All Toes Point To the Picket Line

Washington Ballet dancers and others picket outside the Warner Theatre.
Washington Ballet dancers and others picket outside the Warner Theatre. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman and Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 16, 2005

For the second night in a row, the Washington Ballet has canceled its "Nutcracker" performance because of labor strife. It announced last evening that it would scrap tonight's show -- just as its dancers, dressed in coats and boots instead of costumes, were throwing up a picket line on the slick sidewalk outside the show's venue, the Warner Theatre.

The impasse has dashed the hopes of hundreds of ticket holders counting on seeing the holiday ballet that the company has performed for more than 40 years. It also occurs at the worst possible time for the company, which derives much of its annual revenue from the three-week "Nutcracker" run.

Yesterday's performance was canceled after management and the dancers' union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, failed again to agree on an employment contract. Management had also canceled rehearsals this week.

"We belong onstage," said one dancer, sighing yesterday afternoon and contemplating marching outside the same theater where the ballet began performances Dec. 2. "It's ridiculous."

The union has characterized the situation as a lockout by management. But the Washington Ballet calls it a strike. "For them to be actually hurting the very income source that gives us the ability to do everything we want to do for them is incomprehensible to me," said Kay Kendall, president of the ballet's board of directors.

Kendall said the ballet awarded dancers a substantial raise last year, and the "Nutcracker" revenue was meant to fund that. She said she did not know about the status of future performances, which are scheduled through Dec. 24. Other ballet officials did not return repeated calls for comment.

"We want them to stop striking," Kendall said. "And we want them to give us a proposal that we can accept. . . . They put a gun to our heads. . . . We want everything to be there for the dancers, but we have to protect our artistic director also."

The issues are not primarily about money, but about how much control Artistic Director Septime Webre should have over matters ranging from hiring and firing to how rehearsals are conducted to the size of the company and how students from the Washington School of Ballet can be used in productions.

AGMA local representative Eleni Kallas said she sent Washington Ballet Executive Director Jason Palmquist an e-mail Wednesday evening saying, "What strike?" "We asked to come back to the table with them [Wednesday] night or [Thursday] morning," Kallas said.

She said she got no reply until yesterday afternoon, when Palmquist told her that an interim agreement drawn up by management remained on the table and that if the dancers did not sign it by 5 p.m., tonight's show would be canceled.

"I may send him a response saying that he's nuts," said AGMA Executive Director Alan Gordon, adding that the union had no intention of signing the document.

In a letter to AGMA that the ballet provided last night to The Washington Post, Palmquist stated that in the proposed interim agreement he gave to the dancers this week he had included guarantees about continued employment for the company's dancers "that are unheard of in the ballet world."

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