“I have the audacity to think that I can make a life, a living, as an artist…and there have been repercussions in my real life existence.”
This weekend, artist-activist Sydnie Mosley and her company, SLMDances, will present Body Business, an interactive production that re-envisions the economic practices of the dance world and encourages greater transparency of the artist experience. The production occurs in three parts — a Marketplace, a live performance, and an opportunity for resource sharing — and is produced in marketing partnership with Dance/NYC, in creative collaboration with Our Goods, and as part of The Performance Project at University Settlement’s 2015-16 Artist in Residency Program.
It seems important to note outright that Mosley pays her dancers. They receive that payment in the form of money for performances and, when funding allows, for workshops and other gigs. But she also invests in them. Members of SLMDances are given monthly capacity building opportunities, usually in the form of professional development series. They are also given dance class, which is taught on a rotating basis by members of the company interested in developing their teaching practice.
Moving with Power
“I conceived of this piece, but it was collaboratively devised and developed in spurts over the course of two years.” Mosley says.
She and the dancers used a variety of methods to generate movement vocabulary, from improvisation exercises to analyzing how wealth is embodied in rap music videos.
The piece begins with a spoofy take on ballet. Then, the dancers move on to more aggressive movement vocabulary, to a contact improvisation section, to a live disclosure of their personal stories, and ultimately to “some badass dancing,” as Mosley calls it.
“It moves from a fantasy to a reality,” she adds, and describes the piece’s resolution as a moment where the women on stage “stand in the moment and use their power to move to get what they need.”
Still, she’s kind of nervous about sharing all of this. “My family will be there,” she says, “and they don’t really know.”
Raising Awareness and Making Resources Accessible
Mosley hopes that everyone, but especially the artists, who attends Body Business leave with something they needed when they walked in the door. So, she has partnered with a wide range of individuals, businesses, and organizations to put together a series of themed tabling sessions that will precede each night’s performance.
The idea of creating a space for people to buy, barter, and share resources has been on Mosley’s mind for the last two years. She was especially inspired to pursue the idea after attending the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, where she met representatives from Live On NY, an organization that helps people of color to sign up as organ donors, during their own tabling session.
In order to come up with her own roster of tabling representatives and vendors she asked other dancers for vendor suggestions and polled the members of her company.
“One night, we are focusing on artist advocacy. So we’ve brought in representatives who can provide resources and information about the creative and financial services that are available to artists,” Mosley explains. “We’ll have representatives from The Field, Dance NYC, Dance NYC’s Junior Committee, Pentacle, and the Actors Fund.”
Mosley has also put together a social and health services tabling session — with representatives ranging from acupuncturists to massage therapists to mental health practitioner — and a vendor fair during which artists who are also small business owners can sell their products. She recognizes that, beyond their artistic ability, artists have something to offer. Often, those that work in other fields are looking to build client base among those who need low cost and sliding scale pricing.
“I met one of our artist vendors is through a mutual friend,” Mosley says. “She is a dancer, new to the city. She doesn’t have steady work and she’s just barely dancing; she needs a stable job and stable housing. Crochet is her side hustle.”
So, Mosley invited her friend to join the other artist vendors and set up a table in the Marketplace.
“Now, it’s important to get the word out so people show up!” she adds.
As she sees it, success during the tabling sessions would mean that people signed up for services, bought products, and interacted with one another.
Mosley is eager to measure the impact of Body Business. When it comes to the Marketplace and resource-sharing, she is still working out the methods she’ll use to achieve that.
She has planned to follow up with her audience via post-event email and to request that audience members tweet and Facebook post about their experiences. And at the end of each performance, there will be a facilitated audience-wide mingle.
“I think [the impact] will show up in personal conversations,” Mosley says, “and I hope that in witnessing the performance, viewers are able to take in the personal narratives and develop empathy.”
Art and Activism
“Five years ago, if you asked me what I was, I would have said dancemaker, not activist,” Mosley says.
She goes on to explain that she was an activist then, but didn’t recognize her self as such.
“After The Window Sex Project, I noticed what I was doing was a little different than what I had been taught to do,” Mosley, a formally trained dancer and choreographer, says. She was interested in the idea of an artist having power as a community organizer and activist.
From 2012 to present, she began to study community-engaged art and dancemaking. Through the programs and fellowships she engaged in and the reading she did, Mosley discovered instincts about making art of that kind were right. But now, she was armed with better language to speak about it and the ability to teach others how to do it too.
Her approach to making art works to her advantage these days. When asked about this, Mosley admits that she has mixed feelings about the circumstances. “I have gained recognition for what I do,” she says. “The problem is, folks who have been doing this kind of work for a long time. Community and socially engaged art isn’t actually new. It isn’t actually trend. And I want others to be recognized for what they have done up to this point.”
Mosley also recognizes that Body Business is a part of a larger, ongoing conversation about art, money, and what those two things mean for artists.
“I am not the first person to tackle this, make a work about this,” she explains. “And I hope that this new approach brings in folks who are already having the conversation.”
Perspective for Young Dancers
When asked if she had any suggestions, cautions, or thoughts for young dancers who aspire to become professionals, Mosley paused for a moment before she responded.
“I wouldn’t caution them,” she says. “But I would recommend that they keep their eyes wide open and ask as many questions as possible. If there are other things that interest them, they should take time to learn about and invest in those things.”
Mosley does just that. When she isn’t dancing or choreographing, you can find her developing movement curriculum for students at Barnard College, teaching classes to students of all ages, or attending scholarly conferences at universities across the country.
Mosley also stresses the importance of recognizing that dance work is more than being onstage; a career onstage, though absolutely possible, may not look the way one imagined.
“But, you can do it,” she says, definitively, “you can cobble together a life that allows dance more often than not.”
You can catch Body Business at University Settlement in New York City, Nov. 12 to Nov. 14. Performances begin at 7 p.m. and the Marketplace opens at 6 p.m. each night.
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