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In the Dance World, a Struggle for Relief Funding Forces New Approaches

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LINES ballet (above), along with Smuin Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, have received Paycheck Protection Program funds to help endure the coronavirus shutdown. Will it be enough? (Courtesy LINES ballet )

Note: This is the third in a three-part series about the effect of the coronavirus crisis on Bay Area dance companies. Find part one and two here.

In a final look at Bay Area dance in the pandemic, we note how the struggle to secure relief funding has exposed some of the grave vulnerabilities in the dance world—and how it has pushed some organizations to rethink their models.

Along with San Francisco Ballet, with its 78 dancers and monthly payroll of $2.5–$3 million, a small handful of other Bay Area dance companies have been fortunate to be approved for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding under the Federal CARES Act. Those include LINES Ballet—which employs 100 people, including 12 dancers, faculty and staff on a $6 million annual budget—and Smuin Ballet, which employs 18 dancers and operates on a $3.8 million budget.

Others, like Oakland Ballet and Diablo Ballet, which operate on budgets of under $1 million, were advised that government PPP funding has run out—which is the response many smaller nonprofits have received.

Hip-hop dance instructor Micaya says she’s seeing more emergency resources being made available to visual artists, musicians and actors than to dancers. “Frankly, it is so typical and predictable,” she says. “It is my opinion that dance, especially hip-hop, is the least respected art form out there. I have been constantly fighting to change that way of thinking—way before this virus.”


Some organizations, like World Arts West (which organizes the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival), have been able to access the city’s Arts Relief Fund. But Micaya and others say they’re not eligible due to being based outside the city, even though they teach and present dance in San Francisco.

Jo Kreiter of Flyaway Productions says her city grant had almost doubled through the hotel tax fund allocations for the arts in San Francisco. But “for next year’s fundraising, who knows? That hotel tax fund will be decimated. The catapulting effect in the next two years is terrifying with the dance community cut off from public engagement. I worry about our ability to come back, but we are determined and ingenious.” (Plunging hotel taxes threaten Oakland’s arts funding as well.)

Robert Moses of Robert Moses’ Kin points to a growing number of foundations who have signed a pledge, spearheaded by the Ford Foundation, to loosen grant restrictions and give small arts groups greater flexibility as they move through this pandemic.

Will Fragmentary Relief Be Enough?

Like many small arts organizations around the Bay, the San Francisco Dance Film Festival finds itself ineligible for SBA/PPP funding, because its team is made up of freelancers and independent contractors. However, it will have access to the NEA’s new NEA/CARES fund, and received an emergency loan from Northern California Grantmakers (NCG).

“In a time like this, freelancers are so vulnerable,” worries festival director Judy Flannery. “This mélange of artistic hope and creativity that’s still bubbling around, and then this dark cloud of reality—how do people survive economically and physically in this?”

Flannery said the festival had already been rethinking its model before the pandemic. And now many dancers are reaching out to them as they experiment with filming dance in isolation. In recent years, the festival developed a ‘co-laboratory’ practice in which it pairs local dancemakers and filmmakers to make new work quickly. “The landscape will change,” Flannery is certain, “even if the physical festival goes ahead.”

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and World Arts West are two organizations who had also been rethinking their models even before the present health crisis. For YBCA’s Deborah Cullinan that means discussion around “what it means to be in relationship with artists, to engage around issues that matter to them, how to be a creative home and a center for the community.” On projects like Come to Your Census, YBCA had already transitioned to working in partnership with a public agency, the SF Office of Immigration and Civic Affairs, around the shared mission of reaching communities that are hardest to count.

Cullinan maintains the “big question is not just how extensive are these impacts going to be (like the hotel tax fund allocation for the arts), and are we going to be smart enough about how we respond with relief and recovery policy, but also how we evolve in terms of our structures. It’s got to be both. I do not believe that we’re waiting it out, to put a Band-Aid on it, then come back… The reality is, we were already in trouble.”

She cites the inspiration of choreographer Liz Lerman, one of YBCA’s senior fellows, with whom YBCA is working to develop an online program to support dancers and choreographers “who need to work and grieve through a process of change and loss to get to the other side… How do you help ritualize and move people through something?”

Lerman, she says, “talks about the idea that we are most inventive when we are trying to survive. We’re making these inventive decisions to stay alive in the moment. At the exact same time when we are inventing new modes, we need to think about the future.”

‘New Ways of Working’

World Arts West serves over 450 dance companies around Northern California, including a growing number of young artists—many deeply rooted in specific cultural forms who put their own stamp on innovative work. Exemplifying “living tradition,” as executive director Anne Huang puts it.

In addition to the storytelling and ritual elements of many of these world dances, Huang says there is a strong spiritual side that impacts community health, especially in times of crisis. “Because their everyday world is falling apart, they reach back to the collective faith of the community, which can be extremely grounding.”

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival has traditionally provided World Arts West’s artists with a way to network and collaborate on cross-cultural creations. But the organization seeks to sustain their livelihoods more broadly, by getting them tools such as workspace resources, contract management, and grant writing support—and, in the pandemic, helping to get their classes online.

World Arts West is developing festival contingency plans, while releasing content from its archives of over 40 years of world dance. Meanwhile, Huang says, “Some artists are telling me, I’m giving online classes and I didn’t know I have fans and students from other states and countries! After COVID, what does this revenue stream look like: teaching local classes as well as online classes all around the world. I feel we’re going to emerge from this crisis not just a changed nation, a changed world but with new ways of working, of earning revenue.”

Lenora Lee of Lenora Lee Dance has been developing a series of multimedia performances in spaces around the Ping Yuen Public Housing Complex to reflect on the historical struggles of the local Chinese community for affordable housing and housing rights, and their relationships with other marginalized groups in the community, including Russians and African Americans.

Lee has just reorganized her budget for the project, titled And the Community Will Rise, and raised additional funds from individual and foundation donors to provide some relief assistance to her 14 dancers through the shelter-in-place. A total of $25K will also allow her to push out rehearsals for an additional three months in anticipation of a delay in premiering the work.

She says, “I decided not to push further with online fundraising at this time, as it felt like so many people were initiating campaigns to raise money.”

This stepping back in the face of a collective threat makes clear that broad-based relief is needed. Relief that doesn’t penalize freelancers and smaller organizations who may not have strong institutional banking relationships, and that doesn’t involve a multitude of applications. Many of the artists I spoke with expressed enormous frustration at the U.S. government’s flimsy commitment to arts relief funding—especially in comparison to a country like Germany which has committed 50 billion euros to the effort.

In a message from Lenora Lee Dance to its supporters, dancer Anna Greenberg Gold wrote: “My work as an artist is to make visible the invisible, to dance thoughts and images into fruition, to be a time machine, a medium, a mover of emotions, a gardener of energies, a storyteller and a light. I hope to continue to shine my light on important issues through dance. Now more than ever, the world needs us.”


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