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Dancers and Performers Offer “Real Talk” on Canceled Shows, Contracts, and More

This week, contributors to the living document “Creating New Futures” will host a conversation focused the ripple effects of the pandemic and the need for radical change in the arts.

Image of a black background with white text that reads: Because our systems were never working, and we all knew it. They are unsustainable, and we know it. They are inequitable, and we know it. They rely on a scarcity mentality and on the precarious labor of freelance artists working with no safety net. It is time for radical change. (radical change is written in pink)
A statement from the working group behind “Creating New Futures: Working Guidelines for Ethics & Equity in Presenting Dance & Performance” (all images courtesy of Emily Johnson)

Earlier this spring, frustrated by a wave of careless emails spurred by the ongoing pandemic, choreographer Emily Johnson turned to Facebook: “I am BEGGING presenters and organizers to STOP sending cancellation/postponement emails that do not include a written acknowledgment of lost/postponed funds,” she wrote, “We need this information and letters FROM YOU to apply to the emergency grants and unemployment some of us are now depending on.” A former Guggenheim fellow for choreography and director of the New York-based performance project Catalyst, Johnson was not alone in her frustration.

Yanira Castro, an award-winning Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, chimed in to voice her own concerns about “cultural capitalist systems,” along with scores of others working in the vast, interconnected fields of dance and performance. Together with fellow art workers Laura Colby, Sarah Greenbaum, jumatatu m poe, Brian Rogers, Michael Sakamoto, Karen Sherman, Amy Smith, and Tara Aisha Willis, Castro and Johnson would later channel these conversations into “Creating New Futures: Working Guidelines for Ethics & Equity in Presenting Dance & Performance.” The living Google document is collectively authored and compiled, and features contributions from scores of others. It is intended to serve as a roadmap of sorts for dance and performance artists, organizers, and nonprofit institutions navigating the uncertainty spurred by the ongoing pandemic.

An LSD screen is covered by a black stencil covering featuring the words "It doesn't have to be like this" in pink, purple, and blue light, set against a dirty tiled wall underground in the subway.
Jonathan Allen, “Interruption 203,” paint, plastic on video screen, 58 x 34 inches, Borough Hall subway station, April 17, 2020

“Our goal is to encourage questions, push-back and celebration,” Castro writes in the project’s statement of purpose, “and for the document to continue changing to meet the needs of the dance & performance field.”

Cognizant of their own subjectivities and blindspots, the group has been candid about the need for the document to serve as a potential first of many drafts, with the understanding that at some point it may be beneficial for another set of arts workers to step in and steward work on the 141-page document.

In the meantime, this week they will host “REAL TALK,” a virtual conversation and webinar about the document, in partnership with Abrons Art Center. Distinguished dance leaders and choreographers Shane Fernando, Hollis Ashby, Miguel Gutierrez, Joseph Hall, Millicent Johnnie, and Ronee Penoi will join moderator Maria Bauman-Morales, who serves as Artistic Director of MBDance, for the session. Speakers will take turns addressing and responding to each of the document’s six crucial sections, which include “Alternatives to Cancellation,” artist and programmer perspectives, and a guide to contracts and force majeure.

As Castro reminds us, since theirs is a document “that attempts conversations on equity, we must acknowledge that dance is often (not always!) last on the list in the performing arts in regards to funding, programming, collective consciousness. As one of our artist contributors said so poignantly, ‘Dance is anti-capitalist in its essence because it’s anti-materialist.’”

When: May 14, 6pm
Where: Online, via Zoom

See Abrons Art Center for more details. 

Editor’s note (5/12/20, 3:32pm EST): A previous version of this article misstated the location of Catalyst. They are based in New York City, not Minneapolis. 

(5/12/20, 7:59pm EST): This article has been updated to reflect Hollis Ashby’s participation in the event.

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