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Ballet's Italy Tour Canceled Over Dancers' Meal Ticket

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C01

The Washington Ballet, embroiled in a bitter union dispute, has canceled its first foreign trip in five years because it couldn't reach an agreement with its dancers over meal money.

The nine-day tour of Italy, planned for July, was intended as the grand finale to an unusually successful season. The Washington Ballet premiered its first new "Nutcracker" production in more than 40 years, as well as its first work by acclaimed contemporary choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

But Executive Director Jason Palmquist said late yesterday afternoon that he had canceled the tour after a breakdown in negotiations with the American Guild of Musical Artists, AFL-CIO, which has represented the company's dancers since February. The main issue, both Palmquist and AGMA Executive Director Alan Gordon say, was the amount of the per diem the dancers would receive to cover meals in Rome, Florence and the seaside resort of Civitanova Marche.

The dancers' original contract provided $40 a day; AGMA requested the State Department standard of around $150. Ballet management offered $55, and when that was rejected, it proposed paying the dancers the State Department rate but making an "adjustment" to their salaries, Palmquist says, "to keep our bottom line the same. . . . This would have resulted in money in the dancers' pockets because a per diem at a particular level is not subjected to tax."

This, too, was unacceptable, Gordon says, adding that he doubted the validity of the tax-savings argument. "We told them very clearly," he says, "that if they didn't come up with enough per diem for the dancers to be able to eat three meals a day that the dancers weren't going."

The bad news comes at an awkward time for the company, which has been rehearsing Artistic Director Septime Webre's full-length production of "Romeo and Juliet," opening a five-performance run tomorrow tonight at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

Yet there were signs before this that the tour might have been an unwise undertaking. "The economics were difficult at best," Palmquist says. The company was expecting to lose $90,000 on the tour, which had been in the planning stages since last fall, several months before Palmquist came on board in December. The loss was considerable but, he says, "especially for a ballet company like the Washington Ballet that doesn't tour often, you do make decisions that transcend economics. Also it would have added three more weeks of work for the dancers, and showed some of our recently acquired repertoire."

In addition to raising the ballet troupe's international profile, the trip was to have been a lure for donor gifts. It was planned along the lines of its last international tour, a voyage to Cuba in 2000. That trip amounted to a large expedition of dancers and staff as well as donors, who paid their own way and were treated to specially arranged tours and events. Donors would have traveled to Italy alongside the dancers to "deepen their investment in the ballet," Palmquist says.

"For those reasons we felt it was viable and appropriate to take some level of loss on the tour," Palmquist says. However, he acknowledged that the loss "was already irresponsible for essentially three performances. . . . I would have done it differently."

The collapse of the Italy trip is the latest in what has been a rocky experience for the union at the Washington Ballet. In December, after several dancers' injuries, the company's 22 performers asked AGMA to represent them. Three dancers have needed surgery in recent months, according to local AGMA representative Eleni Kallas. The dancers also cited inadequate rest periods and disorganized rehearsals.

When the company management decided not to negotiate with the union, the National Labor Relations Board heard arguments from both sides and in February ordered the company to allow the dancers to hold a vote. AGMA representation was approved 18-2. (Two dancers did not vote.)

In early March, two Washington Ballet dancers who had been called by the union to testify before the NLRB were told by Webre that their contracts would not be renewed. The two dancers, Nikkia Parish and Brian Corman, who were already AGMA members because they had worked previously for unionized companies, were told they were being let go for artistic reasons. AGMA has filed a charge of unfair labor practices against the company, contending that Parish and Corman are being punished for their union activities. No other dancers testified on behalf of AGMA before the NLRB, Kallas says, and Parish and Corman were the only dancers not rehired for next year.

Palmquist says their dismissal represents an "unfortunate circumstance," but adds that their testimony "played absolutely no role in the decision not to renew their contracts."

AGMA also represents performers with the Washington Opera and Wolf Trap Opera Company, as well as the New York City Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet, among others.

As for the Italy tour, Gordon says he suspects that Washington Ballet management is relieved the travel plans are off. "It was a poorly planned tour," he says. "To just cancel would have been an embarrassment, but to blame it on the union would have been a piece of cake. No one in their right mind would undertake such a loss for such a poorly planned tour."

In light of the cancellation, Gordon says he is concerned about the prospects of reasonable negotiations over the dancers' contracts, which are planned for June. On the other hand, he says, management "just saved $100,000. It should brighten their financial picture."

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