Labor Dispute Jeopardizes Ballet Troupe's 'Nutcracker'

Maki Onuki in the Washington Ballet production of
Maki Onuki in the Washington Ballet production of "The Nutcracker." (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

In the latest instance of labor problems at the Washington Ballet, the troupe's performance of "The Nutcracker" tomorrow night is in jeopardy because of an impasse between the dancers' union and the company. At issue are a number of health and safety concerns, with the union claiming that too many strenuous rehearsals have led to injuries among the dancers.

The company suspended rehearsals yesterday and today, and refused to sign an interim agreement proposed by the dancers' union, the American Guild of Musical Artists. The dancers have been working for more than a year with the AGMA to produce their first-ever work contract with the ballet company.

"We did review their interim proposal, and it unfortunately contained things we could not agree to," said Jason Palmquist, the company's executive director. The company objected, for example, to a provision requiring arbitration if a company member were dismissed; management argues that would unfairly restrict the authority of Artistic Director Septime Webre.

"We have not canceled Thursday's performance," Palmquist said. " . . . Certainly we are hopeful we will be able to come to some agreement that will allow performances." He added that the company did not want to continue the bargaining sessions under "the threat of a strike."

Representatives for the union said that if an interim agreement wasn't signed, the dancers would perform for a school audience tomorrow afternoon but probably not the night engagement. "The evening performance remains to be seen," said Eleni Kallas, the local AGMA representative. "The dancers are prepared to see this through. They have had enough." The interim agreement is also important, she said, because the dancers "need some type of job security."

As of last night, the company and the union had not scheduled a meeting for today. But Palmquist said in a memorandum to Kallas yesterday that a strike would be disastrous. For the Washington Ballet, like many other companies, ticket sales from the annual "Nutcracker" production provide a large portion of the year's revenue. There are 12 more scheduled performances of Webre's version of the classic.

The union said the interim agreement was needed because the dancers were exhausted and prone to injury. Michele Jimenez, the company's leading ballerina, has a stress fracture and is not performing in "The Nutcracker." Three other dancers are injured, according to the company and the union. After the union and dancers raised concerns, the company agreed yesterday to redesign a scene in which a dancer is propelled from a box by air pressure.

"We have given the company the opportunity to show they care," Kallas said. "The dancers can't go on. They are broken and are constantly fatigued."

"Certainly the Washington Ballet has a commitment to the artists we currently employ," said Palmquist. In its own proposal, the company agreed that all of the dancers would be reengaged for the next season and at least 90 percent for the following season, according to Palmquist. He said the company asks the dancers to rehearse 30 hours during a regular week and 36 during a performance period. "I am not aware of us extending beyond those maximums," he said.

Kallas said: "It is not always 'Did you rehearse six hours?' but how did you rehearse? What did you do with those hours?" She also said the company had scheduled additional rehearsals at the last minute, without adequate notice to the dancers.

Labor relations at the company have been rocky since the dancers announced they wanted to join a union. Earlier this year the company canceled a nine-day tour of Italy when it could not resolve a dispute over the per diem the dancers would receive to cover meals.

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