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Buzz, 12-20: The Septime Sin
Yes, Virginia, Dancers too have Rights
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider
So it's not enough that
Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, created
working conditions that left the Ballet's 20 artists with no choice
but to unionize to protect their basic rights as employees, principally
from overwork that could lead to (potentially career-ending) injury.
It's not enough that Webre initially attempted to fire -- excuse
me, not re-engage -- the two artists who had successfully organized
their colleagues to join the American Guild of Musical Artists.
(One was rehired and later quit; the Ballet settled with the second
right before her complaint was to go to trial before the National
Labor Relations Board.) Nor that management's consistent refusal
to provide the dancers with even an interim agreement that offered
them meaningful job security and protection from overwork made it
impossible for them to continue to perform in this season's "Nutcracker"
production. Nor that the Ballet preferred to cancel all remaining
performances of "The Nutcracker" rather than provide the dancers
with the conditions that would enable them to return to work, and
avoid a strike. (The company claims to have cancelled the performances
in the face of a dancer strike; the dancers insist they were prepared
to return to work if the company met their basic needs of job security
and protection from overwork.) No, Mr. Webre, in the person of the
outside publicist the Ballet has hired to spin its side, is now
attempting to demonize the dancers, having them likened to "thieves
who steal children's presents."
On Sunday, the Ballet's
new outside PR firm, the Walker Marchant Group -- a self-proclaimed
specialist in "crisis communications" headed by a former Clinton
White House appointee -- provided the media with unsolicited alleged
letters from alleged, anonymous parents of Washington Ballet students
involved in the company's "Nutcracker" production, statements whose
over-riding effect was essentially to smear the dancers as the bad
guys. (Walker Marchant did not respond to our request to identify
the authors of the letters.) This tactic is apparently right out
of the playbook for Walker Marchant, which, on its website, boasts
of its ability to "identify credible surrogates and third-party
validators to add credibility to our clients' positions." Though
just how much credibility the Washington Ballet gains by using alleged
letters from unnamed parents of its students to smear its own dance
artists' intentions is questionable.
Here's what one of those
alleged validators -- in this case, an alleged, anonymous parent
responding to the "Nutcracker" cancellation -- had to say in the
e-mail Walker Marchant's Ann Little sent out Sunday:
"Last weekend my daughter
was beaming over meeting the real Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen
at the Tea. She wanted to be a prima ballerina. Well, now she knows
more than she should about what it means to be a 'real ballerina'
and if this is what it means, disappointing hundreds of kids at
christmas (sic) who have worked so hard, then forget it! They have
let all these kids down. They should be so ashamed. They are no
better than thieves who steal children's presents."
At the risk of, er,
validating as authentic an anonymous third-hand letter provided
by a hired-gun publicist whose avowed intention is to "identify"
third-party validators, I'd like to correct the notion that by refusing
to work under conditions which, in their view, don't adequately
protect their jobs or their health (and thus their careers), the
artists of the Washington Ballet are somehow "thieves." Au contraire!
Indeed, part of what
"it means" to be a "real" dancer is that if your chosen career path
offers its share of real joy to you and your audience, it's also
lined with its share of Septime Webres, artistic directors who bank
on that joy to count on your accepting conditions that no other
employee in any other sphere would accept; who, in the name of your
art, overwork dancers to the extent that they risk injury, even
injury that could imperil their ability to continue to pursue that
very career; who see dancers as much as chattel as adult artists;
who would rather see a show cancelled than provide the working conditions
that make it possible for dancers to perform the show; and who prefer
to have their artists smeared as "thieves" by hired-gun publicists
rather than engage in meaningful negotiations with them so that
the show can go on. (Although, to be fair to other directors, Mr.
Webre, through his proxy the hired gun publicist, has set a new
low for having his own employees smeared.) (Webre did not respond
to an invitation to comment on the alleged letters.) (To be fair,
my question to him was, "Have you no shame?")
Far from stealing Christmas
presents, this holiday season the adult artists of the Washington
Ballet have given the aspiring student artists a lesson as important
as any example they could set on stage, and a tool as vital as any
technical trick they might impart. It's a lesson as simple as the
plot of "Nutcracker": That dancers are employees just like every
other employee, and that they have rights just like every other
In calling a strike
this morning by the 33,700 subway and bus workers of New York City's
Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), union chief Roger Toussaint
told reporters (as relayed in the New York Times), "This is a fight
over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien
to the MTA."
The dancers of the Washington
Ballet -- whose work is just as crucial to our existence as that
of the subway and bus workers of New York City -- want and deserve
Yes, Virginia, far from
taking your Christmas presents, the dancers of the Washington Ballet,
by sticking up for their rights as employees -- as any employee
is entitled to do -- have made you an invaluable gift, the gift
of your franchise.