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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.