As the Relationship to Work Changes, Where Does Dance Stand?
As workers speak up about a loss of meaning and the need for a better life-work balance, and employers face recruitment difficulties and struggle to make job postings attractive, multifactorial crises are currently impacting workplaces. Whether their causes are political, environmental, social or health-related, they are triggering a fundamental shift and changing the national debate around work. With its unique characteristics, the dance field is no exception to this upheaval. Here, the intersecting experiences of three female dance professionals point to both the exacerbation of old tensions and the rise of new goals.
In 2015, Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker devised a performance for exhibition spaces, shown in several museums around the world. Its title? Work/Travail/Arbeid, so named “because the spectator is at the heart of the process, in the midst of the dancers' work,” according to Télérama dance writer Emmanuelle Bouchez. A show performed by professional dancers can be an aesthetic experience, an object of entertainment or a political statement. But this immersive piece also makes apparent the conceptual, technical and physical labor required to produce a dance piece, underlining that “the work of art we're watching is someone at work at that very moment,” as Catherine Meneret, deputy director of Caen’s National Choreographic Center in Normandy, points out.
The dance sector is an integral part of the workforce, and if the issue is bubbling up even in the theme of specific works, it's precisely because the relationship to work has become a major social issue. In June 2023, France’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council took note of the ongoing upheaval caused by environmental degradation, rapid technological development, and the need to reconcile work and one’s personal life and mental health. A series of features in this autumn's issue of La Scène magazine reported the “loss of attractiveness” of cultural jobs in France – a phenomenon that hasn’t spared dance. On the contrary, it seems to crystallize both long-standing tensions and the emergence of new desires and goals among dance workers.
Karima El Amrani, an independent dancer and choreographer, speaks of a “clash, either generational or of mentality.” As the creator of the En Conversation series, which brings dancers together to discuss career-related issues, she observes a “paradigm shift that is taking place as a result of current events.” She runs a discussion group at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris, and hears students express “a lot of concern about their future.” Their fears echo those described by journalist Salomé Saqué in her recent book Sois jeune et tais-toi: “Between unemployment, the worsening economic situation, the pandemic and the climate emergency, young people have to deal with an unprecedented set of social factors.” For a large proportion of the generation of dancers now entering the job market, their ambition, rather than working on prestigious projects or with renowned artists, “is, above all, to be well – to be well together,” El Amrani says.
The well-being of the dancers is also the primary objective of Marion Cachan, the co-founder of Aoza, a production office which specializes in contemporary dance. Cachan initially freelanced under France’s “intermittent” system for several dance companies over many years, until the desire to improve her working conditions prompted her to set up her own structure in 2019. She also joined the Association des Professionnels de l'Administration du Spectacle, a group founded to tackle the difficulties common to the professionals who support artists, such as loneliness and isolation, the overload of complex tasks, the non-recognition of their versatility or the devaluation of their work, and insufficient wages. Indeed, a May 2022 report by the Cour des Comptes estimates that “for identical socio-demographic characteristics and job functions, cultural professionals earn 26% less than other employed workers.”
For Catherine Meneret, this is one of the main reasons why the sector is “starting to have trouble finding the next generation of technicians and administrators.” What's more, when they work in publicly funded culture institutions, these professionals are often faced with “increasingly contradictory political demands,” she says, with missions that tend to expand even as resources diminish overall. In the spring of 2023, the Syndicat National des Entreprises Artistiques et Culturelles, a national union for which Meneret currently acts as vice-president, circulated the petition “N'éteignez pas les lumières sur le spectacle vivant” (“Don't turn off the lights on live performance”). The text points the finger at a general crisis in the public sector, and states that “like the hospital, judicial and educational sectors... the public service of art and culture is also experiencing its ‘crisis,’” with budgets that “have dried up” over the last twenty years or so. How do you juggle such contradictions? Meneret admits that, unfortunately, the remuneration of artists, particularly dancers, is often used as an adjustment variable – a phenomenon that can be verified by looking at archived pay slips. “Performers are paid pretty much the same as they were fifteen years ago,” she says, “yet the cost of living has increased enormously.”
“Why does talent become the ultimate excuse when it comes to justifying injustice?” Karima El Amrani, dancer and choreographer
In this context, some professionals are beginning to question the predominance of notions like genius or artistic talent. Why does it become “the ultimate excuse when it comes to justifying injustice?” asks El Amrani, who has worked on projects that were “artistically exceptional, but, on the other hand, very difficult on a human level.” With age and experience, she is now more willing to commit to a show that she “doesn't like as much,” but which she is “just as happy to dance, because it makes sense in another way.” Cachan has also witnessed colleagues in situations of “overwork;” even “bordering on harassment,” who consequently had “no choice but to resign and leave,” even when they liked the artistic project.
Nevertheless, both are optimistic about the progress made in recent years in the fight against sexist and sexual violence and harassment. El Amrani, for example, applauds the creation of a confidential support unit by a Swiss union, the Syndicat Suisse Romand du Spectacle, in a sector where “it's more complicated to know where the limits are,” as its general secretary Anne Papilloud explained in the Swiss daily Le Temps. In France, since 2022, the Ministry of Culture has set obligations for companies and venues that receive public subsidies. “This helps us understand the importance of protocols for listening, conflict management and team relations on these issues, but it goes beyond that. It makes everyone think,” says Cachan. A positive development in the eyes of El Amrani, who asserts: “There are lots of discussions that still need to emerge.”
Katie Kheriji-Watts works in the arts and is a culture journalist based in Paris. She is originally from California and has been working internationally for fifteen years in visual arts, performing arts, media, design and education. She is the creator and host of Points of Entry, a podcast seeking to imagine new cultural organizations in a rapidly changing world.
Section: “Emploi culturel : en quête d’attractivité”, La Scène n° 110, September 2023 (“Cultural employment: in search of attractiveness”)
“En conversation”, a project by Karima El Amrani
Sois jeune et tais-toi by Salomé Saqué
Éditions Payot, march 2023
LAPAS – L’Association des professionnels de l’administration du spectacle
Anti-harassment and mobbing unit / Syndicat suisse romand du spectacle (Performing arts union of Romandy)