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Flash View, 6-25: Kirov in NYC: Not for the Masses
Why American Kids Can't Afford to Work for the Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Is the Kirov/Maryinsky Ballet -- and its NYC co-producer Lincoln Center -- shamelessly exploiting young dancers by offering them $2.50 per hour for rehearsals and $20 for performances for an upcoming New York City engagement? Legally -- no; the entertainment industry is exempted from the federal youth minimum wage of $4.25 per hour. What about ethically? In the minds of dance insiders polled informally, yes and no. On the one hand, says one dance insider, this ain't about money; it's an extraordinary opportunity for children to perform with an extraordinary company. On the other hand, says another reader, the low compensation naturally restricts the opportunity to children of upper-income households, whose parents can afford transporting them to the theater and giving them lunch money.

Carol Blanco, who is auditioning for 24 girls ages 11-15 to participate in the upcoming production of "La Bayadere" at the Metropolitan Opera House, did not respond to an e-mailed Dance Insider request to comment on what she will be paid. But in an audition notice e-mailed to the DI, Blanco promises $10 for each 4-hour rehearsal day, and $20 for performances.

According to U.S. labor law, wages for underaged workers in the entertainment industry are set by mutual agreement between the employer and the employed. When it comes to adult workers, their interests are ideally represented by a union -- in the case of Lincoln Center performers like the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, the American Guild of Musical Artists.

However, with the exception of some older children performing traditionally adult roles, says AGMA executive director Alan Gordon, "Our contracts at both NYCO and the Met historically have specifically excluded children. The reason for this apparently was that they companies do not treat child performers as 'employees' under the law but, rather, structure their participation in productions as an 'educational' undertaking and pay them only a stipend.

"Some parents have been asking us to step in and contest this practice, which I think we both can and should do, particularly since I think it is clear that we could successfully argue that they are 'employees' under any applicable legal standard. However, there are two factors that mitigate against us doing that. First, a great many parents actually buy into the notion that this is quasi-educational and that it prepares their children for careers as performers. These parents would, just as actively, oppose our intervention.

"Second, if we successfully establish that they are 'employees,' we would then have to pursue representing them through the processes of the National Labor Relations Board. This is both time intensive and costly. Many of our current members, although no doubt sympathetic to the interests of child performers, might be troubled by the expenditure of our staff time and their dues money in the pursuit of such representation, particularly since the employers would no doubt oppose us vigorously. Eventually, I think that we will be able to pursuade employers to accept that children are employees and should be represented, but it will take years, not days. This, obviously, will not be helpful to current performers."

However, Gordon concluded, "My understanding is that $20/performance is high, comparatively."

And besides, says dance insider P. Renzetti, "children who participate in the Kirov Ballet productions are like extras and it is a rare privilege to be on stage with this world-famous ballet company. It is a learning experience. The amount of money offered is a token, not actually payment, as they are not professionals."

Here's where I gotta disagree.The audition notice from Ms. Blanco says, "All girls must dance on pointe. The performances at the Metropolitan Opera House are a part of Lincoln Center Festival." The teen and pre-teen young women must be between 4-9 and 5-2 tall. Extras these young people are not. Extras or supernumeries, as I understand it, are typically cast for physical type -- not ability. They are part of crowd scenes. If these girls are required to be on pointe, they will be required to dance, and if they are dancing in a professional company on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, the gig is professional. They will be required to meet at least one professional standard: to dance on pointe.

Already, once they grow up, dancers are asked to accept less compensation than those in other fields. (Most notorious was the sub-par compensation afforded non Parsons-company, but still professional dancers for the David Parsons-produced Times Square Millenium show. Hey, you get to dance in Times Square for an audience of billions of people! You want to be paid decently too?! [This is not a dig at Mr. Parsons, who sets the standard when it comes to compensation of his company dancers.]) Shouldn't the Kirov Ballet -- and its U.S. co-producer, the in part publicly funded Lincoln Center -- set a better example?

If this is more of an educational opportunity than a work opportunity, it is one from which certain children will be excluded. We have the irony that a company which, on tour, retains its Communist name -- "Kirov" -- is compensating some of its performers at a level that precludes economically poor children from taking advantage of the opportunity.

Or, as dancer and dance teacher Anna Rubio puts it:

"Though I am a Flamenco dancer, I began in Ballet. I have also spent much of my life in Modern, but when Flamenco started taking too much of my time, all my non-Flamenco dancing time I devoted to Ballet, because I love it with a very large portion of my heart.... I also owe it my discipline, joy of movement and high threshold for pain (both physical AND mental).

"I have dedicated a lot of my heart to offering dance to kids who have no access to the arts and have found sadness that it is almost impossible for poor kids to have access to Ballet. In my opinion, without Ballet it is very difficult for the kids I work with to ever have the necessary discipline and technique to succeed in other dance forms. (The Rock school here in Pennsylvania has a great program, City Dance, where they offer complete scholarships to poor kids who have potential to be professional, and in fact I just took one of my Flamenco girls for an audition!)

"My point is: Offering so little money to dancers that young is assuming that their parents have enough money to sacrifice for their children's aspirations. This eliminates the aspirations of kids whose parents don't have money, or inclination to understand the dreams of their kids.

"My little 9-year-old student Ziara Trinidad is a born dancer. She comes to class an hour early to wait for me, she copies everything she can to be like me, the only dancer she has ever met. She is incredibly gifted in focus, musicality and flexibility. (Her family also has) very little money. She dreams not only of Flamenco, but of Ballet.... It took me a long time to convince her mother to let me take her to audition for the Rock School. We have not yet found out if she made it, but if she did it will be another battle to make sure someone will take her to class. This child is a real dancer, but kids like her are left out of the Ballet world if it is always assumed that Ballet is for the rich or upper class. If Ziara was old enough to audition (for the Kirov gig), she wouldn't be able to do all that rehearsal time and performances without enough money to feed herself every day and get to the job."

And what exactly entitles all young dancers, regardless of means, to be able to take advantage of this opportunity? Well, how about that the Lincoln Center Festival receives major support from New York City, New York State, and U.S. tax-payers? It's bad enough that money from all tax-payers supports a festival that poor people can't afford to see (For the Kirov, student tickets are available inadvance for $20; their parents can't get in for less than $40, with the top ticket price being $140. For purposes of comparison: Tickets for tonight's performance of Maurice Bejart's "Le Concours" by the Paris Opera Ballet here in Paris start at $5 and top off at $64.). It's bad enough that lower-income families can't afford to take their kids to the ballet. Are we also to make it cost-prohibitive for young people from families of limited means to be employed by the Kirov?

I say: Shame on Lincoln Center for not being a better citizen. And, it might be added, for shooting itself in the foot: The reason ballet is perceived by much of the American public as elitist is because in its presentation, if not its content -- it often is!

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