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Empty Seats at the Table

For artist-mothers, the pandemic has magnified the lack of support By Tracey Norman
  • Students of York University in class with Norman and her daughter Pearl / Photo by Raphael Roter

Author’s Note: I wish to acknowledge the large group of artists I spoke to for this article, especially those whose specific voices there isn’t space for here. I wish to also hold space for the mothers who couldn’t find the time to talk or write, and those whom I couldn’t find time to reach out to. I’ve made the choice to focus this writing through the lens of motherhood but wish to acknowledge the parallels for all caregivers. Thank you to the artists who contributed: Meryem Alaoui, Kate Alton, Megan Andrews, Tanya Berg, Jennifer Bolt, Blessyl Buan, Susie Burpee, Justine A. Chambers, Emily Cheung, Susanne Chui, Allison Cummings, Alison Daley, Jennifer Dallas, Jesse Dell, Lisa Emmons, Marie France Forcier, Jenn Goodwin, Kate Hilliard, Kate Holden, Neena Jayarajan, Suzanne Liska, Sarah Lochhead, Diana Lopez Soto, Dana Michel, Sally Morgan, Caroline Niklas-Gordon, Bee Pallomina, Jillian Peever, Sara Porter, Natasha Powell, Kathleen Rea, Jessica Runge, Lucy Rupert, Takako Segawa, Liisa Smith, Heidi Strauss, Anisa Tejpar, Melissa Templeton, Sandrine Vachon, Elena Vazintaris.

 

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It’s three weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and I’m already exhausted as the main caregiver of two small children during the day, while working all hours of the night to complete the dance courses I’ve been teaching at York University, now moved online. I want to do a solid job for these students; I’m also about to get the last paycheque I’ll receive for some time. Carrying my younger daughter downstairs following her afternoon nap, I feel a wave of dizziness before missing the last four steps, tripping and landing with some toes facing the wrong direction. My daughter is safely bound to my chest. 

After multiple hospital visits, I begin the long journey to heal two fully dislocated toes and an avulsion fracture. I get around the house on a wheeling office chair while playing with my two-year-old and five-year-old, cancelling projects, and grading papers, sometimes all at once. For months I don’t allow myself to mourn a lost show opening and cancelled projects but instead focus on the kids. Collective anger and sadness are all around us and I don’t feel any right to speak to personal loss. The grief hits me in early July when I learn that over half of my regular teaching contract for the fall has been reallocated. Times are scarce — I get it. But this was the moment I knew we could no longer afford even our part-time, subsidized childcare for the coming year. I am an artist, that’s the lens through which I view the world, but practicing art feels less attainable than ever.

Around the same time that I found out I was losing work, I came across a Facebook post by Kathleen Rea, a Toronto colleague of mine. A mother of two who wears multiple hats in the community including producer, choreographer and performer, Rea has been incredibly active in galvanizing the community via social media. In her post, she wrote about the absence of artist-mothers since the onset of the pandemic, “It should be a major concern with specialized support yet it is not being talked about. The people who would bring up this topic are likely not there at the meetings because they are taking care of children. It is especially hard for those such as myself who as a female choreographer faced the systemic uphill battle of trying to get our careers going.” The multitude of mothers who responded to her post inspired me to write this piece.

I was raised on a farm in southwestern Ontario in a multigenerational household. Choosing to live in Toronto for my work as a dance artist and my partner’s work as a television producer means we live without familial support. This is true of many artists. In times past, I felt connected to my dance community, but this has been strained since having children, and even more so during the pandemic. I began extensive research for this article in August, calling on forty artist-mothers, many of whom I know in some context. I spoke with artists in Calgary, Halifax, Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver and various rural areas. Ranging in age, they represent different dance forms and backgrounds; most identify as mid-career and have children under fourteen-years old. Our conversations focused on the future of dance, who might be leading the way, artmaking models that are congruent with parenting, and how this pandemic has magnified the lack of support for artist-parents.

While my discussions with mothers were situated in this pandemic period, it’s clear that the obstacles that exist have always been present and that the act of choosing to be both an artist and mother is subversive. “Over the last two years, I have become aware that (in most instances) I am the only person who will defend or take care of my motherhood within our work culture. The pandemic and its slowing down, its pause, has put me in a position where, for a period of time, I don’t have to defend or advocate for it and it’s a relief to function without that tension,” says Justine A. Chambers, a Vancouver-based choreographer, dancer, teacher and mother of a five-year-old, via email. Many artists also acknowledged the notion that once we re-enter the fold after having children and engage with a community made up of mostly non-parents, we not only need to reach the level of engagement we were previously at, but prove our commitment even more so.

 

Dallas / Photo by Melanie Gordon

Many of our narratives include feeling pressured into rushing back to work after meeting our children for the first time, an early sign of incongruence. As a first-time parent, I found myself in production for a DanceWorks Mainstage show on a double-bill with choreographer Marie France Forcier (who was eight months pregnant at the time), with a three-week-old in tow. The second time around, I went back to teaching when my daughter was six-weeks old, knowing I would otherwise lose my employment. Jennifer Dallas, a choreographer, dancer and designer in Toronto for seventeen years, recently relocated with her artist-husband and fourteen-month-old daughter to the Ottawa Valley due to the financial impact of the pandemic and a desire to be closer to family. Her sentiments on her return to work resonate deeply: “Reflecting, I realize why I was so determined to produce a show when my child was only six months old,” she says. “I didn’t want to be forgotten, I was at a high in my career and if I didn’t keep producing then no one would know I was still around.” Dallas speaks for not only mothers but all caretakers, the injured or sick, and those with disabilities or mental health issues when she says, “I wish that we could let dancers and creators breathe when they need to take a break and jump back on the train of creating and producing when they are ready. I wish we could support each other and that funding and other infrastructures were set up for working together. I think we would be supporting the creation of better art. The dance community has bought into capitalism the same way that any industry has.” The pressure felt by artist-mothers to produce work appears to be similar to what is happening now to all artists who are pressured to consistently produce something during this pandemic. 

  

Burpee / Photo by Omer Yukseker

 

The merging of personal and professional lives is at an all-time high during this pandemic. Susie Burpee is an established Toronto-based dance artist and mother of two who recently started taking Zoom calls in her kitchen with her family life all around her. “This was a big shift. I made the decision to allow the personal to enter my work. I think I was tired of hiding my family life, and COVID gave me an opportunity to test-drive the blending of worlds,” she says. And she’s not alone. Neena Jayarajan is a performer, choreographer and mother to a six year-old and a new baby. “Often in meetings, I’m the one with children or at least small children. It feels like it’s like your dirty little secret. Now when I’m on Zoom meetings I find myself trying not to mention my motherhood trials and tribulations but it’s the only thing I have to talk about. That’s my life 24/7,” she says. She goes on to explain something I believe most mothers have felt at some point, “People are happy for you when you tell them you’re pregnant but there’s never really a conversation about how you’re doing with motherhood unless you’re talking to other moms. Motherhood is somehow unrelatable.” It may be unrelatable to most dance colleagues, yet it’s so hugely representative. Art by mothers is not wholly embraced or presented, yet the majority of people outside of dance are parents, who might presumably see themselves in the work, whether its content relates to parenthood or not. Statistics aren’t even accessible regarding artists who are in a main caregiver role, which is telling in itself.

Last year, our five-year-old, Pearl, insisted on being with me on the various PA and strike days that kept her home from school. I brought her to my pre-professional technique and choreography classes and the reception was always extremely favourable. When I was a student, I was aware that some of my teachers were parents, however, I never saw their children. Family life is now more visible to the next generation as many artists straddle artmaking, teaching and parenting. However, this could change if several mid-career artists don’t make it back into the fold in the same way post-COVID-19.

 

Michel in her work Yellow Towel / Photo by Ian Douglas

 

Having children can be a political act for an artist. The generation ahead of us were given even less permission to do so. “Just before I got pregnant in my mid-thirties, I decided I was not going to have kids,” says Montréal artist and mother of a seven-year old, Dana Michel. “I had always wanted to have kids but I also love art and it is the thing that makes me not feel like a ghost. So that felt most important. Then I promptly got pregnant after just leaving a job that had benefits and maternity leave. I had thought kids and art don’t match. The overwhelming response was — it’s just not possible. Similar to being a Black person in the world, it’s not possible but I’m here so we’ve got to figure it out.” Michel is unique in her trajectory. Most artists who have children see a decline in their output and visibility for some time afterward, but for Michel her career took off while she was pregnant with her son Roscoe and simultaneously creating her much-lauded work, Yellow Towel. This lack of visibility has only increased during the pandemic and the artists I spoke with were often reminded of the feelings of isolation that envelop the early days of motherhood. 

Motherhood is complex. It strips or adds to your identity, and often lands you in a new body. “Mothering is so nuanced and complicated and I think sometimes there is a onedimensional view of the mother. People need to think about the intersectionalities of motherhood and how sophisticated it is,” explains Burpee. In this pandemic, women are experiencing a huge deficit in their professional lives. When we look specifically in the dance sector, that debt is even larger as most of us are already on a restricted financial budget that in no way represents our years of specialized training. This situation is all the more challenging for those caring for elders in addition to children, and mothers of colour who speak to being in meetings or sitting on boards of directors in which they choose between advocating as BIPOC or as mothers. Choreographer, teacher, performer and mother of a one-year-old son Natasha Powell, whose company Holla Jazz has had an exceptional rise over the last few years, says that she hasn’t even been invited to participate in many of these conversations. “I don’t know about these conversations and where they’re happening. I’m used to as a Black artist not being involved in many conversations. When conversations are happening and I’m not a part of that I’ve become OK with that,” she says. 

Powell / Photo by Francesca Chudnoff

 

There is a rumbling frustration around lack of visibility which Rea expands on, “There is a pattern happening with mother dance-artists where we can’t make it to the creative table. Mother dance-artists are a marginalized population who is during the pandemic, asked to take on most of the childcare with little support. This has devasted our careers.” 

In this pandemic, the cracks in our communities are more evident. Burpee has been exploring the idea of a dramaturgical approach that could be useful in this moment. “I feel the field of dance in Canada could use some serious mothering right now. The dance community is not one big imaginary circle — this has become apparent these past few months. Rather, it’s made up of small intersecting networks. Mothering, as an approach within this landscape, exists as a rhizomatic model of care: working on the self and others closest to you in order to make a positive contribution, which ripples out into other networks,” she explains. In a city like Toronto, we can no longer pretend we are successfully raising each other up in our scattered communities. Kate Holden is a dance artist, craniosacral practitioner, mother of a three-year old son and is expecting a baby in the new year. “We need to start looking at people as whole human beings, not just mothers but everybody. I’ve come to work sick, devastated from a miscarriage, straight from difficult doctor’s appointments, and you push through so many things because you feel replaceable. It so often doesn’t feel like there’s room to be fallible,” she says.

Holden in Peggy Baker’s her body as words / Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

There are examples of creative leadership by fellow parents who are amenable to creating working conditions that suit caregivers, and there are examples of individual artists making space for parents to feel comfortable. Jayarajan cites an example in which Nova Bhattacharya, artistic director of Nova Dance, planned to accommodate her and her new baby, creating a childcare space for Jayarajan during a large show run which was ultimately cancelled due to the pandemic. “This is the only reason I could work in this scenario. But normally, working with a choreographer who doesn’t have kids or experience with kids, your story doesn’t land anywhere of value. I don’t want to apologize for having kids,” shares Jayarajan. Examples of accommodation are not seen on larger scales. Both Holden and Jayarajan are pointing to issues of accommodation which have an impact on the entire dance population pre-pandemic, and even more so now.

Chambers / Photo by iiii photography

 

Canadian artists are in desperate need of some sort of basic income and flexible childcare, especially in light of less government funding available for our projects. Many artists I spoke with said that being on CERB has been a financially secure position compared to their life pre-COVID when income was sporadic and insufficient. Chambers sums up many of the ideas that arose around a sustainable future, “What would it look like to always include childcare as a budget line for all and any of the budgets in the milieu? Could we tour with our children fully supported by the festival/theatre/engagement to demand the recognition that our motherhood is inextricably linked to our artmaking? What if we could insist upon celebrating the profound knowledge that comes with motherhood instead of sloshing around in its perceived indignities? My hope is that dance will change because the labour of mothers is no longer rejected and/or ignored — that the crisis of imagination that excludes parenting is dissolved and new models of inclusion can be devised.” Within this request we must first look in the mirror, and then further interrogate cultural norms which stem from patriarchy and colonialism including rampant workaholism, competition, models of scarcity which surround us and are embedded in our training as dancers, and expectations around care and rest.

Parents in dance communities have been attempting to connect and make requests for several years. That said, artists are tapped out, especially those who are caregiving, and these initiatives often fall short of what seems possible. Artists interviewed for this article including Burpee, Cummings and Bee Pallomina, sparked the “Dancing Through Parenthood” events supported by the Dancer Transition Resource Centre (DTRC) and the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists (CADA) over the last two years. These events went well but there was a lack of communication following the September 2019 event, and therefore a loss of momentum. There is also a need for CADA/East to adopt a Childcare Subsidy Program similar to that of CADA/West (reimbursements of up to $100/month for childcare). Of late, Burpee and Rea have written an advocacy letter signed by several parent-artists and supporters which was sent to numerous dance and theatre organizations across the country. The letter is a request for specialized advocacy support for all caregivers who are disadvantaged at this time. “This is a major issue that will shape who does art, who runs arts organizations and who has time to prepare and submit grant proposals,” the letter reads. This was met with a positive response resulting in an initial meeting on September 23rd, which I attended alongside Burpee, Rea, other caregivers and representatives from several organizations including CADA/ East, Canadian Dance Assembly (CDA), Dance Ontario, DTRC and Regroupement québécois de la danse (RQD). There is an aim to work together with Canadian dance artists toward national conversations around caregiver-artist concerns. 

 

Cummings / Photo courtesy of Cummings

 

Whose voices will be heard and valued coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, continued Indigenous activism, educational activism, union movements, and this smaller movement of mothers across fields, who are often, frankly, too busy to speak to the struggle? Allison Cummings is a choreographer, producer, and solo mother to a seven-year-old son; she’s also dealing with her cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery near the beginning of the stay-at-home orders. Her concerns for the future encapsulate the issue at hand: “What I’m seeing is the voices that will come out of this period will be the ones who have the time, access to good technology, and those who have gone through COVID with no responsibilities and no health care issues. The lack of perspective is so distressing. My very deep concern is that after this time passes, the artists who will be the voice of the time are the ones who didn’t experience as many obstacles or lose out,” she says. She also notes that it’s important that the voices of people who have faced challenges are specifically sought out. “I want the voice to be someone who had to deal with unjust systems in education, society or medicine, and I’m very frustrated that this will not come out of this.”

Au début juillet, Tracey Norman a appris que la moitié de son contrat d’enseignement à l’université York avait été réaffecté. « Les temps sont durs. Je le comprends », écrit-elle. Mais du coup, elle comprenait aussi qu’elle et son conjoint ne seraient plus en mesure de payer leur service de garde à temps partiel. En même temps, elle est tombée sur un commentaire Facebook de Kathleen Rea sur l’absence des artistes mères depuis le début de la pandémie et la multitude de mères qui ont réagi a inspiré Norman à écrire. Elle se penche sur les répercussions de l’absence des artistes-parents pendant la pandémie pour l’avenir de la danse ainsi que sur la crise comme amplificatrice du manque de soutien pour ces parents.

This feature appears in the November/December 2020 issue.

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