Tilting Fabulous – Jokes, Dance and LGBTQ History

This week, dear readers, I heard something in a classroom that I’ve never heard in a classroom before: I heard a professor make an in-joke about Merce Cunningham being a gay man.

…. Ok, context: Merce Cunningham is probably the most important abstract choreographer of the 20th century, in part because of the incredible collaborations he produced with his partner, John Cage. Here’s a link to a solo from Split Sides, which is not one of their collaborations (instead it’s Cunningham and Radiohead/Sigur Ros), but is a really great bit of dancing if you’ve not seen his work before. The music and choreography is based in chance procedures, and the movement itself is put together from smaller elements (curves, extensions, turns, tilts etc.) in the same way that you might put together Legos to make abstract sculpture.

Cunningham and Cage lived and worked in an era when homosexuality was just not something you could do and have it be ok with the American government. Their relationship vanished from the public view of their work, to the point that as a student in the 21st century, at a university with Cunningham technique and Cunningham on the academic curriculum, I never head John Cage referred to as anything other than an artistic collaborator. Even today I hear people trying to smooth out the edges between the man and the art: Cunningham and Cage had an “intimate relationship,” they were “very close.”

In part I understand why that happens. The really big deal about Cunningham and Cage’s work is how abstract it is: their entire philosophy was grounded in removing obvious referential information from what the audience could see, and so there’s an instinct by educators to avoid personal information that isn’t ideologically relevant to the choreography (… or at least that’s the official statement). Contrast that with someone like Martha Graham, who’s choreography is all about her personal self, or look at a dance world where people desperately try to look for the story, and you can see why you might try to teach Cunningham without the romantic sub-plot.


Dance as a field is famously accepting of LGBTQ life styles; in fact I am frequently the subject of some envy from my friends in university departments that have not yet embraced trans identities, or “they” as a singular pronoun. That said, the dominant narrative of LGBTQ people in dance tends to fall into two stereotypes: gay men doing ballet, and super-queers making postmodern work about queerness. Those stereotypes fall down in practice, but it is very difficult to find, for example, famous lesbian ballerinas whose sexual identity is “out” in the same way that Nijinsky’s is.

Is that a problem? Well I certainly won’t insist that anyone has an obligation to out themselves for any reason, even my blogging. The stereotype that all male dancers are homosexuals is another nasty hangover from the 1900s that we’ve had to deal with, and I can understand totally the response of: “We’re all just dancers, ok?” …just because your job is to get up on a stage and perform does not eliminate your right to privacy, or mean that your sexuality has to be a public part of how you do your identity.

On the other hand, if we are all “just dancers,” who can make work about whatever we like regardless of gender or sexual identity, then isn’t one way of making that clear to acknowledge and normalise the diverse range of dancers and choreography out there? To demonstrate that your sexual identity has absolutely no bearing on how you dance or the kinds of dancing you can do? When I finally found out about Merce and John it didn’t change how I felt about their work, but it did make me frustrated with a system of books and teachers that had – by omission – implied that their relationship did not exist: that had known, and yet allowed me not to know.

The reason I spotted, remembered, and blogged about a throw-away joke in the middle of a technique class was precisely because it indicated a normalacy to Cunningham’s sexual identity – and the expectation that everyone else in the room would share that understanding. To joke about Cunningham not being interested in female dancers, you have to believe that the majority of people listening a) know about Cunningham’s sexual preference and b) don’t think it’s that much of a big deal (either in general, or in relationship to his artistic work). Note: this is a different thing to making a joke criticising Cunningham’s identity, where you assume that most people know, and that they share your (incorrect) opinion of gay-ness as a bad thing.

So… thank you, anonymous professor*, for providing a social model in which Cunningham can be an abstract artist, and a gay man, without any conflict between those two identities. And of course thank you to Cunningham, and Cage, for making awesome art, one of my favourite dance techniques, and just in general – for being tilting fabulous.

*who shall remain anonymous unless they ask to be identified.

Time, Time, Pay Time.

It’s crunch time for graduates. Term’s finished, summer’s over, we’re heading on into the long dark of October and the big question looms: “Have you got a job yet?”

It’s a big, scary, problem of a question, because of course as all of us know there’s a job… and then there’s a job. Is it in your field? Is it actually practicing your field as opposed to making the coffee? Does it pay the rent? Does it pay at all? This last a particular monstrosity of the arts where a so-called job listing may involve precisely zero payment for your time and expenses, and might even ask you to chip in to cover the costs of this “excellent career opportunity.”

But this isn’t, actually, a blog post about the issue of no-pay jobs in the arts because that subject doesn’t actually need a blog post: it’s just bad. A necessary evil perhaps, maybe a stop-gap measure while you desperately try and scrape together enough material for funding, but if you are not deliberately moving towards a place where you can pay your dancers for your time, if every project is subsistence and kickstarter then you need to take a long, hard look at your business model because you are doing it wrong. So this blog is, in fact, about negotiating those slippery grey areas between dancer and employer, and how we can treat people well, whatever end of the budget we’re on.

For Dancers

The most useful question I’ve found in reaching out to prospective employers is “What compensation will be offered for my work on this project?” It’s a little less black-and-white than “Are you paying me or what?” But at the same time places an expectation on the employer that my time is worth value and that I expect to see a concrete return beyond “exposure” or “professional development.” And the result? People value my time more!

But what is that value? Tip number two is to set a going rate for yourself for a couple of different types of work, and be prepared to ask for it. Ask your friends around you what they charge, and be ready to name your price in return if asked. Don’t try and keep what you charge secret because you’re hoping to undercut your friends, although do realize that sometimes your going rate simply will not be available. My basic rate for teaching is $50 an hour, although I have been known to be pulled down for friends, start-ups, or good causes in general. Performing is a lot more fluid, and varies depending on the time commitment I’m asked for, my relationship with the choreographer, and the status of the project.

Types of compensation I have happily accepted that is not money:

  • We cannot pay but we will find you housing and/or feed you every night you are there.
  • We have enough performers that you need only come on the nights you choose.
  • We will teach you how to build set/run sound/wire lighting in exchange for your skills.
  • Coffee

Types of compensation I would not readily accept instead of money:

  • Exposure
  • Photographs
  • Film – you should expect a copy of film anyway
  • And on one weird occasion… homeopathic gift vouchers

The first category of things all involve an active effort by my employer to offer things that will benefit me. The things in the second category are all (vouchers excepted) things that the choreographer already wants for themselves, and (vouchers included) can share at no cost. I am not going to dictate to anyone whether they should or should not work for low/no pay, and sometimes a project is very dear to your heart or simply worth doing. On the other hand, question how you are affording to work for low/no pay, and what steps you can take to move yourself and others away from that model: just because you are fortunate enough to be able do it doesn’t mean that anyone else can or should have to.

For Employers

State your business up front. Either that business is “I would like to hire YOU, what is your going rate/would you take this much money?” or that business is “I would like to hire SOMEONE and I can compensate you in this way.” Do not mess around trying to trick people into working for less – you should have a budget in mind before you start hiring, and you should be willing to pay the entirety of your budget for getting the work done to the people doing the work. Travel and expenses are not pay, and are a separate part of your negotiations.

If you are auditioning people for the work, set out your expectations as clearly you as you are able, and lock in those dates and times. If you said you’d see everyone, make sure you see them. If you want some people to come back, make sure the call back date is also posted. I have been waiting to write this article ever since I saw an audition notice that said “Those called back will be expected to spend the next week working intensely with the company.” … Seriously, who can afford to go a week without pay for the possibility of a job? A job that, incidentally, only just scraped in at minimum wage. Another audition concern: think long and hard about pulling the five-years-experience trick. Yes mature dancers are awesome, but you pulling this trick is one of the reasons that other employers can charge fresh graduates $200 a week to make a piece that will give them expose them and fill up their c.v.

That said, I’ve noticed a pleasant shift in choreographers recently towards really valuing people’s time, and I would like to see this continue. No-matter how important you think your work is, you should not oblige or pressure anyone to stay beyond the set work period especially if you know they have to do other jobs to make up the rent money that you are not paying them enough to cover. The only way freelancers can exist is by exceptional time management, and sometimes you really really can’t stay late after rehearsal.

And that rehearsal? Come prepared. Have stuff planned to do, and don’t make-up busy work if you find yourself done with it. Different types of dance will obviously have different kinds of work/planning, but planning to run one, fix the kick section for 20 minutes and then set the last eight bars is not actually that different from a 20 minute improvised warm up, 15 minutes discussing ontology and a 30 minute improvised score. Sometimes things go past time, and that’s ok… but that’s your issue and if that means you have to cut something else you do that. Also consider: do you really need everyone there for the whole time? Is there work they can do without you? Do people leave feeling like they spent their time in a worthwhile and productive fashion? Can you fix that?

When I work with dancers I have learned to establish a two-way contract: they will show up on time and stay for the whole time, barring emergency or long-informed absence. I will start on time, end on time, fill the time well and not ask for unscheduled extra rehearsals.

Thank your dancers!!!

…No, scratch that, thank anyone who spends their time for your benefit. They could be working, or laughing, or making out, or checking Facebook, or any number of things and instead they’re there for you. That’s worth some serious gratitude. And if you’ve said you’ll be there for someone? Show up. Know how much time you can spend and be responsible about how you spend it. Make it work for you too.

I hope that all of you out there are getting on and finding ways to spend your time that bring you value. I hope you, and others, value your skills enough to set up a system wherein you get compensated for them fairly. I hope that in a couple more years the idea of a no-pay job will be just as heinous in dance as it would be in, say, doctoring, and that “pay” will mean the same thing as “a living wage.”

Good luck!

Photo from

In Three Sentences… Phenomenology

We experience the world around us and out brains try and make sense of it.

We build structures of understanding based on the experiences we’ve had, that affect how we interpret future experiences.

So even as we think we are experiencing or expressing, what we are actually doing is fitting and filtering random information through a structure we invented to understand the universe… and offering new information to others as we go.

…..If you want a little more information, this might help:

Phenomenology reading list:

Remy Kwant: Phenomenology of Expression (highly recommend)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception (core text)

Susan Sontag: On Photography (philosophy into art)

David Abram: Spell of the Sensuous (you’ll love it or you’ll hate it)