Small Dance Companies in NYC: The Economic Reality
by Natalie Bostick
New York City loves to see dance. This week alone I counted twenty-eight dance groups performing around town. They include culturally specific dance (Mongolian, African, and Flamenco), an international ballet company, a world famous modern dance company, and a burlesque show. Interdisciplinary, multi-media, opera, tap, hip hop, classical, and postmodern forms are all represented. There is even a performance devoted to the work of high school-age dance makers. All this at the end of July, a time when many companies are on hiatus.
Yet with all this variety of dance companies, most of the performances this week feature small scale modern/contemporary dance companies. According to a 2006 DanceNYC census of New York City dance makers, 63% of companies describe themselves as “modern/contemporary.” Of these groups, most are young (70% of New York City dance companies were founded within the past 16 years), have no professional staff, and small budgets. (The full report can be read at www.dancenyc.org). Despite their small scale, these dance companies taken as a group have a huge impact on the New York dance scene. Small modern/contemporary companies collectively reach as large an audience as do the 3% of New York companies with budgets over $1 million. That’s an impressive 50% market share.
In New York, the small modern/contemporary company is king. The irony is that these small companies face the largest hurdles to presenting their work.
Being an independent choreographer resembles being a small business owner. Getting seen and funded in a competitive field means hiring press agents, filing paperwork, and networking. It means having an informative web presence and eye-catching marketing materials. All of that costs real money.
Small companies usually work on a “pick-up” basis. This entails hiring dancers per project and producing shows out of pocket. Rehearsal space in Manhattan averages fifteen dollars an hour. Rehearsing an upcoming show can take weeks; that adds up when dancers aren’t available simultaneously because of work conflicts. Renting a theater for performances is even more costly. Subsidized space such as the Joyce Soho can be had for $300 for two performances. Dance Theater Workshop rental starts at $10,000.
Many of the independent choreographers working in New York juggle full-time jobs and family in addition to managing their artistic careers. So making the transition from part-time choreographer to full-time choreographer is not for everyone. Full-time choreographers are expected to have larger staff, a board of directors and make more appearances. Forgoing a salary is particularly frightening when your costs are starting to rise.
Some of these challenges have been met with creative solutions. Miro Magloire’s New Chamber Ballet performs in a rehearsal studio instead of a theater. It costs less, and that allows his company to perform more often and present more work. Zvi Gotheiner rents studio space daily to hold his own technique class. It’s a smart way to earn a living while keeping connected to a rapidly shifting labor pool. And more companies are simply moving to Brooklyn where a number of new, cheaper spaces have become available.
What explains the magnitude of dance performance in New York City? From a real estate perspective, it is very unlikely. Right now New York City is experiencing a commercial real estate rush of historic significance. Office space is at a 5% vacancy rate in Manhattan, the lowest rate in the country. Housing costs have risen dramatically over the past ten years, and they remain high. According to the New York Times, by October 2006 more than half of New York City renters were spending 30% of their income on housing. In this environment it is easy to envision a New York where the real estate is so valuable that it is only used for high-end offices and luxury apartments.
But author Elizabeth Currid suggests that art, music and fashion contribute more significantly to the economy and culture of New York than most would assume. In her new book, The Warhol Economy, she asks why so much creative activity happens in New York City. Although most people think of New York being driven by the financial services and real estate sectors, she argues that art and the culture industry is what makes New York tick.
The harshest reality of the New York dance scene is that the labor is almost entirely unpaid. Self-producing choreographers can expect to lose money on every show they produce. Fewer than 10% of New York City dancers are salaried employees. The dancers you see at venues like DTW, St. Mark’s Church, and Cunningham Studio are most likely volunteering their time for rehearsals and being paid a small stipend for performances. The popularity of dance programs at local colleges has created a glut of young dancers on the New York labor market. Many are just starting out and want to build their resumes. They make ends meet by coat-checking or waitressing. Older dancers have settled into careers as personal trainers. They take time away from these more lucrative positions for the artistic and personal satisfaction of working with a favorite choreographer. Dance is always a labor of love.
Let’s hope that television shows like So You Think You Can Dance will bring more attention to the place of dance in the larger cultural economy. Increased popularity would ease some of the economic pressures dancers and choreographers face. Until then you can always see dance performances in New York.
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