Our Readers Write: Shifting away from commodification in a post-COVID dance industry

Editor’s note: The 2021 Our Readers Write column is a curated collection of articles and creative writing by various members of the Chicago dance community. We hope to provide our readers with expanded perspectives on both dance writing and the artistic lenses of the contributing authors. Audrey Hartnett, a recent BFA graduate from Columbia College Chicago’s dance department, contributes her thoughts to the ongoing conversation of how we should reevaluate our craft as dancers and dancemakers as we move through this pandemic. —Jordan Kunkel

Several years ago I had a summer intensive experience that would ultimately radicalize my perception of dance. During our "financial workshop," we were informed on how to make the most money off of students as a studio owner (a moment where I realized that I was one of these students they were intentionally capitalizing on though mandatory purchases of their clothing and other requirements). Throughout the entire experience, the administrators made it clear that we were all meant to look, dress and dance the same so that we would be interchangeable. There were multiple days when we were lined up and instructed one by one on how to "fix" our look for rehearsal (e.g. hair, makeup), because our pictures from the day were meant to serve as advertisement: a manufactured experience on social media meant to draw others in. The culmination of this practice took place during the final week; there were so many students crammed into the studio that there was no way to dance the performance full out. 

This commodity-based experience was not only stifling to the growth of individual artistry, it enforced the idea that dancers should all be made the same so that they are interchangeable. My self-esteem hit a low point after a month of sweating in lipstick and slathering on hair gel in the hopes that I could fit into this praised mold. I felt alienated from myself after being trained to be a product rather than an authentic representation of who I am. This mentality makes it difficult for dancers to advocate for themselves in unhealthy work and learning environments because the threat of replacement stands as a deterrent against speaking out or questioning harmful practices. The commoditization of dance training instills a belief in artists that they are objects of manipulation rather than agents of their own artistry. 

At the root of it all, I love to dance, and the passion in that simple statement is unchanged by its cliché nature. I have seen this love firsthand in so many corners of the Chicago dance community. Nothing feeds me quite like movement. As a student at Columbia College Chicago, a total bunhead and a vagrant explorer of local concert dance and improvisation groups, it has become clear to me that deep admiration for our craft is present across the board. That said, over the years I have had several experiences with dance here in Chicago that have left me incredibly uneasy. I was unable to articulate what instigated this disturbance until I realized that the string of experiences were tied together by a unifying factor: hyper-commoditization. 

In those instances of hyper-commoditization, dance was treated like a product first and an artform second. Alienated from the joy of creation, these product-oriented environments have enforced long-standing patterns of rapidly pushing out tightly-packaged and flippant dances that lack the humanity that once drew me to fall in love with dance in the first place. From dance conventions to many commercial classes, the choreography is centered around being filmed for promotion at the end, trading the depth of experimentation for clout. In those settings, it's common to see the same few movements recycled to whatever song is charting at the time, diminishing the opportunity for growth and risk taking. In convention settings, the most profitable approach is to have as many bodies in the space as possible, which can sometimes mean that there are dancers who go unseen and are left behind. In another attempt to sell dance, many youth dancers are taught to sexualize themselves, as discussed in an article by Angela Russel, George Schaefer and Erin Reilly. From skimpy costumes to explicit music and sensual movement, young dancers—especially within my experiences in the competition world—are objectified from multitude of angles. The childhood innocence of these dancers is often traded as a currency for shiny medals and profit. 

There is also something overwhelmingly discriminatory about the disregard for process-based dance, considering that there are many diasporic forms rooted in elements of community participation, cyphers and a blurred distinction between audience and performers—none of which are mass-produced experiences like large, proscenium concert productions. Equating success within dance with popularity amongst critics or the bottom line (akin to the larger companies of the concert dance world) overlooks the outstanding artistry within many Chicago dance communities that are based around non-Eurocentric foundations and presentations. In the past year, there has been much discussion around dismantling the barriers to applying for grants and performance opportunities across genres, and many have called into question the validity of criticism towards artists of color, specifically by white critics. As the dance community comes to terms with these facets of racism, I feel that change isn’t happening fast enough when access to resources is at the root of an artist’s ability to succeed. Not all dance originates from performance or takes place within the proscenium setting, thus these forms and communities should not have to adjust their values and traditions in order to receive artistic recognition from the white perspective of dance. The validity of dance artists that create within diasporic-based forms should not be dependent upon how well they accommodate the mindset of manufactured and easily-digestible movement and performance. 

I am excited and inspired to see an emergence of Chicago artists and companies establishing sustainable, collaborative environments for dancemaking. Roughly a month ago, I had the privilege of sitting in on Kiki King's open rehearsal for “Viewership Intended for Rec(Creational) Use Only” as a part of her Co-MISSION Residency at Links Hall. It was stunning to watch the way that King's cast took the movement prompts that King gave them about reckoning with the American experience and interpreted them into an embodied representation of their individual histories. King joined the cast’s individual movements together until a collective phrase was formed out of each person's input. King expertly designed a space around artistic integrity by elevating her dancers to be co-collaborators and blurring the power structures of the dance creative process. Not only did this align perfectly with the intentions of the piece, but it also provided an example of how to move forward with productive dance making while stepping away from the elements that support hyper-commoditization, such as extreme hierarchy and suppression of dancer feedback. 

I believe that our art as dancers should serve as something to ground us in a world that often feels wildly unstable. Devotion to our passion, practice and process should be a solace and a source of joy, free from the impositions of the profit-first mindset. This isn't to imply that profit and financial sustainability aren't a part of the equation, but allowing the space and time for experimentation, research and vulnerability opens up countless more possibilities for creation—which in turn can initiate inspiration for other artists. In carving out the space for exploration, process and support for artists, we lay the foundation for a healthier and more sustainable industry within which to work. Now, we have a golden opportunity to rewrite our standards of work from scratch. When COVID-19 forced a halt in our industry, it made many artists pause and reflect about what is no longer working in our model of artistic output. Large and small companies alike are now having to restructure around the new landscape of a post-COVID reality, opening up a window for improvement to the long standing traditions and status quo. I encourage choreographers, directors, educators, movers and all other dance creatives to balance the priorities of artistic integrity and financial stability as we reshape a vibrant dance network within Chicago. 

About the author:


Audrey Hartnett Audrey Hartnett is a recent BFA graduate of Columbia College Chicago with interests in both performance and writing. She is currently involved with the student committee of the Detroit Dance City Festival and Meadows Dance Collective, as well as the development of upcoming writing projects about dance culture. Originally from the West suburbs of Chicago, Audrey's classical background in dance has become a tool to explore the ways that the integrity of certain traditions can be upheld while still holding space for social progress. She looks forward to emerging into the Chicago dance scene as a professional and engaging with dance from a multitude of angles.

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