcoming as my sources were with me, perhaps I could try to justify why I should get paid more for reviewing than many dancers do for performing.

I've barely scratched the surface of why dance isn't worth much here -- you could write a book on that alone, stretching through the history of American theater, the typical devaluation of work associated with women, and recent crises in art funding.

I used to joke that if you marked a twenty dollar bill and used it to pay to see a performance, two years later you could go back and find that same twenty still making the rounds of the dance community. People share here: they barter daycare, food, bodywork, classes, banking favors for the time when they'll need help. Dancers know how to do a lot -- how to stage-manage, how to light, shoot film, sew, build sets, design sound -- because they've had to learn in order to put on their own shows or to lend a hand, because no one can afford to pay. But they do pay too: they pay to see each other's shows, eight, twelve, twenty dollars ungrudgingly, turned out in thrift shop finery for each other's moments of glory. And they love what they do. "I'm very lucky," one dancer keeps telling me. Penny finds dance economics "painful," but "It's my pleasure to do what I do" -- however little the world pays her for it.

I almost kept that last quotation to myself. I have a secret fear that if I convince you of the poverty of dance, it won't matter, because you'll picture the sacrificial woman, the woman who can't afford to be well, who dresses in secondhand silk, the woman who passes up children for her art -- and no one minds her. We're so used to that archetype that we think the sacrifice actually helps her make art.

Or maybe it's something more sinister. Lately, I've seen more and more performances in which risk and exhaustion, instead of being side effects, are selling points. I feel the audience around me thrill to the unsustainable spectacle -- bodies flying around, air vibrating with excess energy. Youth burnt alive onstage! the poster out front might as well say. And this sense that what we are watching cannot last, that it's prodigal, plays into our Puritan national ethos: bonfire of the vanities. The flesh must be mortified.