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Buzz, 12-16: Nuts
'Nutcracker' Held Hostage in Washington
"The American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the
dancers, has informed the company that it will strike 'The Nutcracker.'"
-- Jason Palmquist,
executive director, Washington Ballet
"The true beauty
of dance can only occur in an environment of respect and security,
the two things that management has taken away from the dancers."
-- James Fayette, AGMA
dance executive and former New York City Ballet principal
"We're all a little
bit scared. But we feel we need to stand up for our rights."
-- Washington Ballet
dancer Kara Cooper, Washington Post, December 16
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider
The operative question
is, being held hostage by who? According to the American Guild of
Musical Artists, the union for the artists, the unwillingness of
the Washington Ballet to provide meaningful job security and meaningful
protection against unlimited overtime make it impossible for the
dancers to continue performing in artistic director Septime Webre's
version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." According to the former
Clinton appointee and specialist in crisis public relations the
Ballet's hired to spin its side, a strike by the Washington Ballet
dancers has forced tonight's second consecutive cancellation of
a "Nutcracker" performance. According to this report in today's Washington
Post, while about 50 dancers and supporters did picket the Warner
Theater last night, their signs accused management of a "lockout."
If it is a strike, it would be just the second by organized dancers
in US history, and it could be the ugliest. On the picket line last
night, reports the Post, the dancers were joined by a 15-foot inflated
rat, contributed by the Metropolitan Washington Central Labor Council,
a rodent last called into service against an asbestos-removal company
and a demolition contractor accused of unfair labor practices.
Indeed, instead of the
dueling mice and rats familiar to anyone who's ever seen (or danced
in) "The Nutcracker," management and artists have been more pre-occupied
this week with dueling "Interim Agreements," the signing of one
of which both parties seem to agree is needed, until a collective
bargaining agreement is reached, to allow performances to continue.
We've examined both
proposals. The essential differences seem to be that the Ballet's
contains no language on benefits, that I can find anyway, while
the artists' calls for the company "to cover the full annual cost
of medical benefits for all artists on a guaranteed employment basis";
and that the artists want protection against being overworked, while
the Ballet, albeit including provisions for overtime pay beyond
the normal work limit (on which the two sides seem to essentially
agree), does not offer restrictions on overtime. In other words,
I can see nothing in management's agreement that would prohibit
it from overworking its dancers -- a prime source of dancer injury
-- as long as it paid them overtime. This goes to the crux of the
dancers' issues with their artistic director.
"The Interim Agreement
you have proposed fails to offer any meaningful job security to
the Ballet's dancers," AGMA executive director Alan Gordon told
Ballet executive director Jason Palmquist earlier this week. "It
fails to adequately protect the dancers against danger and injury
caused by unlimited overtime, it fails to address the dancers' concerns
about the guaranteed size and professionalism of the company, it
fails to address most of the core concerns that the dancers have
been telling you about over the past year and, perhaps most significantly,
it fails to indicate in any way that the Washington Ballet either
respects or appreciates the beauty of their artistry and their commitment
to your productions."
In a statement issued
Tuesday, AGMA president Linda Mays, a singer with the Metropolitan
Opera, said "The dancers of Washington Ballet came to AGMA for protection
from treatment that is not only unprofessional, but abusive and
demeaning. Thus far, artistic director Septime Webre and executive
director Jason Palmquist have carefully choreographed the negotiations
to give the appearance that an agreement was possible, while in
reality, they have completely failed to adequately address the dancers'
core needs. At a tremendous cost to the company and its loyal audience,
management has forced the dancers into a work stoppage by making
them choose between what they love to do, perform, and protecting
their health and careers. It is selfish and irresponsible for the
artistic director to sacrifice the health of the artists and thereby
the artistic integrity of the company. He, and those who hold the
artistic director accountable for his policies and behavior, should
be ashamed. The Washington Ballet's dancers have correctly decided
that they must oppose these abusive and wrong-headed policies."
Webre did not respond
to repeated Dance Insider requests to comment on the Union's charges.
Gordon, the release
continued, told the company on Monday that the dancers "were endangered
and that it would not be safe for them to perform again until the
company agreed to some basic safety protections."
Over the past few months
of negotiations, the union said, the dancers have told management
"that all they wanted was what every employee wants: A safe working
environment, protection against discrimination, protection against
mean-spirited, vindictive and arbitrary treatment, and a contract
that guarantees their rights as employees and as great dancers....."
James Fayette, AGMA's New York area dance executive and a former
principal with New York City Ballet, added, "The joy that dancers
get from performing was being stripped away through overly long
hours and excessive rehearsals. They were becoming injured at an
alarming rate. The true beauty of dance can only occur in an environment
of respect and security, the two things that management has taken
away from the dancers."
Neither Webre nor Palmquist
have responded to repeated Dance Insider requests to directly respond
to the charges levelled above regarding the work environment and
conditions at Washington Ballet, nor to invitations to comment on
the Interim Agreement proposed by the union.
In a statement issued
Wednesday, Palmquist said that "Despite the utmost efforts of the
Washington Ballet to satisfy the concerns of the dancers of the
Washington Ballet, including agreeing to sign an Interim Agreement
to enable the parties to continue bargaining without interruption"
-- the agreement proposed by the Ballet, not the Union -- "the American
Guild of Musical Artists, AFL-CIO, which represents the dancers,
has informed the company that it will strike 'The Nutcracker' beginning
on Thursday, December 15. In light of this tragic news and out of
responsibility to its patrons, the Washington Ballet must regrettably
cancel its December 15, 7 p.m. performance of 'The Nutcracker.''
"A strike by the dancers
of the Washington Ballet is profoundly devastating not only for
the entire institution, but for the community and for the families
and friends of our performers," Palmquist continued. "We have been
negotiating with the dancers in good faith and wish for those conversations
to continue. If AGMA and the dancers would call off this ill-advised
strike and provide the Washington Ballet with assurances that 'The
Nutcracker' will be presented as scheduled, our hope is that future
performances this holiday season can be saved."
However, the Post reported,
local AGMA rep. Eleni Kallas claims that when she told Palmquist
on Wednesday that the union was willing to resume negotiating, he
responded yesterday that if the dancers did not sign the agreement
proposed by the company -- which, absent a collective bargaining
agreement, could be binding through 2009 -- by 5 p.m. Thursday the
evening's show would be cancelled.
In other words -- my
paraphrasing and my opinion of Palmquist's stance -- shut up and