By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005
The dancers of the Washington Ballet will not perform "The Nutcracker" tonight. Instead, they'll be out in front of the Warner Theatre, picketing.
Further performances of the holiday ballet -- as well as the rest of the company's season -- are in question after management decided yesterday evening to cancel tonight's show. Executive Director Jason Palmquist said he was forced to do so because the dancers' union called a strike.
The union denied this.
"We've been locked out," said Eleni Kallas, local representative of the American Guild of Musical Artists, as she was going into a meeting last night with the dancers. "We have not declared a strike."
The distinction is important for the dancers because a lockout means they could be eligible for unemployment insurance. Whatever the action is called, for audiences the result is the same: For the first time in more than 40 years, the Washington Ballet will interrupt its run of putting soldiers, mice and snowflakes onstage. In addition to the company's 20 professional dancers, the more than 200 schoolchildren used to fill out the "Nutcracker" production will not be donning their dance slippers.
However, this morning's performance for area schoolchildren at the Warner will go on as scheduled, both union and ballet officials said.
The darkened theater tonight may signal something more dire than disappointed ticketholders. If the company and its dancers can't iron out their problems, it could jeopardize the upcoming winter and spring programs. The Washington Ballet, like companies around the country, relies on its "Nutcracker" revenue to fund the rest of its productions. Performances of the ballet, which began Dec. 2, were to continue through Dec. 24.
The picket line, perhaps on an icy sidewalk, brings to a head a long-simmering series of conflicts between the dancers and management. The issues are complex, but are less about money than about workplace safety and job security (or, from the management's viewpoint, the ability to hire and discharge dancers according to its own judgment).
Since AGMA was authorized to represent the dancers in February, it has not been able to negotiate a contract for them. (For starters, the sides disagree on the duration of the contract: The union wants a three-year deal, management wants four.) AGMA filed an unfair labor practice complaint, which was settled this fall just before going to a labor board judge, and a planned summer tour to Italy was scrapped when that contract fell through.
In the meantime, the dancers have been working under the standard contract the Washington Ballet has been using for several seasons. The two sides began contract talks last month, although AGMA said it was prepared to begin as early as August. With no pact in sight, on Monday the union presented a two-page draft of an interim agreement. This was to guarantee the dancers basic protections -- restrictions on how rehearsal time is used, for example -- to avoid overwork during the grueling "Nutcracker" run, said Kallas.
She said several dancers are injured, including leading ballerina Michelle Jimenez, who has a stress fracture. Another dancer has had to have a screw implanted in a foot, and one plummeted several feet, landing on his back, after being dropped in a rushed exit. The rest are exhausted, she said, from a chaotic and overtaxing rehearsal schedule.
In offering the interim document, AGMA told management "if you sign it, the dancers will continue" to perform, said Kallas.
Palmquist said this was an unacceptable ultimatum. "We said we're prepared to negotiate about any and all items contained in their interim agreement," said Palmquist, "but what we weren't prepared to do was to negotiate under the threat of strike. Because if the dancers were not going to perform Thursday night, the ballet had so much work to do to prepare for that."
Management rejected AGMA's document. Furthermore, it told the union that if the draft were not withdrawn by 5 p.m. Tuesday, management would cancel tonight's performance.
Yesterday management sent its version of an interim agreement to the union, which rejected it. AGMA Executive Director Alan Gordon said the plan did not guarantee job security for the term of the contract, but instead promised the dancers their jobs only through the end of the 2007 season. It did not contain what the union regards as a key provision: that the size of the company would stay the same.
Palmquist said his document was "as complete an interim agreement as we were capable of giving them." It included a 4 percent salary increase. But when the union did not sign it, he said, he had no choice but to cancel. "The alternative to canceling a performance is that patrons would show up, children would be excited to see 'The Nutcracker,' and the dancers would not appear on stage."
"I'm back where I was at the last 'Nutcracker,' " said Kallas, noting the irony that it was the arduous preparations for last year's "Nutcracker" -- the premiere of Artistic Director Septime Webre's version -- that drove the dancers to vote for union representation.
"They don't give a [expletive] about safety in this company," she said. "I believe they've decided it's either going to be Septime or the dancers."
"It's our most sincere hope that the dancers decide to come back to work," said Palmquist. "The idea of losing the 'Nutcracker' run would be devastating. It's our single greatest source of revenue. It's the mechanism by which we essentially fund the rest of the season. And losing the run of 'The Nutcracker' would call into question our ability to put on the rest of the season."
He said the full run of "The Nutcracker" had been expected to bring in $1.9 million, leading to a profit of about $900,000.
As of last night, Palmquist said no meetings were scheduled for today. AGMA representatives said they were willing to resume talks.
But Kallas emphasized that the union would not relent in its concerns for dancers' safety.
"They're not toasters," she said. "It's not like you break 'em and you buy a new one."