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By The Dance Insider
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK -- Dance Theatre of Harlem, for 35 years one of the premiere dance companies in the world, Wednesday laid off its dancers and suspended operations for the rest of the 2004-2005 season, as first and exclusively reported Friday by the Dance Insider to its e-mail list. The lay-offs were confirmed to the DI by the dance executive of the American American Guild of Musical Artists, the dancers' union; a source close to the company, who spoke off the record; and an executive of another dance company, Sensedance, which has hired four of the laid-off dancers for an upcoming performance. The company's administrative director, Sharon Williams according to its web site, did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment. After the DI's story went out Friday to its e-mail list, the company scheduled a press conference for Tuesday morning at 10:15, in the lower lobby of the New Victory Theater.

The union had been meeting with DTH founder and artistic director Arthur Mitchell over the past two months, as well as the company's lawyer and accountant, to try to find a way the dancers could continue to work, said AGMA national dance executive Deborah Alton, "or, if not, what the company would do for the dancers in the interim until it could bring the dancers back." (The DTH web site lists 45 company artists, but it was not clear at presstime if they are all covered by the current union contract.) "It was clear from these discussions that no matter what allowances the union could make and still fulfill its obligations to the dancers, due to the heightened financial crisis at DTH, it was not possible for the company to secure engagements for the dancers and to cover the necessary related expenses."

While Alton said DTH hopes to resume performing in the 2005-2006 season, it was unclear how it would secure these bookings; in recent months, the company is reported to have been subsisting on mostly volunteer labor for its administration. To get booking, you need a booking agent.

The union has made a separate agreement with City Center and DTH to make sure the dancers are compensated for work on an upcoming performance at the theater's new Fall For Dance festival, Alton said. "We have made every responsible effort to help DTH stay afloat while still putting the dancers' needs and protections above all," she insisted. "Through that effort, the dancers will have the necessary protection for the rehearsal period and the performance at City Center on the 28th. Through their AGMA union membership they may avail themselves of all of the services of the Actors' Fund, including free health care, emergency financial aid, counseling and career guidance among others."

The union's record -- albeit under a prior regime -- has not always been perfect when it comes to protecting the rights of DTH's AGMA members. In 1997, faced with a contract offer they said would endanger their health and safety, the DTH artists became the first unionized dancers in U.S. history to strike. Mitchell responded by announcing auditions for 'replacement' dancers. As they stood in the February cold outside the company's Harlem headquarters trying to discourage potential replacements, the courageous dancers did not have the benefit of being joined their union's then-dance executive, Alex Dube, who was out of town. When Mitchell attempted to negotiate directly with senior dancers and DTH board members Virginia Johnson and Eddie Shellman, without representation, AGMA's then-executive director Louise Gillmore made a hasty visit to the picket line and, after threatening to file an unfair labor practice complaint against DTH, convinced the dancers not to meet with Mitchell without union representation. They were later joined on the picket line by AGMA president Gerald Otte, who did his best to hold his own against a showboating Mitchell, who proclaimed:"I'd like to bring you my checkbook and my bank account, (which has) nothing but the names of all the dancers. I've raised them for 28 years." Earlier, when Mitchell boasted, "I've paid for their schooling, I've paid for their first suit," Otte quietly but firmly pointed out, "And they've given you back." (The Union has since undergone a change in leadership; Alton herself is a former dancer who receives high marks from her colleagues for her forthrightness.)

As wrenching as those days were, the financial uncertainty swirling around the company in recent months has been its own emotional roller-coaster. As recently as last week, the dancers were reportedly given a return-to-work date of December 26. But now it seems that for the members of Dance Theatre of Harlem -- as well as the loyal audience of this stirring ensemble -- there will be little to cheer about this Christmas and perhaps beyond.

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