Throughout the pandemic, the government has been repeatedly criticised for their lack of support for the arts. This was compounded last week with the government’s cyber recruitment advertisements. One of these adverts included a ballet dancer sitting next to the text, ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (She just doesn’t know it yet).’ The internet exploded at the crass advert. Many pointed out that the advert was only made possible by people in the creative industries, including ballet dancers. This was only made worse by the Culture Secretary visiting the Royal Academy of Dance the same day. At a time when thousands of performers have been unemployed for months and with no sign of being able to return to work, was the internet right in its fury?
The dance industry has been one of the worst-hit sectors of the performing arts. The Royal Opera House has lost £3 of every £5. They are now selling a David Hockney painting, estimated at £18 million, to save jobs. The English National Ballet had to furlough 85% of its ballet dancers and staff and saw its lowest box office takings since 2011, below 40%. Tours and productions have been cancelled, dancers have had to make the gut-wrenching decision over whether to stay in the UK or return to their home country and social distancing rules has meant that dancers have been unable to dance with others.
Ballet, indeed any performing art, is not an easy career choice. I should know. Since the age of four I have trained to become a musician and now work as a freelance composer. I studied for years to hone my craft before reaching an undergraduate and postgraduate level. I’ve put in hundreds of hours practising, rehearsing and studying to perform at the highest level possible. I’ve travelled sometimes hundreds of miles across the country to pursue my chosen career and supported the cost of my training by working, sometimes multiple jobs at a time. This is not so that I can have a hobby that I can pick up or drop whenever I fancy, but so that I can have a career in a sector that is constantly challenging and brings a huge amount to the country, spiritually and financially.
This was not the first insult that the government had made towards the creative industries since this pandemic began. At the start of the pandemic, the government stated that performers, the majority of which are freelancers, could claim some of their income through the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. However, it soon became apparent that freelancers would only be able to claim 20% of their income. It took the government months before proudly announcing a £1.57 billion package for the arts in July. Unlike packages other countries were using to support those working in the arts, the government’s package meant that money could only be used to protect venues and businesses. It did not support the people who make the arts possible. The final insult was made by Rishi Sunak’s in an interview to ITV News where, when asked specifically about support for musicians and those in the arts, Sunak suggested that only jobs that were ‘viable’ would be supported and saved and that people should retrain.
All of this has occurred at a time when the arts have been in greater demand than ever before. People across the world have turned online to watch British films, television series’, plays, ballets and concerts as well as the flood of free material that our artists have poured online. At a time when people have been unable to see and support loved ones, sometimes for months at a time, the public has turned to the arts to help express their feelings and reconnect with people. For the government to repeatedly disregard the tremendous contribution the arts have made during this pandemic is thoughtless at best and at worst offensive.
The idea that the natural progression from ending a ballet career should be working in cyber shows a huge lack of understanding of the industry. Many ballet dancers on ending a performance career continue in the industry in some form, whether as a teacher, choreographer, director, ballet master/mistress, community arts therapist, performance psychologist, physical physiotherapist, arts journalist, fitness trainer, studio owner. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve invested a lifetime’s work into an industry that they are highly knowledgeable and skilled in. Why would they abandon it?
Fatima doesn’t need to retrain. She trained for decades and invested financially and personally to an arts industry that contributed £32.3 billion to the economy in 2018, according to the government’s own report. The thousands of students currently training in the arts don’t need to retrain. They are working in an industry that studies have proven time and again to improve children’s development and our mental and physical health. Those already in the arts don’t need to retrain. They already have a wealth of skills that, if this government is not careful, they will take abroad where they can use them and be respected. The arts are more than ‘viable’. They are vital. When will the government realise this?