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The Buzz, 6-12: Do the Right Thing
Union Charges Feld; Cortez Mounts 'Appalachian'; 'Critics' Unclear on Concept; Happy Trails to Barretto & Pearson; ABT Forgets Petipa & Ivanov; Troika Turns 10

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

In an April 28 letter announcing his Ballet Tech company would suspend operations for the 2003-2004 season, Eliot Feld explained to friends and supporters, "We have chosen to temporarily forgo the pleasures and immediate satisfactions of performance so that we might dedicate our limited wealth but unlimited energy to the Ballet Tech School and its students present and future." For the 13 professional dancers of the company, who make it possible for the choreographer to realize his imagination, Feld was foregoing something a bit more existential -- the employment for which he is contractually obligated for the next four years. Accordingly, on May 2, the dancers' union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that "the employer has violated the (National Labor Relations) Act by the partial cessation of operations without notice or bargaining with the collective bargaining representative regarding the decision or its effects."

"The first that we heard that Eliot was suspending operations... was his announcement in the papers," said Deborah Allton, the union's dance administrator. "It came as a shock to us as it did to everyone else." While sympathizing with the decision -- "On a personal level, it is heart-wrenching" -- and praising Feld's contributions to dance over 30+ years, Allton stressed that "as a union, it is our function and purpose to protect our members and to enforce their rights and the contract," which runs through June 2007. "Every unionized employer has (a legal) obligation to bargain about both the decision to go out of business and about the effects on the unionized employees of closing the company," even temporarily, she noted. "Accordingly, in order to protect the dancers, we filed an unfair labor practice against Ballet Tech. The lawyer for Ballet Tech has responded by informing the NLRB that they are willing to bargain with us, which is where it stands at the moment. I feel confident that we will come to a positive resolution which will offer some relief to the dancers displaced by the closing and which will acknowledge the difficult financial situation that prompted the decision to suspend operations. "

Contacted by the Dance Insider to give Ballet Tech's point of view and request a comment from Feld, a top official at Ballet Tech, Maggie Christ, responded, "As to your questions regarding AGMA and the NLRB, we have no comment at this time."

I do!

If ever a situation were made to validate the need for representation for dancers, it's this one. As Allton noted in another e-mail responding to some comments made by me, "While, as I said, I admire the contributions (Feld) has made to the dance community and to the performing arts world, I also am aware that he can make the working environment an extremely difficult one for dancers, who often feel vulnerable and powerless to challenge it. We have been diligent in our effort to protect their rights and enforce the terms of the contract while still maintaining, if possible, a productive working relationship with the company. This is challenging at best, but as always, the dancers come first."

The Union made a similar accusation after the Martha Graham company suspended operations in May 2000, and the tenor there changed. While it certainly didn't get easier for the dancers, who didn't perform for another two years as a legal battle raged between the Graham center and the former artistic director, the board subsequently made sure to keep them more in the loop. Ultimately, this involvement paid off; invested in the company's future, most of the dancers stuck around, and when the company mounted its first full season in January, it was with the core still intact. If Mr. Feld wants to ensure a sound return for his company, which we all desire, he might involve the dancers more in his decisions.

Speaking of Graham: On June 1, Cleveland Plain Dealer dance critic Wilma Salisbury reported, "The Cleveland Repertory Project has scored a major coup by acquiring performing rights to Martha Graham's most popular ballet, 'Appalachian Spring.'" Well, not actually. As Salisbury assures me she knows, the 1944 classic is one of 10 Graham ballets deemed by a federal court last summer to be in the public domain. Meaning anyone has the right to mount it -- no coup involved. However, besides issuing a blooper, Salisbury missed the real story in artistic director Hernando Cortez's plans to produce the ballet.

That any company "can" now mount this American classic doesn't ensure it will do it right. It's no surprise that a company headed by Cortez, the former Paul Taylor dancer who co-founded Dancers Responding to AIDS, should set the tone by doing it not just right, but righteous.

Concievably, the well-connected Cortez could have hired one of his pals with Graham connections to stage the ballet and done okay by it. But that wasn't enough for Cortez. Instead, he contacted the Martha Graham Resources, headed by former Graham star and continuing light Janet Eilber, and as much as said: What do we need to do in order to do this right?

For one thing, he needs the Isamu Noguchi sets and the Aaron Copland score, both of which cost money. "Also, no one can perform the dance without the proper accredited 'regisseurs' -- our restagers were Diane Gray and Gary Galbraith, both still very much affiliated with the Graham company. They 'needed' to be hired for a minimum of four weeks; that's two restagers times four weeks of rehearsals -- imagine the costs. Our total costs from the MG Resources add up to about $40,000 to restage 'Appalachian Spring.' Not the 'public domain' thing that everyone thinks of.... You can't just 'perform' the work in your basement."

Or, as Graham center executive director Marvin Preston IV put it: "People who wish to mount professional productions of Martha Graham dances (even public domain) are prudent and wise to seek assistance from us and negotiate a services contract, by means of which we provide all of what they require in an integrated, supportive manner at a cost that is very real but also very equitable. We're not trying to exploit anyone, we're determined to make it increasingly feasible for those who wish to undertake meaningful productions of MG dances to make use of the Martha Graham Resources that are available." Those resources can include, in addition to the regisseurs, costumes, lighting designs, stage plot designs, pedagogical videotapes, commercial grade recorded music on a CD ready for use, or scores for an orchestra to practice with.... The practicalities of how to deal effectively with the details are being worked out on a daily basis as we proceed to work with numerous organizations setting about doing Graham works. (There are many.)"

Among other organizations, said Eilber, the center is currently in discussions with Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley over a possible "Appalachian Spring" production. The Cleveland Repertory Project opens it August 6 at Cain Park.

Speaking of critics getting it wrong, the Unclear on the Concept award of the year has to go to the Dance Critics Association. In a conference (beginning next week at Barnard College) entitled "The New World of Dance Writing: Coping With Changes In What We See, How and Where We're Publishing," who do you think the DCA gets to host the opening reception? A dance magazine publisher who doesn't publish dance reviews!! That's right friends -- Lifestyle Ventures, publishers of Pointe, Dance Teacher, and Dance Spirit, publications which, by and large, neglect to include reviews of actual dance performances in their pages, the last time I checked or had someone check for me (yesterday). Now, that's certainly their purview, and they may well publish other useful information for young dance students, but without reviews -- without CRITICISM -- they are presenting only the veneer of the art, and hardly imbuing their young readers with an understanding of its consequences, value, and rewards. Why an organization purporting to represent dance CRITICS would kick-off its marquee event with a party hosted by a publication which doesn't welcome dance criticism is beyond me... unless, a)the corporation's publisher plans to announce a change of heart, or b)the DCA's president plans to ask him why he doesn't welcome her members' criticism in his publications.

Speaking of dance writing, the most important to you, dance company director insider, may well be your publicist's. It ain't easy to describe in words a thing that's meant to speak as words can't, often before the thing has even been performed. And yet unless you're Merce Cunningham, a riveting press release can be essential -- if you're an established artist, to explain why your latest work merits a review, and if you're less than established, to explain why you do. Publicists who can avoid dance cliches and actually describe a promised dance (rather than praise it with unsupported superlatives) in an intriguing fashion are all-too-rare. So we lament the departure today of Tom Pearson from Dance Theater Workshop as manager of marketing and publicity, especially coming on the heels of that of the brilliant Nolini Barretto, DTW's director of marketing and PR. There's no funny business involved; Nolini is taking a break, and Tom wants to concentrate on artistic projects. But I hope their promising successors, Joanna Mintzer for Nolini and Aaron Rosenblum for Tom, won't be offended if we say to Nolini and Tom: You will be succeeded, but you will never be replaced.

Speaking of press releases, American Ballet Theatre's on an upcoming performance of "Swan Lake" left out an important, er, detail in stating "The ballet, with choreography by Kevin McKenzie and sets and costumes by Zack Brown, will be given its first performance of the season on Tuesday evening, June 17." Um, that should read "by Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov." Let's not forget our history, folks.

And speaking of DTW, Troika Ranch, directed by Dawn Stoppiello and DTW fellow Mark Coniglio, invites you to a benefit party to celebrate its upcoming tenth anniversary season, this Wednesday at Remote Lounge. For more info, please cyber yourself here.

Darrah Carr in New York contributed to the reporting, though not necessarily the opinions, in this column. Special thanks to the dance insider who tipped us on the AGMA complaint.



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