Love or Money

Claudia La Rocco at the May dance galas

Left: Artists Babette Mangolte, Charles Atlas, and Molly Davies with Ain Gordon at the Danspace Gala. (Photo: Ian Douglas) Right: Artist Ishmael Houston-Jones with Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton of DANCENOISE at the Danspace Gala. (Photo: David Velasco)

SPRING IS HIGH GALA SEASON IN NEW YORK. So many parties, so many drinks, so many conversations, so many of them about money. Getting it, giving it, never having enough of it.

This quote just about sums it up: “I want you to look at this art and think about need.”

That’s Ain Gordon, the writer, director, and actor, speaking at the Danspace Project gala, which he was emceeing. The art in question was static art, to be auctioned off in support of the theater. Among the works was a Marina Abramović portrait: “You could sell it tomorrow, let’s think clearly people,” a naked Lucy Sexton, fresh off a DANCENOISE routine later that evening, advised reluctant bidders.

But Gordon could just as easily have been talking about the moving art. There is, you may have heard, a long-standing gentleman’s agreement in dance, in which the artists, the people with the very least amount of money, subsidize most everything else, including those systems which purportedly exist to serve them. Yeah, there are lots of variations on this agreement in our world—but I often think its purest expression can be found in dance.

Well. Here’s another quote, from Merce Cunningham, which you also probably know, it having long since passed into Monet water lily territory:

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.”

Left: Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood in Pam Tanowitz's The Specators, 2013. (Photo: Elyssa Goodman) Right: Michael Mahalchick at NADA. (Photo: Allese Thomson)

I have been thinking about this quote a lot these past few weeks. I thought about it when I was at the NADA fair, watching dancers perform outside (specifically out back), in the heat, on the pavement, for a meager audience—mostly unintentional and only vaguely interested. There was a Kickstarter campaign by organizers Cafe Dancer and Sam Gordon, announced in the press release, so the performers would receive more than “exposure.” I checked out the page (which features a photo of the empty asphalt performance area) just now; ten backers, $311 pledged of $2,500 goal, 0 seconds to go. Funding Unsuccessful.

I thought about the Cunningham quote again during the Movement Research gala, when the choreographer Ralph Lemon, in his tribute to the veteran arts advocate Sam Miller, talked about Miller having done his work “with such a brilliant, beautiful denial—that someday the boulder is not going to fall down.” And while watching young dance artists working as gala waitstaff. (And by working I mean something rather murkier—as one choreographer said to me of his behind-the-scenes efforts: “This is my ticket into the show.”) And when Jennifer Lacey deployed the gorgeous precision instrument that is her body, while the vocalist Megan Schubert offered a string of sentences: “The meaning that I do is a doing.” “The only thing that upsets me now is narrative.”

And the narrative is always the same, isn’t it? The curator Cathy Edwards, another honoree that night, talked of “the time when, if you were willing to be paid nothing and work hard, you too could be the managing director of Movement Research.” Is it not still that time?

I went to New York Live Arts last week to see The Spectators, Pam Tanowitz’s austere and ravishing new dance. What even to say about the relief of encountering art like this? And of spending time in the company of a dancer like Melissa Toogood. Speed, attack, amplitude, depth—she makes the business of being alive seem possible.

Left: The afterparty for the Movement Research Gala. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Jennifer Lacey at the Movement Research Gala. (Photo: Ian Douglas)

“What is meant is not license, but freedom…” That’s another thing Cunningham said. I found it while trolling about for the unsteady souls bit. One of the other dancers in The Spectators is a guy named Pierre Guilbault, who recently told me he has figured out how to survive on $1000 a month, including a room he rents for $300 in Jersey City. He’s young, a beautifully buoyant and promising performer, and I wonder if his budget allows for classes, physical therapy, or health insurance. How long will $1000 a month work for him? What happens when it doesn’t anymore?

It’s all hopelessly romantic, in a desperate and cynical way—if there’s no money now, and there was never any money then and there’s not gonna be any money anytime ever, then what? Everything just for love? The margins hold the page.

Gala season. Maybe it’s best to end with a few nuggets of wisdom from Karen Finley at the New Museum, offered during a self-help workshop for artists in need of money, part of the “NEA 4 in Residence” show:

“When I lost my funding—and I have lost funding, some of you may be aware, you can Google me later—I thought I had lost everything.”

“Artists—they’re even more wonderful when they’re dead.”

“Right now. This is it, ok?”

“There’s no problem. There’s no problem. Everything’s fine.”