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The Buzz, 9-23: Rave-o-Rama
Heroes: Giving thanks for Elizabeth Zimmer, the Dancers of DTH, and AGMA's Deborah Allton

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- From the City of Light -- clouded over as usual as I write this morning and on my run along the Amelie-approved Canal St. Martin -- I write with some reflections on those who keep me living in the light.

Let's start with Elizabeth Zimmer, senior editor and dance editor at the Village Voice, who has performed the amazing alchemy of packing the continuing story of New York City dance into the dwindling editorial space available to her, simultaneously guarding the home of senior critic Deborah Jowitt and finding space in the nooks and crannies to introduce new writers -- and new artists -- to the dance readership. In so doing, she has also guarded the Voice's heritage, in the dance department at least, of writing that is both revolutionary and -- in the sense that it is accomplished -- sophisticated. Zimmer has also championed this publication, both on the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer and from the podium of the Congress on Research in Dance. And she has been scrupulous -- scrupulous -- about crediting the Dance Insider when she has chosen to follow-up on stories we've broken. (Zimmer's talents and responsibilities at the Voice are not confined to dance journalism; for a slice of old New York and current modalities in Mind-Body-Spirit, check her feature in this week's Voice. Check the Voice dance section by clicking here.)

Let's continue with the dancers of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who, their hearts no doubt breaking at what -- let's be honest, dance insider -- could be the end of their voyage with DTH, will, troopers that they are, step onto the stage of City Center next Tuesday in its Fall Festival of Dance and, one can safely predict, glimmer in "Agon," created in 1957 by George Balanchine with a cast that included Arthur Mitchell, the founder and artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Can one call Mitchell himself a hero? I'm aware, from dancers, that he has his flaws, and they're serious, including most notably a paternalistic attitude towards 'his' dancers that diminishes them as human beings and disrespects them as professionals. But his achievement in founding Dance Theatre of Harlem took monumental courage and -- in a sad reflection of how long ballet has to go in overcoming inbred racism -- the company is still a necessary enterprise.

Because of Mitchell's paternalism, however, DTH is one of dance's many dysfunctional families. (As a dancer colleague advised me yesterday, "When the director of the dance company says 'We're just like a family here,' watch out!') With this dynamic active, it's been crucial that the dancers have an immunized intermediary who can negotiate their professional terms with Mr. Mitchell. Veteran dancers are aware that their union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, has not always served them as a union should. But AGMA underwent a sea change beginning about four years ago, when it hired, first, Alan Gordon as its executive director, and, in July 2002, Deborah J. Allton as its national dance executive and counsel.

If you know dancers, you know that not only are they not the 'children' Mr. Mitchell would sometimes regard them as, they are smart. The demanding work ethic of their profession doesn't always allow them to demonstrate this mental alacrity in a second profession where smartness is, let's say, not more important than in dance but more visible. But occasionally the dancer comes along who, after utilizing her drive and brains in dance, decides to apply them to a second or even third profession. Deborah Allton is one such dancer.

After a dance career that included performing with the vaunted Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Allton obtained her law degree and, eventually, joined the firm Sonnenschien, Nath & Rosenthal. As AGMA's national dance executive, Gordon explained when she was hired, she would be responsible for "the continued revitalization of AGMA's representation of dancers, expanding AGMA's representation of production personnel in dance companies and providing the full spectrum of contract and membership services to all of AGMA's dancer members." It also fell to Allton to enforce and administer all AGMA dance contracts and manage day-to-day membership activities and services for dancers.

At the time of her appointment, Gordon, himself a veteran labor negotiator, promised that "having spent 20 years as a ballet dancer and working as a union delegate, negotiating committee member and an attorney, Deborah is uniquely qualified to serve as our national dance executive and to spearhead our constantly improving representation of dancers. She knows first hand the need to aggressively protect and defend dancers' rights."

Allton herself began by addressing the status of the dancers of American Ballet Theatre, who had left the union years earlier. "The ABT dancers left AGMA many years ago because of what some of them saw as AGMA's lack of focus on its dancer members," she recounted when she was hired. "That situation has been completely reversed. AGMA has truly become the 'home of the American dancer' and each new dance contract AGMA has recently negotiated includes spectacular improvements in dancers' working lives. AGMA is now poised to also help ABT's dancers achieve the rewards to which their exceptional artistry entitles them. I look forward to having the opportunity to help them realize that goal."

I don't know whether AGMA has re-won ABT's dancers yet, but I share this statement because it reveals Allton's larger theme, one not solely applicable to the artists of ABT. Dancers' artistry and unparalleled work ethic does entitle them to rewards -- the bar should be higher than just means of survival. Allton gets this and is fighting for it.

In reporting on Dance Theatre of Harlem's decision last week to lay off its 45 dancers, we assumed that this entailed getting out of a union contract and, further, that it was AGMA which had let DTH out of the contract. This was incorrect, as Allton has now set me straight. In fact, the company's last three-year collective bargaining agreement with AGMA expired June 30. That contract guaranteed 30 weeks of work per calendar year; in the 2003-04 season, it was exceed by 14 weeks for a total of 44 weeks.

So the subject of Allton and AGMA's recent discussions with the attorney and accountant of the financially floundering company was not trying to find a way to renegotiate the contract to make it feasible for the company, but, Allton explains, "to discuss extending the terms and conditions of the present contract -- including guaranteed weeks and current salary levels -- for a limited time, to allow them time to secure sufficient funding to bring the dancers back to work. In these discussions it became clear that they had exhausted their options and did not have the ability to raise the funds to bring the dancers back to work at the projected time, or to even pay the dancers for the engagement at City Center as per the terms of our collective bargaining agreement. While we were willing to look at all possibilities to keep the company going and to make reasonable concessions to make that possible, it was obvious there was nothing that we could do that would change their situation, including taking any legal action against them. This does not mean that we let them out of their contract. It was pointless to waste time and resources to to go down a path that would produce nothing and maybe even further reduce or eliminate their ability to recover. That is counterproductive to protecting the interests of our dancers, which is to get them back to work under the best contract that we can, as soon as we can. Consequently, after lengthy discussions -- which DTH was legally obligated to have with the union -- they had no other option but to close their doors and regroup. Further, even though the contract has expired, they have a collective bargaining agreement with the union and the terms and conditions of that agreement remain in place and are enforceable when they resume operations. DTH remains obligated to negotiate with the union the terms and conditions of a renewal of the contract in order to reopen."

Allton did secure the company's commitment to pay for three months of health insurance premiums for its dancers.

A little back-story for you: Allton and I have been dialoguing about the DTH situation since the Dance Insider first learned of it from other channels last Wednesday, eventually breaking the story Friday. By 'dialoguing,' I mean that I have been pestering her with questions the answers to which I needed 'yesterday,' and she's been doing her best to find time amongst her duties more directly helping members to respond. Had I asked her predecessor to explain the DTH situation to me, he likely would have had a three-word response: "Ask Arthur Mitchell." In any field, a union rep. should not be telling reporters to get the story from management. At the end of her lastest response of yesterday, from which I've just quoted, Allton demurred, "I hope that I did not eat my foot." As the French say, "Au contraire, Attorney Allton." (Actually, I've yet to hear a French person say that, and when I do, they say "What?") You didn't eat your foot; like the dancer you are at heart, you soared from it.

Got a hero? Buzz paul@danceinsider.com.



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