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The 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 dance.

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