The Manifesto of the Collective

By John Paul “JP” Alejandro

A male dancer jumping in the air in an empty parking lot

Photo by Jon Silignavong
[ID: JP, a Filipino American male dancer with short blonde/brown hair in gray pants and no shirt, mid-jump in an empty parking lot, arms thrown to the sides, right leg bent, toes pulled toward the left knee, left leg straight, foot pointed]

The Collective SF was co-founded on the site of another dance collective: Oberlin Dance Collective. Seven dance artists first sat down at Robin’s Café after our first improv session together at one of ODC’s studios. We had known each other somewhat from taking classes and attending auditions together. At some point we had all danced alongside each other, tired, sweaty, and anxious, vying for the same limited dance opportunities SF had to offer. After months of colliding with each other, our very own Niara Hardister took the initiative to assemble the most inclusive, supportive, and talented group of folks I know.

We sat outdoors at the cafe, sharing and unpacking our experiences and our feelings about the state of the SF concert dance community. As dancer-millennials living in the most expensive city in the US, and struggling to reckon with what Huffington Post writer Michael Hobbes calls “the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression,” we are also confronting a traditional audition model that leaves us feeling displaced within the community. All of us have studied dance history, longing to be like the early days of ODC or the Judsons, rejecting the confines of modern dance and offering non-hierarchical ways of choreographing and performing.

As a gay Filipino cis gender male, I often find myself participating in auditions that seem predetermined from the beginning in white dominated spaces that leave me feeling either tokenized or misunderstood. It has been pointed out to me that cliques and “rigged” auditions have been around for many generations, so I began to think about the ways older generations of dancers in the community serve as gatekeepers of an audition model that a lot of my millennial peers were getting tired of.

The audition process largely favors the same lucky few, and often the only feedback that the rest of us receive is, “You need more professional experience,” a long-standing catch-22. The barrier of entry is so high that getting something substantial on a dance resume to count as “professional experience” is the biggest challenge many younger dancers face.

Despite this, most of us are taught that auditioning is the only way to make it. But it’s a game of who, what, when, where, and how you know. No one tells you that networking is the name of the game in this industry. I found myself committing a lot of time to taking classes and intensives just to get seen by the people I wanted to work for. These things cost money, taking classes everyday can rack up some serious bucks, and prices for intensives geared towards pre-professionals and emerging artists are way too high for my budget.

In the meantime, most of us in this career limbo are working either full time jobs or balancing multiple jobs in order to support our living. As Collective SF member, Lacey Heffernan, once said, concert dance has no “middle class”; you are either at the top dancing full time, or working tirelessly to get the ball rolling at the bottom. Some say dancers are the original gig workers. But although the financial issues millennials face started long before the gig economy surfaced, narratives of the dancer working multiple jobs and still managing to make it to an unpaid rehearsal, the dancer who has an exhausting 9-5 and still has the energy to take a full dance class, and the dancer that is a choreographer, dancer, and business manager all at the same time in their own dance company, continue to run rampant.

At that first meeting at Robin’s Cafe, I felt comforted knowing I was not alone in my frustration and isolation. We started the Collective SF to address our economic and creative anxieties. The Collective SF has no hierarchies. We are a community of like-minded individuals that teach classes to each other and create work for each other. We work on a rotating choreographer system to create work to give everyone a chance to lead. We share expenses for studio spaces, and any decisions about the collective need a majority vote. This has worked so well that we were able to create our first collective work, Crisis Club, led by our first featured Collective SF choreographer, Lucy Dillon. The work was showcased at Shawl Anderson’s 2020 Winter Salon and later presented at the 2020 PUSHfest Digital Festival.

As the Collective began to develop and expand, we knew that we did not want to follow a company model, the very system that isolated each of us from the community. We eliminated the auditioning process and invited people to the Collective, taking up administrative roles based on our strengths and interests. And though some people carry more responsibilities than others, everyone has equal voting power and plays a role in making executive decisions, including bringing new people into the Collective. We’ve established a network of artists around the Bay through which individuals in the Collective can reach out to each other to collaborate, mentor, or take classes together. As long as the development of the Collective responds to our mission to promote community, equity, and access for all artists, we know we’re doing something right.

The Collective SF is now eight members strong, a beacon of hope for millennial dancers working in the Bay Area, who feel beholden to an older generation that sometimes makes us feel like we need to pay homage before we can participate. I think the beautiful thing about millennials is that we are finally calling out these outdated systems because we want equity, diversity, and inclusion to be more than just the keywords of virtue signaling. For a long time, concert dance’s gatekeepers have held dancers to Western European standards of virtuosity and hierarchical structures. The Collective SF is composed of all different kinds of people dedicated to making everyone feel included, heard, and valued. That is its strength, and we hope that our existence continues to challenge the rigidness of concert dance practice, create opportunities for dancers outside the old audition model, and serve as an example that pursuing dance is accessible for everyone.

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of In Dance.

John Paul “JP” Alejandro is a dancer, teacher, and personal trainer in San Francisco. He graduated in 2018 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.S. in Dance, where he received a full-tuition First Wave Scholarship for spoken word activism. In 2017, he attended the 30th Anniversary of the Bates Dance Summer Intensive in Maine. He has trained and worked with such choreographers as Chris Walker, Li Chiao-Ping, Michael Foley, Rennie Harris, and Gerald Casel. After returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, he joined PUSH Dance Company in 2020.