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The Buzz, 12-20: The Septime Sin
Yes, Virginia, Dancers too have Rights

By Paul Ben-Itzak
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 employee.

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 the same.

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.

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