Dancing of Not Dancing: On Dance Profession in Clientelistic Capitalism

Jelena Mihelčić


Competitiveness as essentially a positive motivator of human natural strivings towards progress is undermining its core – man and nature – with growing intensity. Exponential evolution of technology, instead of making lives easier, dictates the need of an increasingly fast-paced life, becoming more and more difficult for both man and nature to follow. For instance, the pace at which our ancestors lived a few centuries back might not be drastically different from the pace of our grandparents, but comparing the lives of our parents to our own, the differences are quite drastic; imagine now how our children will live? In the economically most developed parts of the world, there are trends, even entire movements, promoting, for example, the importance of sleep since people seem to have forgotten to sleep in their race against time. And nature seems to have forgotten to sleep as well – in moderate climates winter seems to have almost disappeared. What is a sustainable pace of progress? To what extent is it possible to commit to something and what is the place of artistic activity in such an environment?

The collaborative performance collective BADco. in their dance work Spores(Spore)1, choreographed by Nikolina Pristaš, already in the title ironically implies that slowness is today almost a scorned and unfavourable quality of functioning and working. Dancers Lana Hosni, Ana Kreitmeyer and Ivana Pavlović perform an iterative choreography, slowing the perception of time, and their frequent repetition of actions maximise the observer’s attention even to the slightest change. This very accomplishment is in itself a resistance to expectations which art is supposed to meet in such an accelerated environment. Art is expected to be a brief impulse for the senses, a spectacle that primarily entertains and should always stay new and interesting. All which requires deeper focus or longer persistence is immediately rejected as unfavourable investment. However, more important still, such performative persistence in Spores reaffirms the opposing quality of perseverance and dedication to an activity as a true foundation of success and, consequently, progress.

Slowness or a lack of progress is an unfavourable category most of all in economic processes where the phrase “time is money” is taken literally. Therefore, among other things, jobs that do not create recurring and quickly visible added values, like maintenance, are deemed significantly less valuable on the market. The performance Spores thus forefronts one such maintenance job, well known to everyone – cleaning and housework. The dancers aimlessly rearrange objects, move them across the space, refold sheets, wrap and unwrap long bundles of bed linen, shake, lift and put down pillows, turns little lamps on and off, spray white fabrics with some sort of cleanser. Their costumes are white too, resembling a slightly stained pyjama (costume design: Silvio Vujičić). In that sense, the title humorously plays with ambiguity, alluding to the painstaking process of cleaning, whose repetitive goal is a combat with dirt, unwanted bacteria, i.e. spores.

Running in circles

The essential choreographic element of the performance is a turn, extremely implicit to dance, and in ballet even an aim in itself as an illustration of a dancer’s virtuosity, whereas here it is only absurd. The dancers move in an endless loop, trapped in a routine repetition of always the same action – turning in place, mostly while lying on the floor. However, despite the perpetuating movement, they demonstrate a different form of virtuosity, the one that achieves small shifts within the same routine. The performance begins with one dancer turning in place, but with time each of them adds minor individual traits to this initial movement: lifting a leg, shaking a shin, getting up and so forth, as a variation on the theme. However, spatial movement does not exist, everything is circular, subsequent, starting always from the beginning (anyone pursuing dance in Croatia over a longer period of time is familiar with the feeling of running in circlesin terms of working conditions). Their virtuosity is expressed in mutual support. Initially it seems like every dancer is contained within her own trajectory of movement, however their dependence on one another is gradually perceived, to the point when every physical encounter between the three of them turns into a small event. The rotation motif is accentuated by the set design and its large bundles of bed linen, wrapped and unwrapped by the dancers (set designer: Igor Pauška).

If we clean today, tomorrow we will have to do it all over again. Cleaning is a job whose product is temporary and fleeting. Aimlessness, more accurately, a lack of progress in the dancers’ actions is additionally highlighted by the continuous walk backwards. Unlike other forms of work, essentially characterised by some kind of visible progress, cleaning becomes visible only when it is not done. Otherwise it is an invisible, mostly female, work. In Sporesthis invisible woman’s work is revealed, put into the spotlight and under the light of several table lamps placed on the floor, turned on and off by the dancers repetitively and only occasionally shaded by the palms of their hands in a performance space which is gloomy anyway (playing with light, i.e. with visibility in every sense is a certain constant quality in BADco.’s work).

The first moment that a spotlight sheds a stronger light on the stage is a brief segment when the performers leave it and this is the first time we hear them, one on each side, behind the audience surrounding the stage from all four sides. Lana Hosni is singing, Ana Kreitmeyer is whispering and Ivana Pavlović is rubbing her hands or rubbing a fabric near the microphone, so we can hear the rustle of her movements. At the same time, the spotlight is illuminating a pile of wrinkled and dishevelled pillows, sheets and blankets. Otherwise the performers in semi-darkness skilfully manipulate with the props, moving and rearranging them ceaselessly to a pattern known only to them. The structure and cogs, rotated time and again, are like clockwork, unlike the standstill which happens when the dancers are not present on the stage.

Although the analogy between a woman’s housework and dance work is clear and congruent, this dance work nevertheless reflects one misconception. Speaking of work and gender equality, we tend to exclude precarious, heavy male labour and the fact that men die at work more often and generally have shorter life expectancy than women. The feminist outlook tends to neglect the fact that while women perform precision housework, men, both in the household and on the labour market, perform physically more straining jobs.

Cleaning as a form of work is characterised by a certain paradox. Although it is an inevitable part of life we cannot, like sleeping, do without, at least not in the long run, cleaning is among the most devalued forms of work. This is proven by its market status – cleaning is among the cheapest paid jobs by the hour, simply because there is a large number of workers who sell, supply and are able to perform it. By performing maintenance, this dance work on the one hand examines the established supply vs. demand market conditions. The very act of staging such work bestowed it with a new value; poeticising it in the audience’s eyes makes it more important than the lack of qualifications usually accompanying the perception of it.

Unpayable work between creating and resting

The authors of Spores forefront another analogy. The artistic, in this case dance, aesthetisation of housework equals the dance profession to one of the most precarious professions – the cleaners’ – which is mostly economically invisible, located somewhere in the grey area, characterised by the impossibility of exercising workers’ rights, the lack of social protection, as well as health and safety risks and undignified income. A dance artist’s work is in the same real economic context, especially in Croatia, also precarious, uncertain because of mostly occasional engagements, inability to get a higher hourly rate and other workers’ rights related to part-time miserably paid work. Dance artists are often one-man-shows – Spores also created their own dance space, they are their own sound and lighting designers. In addition to light management, the dancers also manipulated with sound (three different electronic samples mixing into one background – music by Helga Hinteregger and Martin Koller), carrying around small speakers. Besides, sometimes we wonder whether they are trying to obscure the light or warm up using its heat. Cold and inadequate rehearsal rooms are quite frequent.

Sporesput on stage a choreography the way the economy treats it as a product. Applying the same market logic on cleaning ladies and on dance artists, the reason for such a treatment lies in the fact that there are apparently more dancers than the market needs or is able to pay.

Consequently, if we observe cleaning as a symbolic representation of all non-creative work implying some kind of creation, something authentic, the performance stages this very non-dancing work a dancer is forced to perform to compensate for the financial cost-inefficiency of dancing, i.e. creativity. Therefore, BADco. in Spores dance their not dancing. The performance shows the flip side of dancing because it shifts the perspective and stages the work that is a prerequisite for dancing, which precedes and follows it. Cleaning is neither creativity nor rest, but all the things in between (the performers take an occasional break, in very short intervals, standing or sitting with their head resting on a pillow). In the most abstract sense, leaning on the American poet Anne Boyer who inspired the authors of this dance work – cleaning is maintenance par excellence which occupies us while we are not creating or sleeping. We maintain our bodies, our relationships with other people and our material possessions. Anne Boyer writes:

“There are years, days, hours, minutes, weeks, moments, and other measures of time spent in the production of “not writing.” Not writing is working, and when not working at paid work working at unpaid work like caring for others, and when not at unpaid work like caring, caring also for a human body and when not caring for a human body many hours, weeks, years, and other measures of time spent caring for the mind (…) Writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men.”2

Only rich and prosperous societies can afford to invest in art and can afford their artists, i.e. dance professionals, a dignified life off their work so that they don’t have to compensate by working other jobs. The Croatian society is not among them, since it has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union and the second lowest GDP (after Bulgaria).

On the other hand, maintenance is a prerequisite for good work as one needs to maintain equipment and tools, which implies the worker, as well, in the sense of their improvement. This is crucial to dance since the human body is the essential and probably the most fragile working tool. A dance artist hence must expose their body to everyday training, and it is routine and repetition that are its primary features.

Precarisation of the profession, and yet far from the market

Apart from pointing to the precarity of the dancing profession and underlining the fragility of its essential working tool, the human body, whose maintenance requires a large portion of working hours, the performance Spores, more or less directly like other recent works on the Croatian dance scene (Glacier/ Glečer) by Pavle Heidler, Ana Horvat, Silvia Marchig, Sonja Pregrad, HOME/ DOMby Sonja Pregrad, Marjana Krajač’s works etc.), with its process-orientation and slowed down pace examines another important issue pertaining to the dancing work, or – more accurately – its product. Just like invisible maintenance cleaning, dance in itself does not have a material product because it constantly vanishes and the art market treats a dance performance as a product, moreover, as an event selling or not selling a sufficient number of tickets and being sold at different dance festivals and showcases. However, we know that not only the very performance is work; rather, it is preceded by a lot of creative work, in the rehearsal room and outside of it, which is also invisible. In a way Spores show us this intangible part, a slow process of choreographic work.

Besides, all things considered, it is difficult to achieve a focused commitment to dance and this is increasingly becoming a luxury, which is why dance creativity is characterised by intermittence and subjected to speed, and consequently to superficiality. Ana Kreitmeyer’s movement in the performance is visibly hesitant, just like the interruptions and discontinuity are an inherent feature of dance profession in Croatia. All three dancers intrude on the work on their turns in a spatial gap between the objects on the scene. They are constantly seeking a space to dance, conditions to work in, intermittently, when they are not doing maintenance. The slowness of Spores, as a consequence of countless repetitions, resists in that aspect as well, demonstrating the very nature of dancing, creative work.

Taking all this into account, the performance Spores opens up many very pertinent questions about dance art in Croatia, plagued by all kinds of problems like the country itself, but also portends the issues to be dealt with increasingly in the near future given the tendency of European countries to rationalise public expenditure, including art, which has as a result become growingly market-dependent.

For now dance art in Croatia, as well as many other segments of work, is far from market functioning. Unlike economically extremely liberal United States, for example, in Croatia dance art is supported by public funds alone coming from state and city budgets and as such does not need to worry about market cost-efficiency and the success of its product. Audience does not need to like dance performances in Croatia or fill auditoriums, these events are not pressured to make money or give money back or in any way fecundate the investment. This money, the way it is, comes from the public treasury and is treated as something artists are naturally entitled to, without asking business questions. The funds are far from excessive since the country itself is not particularly rich, but at least it makes possible to pursue mainly carefree experimentation and a focus on the aesthetical, artistic quality, instead on attracting the masses (this does not of course mean that one thing needs to exclude the other).

On the other hand, such an approach to financing creates a specific market – a customer is a member of a cultural committee awarding funds, which means that this customer is, realistically speaking, the only audience to please and humour. In a small country like Croatia, where everyone knows everyone and collaboration is difficult to avoid, a parallel and very problematic market is being created based on mutual acquaintances and reciprocal relations under the motto ‘one good turn deserves another’ (and this constellation frequently also affects dance criticism, consciously or not). Another problematic aspect of such financing schemes, partly a result of the mentioned, is the nonexistence of clear criteria; anything can pass as process-oriented, experiment and resistance to the market-oriented capitalist regime.

In a country which was in 2016, by the 47% rate of state expenditure in GDP, ninth in the European Union, it is ridiculous to speak about the so-called neoliberal capitalism. In that sense, the state rather than the market is the one that makes a dance artist a precarious worker, as a result of its policy ‘a little bit, but too little to everyone’, without responsibility characterising the allocator of public funds, investing more into overhead expenses and different cultural businessesthan in artistic work. Back to the logic of precarity, implying that precarious workers are the ones supplying the work which is already redundant compared to what can be paid, then less funds for dance should mean less funded performances and not less funds for the same number of performances. To put it simply, there are too many people who want to make a dance performance and be paid from the public treasuries – Croatia as a society cannot afford this, just like 99% of the population cannot afford hired help like cleaning ladies.

Taking this back to the beginning and the notion of competitiveness, this method of financing dance stimulates the progress of the resourceful and not necessarily the talented, as only the ones with favourable political leanings to those in power – who allocate the funds – as well as different other groups in power, can secure better working conditions. Letting the market decide is far from being a better option for contemporary dance art, which is not popular and never will be, just like contemporary visual art, for example. Supporting unmarketable and cost-inefficient arts is definitely a good thing, but the question is to what extent to be fair to the rest of the society, which is and should be on the market, and by what rules – in order to guarantee a better position for the best artistic, in this case dance, work than today.