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Charlotte Blumenfeld
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Gibney Dance Lower Manhattan
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New York
New York, NY

Gibney's Dancers’s Economic Empowerment Program (DEEP), Well conceived and Well produced

by Charlotte Blumenfeld
May 25, 2016
Gibney Dance Lower Manhattan
280 Broadway
New York, NY 10007
(646) 837-6809
All around the room, one neat little clink after another punctuated the speech of those trickling into the space and beginning to introduce themselves to one another. About twenty attendees comprised the group that was assembling in a conference room at the Agnes Varis Center for Performing Arts’s Gibney Studios for the second talk in the Dancers’s Economic Empowerment Program, and nearly all availed themselves of the complimentary bottles of beer that the event’s organizers had provided and popped off their caps with the bottle opener being passed around. The atmosphere was a friendly one, even though few of those gathered seemed to be already acquainted with more than a few other attendees.

Arts administrators at Gibney launched the Dancers’ Economic Empowerment Program, also known as DEEP, earlier this Spring. The initiative’s initial offering is six talks, each held at Gibney’s 280 Broadway location. These meetings are aimed at helping those in the dance field to avail themselves of the information, ideas, and perhaps even inspiration that can support long-term planning, self-advocacy, and community-building in the context of a career in the field. Even though most attendees at the first two talks have been dancers and/or choreographers, anyone interested in the subject matter of the talks is welcome to attend. During the more formal around-the-table introductions that kicked off the second talk, some attendees introduced themselves as dance educators, “dance advocates”, and “dance activists”. Others mentioned that they were arts administrators, and some were primarily active in non-dance branches of the arts, such as painting, poetry, and musical theater. One was in the midst of completing her PhD in medical sociology. All seemed curious and motivated.

The first talk in the series, held two weeks prior to the second and most recent one, had been entitled “Get a Job”, and its successor was called “Get a Career”. The remaining four talks that are planned will cover topics including but not limited to financial planning, housing-related matters, and the task of reaching for one’s career goals amidst the internal politics of dance companies. The meetings allot time for both a lecture-type imparting of information by one speaker and for a large group or “breakout group” discussion component. Though most attendees at the first two DEEP talks have been in the eighteen-to-thirty age range, a few older instructors and professors have also participated, and so have a small handful of artists who are still in their college or conservatory years. Attendees also seemed to be a diverse group in terms of ethnicity and gender.

After the around-the-table introductions had wrapped up, the discussion leaders, Andrew Simonet, one of Headlong Dance Theater’s founders, and Kate Watson-Wallace, a visual artist and choreographer, spoke about what they had learned about leading one’s life as an artist both from their own experiences and from discussions and interviews with other artists. Simonet was able to bring a terrific specificity to his discussion of topics that too often seem to be amorphous and near-impossible to discuss with particularity. For example, he revealed that the three reasons most often responsible for artists leaving the arts are perfectionism, competitiveness, and poverty. His insight went beyond the typical tendency to begin and end discussion of this topic at the vague (though true) observation that it is very difficult to be an artist and many artists thus end up choosing to leave the arts. After Simonet’s remarks, all that clinking seemed to make a lot of sense; discussing long-term planning, financial and otherwise, for artists is enough to make one feel like one definitely needs a drink (and I’m only half joking, or perhaps not even half-joking).

The second talk in DEEP’s series of discussions had many strengths. The honesty of the speakers and the significance of the questions they probed are among the most important of these. The way the organizers managed to create a collaborative, nonjudgmental atmosphere among participants who did not know each other well was also outstanding. DEEP’s second talk, and also the six-talk program as a whole, was very well conceived and well produced, and it is very hard to have any substantial complaints about either. If Gibney’s administrators choose to expand DEEP into a longer series of talks and/or make them indefinitely a regular offering of Gibney’s, dance artists as well as others in the arts field will have a valuable and unique resource available to them.

Ultimately, perhaps the very most beneficial and important aspect of the second DEEP talk and of the series of talks as a whole is that simply that they took place, that Gibney administrators publicized them, and that a seat at the table during them was offered free of charge to anyone who wanted to attend. This is an important gesture. Sometimes (all right, in my experience, often) it can feel as though one’s struggles in making one’s life as an artist are one’s alone and no one else’s. Even though dancers, choreographers and other artists may hear their artist contemporaries complain frequently about issues like the time demands of “survival jobs” and the difficulty of finding a housing arrangement within inflexible budgetary constraints, it can still feel as though every other artist is able to find a way to reach their artistic and professional goals more easily than you. Not enough is said loudly and publicly in the arts (let alone outside the arts) about the day-in, day-out enormity of sacrifice that dancers and other artists shoulder, especially in the immensely competitive hotbed of creativity and industry that is New York City. As one ballet dancer remarked in the 1991 documentary Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, “dance is a very lonely art,”. Sometimes it feels that as a dancer, your career struggles are singularly yours, and they are crushing in their immensity. The obstacles that even the most successful dancers and choreographers among us face are brutal enough to make one feel alienated and alone, at least sometimes.

Thus, the most impactful facet of DEEP is that, through the launching of the initiative and the production of the talks, someone has declared publicly, with the voice of a powerful and renowned organization in the dance world and in New York’s arts landscape, that dance artists face massive challenges and that these problems are collective, systemic, and far-reaching ones. It is meaningful that Gibney’s administrators have shown through the establishment of DEEP that it is time to talk about these problems without shame and that no dancer should have to face these difficulties alone. DEEP has provided an avenue for dancers, choreographers, and other artists to address them together, through collective information sharing and collaborative problem solving. And that’s something I’ll happily toast to. Clink!
Andrew Simonet's 'Making Your Life as an Artist' Workbook, pens, a bottle opener, and Brooklyn Breweries lager: supplies distributed to attendees at the start of the second evening of DEEP.

Andrew Simonet's "Making Your Life as an Artist" Workbook, pens, a bottle opener, and Brooklyn Breweries lager: supplies distributed to attendees at the start of the second evening of DEEP.

Photo © & courtesy of Charlotte Blumenfeld

One of the first pages of the workbook.

One of the first pages of the workbook.

Photo © & courtesy of Charlotte Blumenfeld

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