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Chevalier de la Barre, 7-26: Courage
At AGMA, a Move to Woo Dancers Back; at ABT, Bold Programming: Of these, Hope

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- On a chilly February morning in 1997, the 30-odd members of Dance Theatre of Harlem took a courageous step for all dancers. Having called the first strike by organized dancers in U.S. history, they set up a picket line outside DTH's uptown Manhattan headquarters to try to stop DTH director Arthur Mitchell from auditioning scabs. The move was doubly courageous because as mostly black ballet dancers, their prospects of finding work elsewhere should the strike fail were bleak. As dues-paying members of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the dancers might have expected some assistance from AGMA's well-spoken and blustery dance executive. But he was nowhere to be seen. While a panicky union executive director did eventually show up after some dancers also on the DTH board started to negotiate with Mitchell without representation, she was obviously flustered, not understanding the dynamics of the situation. And the gentle union president, who also arrived in due time, was no rhetorical match for the histrionic Mitchell. The tepid AGMA showing of support, for perhaps the most important dancer work action ever, epitomized years of what some dancers considered less than adequate AGMA representation.

Filling the void that morning were DTH colleagues from other shops, not just dancers but also stage technicians. Among the strongest voices of support were members of the Metropolitan Opera dancer unit. So it is fitting that AGMA has just named a former Met Opera dancer, Deborah Allton, as its national executive for dance and its counsel. The announcement from current AGMA executive director Alan Gordon, who has made it a union priority to do better by dancers, is a genuine signal of hope that dancers will now get the type of representation their dues are paying for.

In addition to having worked in the trenches as a dancer with the Met for 20 years, Allton served as its union rep. and is now a lawyer, with the firm Sonnenschien, Nath & Rosenthal. With AGMA, she'll be responsible for leading what Gordon calls the union's "continued revitalization of AGMA's representation of dancers," organizing new companies, expanding its representation of dance company production workers, enforcing existing contracts, and coordinating membership service for dancers.

Stated Gordon: "Having spent twenty years as a ballet dancer and working as a union delegate, negotiating committee member and an attorney, Deborah is uniquely qualified to serve as our national dance executive and to spearhead our constantly improving representation of dancers. She knows first hand the need to aggressively protect and defend dancers' rights."

Dancers greeted the news enthusiastically, seeing it as an acknowledgment that AGMA hasn't always done well by dancers, and an important step in regaining their trust. "She is a very bright person with a lot of experience with AGMA issues," said a former Met colleague of Allton's.

Lack of faith in AGMA helped prompt members of American Ballet Theatre to leave the union in the 1990s and set up their own shop. At the top of Allton's agenda, she said, will be bringing ABT back into the union fold. "The ABT dancers left AGMA many years ago because of what some of them saw as AGMA's lack of focus on its dancer members," she said. "That situation has been completely reversed, AGMA has truly become the home of the American dancer, and each new dance contract AGMA has recently negotiated includes spectacular improvements in dancers' working lives." In recent months, said Gordon, AGMA has won "out-of-pattern" wage increases and other contract improvements at the New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, DTH, BalletMet and the Cincinnati Ballet. Union negotiators, he added, are working with the dancers of the Martha Graham company on a new contract that would take effect as soon as litigation between the Graham center and its former director is concluded.

Speaking of ABT, and of winds of welcome change: Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie's announcement of the company's fall City Center season portends hope both for adventurous ballet programming and, more significantly, improved dance funding in a post 9/11 environment that initially appeared ominous.

For its October 15-27 line-up, ABT is offering what it's modestly calling four premieres but what is in fact new choreography from seven choreographers: James Kudelka, Robert Hill, Lar Lubovitch, David Parsons, Ann Reinking, Natalie Weir and Stanton Welch. (The last four will each choreograph to George Harrison songs in a tribute to the late Beatle.) As if this weren't enough, it's reviving Antony Tudor's 1954 "Offenbach in the Underworld," whose original 1956 ABT cast included Nora Kaye and John Kriza, and which the company has not performed for 42 years. AND it's reviving the 1979 work "The Garden of Villandry," created by Crowsnest, a choreographic triumvirate which included Pilobolus pioneers Robby Barnett, Martha Clarke, and Felix Blaska.

Martine van Hamel in 1989, in American Ballet Theatre's production of "The Garden of Villandry," choreographed by Robby Barnett, Martha Clarke, and Felix Blaska. MIRA photograph courtesy ABT.  

Now: Just this past Spring, McKenzie was forced to scale back the 2002 Met season, cancelling an all-Stravinsky program, because of post 9/11 revenue shortfalls in both ticket sales and fundraising. What then, accounts for the turn-around? In a word, the company is flush.

"Since the first of the year," executive director Wallace Chappell explained to the Dance Insider, "the Mellon Foundation, the Howard Gilman Foundation, the Shubert Foundation, the New York State Arts Council, and the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of New York have all been funding ABT handsomely, in some cases with increased funding. And our board has been most supportive of us of late, as have been many of our regular donors and patrons." "I took my job starting with the opening night at City Center last fall," recounts Chappell. "And the post- 9/ll syndrome in Manhattan was wreaking havoc with us, just like the other arts groups." Today, he added, as "the ABT company has continued to blithely dance wonderfully well through all manner of crises, and the administrative side of our operation is strengthening daily, we are able to risk four new works and a revival of Tudor's 'Offenbach in the Underworld.' Our fall gig at City Center extends our presence in New York City, and offers us the R & D shelter that our company needs. And the company enjoys the intimacy of the relationship with the audience."

As for the other revival, co-choreographer Robby Barnett says of "The Garden of Villandry," set to the music of Franz Shubert, "The second movement of Opus 99 is as close to sublime as any music I know and I think we just wanted to make obeisance. You have to hear this trio to believe the balance of fine order and lyricism. Incredible. We used a recording of the David Oistrakh Trio, which was immeasurably slower than any other version we could find."

Now, before you think I'm calling this season adventurous just because it includes a work by Pilobolus veterans, pause please. It would be easy to look at the choreographer roster and jadedly pronounce, "SOS." I have certainly reacted this way in the past, even moreso now that I've been able to see close-hand the adventurous programming of the Paris Opera Ballet under Brigitte Lefevre. But one of Lefevre's successes has been to be able to tap into the zeitgeist -- particularly by commissioning a new "Scheherazade" from Blanca Li this past season. That the work was a glorious failure almost didn't matter; its inclusion announced in big bold letters that ballet could live in the present.

With this programming, McKenzie is making a similar statement -- particularly with the commissioning of four prominent choreographers to choreograph the tribute to George Harrision. Harrison ain't Eminem in terms of currency, but I don't know that the full meaning to the Culture of the Beatles' other songwriter was really realized until his death last November. He pervaded our story. That McKenzie has jumped on this discovery in commissioning a ballet to the pop artist less than a year after his death makes a statement not just about who Harrison was, or what ABT is, but of ballet's ability to at least attempt to be topical. This boldness deserves to be applauded, regardless of the actual choreographic results.

As well, in a climate where the underpinning of the US financial system may be crumbling just a few subway stops away from ABT's Flatiron headquarters, that all of these funders, including the National Endowment for the Arts, are not retracting, but giving McKenzie and the dancers the means to deliver this vision is a good sign not just for ABT, but all of NYC's dance companies and venues.

We need this hope from our artistic community even more than ever today. In general, these are not hopeful times. Besides the possible collapse of the main pillar of capitalism, the signs of decay are elsewhere too: In California, a five-year-old girl is abducted not far from her home, sexually assaulted, and killed. In the Middle East, nine children are killed by military equipment paid for by US taxpayers. In Virginia, our justice system is becoming the latest victim of 9/11, as a man presumed to be innocent until proven guilty is being railroaded to the gallows without benefit of counsel, as a judge pretends not to notice that he's crazy.

In opposition to these signs of decay, art offers creation and, a small window for, if not rejoicing, at least lifting our downcast eyes to the light that man and woman can achieve.

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