Anatomy of a collapse

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What will become of the dancers?
Photo: National Photography
What will become of the dancers? Photo: National Photography

After six years of operations, Melbourne City Ballet closed suddenly in June, leaving dancers and students in limbo. Susan Bendall investigates.

It was at the end of an in-house Studio Sessions showing of contemporary works by full time students that Michael Pappalardo announced the immediate closure of Melbourne City Ballet. It was the evening of June 27. Four days earlier, company members had received an email stating that activities would be suspended for 14 days. This was the first they had heard that the company was in peril. By the next morning, MCB was no more. The company's wonderful purpose-fitted studios in Melbourne’s Pentridge precinct in Coburg bore a ‘breach of lease’ notice. The company was debarred from entering the premises. It was all over.

In the following days there was an outpouring of sadness and sympathy for Melbourne City Ballet. Dance Australia’s Karen van Ulzen broke the story with an interview with Artistic Director Michael Pappalardo who cited lack of funding as a key factor in the company’s sudden closure after five years’ operation. The magazine’s social media pages were blitzed with messages of support and appreciation as well as disgust at the government’s refusal to adequately support the small- to medium-sized arts community. People cared about the fate of this company.

Dance Australia, like other individuals and organisations, had been a great supporter of MCB. We started attending and reviewing performances from the outset. It was wonderful to have a local company bringing dance to audiences that might not be able to access the very prohibitively expensive professional offerings of the likes of The Australian Ballet. Better yet, as Pappalardo proudly announced, the company provided jobs for dancers.

Now, in the aftermath, it has to be asked how this sudden and complete collapse was allowed to happen, how it has impacted the dancers, students and the dance community that it served and what can be learned for future players in this space.

I had known for some time that many of the company dancers were unhappy. With the exception of a very few salaried positions, including the Artistic Director and a few principal dancers, dancers were being paid significantly below industry rates or not at all. Company Artists attracted a weekly wage of $400 and this often included very substantial teaching responsibilities. Below them, Junior Artists were paid $300 per week. At the lowest level. Emerging Artists were not paid a wage but attracted only a $150 per season payment plus $20 a day per diem when on tour (which applied to all dancers). Emerging Artists were not casuals but were contracted dancers with approximately five hours of daily commitments plus performances and touring. While touring, dancers were unable to maintain [other] paid work.

It also became clear that few Emerging Artists would ever be promoted beyond this rank. In one case a dancer performed leading roles for more than a year, yet was denied promotion to Junior Artist. In terms of the more senior paid contractors, none of them had leave entitlements nor superannuation. Non-disclosure clauses prevented pay and condition comparisons among dancers.

Melbourne City Ballet's 'Echo' (2017).
Melbourne City Ballet's 'Echo' (2017).

I had heard stories of brutal touring programs that had dancers arriving at a destination early in the morning, then undertaking several hours’ drive to a theatre in a remote location. Once there, they bumped in and auditioned local children who would perform in that evening’s performance. Selected children were then taught their choreography by the dancers. After performing a full-length ballet and bumping out of the theatre, dancers may even have had to drive to the next location for the night. Sleep, repeat. By 2018-19 the company was spending around five months on the road.

Many dancers came to MCB from full-time classical ballet courses to complete "finishing years" with the hope of professional careers. Others were young students building their foundations in dance. Both groups were being coached and rehearsed by largely unqualified teachers who were themselves novice dancers, fulfilling the teaching terms of their contracts.

It seems that even in its very early days, MCB ran on the goodwill of its then small team. One early company member claims that she was paid $300 for six months’ work. Funding and in-kind support did come – Bank of Melbourne, Moreland City Council, PW Dancewear, Snap Fitness and other sponsors got on board. This led to the exciting move to the MCB centre at Pentridge. But still little money for dancers.

MCB programs grew to include a finishing year, Youth Company, half-day program in association with Coburg High School and a number of other affiliate concerns. A spirit of growth still seemed to be in the air at the time of closing. New dancers had been recruited to the company early in 2019. Many more had left – reportedly burnt-out or unhappy with their treatment.

I find it hard to believe that the Artistic Director and the MCB Board were unaware of the dire situation facing Melbourne City Ballet. In liquidation documents, debts of just short of half a million dollars were listed along with 44 creditors (including $250,000 in rent arrears and a $135,000 tax bill). In his interview with Dance Australia, Pappalardo cited a shortfall in funding as crucial to the company’s closure, but this was money that had never been secured. A company cannot run a budget that relies on funding that it hopes to get. In late 2018, MCB board director Sean Memery was involuntarily removed. This suggests a more complicated set of pressures were at play.

One has to wonder whether there was ever sufficient budget devoted to employing dancers and conclude that the ambition of the company management and board exceeded its means. It appears reasonable to think that the company could only run on such a large scale by underpaying dancers.

One of the central issues in the MCB saga is the welfare and status of dancers and how we value their contribution to the arts. It seems to be a common notion that artists are privileged to be practising at all. This allows us to accept that they should be self-funding – after all the arts are a passion and few in the industry can expect to be paid. Dancers are particularly vulnerable. Daily class isn’t optional, it’s a physical and artistic necessity.

So many dancers are being trained in part-time studios and through colleges that are registered training organisations, offering accredited programs. The passion and interest in dance is fantastic. Dance has become more inclusive and less elite, with wide-ranging participation. However, we need to question what becomes of these young hopefuls after graduation. They emerge having been trained by experts and prepared thoroughly for the industry – there is no doubting the sincerity of most training programs. The fact is that there are so few jobs. Yet implicit in the recruitment of students to full-time training is that dance is a viable career option. Yet, in classical ballet, it has always been the case that only a tiny elite ever find employment in a company. With the vast majority of those graduates being female, they are particularly vulnerable in an industry that relies on low-paid or unpaid labour.

Exploitation of dancers is not new and occurs even at the highest level of the arts. Who remembers the Kylie Minogue case back in 2014 where video-clip back-up dancers were unpaid hopefuls doing the gig for exposure? Or high-profile visual artist Marina Abramovic who in 2011 was brought to account by an experienced performer (Sara Wookey) for hiring dancers (at a rock-bottom fee) – as naked table centre pieces at a prestigious gala dinner at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles? The dancers were expected to lie on the tables while rich art patrons gawped and guzzled at very close quarters over a many-houred durational event. But it seems that there is still an endless supply of young hopefuls willing to take any opportunity to dance and believing that there will be a future for them. Even if that opportunity is with a small ballet company such as MCB.

In balancing the good that MCB did for young dancers against their vulnerability to exploitation, where do we ultimately fall in judging the company's fleeting presence in the dance landscape? In my view, MCB could have been clearer in declaring its semi-professional status – as should all organisations running on similar models. That way such organisations can legitimately be seen as a training ground for young dancers rather than a career destination. It might also have been sensible for the board of MCB to make some move toward downsizing rather than expanding its operations in the lead-up to its collapse. If the various stakeholders had been given warning that things weren’t going well, they could have made a choice as to whether to stay committed.

My experience of the dancers of Melbourne City Ballet was that they were immensely loyal and uncomplaining. What will it take to change our attitudes toward dancers’ status and well-being?

This article is published in the October/November issue of Dance Australia OUT NOW, along with a response by Michael Pappalardo. Buy Dance Australia at your favourite retail outlet, or online here, or subscribe here.

Performing in a recent production of 'The Wizard of Oz'.
Performing in a recent production of 'The Wizard of Oz'.


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