How much is your passion worth to you, and what are you prepared to risk for it? For most of us, the answer would be hard to quantify, but for Jo McDonald, founder and director of Adelaide-based dance company Move Through Life (MTL), it recently became clear. Not only did a routine scan of the financials for the year ahead catch her by surprise, but it also put the scale of her commitment into startling context.
So she posted her observation on Facebook because, as a former board member of the recently defunded Ausdance SA, she realised that she was committing to spend as much employing dance artists in 2017 as the state government’s arts funding arm, Arts SA, had allocated for its Contemporary Dance Initiative. For a sole trading, single parent renting a house in the burbs and augmenting her cashflow with a credit card, this was clearly a light bulb moment. (It also attracted our attention here at Dance Informa.)
“Part of me making that post was that it was like, ‘Wow, this is really scary, and why am I still living off my credit card?’, but I also feel really proud to be making that contribution,” she explains. “The comparison to Arts SA is not meant to put them down; it’s meant to be saying, ‘Wow, through this thing that I’m doing I am able to contribute the same amount of money.’”
Indeed, in 2017, McDonald will be outlaying an estimated $110,000. That’s a cool two grand a week.
Setting aside the often fraught and emotive politics of funding, however, her story is one of both laudable passion and hard-edged pragmatism. As McDonald says, “One of the things that I’m committed to with Move Through Life is providing employment for independent dancers so that they can have the means to live and create their work.”
Like so many artists and companies operating outside the comfortably funded and corporate sponsored inner circle of Australian dance, McDonald and MTL have embraced what can loosely be called the “democratisation” approach; namely, reaching out at the community level, focusing on participatory models, and viewing dance and its value as something that transcends the black box.
“It’s about how do you engage more people in the arts. Because what’s the point otherwise?” she contends. “For instance, if you haven’t played football, you’re not necessarily going to like football as much, whereas if you understand it and have participated in it you’re more likely to go and see it and support the professionals.”
Since it started in 2004, MTL has morphed from a performance-based ensemble into a dance teaching practice, but one that aims not simply to bring dance to everyone who wants it (regardless of age and ability) but to give dance professionals extra outlets and income.
“Dancers always say, ‘I need more work. I’m happy to teach more classes for you because I need the money,’” McDonald reveals. “So, what I’m striving to do is to give dance artists a way to earn income by offering value.”
And when McDonald says “dancers”, she means critically acclaimed, much loved creatives like Larissa McGowan and Katrina Lazaroff, both of whom have made a significant impact as dancers and choreographers, nationally and internationally. Quite apart from what this says about the current funding environment for dance, it also shines light on a reality that few outside of the arts might suspect.
“Larissa [McGowan] has spoken to me a lot about how important teaching is for her practise, about how much she learns from teaching, so while dance can be seen as an elitist thing, these people who devote their lives to it are living on the breadline essentially,” McDonald shares.
As someone who has been in love with dance since little girl ballerina dreams and childhood classes (and then worked in arts admin for several years), McDonald has walked on both sides of the creative/business line. Now, as MTL’s driving central force, she regards the “typical artist” mindset as somewhat limiting. “They’ve been brought up in this model where you get government funding and, although I don’t want to seem like I have the answers to everything, because quite clearly I don’t, I do hope to play a role where dance artists become more entrepreneurial,” McDonald says. “I want to help them see the value that they offer; because when you talk about business models it’s always about value, and these people offer huge value.”
To ascertain what that value is, just ask MTL’s hundreds of students. “I get to see the people who come to the classes and say, ‘You know what, this is the thing that I look forward to all week’, and I get to know we’re contributing to their happiness,” McDonald points out.
From her rented house in the southern suburbs, she survives in a style that is a million miles from anything we might think of as elite or glamorous. Yet still she will spend more than $2,000 a week in 2017 supporting her passion and, by extension, the viability of other dancers, not to mention delivering dance to students of all ages in seven locations in and around Adelaide.
“What I’m doing now is nothing,” she concludes modestly. “What I hope to do is to give my teachers more financially sustainable lives and to go beyond me, to get beyond Move Through Life and understand how they can take the expertise they’ve developed over decades and work out how that can give them a comfortable life. Because you know, we’re certainly not rich.”
For more information on Move Through Life, visit mtl-dancestudio.com.au.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.