<![CDATA[Navatman - Dancers Wanted to Sustain...]]>Wed, 21 Mar 2018 06:43:37 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Dancers Wanted to Sustain Bharatanatyam in America, Compensation (Not Always) Commensurate With Experience]]>Tue, 20 Dec 2016 19:38:40 GMThttp://navatman.org/dancers-wanted-to-sustain/dancers-wanted-to-sustain-bharatanatyam-in-america-compensation-not-always-commensurate-with-experienceBy Nadhi Thekkek, PhD
Artistic Director, Nava Dance Theatre
San Francisco, California, USA
Bharatanatyam is an ancient classical Indian dance form rooted in Hindu spirituality and religious contexts. I believe the primary dance components of the form, including the movement vocabulary and theatrical elements, also make bharatanatyam a contemporary performance medium that can be used to communicate across cultural boundaries.

Nava Dance Theatre at Drive East
If bharatanatyam components are designed thoughtfully, the medium has the potential to affect, inform, or change one’s point of view.

These are some of the reasons why I decided to devote all my working hours toward the study, practice, and performance of bharatanatyam. But when I made that decision, one question persisted, could I make a career out of dancing bharatanatyam professionally in America? 

A few years ago, my dance company was selected to create a 30-minute bharatanatyam production in San Francisco inspired by Kalidasa’s The Cloud Messenger. This led to a larger commission and additional grant funding where we created a 65-minute version of the work. This happened over the course of two years, and I am still both grateful and humbled by how much I learned about professional performing arts in San Francisco through this mechanism, and how different it was from how I saw bharatanatyam in the United States up until that point. During these initial experiences, I noticed one critical question that American bharatanatyam dancers often fail to address, and I believed the lack of clarity on this issue inhibits the potential reach of bharatanatyam in this country. 

Dancers need to ask themselves, at what point are unpaid performance opportunities supposed to be paid work?

​Many of us understand that professional dancers in American dance companies get compensated; in contrast, a vast majority of American bharatanatyam dancers at the local level do not. Often, local bharatanatyam dancers are not appropriately compensated despite the number of hours devoted to practice, rehearsal, and choreography and sometimes despite decades of training and performance experience. When I switched over to dancing bharatanatyam full-time, I began to realize what an injustice this practice was to the field and how it contrasted other South Asian performing arts.

​Organizers would come to musicians and Bollywood dancers with paid “work,” while local bharatanatyam dancers would be offered unpaid “chances to perform.”

This can lead to a damaging perception of bharatanatyam dancers; organizers are led to believe that whoever wants it bad enough will agree to perform, regardless of compensation. What sometimes follows is a race to the bottom, or a persistent undercutting of dancers by other dancers. This process is not only unsustainable; it also dismantles the camaraderie among dancers, preventing us from coming together to create concrete change that could theoretically benefit us all. Eventually, this hurts how dancers and producers raise funds, while also limiting the field to those who can afford to dance rather than those who have the skills to dance. 

There are of course other equally pressing problems associated with growing the field of classical Indian dance in the United States; the growing need of consistent dance critique, the inundation of ticketed student recitals competing with professional dance productions, and the lack of cohesion among the next-gen dancers to move bharatanatyam to mainstream American dance, despite the growing prevalence of the form, but part of it is:

I am hoping the discussion of artist compensation can help us prioritize how funds are delegated within dance organizations, leading to an overhaul in all these other areas.

In the Bay Area we consistently see American grants and donors investing in individual artists; organizations like Zellerbach Family Foundation, Creative Work Fund, Center for Cultural Innovation, East Bay Fund for Artists, among others often either fund artist compensation in its entirety or require that a substantial amount of a project budget be delegated towards a lead artist/choreographer or performing artists. I see this translating into extraordinary work with high production value over and over again in the American dance scene, largely affecting modern or contemporary American dance but also occasionally affecting dancers in non-American forms. If we are to present bharatanatyam of a similar technical and artistic standard to our American dance counterparts, then we need to ensure that adequate funds, either through grants, commissions, or performance fees, are allocated to bharatanatyam dancers. 

​Fortunately, bharatanatyam presenters on the east coast, such as Navatman, Erasing Borders, Dakshina, and others throughout the country have become champions of empowering classical Indian dancers. Moreover, every organizer I have worked with personally has also been a part of this movement toward fair compensation in the classical Indian arts. In light of this positive trend, I encourage donors to contribute to organizations that prioritize the investment in individual dance makers. I believe that by encouraging thoughtful and extraordinary dancers to move out of the “opportunity” space and into the professional performance space, bharatanatyam would not only be sustainable as a profession in America, but it could grow and gain visibility in the growing performance diaspora of this country, allowing more people to appreciate the beauty of what bharatanatyam has to offer.