By Leda Meredith
“If you care so much about the money, you must not care about your art.”
That astonishing statement was made by the executive director of a dance company with whom I was about to embark on a six week tour. It was in response to a question I’d asked about when we would be paid while we were on the road. I was trying to take care of the practical details such as how to cover my rent and bills while I was traveling. The last thing I was expecting was an attack on my motivation as an artist!
I wish I could say that this director’s statement was a bizarre exception to the prevalent attitude toward dancers and money, but experience tells me otherwise. The artist-starving-for-their-art myth has lodged in the subconscious of dancers and non-dancers alike.
The fact is that dancers are often willing to work for free, or for less than a living wage, simply because they are desperate for a chance to perform. The logic is that a dancer’s career is short, and one must fill it with as many dances as possible. “There are more dancers than there are jobs” is a common observation.
Imagine that you are going to hire someone whose job requires years of intense and specialized training before they begin to work in their field. Now imagine that this person has, in addition to that training, years of professional experience and comes highly recommended. What would you expect to pay?
Would you pay an architect less because they happened to love designing buildings?
Within the dance world, one often hears that there is a lack of funding for the arts. Is there? Paintings sell for millions of dollars, Broadway shows sell at $60 a ticket, and more than a few film actors will be receiving residual payments for their performances for years to come. And let’s not forget that the ubiquitous Nutcracker continues to support dance companies whose other, perhaps more interesting, concerts lose money.
I’ve also heard that the reason funding for dance continues to dwindle is because dance doesn’t provide an “essential” such as food, shelter, or military defense. I know for a fact that people are willing to spend money on “non-essentials”. A designer dress can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. An interior decorator can charge more per hour than any dancer would dream of asking. And I would argue that dance has the potential to provide something profoundly essential if you value your heart and spirit, two parts of a human being that are rarely factored into today’s economics.
I confess that I’ve postponed writing this article for many weeks because I don’t have any immediate solutions to offer to these issues. But sometimes it is helpful simply to begin raising the questions.
Three things seem clear to me: dancers need to begin valuing their work, we need audiences that are moved and delighted by dance, and the dances that will move and delight them.
As a performer, Leda Meredith’s career spans contemporary dance, classical ballet, and theatre. Her performances have taken her to twenty-five countries on four continents. She has been a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre II, Edward Villella, Manhattan Ballet, Dances Patrelle, and others. She was a company member of Jennifer Muller/The Works for over seven years, and originated numerous roles in the repertory. She returned as Artistic Associate Director for the company’s 25th anniversary season in 1999-2000. Her piece Lullabye Lane, premiered as part of Jennifer Muller/The Works 25th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater in New York. With original music by composer James Sasser, Lullabye Lane marked their seventh collaboration. They recently completed the full evening work Small Talk At The Volcano. In Spring 2000 she co-created a cabaret style piece entitled All About Angels and Eggs, with Michael Jahoda and Maria Naidu at Dansatelier in Rotterdam. Other choreographic credits include works for Malaparte Theatre Company, the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York, Dixon Place, Peridance International, the Hatch Saturday Series, First Fridays at Five, and the Arts on the Hudson Festival.
She is a returning guest instructor for the Henny Jurriens Stichting in Amsterdam, Western Washington University; and Dance Loft in Rorschach, Switzerland. Leda is currently on faculty with Ballet Academy East. She has taught as part of the 1996 Iles de Danse in France, and for the Artist’s Trusts International Course in England. In December, 1999 she was guest instructor for Carolyn Carlsons Atelier de Paris. Other dance programs she has taught for include the California State University at Los Angeles, and Brigham Young University in Hawaii.