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Dance for the Win!

A team of scantily clad women shimmy in a tight group, a martial artist punches the air, a performer strips as she makes out with an audience member, and a tap dancer hoofs it in the background. A frenzied three-ring circus of rotating acts compete for attention in a comedic overload of the senses. This is I made this for you, the work of Philadelphia-based choreographers Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler, which was originally created for The A.W.A.R.D Show in 2011.

Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler’s I made this for you
Photo by Bill Hebert

Philadelphia, Seattle, and NYC all participated in The A.W.A.R.D Show, a choreographic competition where twelve artists competed for $10,000 as decided by audience vote. I made this for you was a critique of this competition—the layering of spectacle and audience pandering a thinly veiled satire. “Our intention with creating [the piece] was to bring the tension surrounding the competition out into the open,” says Revlock, “One of the finalists brought literal busloads of friends and family to the show. I don’t blame him—the system encourages it.” While it’s unknown if Revlock’s protest was the reason, The A.W.A.R.D Show hasn’t happened since.

Fast forward three years and Revlock and Bindler are still performing I made this for you, most recently at the Seattle International Dance Festival (SIDF) in June. When Revlock arrived in Seattle, she discovered that the festival had its own mini reprise of The A.W.A.R.D Show—SIDF’s Spotlight on Seattle series added a Development Award of $500 for each of three evenings featuring local artists, who were otherwise not compensated.

Revlock was uncomfortable with the situation, and not the only one. Local artist Kate Wallich was originally scheduled to perform a solo in Spotlight and first learned of the award a few weeks before the show in a publicity email advertising the Artistic Development Award. Her reaction was one of disbelief: “There’s money somewhere and it’s not going to give artist stipends? There’s money somewhere and now it’s being put on a pedestal that we have to fight to get?”

“The intention was to involve the audience in the process of looking at work in terms of how it is developed,” explains Cyrus Khambatta, Director of SIDF. The winner also receives feedback to help their work grow and a chance to be commissioned for a longer piece. “The Artistic Development Award was never intended to be a contest.” While this seems like a rose by any other name scenario, it’s hard to be too critical of any form of payment to artists when working for nothing seems to be the industry standard. What does seem problematic with Spotlight this year is communication. The artists didn’t know about the voting element when they agreed to participate. There are different values surrounding art and competition, and choosing when and how one enters into it is important.

Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler's I made this for you Photo by Bill Hebert
Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler’s I made this for you
Photo by Bill Hebert

When the process by which one’s work is judged becomes public, it brings up a lot of conflicting issues surrounding fairness. In this case, audience votes collectively comprised one third of the decision, with two expert panelist votes being equally weighted. The idea of audience votes engages fears of popularity contests and uneducated perspectives. On the other side, an expert opinion puts a lot of weight in one individual’s particular tastes and brings up questions of what makes someone an “expert” anyway? It’s an openhanded microcosm of grant application processes everywhere—a panel of mixed expertise deciding which ideas are the ones with enough potential to fund.

Artists aren’t the only ones feeling the judgment. Organizations who support the arts are also competing for limited resources from an increasingly small public arts budget. They have to get creative. Local festivals BOOST, 12 Minutes Max, and Full Tilt offer alternative forms of payment such as rehearsal space, application feedback, and photo and video documentation. While these amenities are certainly appreciated, it’s clear that arts organizations are just as strapped for cash as those they serve.

 It could be argued that given such a small sum, dividing it evenly among everyone would diminish it to the point of being useless, but Wallich and Revlock disagree. “I have found that even a very small amount of money means a great deal, ” says Revlock. Wallich echoes her sentiments, “$100 would be huge for an artist with no money. That’s 10 hours of rehearsal space.” After trying to negotiate with Khambatta to ditch the prize, Wallich decided to drop out of the festival out of principle. “I wanted to be an advocate for artists getting paid.”

Seattle based dancer and choreographer Kate Wallich Photo by Tim Summers
Seattle based dancer and choreographer Kate Wallich
Photo by Tim Summers

Dance artists not getting paid enough continues to be an issue, and one that goes far deeper than the producers’ pockets. We live in a market economy where things that are difficult to commodify, such as dance, are going to be systematically undervalued. What’s interesting about the competition format is that it fits dance into a structure that our society endorses—one where popularity decides which product is most successful. It’s a bit ironic because this same system will choose dance after almost anything else, but what else can be done besides adapt along with this reality?

So You Think You Can Dance is an obvious example here, along with other television shows that have popularized dance through reality-style competitions. While these have certainly increased visibility and accessibility, they also only present a narrow idea of dance. The combative title alone reinforces the idea that dance is only for a select few and that there is one correct way to do it. Broadcasting flashy, entertaining dance is, while not representative, certainly not without value—it might be the current equivalent of the Michael Jackson videos that inspired an entire generation of dancers. What’s unclear is why the competition is necessary. Is it not enough to witness dazzling feats of athleticism and grace? While this does imply a lack of inherent value, it’s admittedly kind of fun. People want to feel invested and root for their favorite. It gives dance the appeal of a sport.

Art contests can function in other ways besides adding an additional layer of entertainment. Nationally ranked slam poet Lauren Banka explains some of the benefits of competition: “People are more engaged when they listen because they want to have an opinion on the final judgment.” Slam is a competitive form of performance poetry with randomly selected audience judges. While it may be a competition, it’s understood that the game aspect is a vehicle for promoting poetry and not to be taken too seriously. “It’s well known that often the best poet doesn’t win,” says Banka. There are many factors that can skew votes, such as placement in a lineup, personal preferences of the judges, or the fact that what seems like the best work immediately after it’s performed is not necessarily the one that stands out after a day or two. Can this end up rewarding the performers with flashiest styles? “Sometimes,” explains Banka, “There are definitely communities where poets go back to the same bag of tricks for every poem, but there are also scenes where you are expected to bring completely risky and original work every time.”

Even if complete objectivity could be guaranteed, there are still issues surrounding voting. If there are three or more options, a “majority rules” format will often not represent the majority of opinions. The best art pieces are often controversial and a divided vote will reward the less risky work. Perhaps most unsettling is that there is something ultimately reductive about taking the complexity of a dance piece and converting it to a “yea or nay,” or a number on a scale. Inevitably what is important about a piece isn’t represented in a number.

Perhaps dance faces this same problem in today’s economic value system. Is it possible to detach the success of a product from the income it generates? There are a few exceptions that exist outside of the market. A right to free education, for example, is something society has come to accept as so beneficial that we pay for it even if we are not receiving a product. While it’s not a perfect metaphor (schools fight for funding as well), education is substantially more integrated into our value system as a cultural necessity. Art, on the other hand, is asked daily to justify its existence, a standard that is not applied to commercially viable products. What would this country look like if art were seen as a right and not a product? If access to art and art education were mandated for all people and not just a privileged few? It’s likely art would flourish in a non-competitive system, but in this world, art must keep competing to get by.