Performance Ethics - 1
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with values relating to human conduct. It is a system of moral principles that provides guidelines with respect to the right and wrong of certain actions. In the working world, the terms ‘work ethic’, ‘business ethics’ and so on are terms one hears often. In the world of performing arts, we could say that ideally there should be something called ‘performance ethics’. So, what I’m calling ‘performance ethics’ outlines the rights and wrongs in the world of performing arts with respect to artists and people that deal with them.
Unfortunately, the way a lot of artists view each other and the way they are viewed by the people who professionally associate with them betrays a kind of amnesia regarding ethics in performing arts. And out of all the performing arts in India, dance seems to be at the bottom in terms of ethics.
First of all, a sense of community amongst individual artists seems to be lacking. A lot of artists view each other as competition. While this is true in some senses, it builds very high walls between them. At best, they stay on cordial but not friendly terms with one another, and do not collaborate with each other. At worst, they criticize one another behind each other’s back or openly display their insecurities regarding one another. Of course, this is not to say that all artists are back-stabbing rivals. Many are close friends and even work together. But there are enough who build walls around themselves to make this worth pointing out.
Secondly, when it comes to being in a company or group, the code of ethics is vague and sometimes shocking. For instance, several company contracts make absurd demands out of dancers, such as not being allowed to fall ill or get injured. If dancers do happen to fall ill or get injured, they are unable to perform with the company and their income is affected. Moreover, the companies are not contractually bound to provide medical expenses for injuries sustained while working for them. Dancers are also not allowed to learn or teach anywhere other than within the company. This is not only makes them entirely dependent on the companies, but also arguably stunts their growth as individual artists. Again, this is not the case with every dance company in India, but enough dance companies adopt one or more of these stands with regard to their dancers, making their performance ethics questionable.
Finally, there appears to be a ‘generation gap’ in the arts. Some well established artists who have struggled through the weary days of impoverishment and exploitation in their younger years become festival directors and put young artists through the same exploitation that they faced. Exploitation is a strong word, but that is what it is. I cannot say why this is – whether it’s a lack of empathy, or a genuine belief that a struggle is a necessary part of the journey to greatness. Either way, it discounts the internal struggle a young artist inevitably faces. A struggle that is inherent to the learning process, something that experienced artists are aware of, having been through it themselves in their early years as professionals. Having also been through the external struggle as a result of unfair demands made by organizers, one would imagine that this part of the struggle is something that one generation of artists would want to eliminate for the coming generation. But this has not always happened. The transformation from artist to organizer is perhaps too absolute and maybe lacks the advantages that should exist when an artist organizes festivals. An organizer who has never experienced being on the other side may lack the empathy and understanding, but an artist turned organizer does not have that excuse.
Admittedly, running a festival, directing a dance company and not viewing each other as competition in a fiercely competitive atmosphere are not easy tasks. But whoever said being ethical was easy?
Performance Ethics - 2
The previous article of ‘Footloose’ broadly mentioned some of the ethical concerns that artists are faced with in the performing world. But ethics is not something that is required of dancers and other artists alone. Often, the individual sense of ethics of artists is strong, but the people they’re forced to deal with on their way to the stage are far less ethical.
In no other professional line of work is it remotely conceivable to expect a service to be provided without adequate compensation. Yet, in the world of performing arts, it happens all the time. Many a time, there is no compensation. And far too often, the compensation is nowhere near adequate.
The biggest problem faced by artists when dealing with organizers and sponsors of an event is the lack of payment. Far too often, artists are expected to perform free of charge. Several explanations are given to substantiate this exploitation, the most common one being that artists are being given a great platform. Another common explanation for not being able to pay an artist is that the organizers themselves were not funded well enough or at all. In my view, if an organizer of an event is unable to secure funding or sponsorship for an event, then the event should be rescheduled for a time when funding is available. If the funds were available, but limited, then it comes down to prioritizing. Is the festival about presenting fifty artists, of which none are paid or about five good artists who are well paid? For outstation performances, paying for the artists’ travel and accommodation should be the basic minimum provided to the artist.
Secondly, many performances involve other art forms – a classical dance performance involves live musicians, a contemporary dance performance may involve multimedia collaborations, a classical singer requires accompanists, and a music ensemble or band involves 4-5 members along with sound engineers and so on. If the performing artist is to bear all these costs, a performance ends up being a huge financial undertaking for the artist. Occasionally, the artist may break even but there is little left for livelihood. To suffer for one’s art is a romantic notion, but to survive in the world, an artist must be able to generate some income from his or her art.
Several artists are forced to seek other sources of income to survive. They have day jobs, or they teach – many do this out of desperation, rather than because they like their day jobs or teaching. So much time and energy goes into making ends meet – and it eats into the time that should have been spent creatively and intellectually on their art.
Aside from the questionable ethics related to finances, sometimes organizers unwittingly rob artists of basic dignity by leaving them in the lurch regarding dates. Without confirmation on dates, an artist is either forced to commit blindly or loses opportunities to perform. Last minute cancellations are also common, ignoring the fact that the performing artist has been rehearsing for the performance for weeks before. All this is not only disrespectful professionally, but it is personally humiliating as well.
I admit, that given how much funding the arts receive from the government and how much patronage exists currently for classical and contemporary performing arts, it is easier to point fingers or write such an article, than to actually put proper systems in place to ensure a better 'performance ethic'. But my intention is not to point fingers. It is to highlight that these problems exist, and are very real. They have been firmly put into place by years of tolerance of the attitude 'unfortunately, this is how things are'. But the lack of ethics in the performing world hinders artistic expression and violates the process of creative work. Artists must be allowed to focus full time on their work, with a certain degree of security. And this can only happen if we begin to take 'performance ethics' very, very seriously.