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The Art of Survival

Image by Lauren Waller featuring Llewelyn Lewis and Gabriel Ciulli

When I started my masters in October 2021 one of the first things we were asked to do was to critically reflect on our current practice, a task that although I found very challenging gave me the chance to not only think about where I am, but also to question where I want to go next. More importantly it forced me to recognise what I (and no doubt many artists) need to ensure a future in the arts.


Whilst exploring my current practice it became clearer to me that, even before the pandemic, my focus has been less about the pure practice of my art and what I’m creating. Most of my time is spent navigating the various power structures and systems looking for the “right opportunities” for me to be able to survive as an independent dance artist. In a world of open calls, micro-grants, and applications where “we are unable to provide feedback at this time” or “You haven’t got the job, but we’re going to implement your ideas,” I have found myself volunteering my time, my ideas, and my energy to a system that supposedly supports professional artists. This model of exploitation has to change before the extinction of the independent dance artist.


A major flaw in this model, for me at least, is that it doesn’t allow time for my “other life” or leaves me seriously impacted when my personal life needs to take priority. I recently needed to take time to be with my family as we came together to grieve the loss of a loved one, a time I cherish and absolutely needed. Yet this model meant that when coming back to work I was faced with a series of missed opportunities, a loss of income, and a year-long wait for the next round to open. If it wasn’t for the incredible artistic community I have, the support of friends and family, and my privilege of having savings I don’t know how I would have survived that period.


How does an artist without those privileges survive those experiences?


Now I know I’m not the first person to ponder a new world of dance, nor am I the first to recognise the challenges of being a freelance dance artist. I only have to a look as far my own artistic circle to find writings by Ghost and John on their “Trip to hunt for new framework of art-making” or to Shivaangee Agrawal’s 2020 interviews of Pulse Magazine that formed a series of “Freelance Dancer Guides” to see other examples of the reality independent dance artists are facing. However, I do have to be aware of my own personal context, therefore I have to ask the questions relevant to me, and explore the paradigm of what my future dance utopia looks like. At least as a starting point for this research journey.


What questions am I currently asking?


Those that know me well will be aware how I often think in a million directions at once, so the list of questions below may feel unrelated and out of context, but eventually (I hope) their answers will form points of departure that could be assembled to help choreograph my dance utopia:


  • What sectors can we look at as an example for a more sustainable mode of research?

  • What actually is in my job description as an artist participating in a festival?

  • Do “Box Office” splits actually benefit independent artists?

  • How do I know my ideas are protected when applying to an open call?

  • How long can I survive for?

  • What can I do today that will change tomorrow?

  • How do I reach and sustain a critical mass?

  • Am I in the right place, just waiting for the right locale?


The last question is perhaps more loaded at present, as I find myself geographically based in Oxford and sharing (with other local artists) a need for the agglomeration of professional dance in Oxford. Not necessarily with a strict set of rules and criteria, but at least a shared understanding of dance:


-Not only as a subordinate to theatre and/or music.

-Not only as an adaptive medium that will work in any space.

-Not only as a pedagogical tool.


Artists in my utopian dance world:


Joining Ghost and John, the next artist I’d like to see in my utopian dance world is Iona McGuire. An old friend of mine, my first collaborator as part of TPD, and an incredible dance artist. I believe they are the perfect example of a hard-working, dedicated, and extremely talented artist who continues to inspire those around them as they themselves evolve to new levels of excellence. One of the first people to make me fall in love with contemporary dance, I could not imagine a dance utopia without them.


Check out Iona’s instagram here:


https://www.instagram.com/ionalilymcguire/

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