Thinking Out Loud: The Bottom Line and the Big Picture
by Lauren Shapiro
On my way to play the piano for ballet classes in New York City, I frequently navigate through the pre-show crowds gathered at Lincoln Center. As part of a daily routine that ultimately puts dancers onstage, I’m invisible to the audience—and that’s fine with me. In my high school yearbook, I listed rehearsal pianist as my career goal; as a dance accompanist that is essentially my job.
I’m not hired to play my interpretation of a Chopin waltz; I’m hired to support the instructors and the dancers. If the music needs to be slower, I play it slower. If a part has to be cut, I cut it. Once, I would have imagined Chopin rolling over in his grave, but my vantage point then was a practice-room window in an ivory tower, where to be rewarded, spiritually, by art itself, was the great expectation. Now, my window overlooks the mailbox into which I drop bill payments. I can’t be a purist and work, or at least I can’t be a purist at work. I could, of course, play whatever and however I like at home—but to my surprise I no longer want to play for myself. I have come to expect to be heard by others—these days, by a group of dancers in a studio. I have also come to expect to be paid a living wage.
As I struggled to make ends meet on an accompanist’s pay, I came to understand that there are two important words in the phrase “show business.”
When I began playing less for community groups and more for major dance institutions, my father observed, “You’re playing with the big boys now.” In the ballet world, of course, I’m more often playing with the big girls, but I appreciated his praise—and missed his larger point. As I struggled to make ends meet on an accompanist’s pay, I came to understand that there are two important words in the phrase “show business.” Now, though I’m honored to receive comp tickets to the ballet, I am also acutely aware that if I didn’t get comps I couldn’t afford to go. That was the implicit warning my father gave me so many years ago along with his admiration. The big boys to which he referred are the people, largely invisible to me, who determine the business’ bottom line—and mine. Their vantage point is a free economy–based boardroom where it can be taken for granted that the arts are underfunded, jobs are few, and there is a bumper crop of new arts graduates every May perhaps more focused on spiritual fulfillment than vacation pay or pensions.
More recently on my way to work, I’ve also passed teams from the NYPD Counterterrorism Division, whose armored truck is parked outside Lincoln Center almost every day. With their helmets, rifles, and machine guns, they are not invisible to anyone. Initially, their presence seems utterly disconcerting: what could be more disconnected from the ballet world than that show of force in front of the theater?
But there is a connection: no one lives, let alone creates art, in a vacuum. If we ignore that, then sooner or later we get the bill. Artists, audiences, and financiers are all essential, if sometimes adversarial, parts of one endeavor, which is part of a much larger endeavor, one that the Counterterrorism Division’s personnel stand ready to defend even with their lives. That’s their bottom line and, by extension, ours.
Now, on my way to work, I look around and contemplate how despite the disharmonies in the endeavor, all of us—artists, financiers, donors, funders, and audiences operating in our little theaters; the Counterterrorism Division in its larger theater of operations; and everyone I pass by—are in it together.
Lauren Shapiro has a BMus and an MA in writing. She is a dance accompanist in New York City at The Ailey School and the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, among others.