The Interdependent Dance Artist

Choreographers Working Group (CWG) poster

Recently I have been in conversation with colleagues and cohort in the dance community around the term ‘independent dance artist’. There is an emerging and mutual sense amongst us that the word ‘independent’ is outdated and proposes a false sense of reality in the way the ‘independent dance artist’ operates within the larger cultural sector.

Dance artists working in an ‘independent’ or freelance capacity do not operate in a vacuum they do not do the work of an ‘independent’ labourer alone nor do they work outside of systems. ‘Independent dance artists’ are very much a part of systems of support, finance, marketing, business, community and social networks. They depend on the system and are, as well, vital to them.

How useful is the word ‘independent’?

This term perpetuates what Andre Lepecki has called ‘Selfie culture’ (2016) in which the individual is centred, as we often find in social media landscapes. The word ‘independent’ also suggests that a dance work, as often marketed, is the product of a singular maker whose name is put forth as the creator of the work and which often neglects to fully recognise the myriad of others – i.e. dancers, collaborators, participants and support team as well as funders and audiences that has made the work of art possible.

Can there be a renaming of the ‘independent dance artist’ to more fully recognise the systems they are connected within so that we recognise the actual inter-dependence in the sector? Can we shift a word to make new, but inherent, meaning in how value is placed, disturbed, and redistributed more in line with the reality of the production of dance activities?

How can we consider relationality as a practice of the dance artist and shift our perception to allow more current and sustainable models for understanding realities within the arts and culture sector?

The concept of the ‘independent’ dance artist no longer feels relevant.

The word ‘independent’ is somewhat reductive within a relational approach. It is extractive rather than reciprocal, isolated rather than connected and gives an impression of being self-supporting.

Instead, might we consider the inter-dependent dance artist?

The inter-dependent dance artist is among, between and within an ecological framework of funders, audiences, collaborators, organisations and institutions. These entities all play a role in the landscape that makes the work of the artist possible and, in turn, the work of the artist enables those entities to co-exist within and among it.

My research has been on dance as a relational practice in the museum and its influence on institutional change. My thinking has moved towards an ecological consideration in which not only the dance artist and audience but staff of the museum are considered in the overall work and endeavours to bring that work forward and as part of its legacy.

Inter-dependency as us to recognise the individual dance artist as in community with others as a networked activity. In writing this post I was reminded of a project I co-created with my Los Angeles-based cohort at the time. We were a collective of 5 women who had intersected across various platforms of presenting, writing, teaching and performing. We called ourselves the Choreographers Working Group (CWG). We were engaging in an intentionally rigorous provocation to unsettle our assumptions surrounding the creative prosess. We developed a peer-to-peer exchange process in the studio in which we co-created a map (see image above) of our collective connectivity across the various independent projects we had each engaged in. The lines show the multitude of shared experiences and named the organisations that we had worked with and could see how they were also connected through our ‘independent’ project-based work. This visual reveals us, not as independent artists, but as individuals who are part of an ecology of activity that crosses over and in between and around a landscape of common exchange. As much as we might have considered our network as attuned to us as individuals, that network was entangled in an exciting way. No longer were we floating islands of independence, we were a landscape of shared experience and exchange.

How might mapping and visual expressions of this concept help us to expand our perception of how an artist operates within a community of people, organisations and institutions? Can we invite in other ways of naming the reality of the dance artist working within a complexity of the arts as a networked system? Might we also have to start with the artist themselves to unsettle the long held notion of the ‘independent artist’ as a singular entity?

In the words of Suzi Gablik, ‘Artists see themselves as quintessential free agents pursuing their own ends. Maintaining a deeply connected relationship with society is not how the modernist vision has conceptualized aesthetic freedom or the principle of individual selfhood.’ (1992:2) Gablik’s consideration of the ‘monocentric myth’ of the artist through the lens of aesthetics is helpful in an unpacking of what she calls upon as a ‘radical relatedness’. Her case studies of artists working directly with community members as participants in their work is helpful in thinking about who is involved in the work of an artist and debunk what she terms as ‘heroic independence’.

Along similar lines of enquiry yet through a different lens, Dorothea Hamilton traces the evolution of how artworks have been positioned and hung in galleries and what that reveals, again, about our increasing disengagement of the collective by the notion of the individual by tracking the amount of physical space between the works. She writes,

This cultivation of disengagement, of separation (of nature from culture, the individual from other individuals, visuality from other senses, and so on), is closely linked to a modern, secular notion of time that determines the museum.

In the spirit of critique of modernism perhaps we can consider that what the dance artist produces is no longer a ‘work’, a thing that is shown and shared, has a beginning and an end but, rather, is a social phenomenon of people gathering together as a system of thought, action, participation, engagement and exchange in order to co-produce experience.

In what ways might we turn towards a new language in order to foster new dialogues of inter-dependence? Might starting with the ‘inter-dependent’ dance artist and letting go of the notion of the independent bring us closer to a reality rather of inter-dependency over independence?


Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance by André Lepecke

Connective Aesthetics by Suzi Gablik

When You Mix Something, It’s Good to Know Your Ingredients: Modes of Addressing and Economies of Attention in the Visual and Performing Arts  by Dorothea Hamilton