Ballerina Sara Mearns, by Kathryn Marshall.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
There are dancers who are in it for the lifestyle, and there are dancers who are in it because without it they wouldn’t be able to live. When I first saw Sara Mearns onstage in 2010 at the New York State Theater — it must have been as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” — I knew that not only was she one of the latter, infecting the audience with her joy and welcoming them into the dance and the Tchaikovsky score, but that if she were bottled up and unable to dance, she just might die, or at least whither away, like the heroine of “La Sylphide” when she dons the poisoned cloak. If I disagree with the campaign launched recently by a globally clueless New York organization that claims to represent the interests of dancers which begins with the premise that they are “necessary workers,” ludicrously placing performing artists on the same plane as health and food workers, which only bolsters a generalized popular impression that dance is irrelevant and out of touch with everyday concerns, I like the much more humble confession of Sara Mearns, who this Sunday on YouTube at 7:30 p.m. EDT premieres “Storm,” a five-minute solo choreographed by her husband Joshua Bergasse, to music by Zoe Sarnak: “We filmed this at the height of the pandemic in New York City. Every morning we would wake up to the numbers rising. At that point, I felt lost and questioning what my role or contribution was in and to society. I felt helpless. I felt my being was crying out. This song and the choreography allowed me to express the pain I was in.” Don’t be mislead by that “I,” which might suggest another self-involved dancer more involved with the reflection in the mirror and exploring her own (or her choreographer’s) angst than reflecting the real, quotidian concerns of ordinary people. When the “I” expressing her “pain” is a Sara Mearns, she’s expressing the pain of all of us, in an inchoate, non-verbal way that all the numbers, all the speeches, all the media reports, and all the anodyne politician’s speeches cannot. (And not just speeches but hypocritical postures; to hear Andrew Cuomo, who could have saved so many lives *justement* in New York City had he imposed confinement a week earlier — at last count, which is probably already dated, 21,000 people or a fifth of the national tally had died from the virus in Gotham alone — pose as the grand protector is truly painful.) She’s proving — to cop a phrase from the title of the late Joseph H. Mazo’s chronicle of a year in the life of the New York company Mearns works for — that dance is truly a contact sport, in the most universal sense of the adjective.
…. I need to say another word, or two (You know me, Al) about the funding of this piece, part of the “Works & Process Artists (WPA) Virtual Commission Series,” which the press release describes as “a direct response to the pandemic…, launched to financially support artists and nurture their creative process during these challenging times by granting over $150,000 in commissioning funds to artists who have been featured at Works & Process at the Guggenheim.” It’s co-presented — funded — by Barrington Stage Company, Broadway Dance Center, Kaatsbaan, the Joyce Theater, New York City Center, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and Spoleto Festival USA.
It also says down here at the very bottom of the PR that the project has received support — i.e., your tax dollars — from the U.S. Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program and the NYC Employee Retention Grant Program. The problem here — as anyone who has listened to NYC congresswoman AOC knows — is that the “small businesses” benefiting from this public aid are restricted to those employing a minimum number (50?) of people. The ‘smaller’ businesses, not to mention, to go even ‘smaller,’ freelancers and the self-employed, or contractors — and we all know this is the way American, and European, companies have been going for the past decade — are out of luck. The dance equivalent of this category is “pick-up” dancers, or “jobbers,” typically engaged, or anyway paid, on a per-concert basis, often for multiple companies. In France the busiest category of these performers (and technicians) is protected by the “Intermittents” regime, which basically enables them to qualify for unemployment like any other person who works for just one company, even if they accumulate those hours with multiple employers. This stature does not exist in the United States (nor in most European countries), meaning that American “pick-up” dancers, already fragile in a non-virus context, are simply tossed out on the street (perhaps literally, given that, at last report, neither the NY governor nor mayor had proposed suspending rent, unlike here in France) in a period which effectively eliminates public concerts, their sole source for the little revenues they already have. (How about if, instead of lobbying for a ludicrous rhetorical designation which only lowers dancers’ credibility in the eyes of the general public, “Dance NYC,” the organization referred to above which (mal)distinguished itself by enabling New York magazine’s ignominious firing of dance criticism’s eminence grise Tobi Tobias — devoted the time dance organizations have paid for by arguing for getting necessities to “pick-up” dancers? Or to helping their efforts to unionize?)
The acronym Works and Process has chosen is “WPA,” ironically the same as the federal Works Process Administration which, during the Great Depression, not only funded myriad art projects and employed numerous individual artists across the United States but helped nurture a new generation of art-makers.
What I see looking at the long list of artists Works & Process (with public support from your tax dollars) — and its cohorts listed above — is doling out this money to is a lot of old names. I don’t begrudge these artists what must ultimately pan out to very little for creating new work (judging from the 80 artists among whom a total of $150,000 must be divided) compared to what creators in other fields receive. I would just like to suggest that a Sara Mearns (or a Joshua Bergasse), who is protected by a Union contract (in the upper end of the scale considering the company she dances for, for whom she is a principal dancer) and as an employee has a right not only to the one-time $1,200 allocation that Congress has allocated to everyone but six months of unemployment, does not need this money as much as a “pick-up” dancer who, in the United States, unless she’s got a full-time day job has no claim to unemployment benefits.
And yet these dancers are a fundamental part of the dance ecology system; think of them as the workers carrying the stones for the foundation of the pyramid. (With — like Homer Avila, to whom this proved fatal — no insurance if they break their backs in the process.) And not just in the creation of new work; in New York, it’s these very same “pick-up” dancers — who typically don’t have the access to a free company class of a Sara Mearns — who provide much of the revenue of, say, a Broadway Dance Center.
So I would like to ask these organizations, particularly Works in Process, whose performance roster, with its preponderance of artists from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, often resembles star-fucking — what are you doing, what do you plan to do, to nurture the worker bees of the dance eco-structure? The future Larry Keigwins and Nicole Wolcotts? And the dancers — invariably, for “emerging” choreographers, “pick-up” dancers — who make their creative work possible.