Have the performing arts been left to die?

A dancer’s open letter asks: Have the performing arts been left to die?

It’s something that remains rather unspoken and unrecognized – smaller performing arts organizations and nonprofits are being left to die. With no new stimulus from Congress and few granting foundations with funds available for these groups, they are being left to fend for themselves, like gladiators in a ring. And what income streams are they supposed to pull from? What are artists/professional performers, choreographers, technicians and other associated professionals – who’ve dedicated thousands of hours and most of their lives to perfecting their art – supposed to do while theaters remain indefinitely closed? What about those in auxiliary position – ticket masters, ushers, concessions workers, etc., or those in neighboring businesses (restaurants, stores, cafés and the like that benefit from audience turnout at theaters)? Are performers just supposed to manifest a new job; surrender their profession, vocation and specialization?

Well, if they’re fortunate enough to be in a large company, then they can expect some sort of sick leave or benefits. That is not the case with smaller organizations. For the latter lack the lofty, elephantine endowments, revenue, grants and donors that their larger, commercial, for-profit rivals flaunt. Nor do they possess the pricey lobbyists and other insider professionals to advocate for them at various governmental levels. Furthermore, large arts-granting foundations are often intertwined/have stakes in certain ventures (e.g. Broadway; privately-owned galleries), so their munificent impulses can be muddled by safeguarding their profits/interests. Consequently, little incentive exists to assist smaller competitors of those preponderant organizations with ample savings. Ergo they are safer investments that are insured to survive the pandemic. Such carnage of ascending companies will impact not only the nation, but the world for years to come, handicapping generations of performing artists, creatives and other innovators. 

The ultimate message from the government — which is not providing support to performing arts organizations, which in turn are losing revenue through no fault of their own – Is clear: You don’t matter to us. 

Since a de facto monopoly exists – with a handful of performing arts organizations/dance companies earning the bulk of the profits – subjacent companies have to scrounge for the crumbs, and are, alas, struggling. A dearth of funding occurred before the pandemic, which has decimated the performing arts community. Those 10-year-old aspiring dancers – who’s going to tell them that their future is with a notoriously competitive company, with no alternative? The U.S. was founded under the precept of freedom of expression. Without that expression, cultural diffusion and the cultivation of healthy creative, social and recreational outlets, how far will the country decline in international prestige and quality-of-life? Additionally, performing arts are prime vehicles for cultural critique. Without such mediums, how can sociological introspection occur? How can people be awed, wowed and attain brief repose from their daily drudgery without the performing arts – particularly now, during the present chaos enveloping the world and engendering international anxiety?

Moreover, small businesses/companies make up the American Dream. How can you strive to attain economic mobility if your selected industry has power concentrated at the top, an exclusive club? Imagine if some of those major, multimillion-dollar dance companies – like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which started with little funding – had ended up dying out in their infancy. The nation would be worse for it. For cultural bulwarks against bigotry and closed-mindedness would be eradicated. 

It also comes back to the idea that artists, particularly dancers, are so passionate that they don’t require appropriate payment for their services, nor support for rainy days. Such is a common theme throughout history, particularly for female, immigrant, BIPOC, and/or LGBTQI+ artists. Consequently, the onus is on the artists to adapt, to become self-sufficient, or else “get a real job.” Likewise, has the country forgotten that modest-sized performing arts companies form the glue that keeps local and national communities together? Consider all the tourism, jobs, pastimes and the like that depend on robust arts communities.

Some organizations have attempted to mold to our new standards/norms by holding virtual/lives streamed performances, classes, and events but such a medium always is lacking a certain pièce de résistance – the palpable energy, emotions and passion that can only be harnessed when you are in the same room as a poignant performer, all a necessity to the human psyche. So, what are these artists supposed to do? One nonprofit that is adapting to our present crisis in a resourceful fashion is Carole Alexis Company/Ballet des Amériques. Determined to stalwartly soldier on, under the auspices of its staunch, tenacious leader, director and choreographer, Carole Alexis, the company aspires to complete an entire tour of outdoor performances, known as “The Dancing Caravan.” By staging these shows, the company will be providing both a public service, while accomplishing an inspirational feat. Remarkably, all this is being done without adequate funding or publicity. Such is a demonstration of the courage and gumption of artists. 

Carole Alexis Company/Ballet des Amériques is a salient, real-world example of an organization with copious artistic merit and all the earmarks of a venerated organization – possessing distinctive, profound, moving choreography, an adept and diverse array of dancers, a celebrated social mission and consciousness – but still does not receive the acknowledgment and support it deserves from politicians, granting organizations and the press.  

Throughout her decades-long career, Alexis has always defied odds. A female of color and an immigrant — with an accent identifying her as French and Creole – she has risen to the head of a distinguished dance company and conservatory that she built a decade ago. As a choreographer, Carole Alexis’s work is unparalleled in its thought- and emotion-provoking content. The compelling, enlivening works often move the audiences – evoking a spectrum of emotions, from tears to bursts of laughter. Synthesizing elements from her upbringing in Martinique as well as her high-caliber dance education in Europe and Africa, her unique movement language and voice can be defined as moving poetry. With the refined, classical ballet lines compounded by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and torso undulations, the works possess their own signature that is transfixing. The themes Alexis’ pieces probe are accessible to viewers of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. She is unafraid of addressing pressing, pertinent subjects, such as racism, sexism, classism and the deleterious effects of colonialism. Such themes are relevant today, as our country is historically cleaved. Ultimately, the essence of Alexis’s choreography is unity. Her pieces promote beneficial social change, love, inclusion, compassion and radical acceptance. 

Since most publications do not allocate enough space to the performing arts, many burgeoning artists and organizations like Carole Alexis Company/Ballet des Amériques are overlooked, with that priceless real estate going towards major name-brand conglomerates. It is, hence, important for large-scale publications to broaden their scopes and cover such groups. With the social changes of our present era, including the racial and gender reckonings that have occurred over the past few years, you would hope that publications would prioritize the artistic merits of emerging and smaller companies of all sizes over commercial behemoths. If the media were able to cover this story of persevering and smaller arts organizations, then the public would develop more of an appetite to save them. 

Moreover, the U.S. should be doing so much more for its artists, as France, Germany and other countries have done for theirs. In Italy, a 245-million euro  ($287-million) fund was established to sustain companies and workers in the world of performing arts during the lockdown. The German government has responded by pledging 1 billion euros ($1.17 billion), around half its usual annual culture budget, to safeguarding cultural landmarks such as museums and theaters. In France, performing artists are attaining special unemployment benefits and funds for performing arts organizations.

Please go out and support your local performing arts organizations in any way you possibly can – through donations, volunteering, social media (sharing information about the companies, writing reviews, etc.), participation (taking in-person and/or virtual classes, attending events/shows, and the like), etc. Furthermore, please contact your local officials and lobby them to pass additional stimulus funding, with separate emergency relief being directed to performing arts organizations. We cannot allow the performing arts to die out. Also, you can donate to emergency Covid-19 grants via crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe. You can donate to Carole Alexis Company/Ballet des Amériques at http://charity.gofundme.com/carolealexiscompany.)

Chloe Wareham-Gordon is public relations and administration coordinator and a dance artist of Carole Alexis Company/Ballet des Amériques. For more, visit balletdesamerique.company.

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