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The Buzz, 6-2: Amazingly Graceless
Washington Ballet Set to Criticize Dancers; Graham Moves Need an Act of Light

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

Is there something in the water at dance company management retreats in the United States? Two troupes -- the Washington Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company -- have recently adapted questionable strategies in dealing with adversity. One is simply ill-advised, at least as long as it remains unexplained: The Graham organization's decision, first reported by the Dance Insider, to replace two experienced and proven artistic directors almost singularly responsible for leading the company's artistic recovery with one who, however talented and well-liked, refuses to commit to actually living in the same city as the company. The other -- Washington Ballet's approach to fighting its dance artists' assertion of basic labor rights -- appears set to sink to the level of of verbally attacking their artistry.


Septime's Sins

On Valentine's Day, the artists of the Washington Ballet voted overwhelmingly to be represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, the main union for dancers in the United States. According to the union, artistic director Septime Webre's "inappropriate treatment" of the 20 dancers and "apparent disregard" for their safety drove the dancers to unionize. (Webre responded to the charges by accusing AGMA of defaming his "close and collaborative relationship" with the dancers.") The leaders of the unionization drive included Nikkia Parish and Brian Corman, the only dancers who already belonged to AGMA, and the only company members to testify in a National Labor Relations Board hearing that had paved the way for the union vote.

Less than a month later, as reported by the DI, Webre let Parish and Corman go for what the Ballet claimed were "artistic reasons." Calling the action "disgusting," AGMA promptly accused the company of violating the National Labor Relations Act, which explicitly prohibits retaliating against workers for organizing. "The Ballet's assertion that these dancers were fired for artistic reasons is mere pretext," Gordon told the DI at the time, pointing out that Corman had just danced a premiere in the lead of Trey McIntyre's "Rite of Spring," while the Ballet had chosen Parish to dance a program at the Smithsonian and to represent it as a role model for young dancers. "The real reason for (the) firing... was to chill the free exercise of the dancers' rights and send a message to the other dancers." The union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB.

Well, the Ballet is apparently not through with its attempts to intimidate dancers for trying to exercise their basic rights as grown-up workers.

On May 20, the NLRB issued a formal "Complaint" against the ballet, "charging it with discriminating against its employees to discourage membership in the union," as the union characterized the complaint. Essentially, the union explained, the complain -- while not a verdict -- means the NLRB finds "reasonable cause" to believe that the Ballet violated the National Labor Relations Act when it refused to rehire Parish and Corman, setting the stage for a hearing before an administrative law judge. (The Ballet has since indicated that Corman will be rehired.) As characterized by AGMA, the complaint, issued in Baltimore by NLRB regional director Wayne Gold, charges the company with discriminating against Parish, "one of the only professional African-American female ballet dancers in the United States, in order to coerce and intimidate other dancers and to keep them from engaging in union activities," discriminating against Parish and Corman because they testified for the union before the NLRB, and with "interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees" to prevent the exercise ofrights guaranteed to them by federal law.

The decent thing for Webre, executive director Jason Palmquist, and board chair Kay Kendall to do at this point would be to simply rehire Parish as well and move on. (Palmquist told the dancers the company has offered to "settle the charges," but did not specify that such a settlement would include rehiring Parish.) Instead, management is apparently preparing to fight back with a vicious vengeance by tarnishing the artistic reputations of its own dancers.

In a breast-beating letter to the dancers May 20, a copy of which was made available to the Dance Insider, Palmquist announces that at the September 7 hearing "the Ballet will have no choice but to state on the record, fully and completely and with supporting evidence, the artistic reasons for its decisions" not to rehire Parish and, initially, not to rehire Corman. "This airing will likely include testimony from Ballet leadership as well as third parties not affiliated with the Ballet who visited the Ballet to choreograph or stage productions, or who previously employed Nikkia and Brian."

In other words, Webre and Palmquist are responding in the manner management often responds to labor complaints when it doesn't have a case on the merits: Smear the accusers. Only instead of character assassination, what Webre and Palmquist are evidently preparing is a form of artistic assassination. It's a transparent attempt to get back at two brave dancer-workers and to intimidate other dancers who might be thinking of standing up for their basic rights, and in the end it will sully not the reputations of these courageous artists but Septime Webre, Jason Palmquist, and the board and reputation of the Washington Ballet. Pity.


Imperial Gesture

That's the title of a 1935 Martha Graham solo, but it could also refer to the Graham board's refusal to offer any coherent explanation for the board's decision to replace artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin with Janet Eilber. (Saying that Capucilli and Dakin are being "elevated" to "artistic director laureates," as a press release put it, does not cut it. Eilber says she hopes her predecessors will continue to work with the company, but that details are still being worked out. Capucilli and Dakin have not responded to a DI request for comment.)

Even if Eilber is in Capucilli and Dakin's league, a)she won't be living in their town, i.e. the same town in which the Martha Graham Dance Company is actually based -- Eilber has refused to commit to moving from Los Angeles to New York -- and b) what exactly did Capucilli and Dakin do to deserve this? I suppose it's possible that for reasons they or the Graham board have yet to explain, they didn't want the burden any more, but absent a sufficient explanation, the dance world is left to ponder, dumbfoundedly, why it wasn't enough for the board that under this dynamic duo's leadership, the company returned to top form after a nearly three-year lay-off. Those of us who fought to help the Graham organization's current leadership wrest control of the Graham oeuvre from former director Ron Protas -- chiefly the dancers -- deserve to know why after only three years the board has replaced these dedicated Graham servants with someone who, however talented, won't even be with the company full time. If the company is facing a budget shortfall, the solution would seem to be to trim more of that bloated administrative staff -- 28 full-time at last count, as many support staff as dancers -- not to remove as directors (the board insists they'll stay on in some capacity) the two women chiefly responsible for returning the company to its former lustre and, among other things, making it attractive to donors again.

(As previously disclosed, I'm not entire unbiased here, being pissed at a present management whose marketing strategy appears to include alienating the Graham company's staunchest journalistic ally.)

 

 

 

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