PRECARIOUS DANCE WORKERS: BETWEEN SOCIAL SENSITIVITY AND ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY
The famous quote from the Gospel of Matthew “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”1 was Christ’s answer to the aggressive Devil after 40 days of famishing in the desert, his refusal of the Devil’s indecent proposal to turn stone into bread. Inside a need for spiritual food, finding a sense in life, leaving a routine, tracing new and different outlooks and realisations, spiritedness and spirituality, spans a space of artistic activity. An artist (once a shaman, priest, spiritual leader) communicates with his community, filters dense time and space, draws our memory, tries to articulate intricate matters, those that different power positions are trying to deny, conceal in countless shiny and imaginative variations of the always up-to-date slogan “Bread and circuses!” This version of a circus, pertinent since the Roman era (when artists were mostly slaves, sold as such) displaces the word spirit, which means the champions of spirit are also denied bread. Insisting on the personal artistic autonomy, it should be deserved by doing some other, transparently socially useful job.
One of the historically tested ways of living off dance profession is establishing a school, a centre of some sort of training pyramid with a broad base, attracting a large number of amateur attendees of all ages and profiles, financing a small professional group of people on the top, involved at the same time in the training process. That way in the 1930s Zagreb pioneers of contemporary and autonomous dance profession Mirjana Janeček, Nevenka Perko and Ana Maletić established their schools. Following in their footsteps, in the 1980s Tihana Škrinjarić founded Dance Spots Zagreb, and today’s equivalents would be Liberdance – Free Dance Company and the particularly impressive TALA Dance Centre.
At the retrospective exhibition of Aleksandar Srnec, Present Absence, set in 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I wrote down the author’s exhibited sentence, an aphorism of sorts: “Art has never led a good life. And this is good.” We understand his point: if an artist lives well off art in his lifetime, we either doubt his art or we wonder about the price of his success. In Aesop’s fable a chained dog apparently lives a better life than a wolf in the forest. The wolf is jealous and until he sees a chain mark around the dog’s neck. Especially today, when precarity, general existential insecurity due to practicing short-term project-based work duties (when the employer is not required to renew the contracts) has spread to all professions.
“The crisis of work becomes the crisis of form. If flexibility, adaptability and fluid work capacity become the prerequisites for survival on the labour market, the line between a submissive and a free body is blurred (…) Although it acts in separate domains of social production, the daily experience of working life has become so similar that artists see their precarity as the avant-garde of working precarity.”2
In practice, the freedom of the lack of space, associates, equipment makes freelance artists chronically dependent of the ones with the power to allocate space, money, media attention. Some fight, some give up, some retreat and act sporadically from their spiritual oases. Moreover, as it seems we are heading back to the feudalist era and slave owning, artists like contemporary nomads and histrionics cross more and more boundaries and change, or better yet, combine cities in search of a space to act, an audience, a new and temporary refuge.
To the question what choreography is, Milko Šparemblek3 summarised the essence of artistic profession and its position in the society: “We are all craftsmen, we are all applied art, and sometime, maybe, art happens.” What does it take for art to maybe happen? Apart from talent and will, first of all some basic working and living conditions, a specific space at a specific time. But since craft and applied art (education, entertainment, taking more projects, commissions etc.) make a living, which is all part of the profession, art – in principle – always has to wait, as it is humorously and in fact quite realistically illustrated by the performers of the Studio – Contemporary Dance Company in one of the scenes of Jasna Vinovrški’s new play Ensemble(Ansambl)4.
(The regular exhausting practice of trying to synchronise freelance performers’ free slots, both for rehearsals and performances.) They line up before a microphone, each in their own version of welcoming the audience, in an attempt to convince them that they (artists) will be there for them (audience) with, finally, only a small unimportant “but” – due to unpredicted situations – immediately denying themselves by pointing out all the dates when they in fact cannot take part, as though anyone would mind…
The joyful, self-ironic, acknowledging laughter that accompanied the performance is rare at Croatian dance performances, but it is also a permanent quality of engaged and communicative creative poetics of Jasna Layes Vinovrški, an artist who remained in Berlin after studying in Essen and who is also known for her profound insight and painstaking attention to detail in her dance works. However, very many contemporary authors, aware that a work of art as a sum of results of a longer personal and intimate research to be shared with others is not subject to compromise due to financial constraints and inadequate space, will find a best possible solution in practice in a “work-in-progress”, a form which is not that binding and still makes it possible to remain truthful to creative postulations. Hinting at what this might become if there were time, space etc. What was it like before, at a time when only freelance artists (initially without a status to begin with) demonstrated precarity, although the term was not yet familiar as such?
As a member of the last generation of the Chamber Ensemble of Free Dance (KASP) (1977–1987), I can safely say that in those days we did not receive regular fees for the performances, let alone for long daily rehearsals during months (if not a whole year) of research on a project. We all studied and taught and also earned something by making children’s performances in association with Music Youth, recordings, visits to the Styrian Autumn in Graz. Milana Broš received annual grants for KASP’s productions, but they barely covered costumes, music and props… the things that had to be paid. We rehearsed where we did not have to pay the rent, at Croatian Artists Association’s5 room in the courtyard building in Ilica 42 Street, and then, when Milana Broš took over the management of student dance workshops, KASP moved to the SKUC6 Dance Theatre. Interestingly, KASP was the first to rehearse at the School of Classical Ballet, and the Studio at the School of Rhythm and Dance, today’s Ana Maletić’s School of Contemporary Dance.) Later I realised that as they matured and became more secure and confident in their profession, dancers left the ensemble. Milana Broš was not supportive of their need for more flexibility and compromise, as well as paid dancer work in the sense of cashing on the craft and applied art. Acknowledged by critics, existentially secure, surrounded by artistic greats both in private and professional life, I believe she was never tempted to do so.
Tihana Škrinjarić, who managed the Studio – Contemporary Dance Company in its second stage (1968–1979), characterised by intense expansion (at one point she had 20 dancers: 10 girls and 10 young men!), wanted free, financially secure dancers, which she achieved thanks to stints at Zagreb City Theatre Komedija and regular recordings with TV entertainment shows. Under Tihana Škrinjarić’s management the Studio became the leading company in Yugoslavian entertainment programmes; they worked on multiple projects, toured the Soviet Union with celebrity singers etc., which was a regular source of income. Also, as Mirjana Preis and Desanka Virant recall, from their fees they contributed a certain percentage into the company’s joint fund financing the Studio’s serious artistic programmes. Tihana Škrinjarić was also never paid for her choreographies or company management, but at that time she, and soon her dancers as well, were granted the freelance artist status by the Croatian Artists Association, which was an important breakthrough. (By that point the dancers had to pay their own retirement insurance scheme through, for example, Croatian concert, the musical entertainers’ organization.7) The Studio received a specific, very small amount for the running year (comparable to today’s average project funding) and a premiere, which meant that the money barely covered the cost of costumes and maybe an adventurous set (which no one knew where to store afterwards). Tihana Škrinjarić remembers the experimental performance And Why Not? (A zašto ne?, first performance: 23 May 1972 at &TD Theatre) and her surprise when she heard how much she owed for the set made by sculptor Dejan Jokanović:
“I didn’t ask about the price on time and I was also learning things on the move: technical aspects of the performance, organisation, costumes, human relationships inside the company. The dancers became more and more demanding, they wanted to know the plan and programme at the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, I could not tell them in advance. One never knew what the upcoming season and the atmosphere in the company would be like.”8
Although Tihana Škrinjarić’s strategy of dance popularisation through entertainment shows neutralised the precarious position of freelance dance artists for a while, more accurately by the end of the season 1985/86, when the Komedija theatre’s building renovation began, it did not manage to attract broader audience to attend contemporary dance performances: “Our contemporary repertoire could run two to three times before a respectable audience. Reaching audience was a real pain. The dancers began to hate me for making them sell tickets for our performances.”9 One of the possible consequences of the generational shift at the Studio, or something that was simply bound to happen, was the loss of Komedija theatre’s stage, which will slowly be taken over by ballet dancers. Zaga Živković, the new and long-time company manager (1979–1997), ensured more funds from the USIZ of culture of the City of Zagreb10 which, allocated as a minimum wage, were then paid to the dancers. This improved the new situation to a certain degree, but it was a clear sign that the golden era was over. Similar was the destiny of the Zagreb Dance Company. Jasminka Neufeld Imrović, a member, also confirms that they too, from the mid-1970s, had many recordings and performances at different events and on entertainment shows, making enough to pay retirement insurance, until they joined the Croatian Artists Association. Mirna Žagar, a member and manager of the company between 1981 and 1986, remembers that the USIZ of culture of the City of Zagreb advised them to become a work community, which is what the Studio – Contemporary Dance Company had already done and received higher grants.
However, “the financial profit of the company grew most thanks to the introduction of dance courses, which helped not only secure income to company members, but also to allocate smaller sums for productions. Increased commissions and performances at Kulušić helped raise ticket sale revenues… I dare say that the first increase in the company’s revenues went from our own sources and then from grants, growing on an annual basis… which was altogether very modest and somewhat painful, I would say.”11
Just like the Studio, the Zagreb Dance Company introduced the minimum wage, but this amount for new projects, from an outsider point of view and compared to other grants, seemingly very attractive, turned into rather low monthly salaries, was not visible in the sense that it made a difference or had a positive impact on the production. More accurately, the production potential – in the Croatian dance scene context – has used larger grants for social, rather than artistic purposes, which has been amply criticised by the professionals. Is this criticism justified? A man lives by bread as well and can hardly earn it by professionally pursuing artistic dance practice, over the long run. The actual event that motivated Vinovrški to create the multi award-winning dance work Which club? took place on a European border, when a customs officer could not imagine a dance profession other than the one in – a nightclub.
Classical ballet is an institutionalised art; one could say that ballet dancers in theatres do not share the destiny of their fellow dancers on the independent scene. However, an example from the older history of Croatian dance indicates different problems: in the 1930s Mia Čorak, subsequently the famous American ballet diva Slavenska, had to rent a theatre for her dance and ballet soirees in which she practically pointed the direction dance evolved in as a theatrical art. She wanted to demonstrate the results of her personal work, educate the audience and her colleagues (who received ballet dancer salaries, but could barely stand on pointe), and that is why the money earned at performances abroad and at repertory performances of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb she invested first in her work and subsequently in the presentation of her work. Soon she was banned to perform in Zagreb, but no one can accuse her of not trying!
The issue of dancers who became part of an institution and the system and secured their existence by dancing is related to the burning issue on the Croatian ballet scene, including a fight for the return of reduced service years. Does an artist given a safe position lose the ambition to perfect his craft? Why should a dancer not secure his existence? Come to terms with the deterioration of their dancing power, with the repertory they either do not love or it has become too straining for them, with less and less interest from the audience. What can a ballet company director do? I remember Almira Osmanović in 1994, when she took over the management of the Ballet at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb after Šparemblek gave up, realising there would be no change in cultural policies; she said that she had the largest ensemble in Europe, but cannot arrange a cast for a classical ballet. And then again, who is going to drive the worn out dancers into the street? They are not a matter for critics and audience, but they can stimulate unions and activist communities. How to draw the line between social sensitivity and artistic responsibility? Maša Kolar has recently taken over the management of the Ballet at the Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka and seems to have found herself before an unsolvable example of the Croatian legal system. As a long-time case-hardened dance artist experienced in precarious conditions of the profession on the competitive international dance market, she put things in motion and analysed the found conditions:
“As the company director of the Ballet at the Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka, I encountered an insolvably stagnant dancing staff, a group of ballet artists with different statuses and personal income coefficients. Such a situation would not surprise in administrative or clerk jobs, but in an artistic environment this sort of situation threatens to result in a disastrous and completely illogical, i.e. artistically unacceptable death of ballet in Croatia. In a joint effort with the company directors of two other national theatre ballets (Split and Zagreb), Leonard Jakovina and Igor Kirov, we appeal the Minister of Culture to advocate for the professional retirement for ballet dancers after the age of 42, according to the so-called French and Swedish model. With the same intention, I put my signature on the statement on the value and the staff analysis of Rijeka’s ballet company in order to launch a solution for the existing issue, i.e. ‘maintain a ballet repertory in Croatian national theatres’. The aforementioned analysis of the staff at the Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre ballet ensemble and their age, I conclude the following: of 26 company members, all of them have signed job contracts (55 per cent tenures, and 45 per cent replacements), 11 dancers are older than 40. These are the dancers with tenures. Fifteen remaining dancers are younger than 40 and all of them, except two ballerinas, have signed replacement contracts with expiry dates. Literally, 42 per cent of the company are ready for retirement according to the standards of our EU neighbours. Staff analyses, statistics and verifications of national theatres can give a credible insight into the realistic state of the matter in ballet, but do not help solve the issues and create new methodological concepts and solutions. They remain simply nameless numbers like: ’11 members of the Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre ballet are 42, two of these 11 members are more or less active, whereas others occasionally perform significantly less demanding divertissements in operas and dramas’. Such an age situation in Rijeka’s ballet company and retirement legislation impede the establishment of a classical ballet repertory. Assessing and comparing their physical and dancing shape with those of younger members, nine of these occasionally active members are definitely ready for retirement. Today in Croatia these nine ballet company members do not have legal rights to retirement. (…) Blockage in ballet exists because there are no new jobs for younger active dancers to maintain the repertory. The founder of the Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka, the City of Rijeka, does not allow for new jobs for younger dancers, nor it proposes severance allowances for dancers who are no longer capable of working in the current ballet repertory. The City of Rijeka, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Labour, reluctant and passive regarding this matter, led me as the ballet director, together with the theatre general manager responsible for the professional, qualitative and artistic state and existence of the ballet company, to a very delicate position, forced to solve delicate matters internally, in our institution. The delicacy of the matter stems from the possibility of interpretation of Article 26 of the terms and conditions that regulate the issue of aging staff in the ballet company. Nevertheless, to implement an evaluation of working capacities by a commission, interpreted as a possibility in Article 26, it takes courage, thorough examination of one’s own morality and consideration of potential outcomes. Such a decision is complicated and problematic. Predictions portend uneasy results. The decision and the process of its implementation should be spoken about beyond the narrow circuit of a local ballet community.”12
Without a doubt, Maša Kolar, although she accepted a safer position in a national theatre, has yet to face a big challenge of the real struggle at the very least – of an uncertain outcome.