Report on Dance, COVID-19 and Brexit: Perspectives, Challenges, Solutions

Roehampton University, Portrait Room, Wednesday 15th June 2022

It felt good to be going to an in-person (hybrid) event finally to see and hear some established dance industry figures responding to the findings of this research, which was carried out at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and presented by Professor Alexandra Kolb.

Some of the research findings will be familiar to those who, at the time, were following the arguments being made to support performing arts freelancers after they lost their income following the complete shut-down of the industry and fell between the cracks of support offered through the Furlough and Self-Employment Income Support Schemes.

The researchers found that:

  • the loss of income was hitting artists who were already severely underpaid and the financial impact was expected to be long term, exacerbated by Brexit and the lack of opportunities to work abroad
  • the negative impacts of Covid and Brexit were worse for under-represented groups with those with caring responsibilities further disadvantaged
  • as a result, there was also a concern as to the negative longer-term impact on the diversity of the UK’s dance scene as those struggling left the sector looking for more secure work

The report Dancing Through Crises: the impact of Brexit and Covid-19 on the UK freelance dance scene (Baybutt et al. 2021) (https://dancingthroughcrises.wordpress.com/research-insights/), gave a wide range of short and long-term recommendations for the sector. This June event was an opportunity for industry professionals to discuss their take on some of the important themes arising from the research, at a moment when we are emerging from the pandemic and starting to feel the realities of Brexit. To an extent, the discussion reflected an increasing desire for a stronger call to action to address systemic inequalities that have been allowed to continue for too long.

The panel, chaired by Prof. Chris Bannerman, included employers of freelancers, Alistair Spalding (Artistic Director, Sadler’s Wells) and Farooq Chaudhry (co-founder, Akram Khan Company), as well as freelance dance artists, Wendy Houstoun and Adam Moore, and these were joined by Michelle Dickson, Director of Strategy at Arts Council England.

It was incredibly valuable to hear directly from freelance dance artists. Wendy and Adam spoke with a welcome frankness. They pointed out the differing challenges and realities for freelance dance artists working in companies or independently making their own work. Either way, the feeling was that being freelance as a dance artist is overwhelmingly not a choice but a forced necessity in the current ecology. The amount of unseen labour, to find, fund, prepare and train for work was highlighted as something that isn’t understood or recognised in fees and Wendy went as far as to suggest that freelancers themselves are only ‘seen’ when the work is there, no noise is made when opportunities aren’t there. As further eye-opening food for thought, those in full-time permanent employment were asked to consider what it would feel like to effectively have to apply for their own jobs each week / month, which is what it is like for an artist relying on project funding to make work.

Alistair used a memorable metaphor for the impact of Covid on the precarious web of freelancers the performing arts industry relies upon: “the tide went out and all the detritus was there”, the detritus being the systemic failure of any kind of support structure for such an important part of the workforce. He emphasised that if we don’t ensure as a society that there is support to catch people who are in trouble then we are in danger of losing what we’ve built over the years: in this context our strong international reputation for our rich cultural and creative industries. There was recognition, however, that sadly there appears to be currently no political appetite for this with Alistair acknowledging that it won’t be straightforward but there needs to be a conversation and more importantly some action to address the precarity of the freelance working model in low paid industries such as dance. Farooq too expressed worry for the art form and for the health of the freelance dancers who are exhausted with the layers of different types of work they need to take on to make ends meet, often at the expense of their artistic development.

Michelle agreed there is a need for more equity and more learning for all those in positions of power to understand what it is like be freelance and suggested that with all the reports we now have, there is sufficient data and testimony to show that the industry can’t go back to how it was.

An important point was made by Wendy, which it seems our Government, by its actions, is completely unaware of, when she posited that for the last 20-30 years Europe has been subsidising the UK’s dance scene with fees offered amounting to sometimes three times as much as in the UK and as a result, pre-Brexit and Covid, touring in Europe was the only reason many artists were still going.

The panel were in agreement that the additional effects of Covid-19 and Brexit, on top of the gradual erosion of funding over last 15 years, are creating a risk to experimentation.

Recognising the differences between the traditionally more ‘entrepreneurial’ (read neoliberal) UK and our more ‘socialist’ neighbours who value the arts and culture as a public good, Alistair suggested there is no reason why the UK can’t be more like France or Germany. Indicating we as a sector need to push back and fight for the funding as financial security does make for great art. He felt it is about investing and believing in art and that the work we are seeing is already much more conservative and “in danger of making [the UK] a very dull place”.

Thinking further about the additional negative impact of the pandemic on the diversity of the dance sector, the panellists at one point entered into an open and honest conversation about racism in dance and how some organisations are addressing it. They acknowledged that racism can be messy and complicated to unpick and that there can be a desire to find a simple solution to a complex problem and rush towards ‘fixing’ things. However, it was felt the important thing is to take action, across the board, and that it helps to apologise and acknowledge failure first to improve understanding before going attempting ‘fix’ a problem. 

Adam recognised that there can of course be complexity but suggested that at other times we can overcomplicate things, indicating that independent freelance dance artists are not all necessarily wanting to make work to go into those big institutions, where there is only a relatively limited opportunity for numbers of artists to be presented, however diverse you make the programme. Some might prefer to work intra-institutionally, with different people and communities and he suggested that in supporting those independent freelance dance artists to do that, diversity in the creative ecology would naturally begin to be addressed.

He went on to propose that one simple solution, if the will is there, might be to take 20% off directors’ salaries and redistribute that to the artists adding, “reinventing the wheel isn’t working, we need to think differently and to take action if we want things to change.” It was this sentiment, one of needing to take action, whether that be on an individual, organisational, collective or political level, that came through strongly in the panellists’ responses to the research findings and I came away with the activist in me a little more fired up!

[you may or may not want to include the below. If so it could be a separate box?]

A sample of responses to a question asking what one thing could be done to address the problem of precarity for freelancers:

  • Establish a ‘coalition of culture’ to raise awareness and advocate for the sector
  • Pay dancers a retainer to effectively keep them on between rehearsal and performance periods
  • Companies to set up a fund for their freelance dancers to be able to develop their own practice 
  • Pay dancers above industry standards (read Equity minimum) and for any consultation work or meetings where their expertise is sought… and pay them quickly!
  • Dancers should be getting royalties for contributing to the work
  • ACE have made individuals a theme, want to bring freelancers into policy development and would like to ensure all staff think about freelancers every time they think about the sector or organisations
  • Make processes of applying for / accessing funding more transparent and accessible 
  • More transparency in how policies are created
  • The UK Government to work with Europe to create artists passports 
  • A percentage of all tickets sold to go towards a ringfenced freelance pot
  • People are paid according to their needs – with context taken into consideration – some have greater need and should get greater support