by Neil Nisbet
The tale of professional dancer's pay is a very long story that's never going away but things have reached a new low with the revelation that dancers working on the English National Opera production 'The Death of Klinghoffer' are being paid just £327 for what amounts to a 40 hour working week during rehearsals.
Perhaps more telling than the money is the attitude of the three key players in the latest farce that is the arts in the UK.
Those key players are the English National Opera (ENO), the performers union Equity and our old friends at Arts Council England. Between them they form the perfect circle of indifference, ignorance and incompetence.
Our story begins with the UK's second largest opera company currently in receipt of £17,078,058 for the financial year 2011/2012 from ACE.
Their production of 'The Death of Klinghoffer' required 12 professional dancers and those dancers were employed on a contract that required them, for rehearsals, to work a 33 hour week. Not included in that 33 hours, and noted in the contract, is a mandatory "warm-up" class or what most professional dancers refer to as "class".
Such classes are, of course, very important to a dancer's working day but as far as the ENO and their contract are concerned this class is not part of the working day and is therefore unpaid.
In an attempt to draw attention to these issues dancers from the production contacted both The Stage and Article19. In our case we were also supplied with a copy of the contract (published below).
When contacted to answer questions about the dancers pay and the terms of the contract ENO, via a spokesperson, initially declined to say anything at all simply stating that;
"[ENO] don't comment on individual contracts or payments as these are confidential between ENO and the individuals concerned."
When Article19 pointed out that we had a copy of the contract and the dancers had, obviously, waived their confidentially aside ENO disagreed. ENO had not chosen to release the information and they would not discuss the matter any further, except they would.
As we pressed them for some answers some notable snippets of information did come out. Concerning the unpaid classes the dancers are required to attend but not get paid for the spokesperson told us;
"We would argue that they are paid because that's part of the contract."
Apart from the fact that the contract specifically states that the "warm-up" class is not included in the dancer's contractual obligation ENO just admitted that the dancer's working week was longer than 33 hours.
Article19 asked again why the dancers don't get paid to attend class. The response this time was; "...within the contract, they signed the contract, then they are required to attend the warmup."
But why don't they get paid for it? "[I] need to get you and answer on that!"
The spokesperson never did get us that answer.
GFA vs NPO
Beyond the specifics of the contract was the issue of the pay level itself a pay level of just £327 per week.
Here in TheLab™ we publish many many auditions. On average the pay level offered by independent dance makers to professional dancers ranges from £375 to £475 per week.
These dance makers are often working on a project basis with funding from Grants for the Arts. Funding that is almost certainly less than the £17,078,058 the ENO received from ACE for 2011/2012.
Never mind the £5Million surplus that the opera company has available to it according to their 2010/2011 published accounts.
After we had confirmed with ENO that the jobs the dancers were doing did actually require the skills of "professional dancers" and could not be done by your average press officer we received this, somewhat rambling, response;
"You are comparing apples and pears really, what I tried to explain in that [email] was that for an opera production, where, I've got to be very careful about the words I use here, for an opera production where of course dance isn't an [integral] part of it.
I wouldn't want to disparage the importance of the dance elements. Of course they are there because that is the vision of the director and it's not like a bolt on, it is an [integral] part of the performance but it is not the central focus.
So where, a dance company is putting on something that is essentially dance focused this is just one more element in an opera which is pretty much there to serve the music and the singing. So it seems unreasonable for a comparison between a dance company and an opera company where dance is, although an [integral] part of the production not the central focus."
I leave it to you, our dear readers, to decide just how "integral" ENO considers the dancers to be to the 'Death of Klinghoffer'
In our discussions with ENO, ACE and Equity the issue of just how integral the dancers were to the production was a recurring theme.
Missing the Point
What seems to have been missed by all three however is the fact that ENO needed professional dancers. You're paying for their skills and experience they don't get paid based on how long they are on stage or how important or not you consider them to be to the performance.
In response to that point ENO said;
"the pay level is agreed with the individual concerned and it is entirely legal and the contract has been signed by those individuals."
That the dancers signed the contract is a perfectly valid point. They knew what the pay levels would be, they knew about the hours, they also knew about the unpaid class, the lack of travel expenses and so on.
So why did they take the work?
Bargaining power over wages and working conditions comes from the existence of choice. If a company needs a skilled workforce then they need to pay for that skilled workforce. Should the company fail to offer the appropriate level of compensation dictated by the skills of the worker then the worker will go elsewhere and the company will suffer.
Unfortunately for dancers however there is a complete lack of choice. Jobs are hard to find, very hard to find. If these 12 dancers didn't take the work based on the pay and conditions offered then ENO would have found another 12 dancers who would take the jobs.
Absent that choice the pay and conditions provided by ENO are a simple case of exploitation. ENO is not paying £327 per week for financial reasons or because of how important the dancers are or are not to the production. They are paying this rate because they can get away with it, because nobody is going to stop them.
As for the ENO protesting that what they are doing is "entirely legal"? I can only imagine they are referring to minimum wage laws. Laws that were introduced to protect low paid, un-skilled workers from being exploited by employers. Yes, that's what professional dancers are, un-skilled workers, no different to a shelf stacker in Tesco.
Another part of the bargaining power of the collective workers lies with their union, in this case that union is Equity.
Unfortunately for the dancers Equity doesn't really seem to know what a union is supposed to do, at least if our conversation with Hilary Hadley, Equity head of live performance, is anything to go by.
Equity were not at all surprised to learn about the low rate of pay for the dancers, which Ms Hadley described as "woefully low". They were not surprised, because they are the ones that negotiated the rate.
In the quote above from the ENO their press officer mis-spoke when they said "the pay level is agreed with the individual concerned". The individual dancers have no say in the matter and that's all thanks to Equity.
In an interview with The Stage, Ms Hadley came to the defence of the ENO, not the dancers, when they reported that;
"Hilary Hadley stressed that ENO is heavily dependent on arts council subsidy and has recently suffered an 11% cut to its core funding."
In fact ENO's funding from 2011/2012 to 2012/2013 is exactly the same, it's £17,078,058, not to mention the £5Million+ surplus referred to earlier. The company's funding will continue to rise to just under £18Million over the next 3-4 years.
When we pointed this out, Ms Hadley doubled down;
"funding cuts are the reason the pay has not gone up in the last two years...... there has been a pay freeze because of the cuts in Arts council subsidy. So the fact that they may have received 18 million or whatever the figure was that you've just said is irrelevant in terms of it being their ability to pay an increase if it's actually been a cut"
If you're reading that thinking it doesn't make any sense, then we're right there with you.
With regards to both the pay levels and the surplus Ms Hadley explained;
"They are unwilling to pass on any of that £5million reserves or the £18million to anybody who works at the ENO. ENO can contract at that amount, they are unwilling to raise it"
It's here that we begin to realise that Equity doesn't understand what a union is supposed to do.
If an employer is unwilling to pay a fair wage to skilled workers when that company has admitted it needs those skilled workers, when it is demonstrable that the employer has sufficient financial resources to pay those skilled workers then the union is supposed to dig in and negotiate a better deal for its members.
If that deal is not forthcoming then the union would have little choice but to recommend to their members and non members, that they not work for that employer and also denounce that employer publicly for blatantly attempting to exploit potential employees.
Of course that would require the union to be armed with the same information we have but once again, if our conversation with Equity is any indication, they seem to be blissfully ignorant of even the most basic facts.
As mentioned, Ms Hadley had stated to Article19 that the pay level was "woefully low" and she would "....love it to be much higher". When we suggested that Equity recommend to their members that they not work for ENO as long as pay levels were so low she suggested that Article19 was trying to get her to "criticise" Equity's members.
Ms Hadley repeatedly refused to answer when we put it to her that Equity was not doing anything to protect professional dancers working under these conditions.
ACE In A Hole
Arts Council England over the last 10 years has provided ENO with approximately £170Million in funding to conduct their various activities.
The funding monolith's actions over the pay and working conditions at the organisations they fund have been sketchy at best. No matter how much money a company receives, the Big Bad doesn't like to get involved.
They told Article19;
"Individual contracts are a matter for each employer and, as mentioned, the Arts Council can't be seen as fixing rates. In regards to this particular circumstance, we understand that the 33 hour (plus warm up) is the contracted working week, however some weeks, particularly during the run of performances, fewer hours are required to be worked."
They can't be seen as "fixing" rates but they don't mind taking sides here, the side of their multi-million pound client.
The reference to "fewer hours" being worked relates to the performance schedule for the production. It isn't what we were asking them about but not to worry, let's pick it apart all the same.
For a performance week involving three shows the dancers are paid £305 which amounts to just over £100 per show. 'The Death of Klinghoffer' has a run time of 2 hours and 55 minutes (what? Ed!) To keep things simple let's call that 9 hours for the week or £33 per hour.
Sounds pretty good huh?
Not really because it's not 9 hours at all. All freelancers, in any profession, understand that the first tenet of doing business is understanding the "cost of doing business". That is, the costs incurred by the dancer to get their job done.
For the show day the dancers have to do class which is an additional hour or (done properly) would be 90 minutes. Then there is the travel time (which is unpaid and travel costs are not reimbursed), the pre-show prep with make-up and costumes, the post show time just getting out of the theatre to say nothing of taxes and national insurance.
In addition to that, what with dancers being dancers, they need to pay for regular classes to keep in shape, gym membership, health insurance (if they can afford it), physio costs, cell phone bills, the power to charge that cell phone's battery, etc, etc.
What's that I hear you say, "why should ENO consider cell phone bills?"
When you hire a photographer their daily cost factors in not just their time but everything else. From the cost of their camera gear through insuring the camera gear to paying for the electricity to edit your photographs the photographer factors all of that in as "the cost of doing business".
£105 per show does not cover a dancers cost of doing business, not even a little bit. Top price tickets for this show by the way are £95.
Funding application guidelines issued by ACE state that artists must be paid an "appropriate" amount for the work they are being asked to do. ACE has no definition for what is "appropriate" but in response to some questions a spokesperson did say this;
"As I mentioned regarding Grants for the Arts, if artists aren't appropriately paid for what they are doing we would reject the application."
That response would suggest that ACE, despite their protestations, does have some guidelines in place for what constitutes low pay and their willingness to act on those guidelines.
So we pressed a little further and put it to ACE that if they had prior knowledge of the pay and working conditions of the dancers working for the ENO on 'The Death of Klinghoffer' would their NPO funding application have been turned down.
"If this were a Grants for the Arts application, it would have been flagged as a concern and would have been followed up with a discussion to clarify terms and conditions. This is what has happened in this instance."
We've gone from an application being rejected to getting "flagged as a concern" all in the space of two emails.
At the time of publishing we were unable to clarify with ACE the details of the discussion they had with ENO.
ACE also did not provide any specifics or mention any specific applications or companies that the funding organisation had dealt with because of concerns over low pay.
As I pointed out a long time ago, at the start of this editorial, what we have here is a perfect circle of indifference, ignorance and incompetence.
It's hard to determine which is most damaging but throughout the discussions with Equity, ACE and ENO what comes through is their absolute indifference toward the dancers.
Equity adopts the defeatist position of "that's just how things are", the ENO can, evidently, do whatever they choose and ACE adopts the default position of lapdog.
Were Article19 the performers union the only thing we could recommend is that dancers simply refuse to work for ENO under these conditions.
Failing that we would actively encourage them to take to the stage in the last evenings performance and simply stand still. If they are of such little importance to the show, if the amount of work they do is so trivial, according to ACE, Equity and ENO, then it shouldn't matter one little bit. Of course we all know that's not true.
In situations like this it comes down to somebody taking a stand and the only ones left to take a stand are the dancers. Once again, they have to make the hard choice to tough it out and say no to the work or take on their employers and try to get better pay for themselves and all the dancers who will come after them.
Their union doesn't care and doesn't even know how to be a union. At this stage the only option for Equity is to bundle itself up into a bag with some heavy weights and have someone throw them in the Thames.
The ENO are the ones exploiting them and can't seem to decide who negotiated the pay rate, how "integral" the dancers are to the show or how they arrived at their pay levels to begin with.
ACE, meanwhile, is busy planning the next State of the Arts conference where they will not talk about issues like this.
As the title suggests, this is The United States of Nobody Gives a Sh*t.
ENO Dancer's Contract