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Flash View, 12-16: The Scabs who Stole Christmas

"Before you (decide) to audition today... please reflect on the reasons we are on strike."

-- From a flyer distributed by striking dance artists of the Dance Theatre of Harlem to potential 'replacement dancers,' in the first strike by unionized dancers in US history, February 7, 1997*

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

The American Guild of Musical Artists is considering disciplinary action against four AGMA members, all from Dance Theatre of Harlem, who it says have crossed the picket line to take the work of dancers on strike against Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico over economic and other conditions. The names of the DTH dancers, along with those of three others, were supplied to AGMA by lawyers for the striking 21 dancers of the San Juan-based company, AGMA executive director Alan Gordon told the Dance Insider.

As AGMA is a legitimate representative of the Harlem dancers and so as not to unfairly tarnish other DTH members, the Dance Insider has decided to publish the names of the accused strikebreakers as provided by AGMA: Mark Burns, a DTH star, as well as Naimah Willoughby, Ebony Haswell, and Dionne Figgins. As it has been able to send an e-mail requesting comment to the agency claiming to represent them, Elite Dance Artists, the DI has also decided to publish two other names: Todd Fox and Bat Udval, both of whom are listed as clients on Elite's web site, the latter as Bat-Urdene Udval. Because of the difficulty of contacting the seventh dancer and giving her the opportunity to respond, the DI has decided to withhold her name at present. Comment from any of the dancers is welcome.

As first reported by the DI, DTH has "suspended operations" through the rest of the 2004-2005 season, effectively forcing its dancers to look for work elsewhere. Star Caroline Rocher is reportedly dancing with a company in Germany, while Duncan Cooper has taken work with the touring company of "Contact."

Burns, a leading dancer with DTH who joined the company in 1993, was with the company in 1997 when its members became the first unionized dancers in US history to go on strike. At the time, the DTH artists set up a picket line in front of the troupe's Harlem headquarters which successfully forced director Arthur Mitchell to cancel auditions for "replacement dancers." Two days after stopping the auditions, the dancers had an agreement with DTH management -- by no means perfect, but one that recognized their concerns, largely related to what they deemed unhealthy working conditions.

On the picket line, the DTH dancers were supported by approximately 100 representatives of affiliated AFL-CIO unions. One of them, Unions for the Performing Arts chairman Bill Hanauer, told the DTH dancers walking the picket line that chilly February day in Harlem, "What we have here is not only an attempt to crush union labor, but an attempt to crush artists. Your fight is the same fight as the cotton workers, as the motion picture editors. They may think they can replace you, but they can't just grab someone off the street."

For the Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, without the striking dancers, the "Nutcracker" the company intends to present would be "not a professional spectacle," according to dancer spokesperson Aureo Andino. "It is only a student recital, put together with students that we know and (who) have very good potential, but at present lack the necessary technique to carry the title of ballet professionals."

By crossing the picket line, Burns and his colleagues are bringing the production professional credibility.

Why are the Puerto Rican dancers on strike? An e-mail sent to company management requesting comment bounced back, so the story presented here will be one-sided. (The DI welcomes comments from company management.) But according to Yamira Acevedo, the dancers' lawyer, for several weeks management threatened to fire all 21 dancers "because of their refusal to dance without being given explanations regarding the alleged economic crisis affecting the company, and worse still when the company intends to impose new unacceptable and unworthy working conditions.

"Lillian Velazquez, the administrator of the company, affirmed in writing and in public statements that they would be replacing the local dancers with foreign dancers for the presentations of 'The Nutcracker.' They approached various local dancers and several companies in the United States, managing to recruit some dancers of the Dance Theatre of Harlem."

When it became clear that the company was in discussions with union-represented DTH dancers, AGMA director Gordon told the DI that the union would "seek to discipline any member that takes struck work.... We can charge a scab with conduct unbecoming a union member, hold a hearing, impose a fine and sue them in court here to collect the fine. It's not something we like to do to our own members, but strikebreaking is strikebreaking and no one's going to tolerate it.... We've had a few calls to inquire, and we tell dancers: If you were on strike against DTH to make a living wage, how would you feel if they brought in dancers from another country to replace you and beat your strike?"

Gordon also told the Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico management, in a letter published last week in the DI, "We deplore your efforts to import dancers from DTH to do this struck work, and we have advised the dancers that we represent at DTH that they may not accept work from you that was previously done by the dancers on strike. Any dancer from DTH that works as a strikebreaker will be disciplined by this union to the fullest extent allowed by law.... Moreover, inasmuch as the American National Labor Relations Act applies fully in Puerto Rico, we have authorized our attorneys to give advice and support to the attorneys representing your dancers."

Regarding the issue which the dancers say is at the center of the dispute, Gordon pointed out in his letter to Velazquez, "There is no question but that a dance company should be willing to make a full and complete disclosure of all of its financial books and records to its dancers. As you may be aware, binding labor law requires such complete disclosure. That your dancers are not currently represented by a union is irrelevant. The law protects 'concerted' activity and a strike is the most obvious form of such protected activity."

Yesterday, Gordon informed the DI, "Perhaps your readers would like to know the names of the (US) dancers who went to Puerto Rico to do struck work," going on to list the dancers named above and one additional performer. "We are in the process of determining what disciplinary actions should be brought against the DTH AGMA members who did this."

Without diminishing the importance of the issues at hand to the 21 professional dancers of the Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, when it comes to the strikebreakers, there's a more universal and, as far as dancers are concerned, existential issue here. If the DTH victory of seven years ago was an inspiration to all dancers worldwide, by crossing this picket line and taking struck work, Mark Burns and his colleague achieve the reverse -- enabling unfair working conditions for dancers everywhere. As a dancer colleague put it to me this morning: "How can dancers achieve any kind of equity in the world when we undercut ourselves and each other constantly?"

*Accounts of the 1997 DTH strike in this article are taken from the memory of this reporter, who covered it, as well as his and Valerie Gladstone's report in the April 1997 issue of Dance Magazine.

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