Cat Stoehr L&S Arts & Humanities
The Dancer as Worker: Histories of Labor in Modern American Ballet
As a former professional ballet dancer I often felt that my experience was defined less by my role as an artist, and more so by my position as a worker. Ballet is a performance of ease; a masking of the immense physical and mental energy that is poured into it to create a presentation of grace. But it would be a mistake to not consider the modern ballet dancer as a worker. At two extremes, their labor is either bound within tightly managed company structures under union protection, or extremely vulnerable to exploitation and instability. And yet, the origins of this relationship, the tensions it produces and the impact it has on the nature of art production and on the dancer themself is largely obscured in both scholarly and experiential understandings of the field. Through archival research, I plan to investigate the history of how ballet dancers labored during the modernist period; a time in which broader shifts in labor and art catalyzed and in which the dancer’s role as a worker coalesced in specific relation to their newfound inclusion in labor unions. By illuminating the story of union organizing within ballet, I hope to contribute to an expanded conceptualization of the dancer’s place within labor discourses and histories; and to build a framework to understand how labor practices inform the dancer’s embodied experience and relationship to their art practice.