We don’t do it to get rich, this so-called artist "thing." We do it because we must. For years, the one piece of advice I have offered elite professional dancers trying to balance out the art/business binary is to ask for what they are worth relative to what the employing organization has to offer them. It is a paradigm often more fair than anything that happens in the business world, where most professionals (for better or for worse) demand standard compensation irrespective of their employers’ resources. But I would never expect to make with Lula Washington Dance Theater, a struggling nonprofit, what I make with Cher.
That said, when there are means to pay artists, as is the case with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, those means should create livable salaries so that dancers can simply dance - not search for second jobs to keep up with the rising cost of living in New York City. Dancers in the most decorated collection of black movement artists in the world dancing the most seen ballet (Revelations) in the canon of modern dance ever should not be worried about making ends meet, especially when their associate artistic director makes $1.3 million a year, the presiding artistic director half a million, and the artistic director emerita (legend notwithstanding) $217K – and that was in 2015. Don’t take my word for it; a quick Google search will pull up the I-990 tax document that is public record for all nonprofit organizations. Pages 16 and 43 of the 2015 return are particularly noteworthy:
The dancers have launched a petition asking for support for their pursuit of fair wages, a movement whose first large public moment was their boycott of an annual Kennedy Center gala designed to raise millions for the company every year. As an advocate for dancers/artists and a board member of SAG-AFTRA, the sister union to AGMA who stands behind its Ailey dancer members, I urge you to sign this petition.
Understand that this is not an assault on the legacy of Alvin Ailey, nor a declaration of war on the art his company produces. It is simply a call to action that big business ideals not invade and exploit artists in an artistic space - or at all.
By supporting the dancers, you are supporting the Ailey vision. You are supporting high art.
You are supporting what’s right.
After all, there is no performance without them.