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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
"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
"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
"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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