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All Toes Point To the Picket Line
'Nutcracker' Hopes Dashed 2nd Night

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."

Palmquist further wrote that he had addressed dancer concerns about restrictions on rehearsal and performance hours, rest times and free days. Palmquist stated in the letter that if the dancers did not end their strike by noon today, the ballet would withdraw its proposal.

Management presented its draft agreement after rejecting one drawn up by AGMA.

The dancers showed up at the Warner early yesterday morning for their daily ballet class, then put on a specially scheduled daytime "Nutcracker" performance for a group of area schoolchildren. Though bad weather kept many of the kids away and the theater was less than one-third full, it was an emotional show that the troupe performed "like it was opening night," said one of the dancers. (Many dancers spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation if they were named.)

After the curtain fell, the dancers packed their bags -- including makeup, warm-up clothes and heating pads -- and carried all their personal belongings from the dressing rooms.

"It's all very sad," one dancer said. "In the past 24 hours I've been embarrassed to be a dancer at the Washington Ballet. I've always thought that the show must go on, and I've been proven wrong."

The two sides have been meeting since the beginning of November. The dancers told management on Monday that they would continue performing only if management accepted the dancers' version of an interim contract agreement.

Putting on "The Nutcracker" has inflamed the long-simmering issues of rehearsal hours, casting and rest days because dancing the ballet has been such a strain, this dancer said. A company member may have to perform the role of a parent in the first act, then change costumes and come on in the lengthy snow scene pas de deux, then change and perform another pas de deux in the second act.

"Sometimes we have to do that twice a day," the dancer said. "So we're exhausted, and when you're tired you lose your concentration and injury happens."

Palmquist, in his letter to the union, countered that "The Washington Ballet's workmen's compensation statistics are comparable to or lower than published data from other companies."

This may be the first time dancers have carried picket signs in the Washington area, since the Washington Ballet had never been unionized before AGMA began representing the dancers in February. The last ballet strike nationally, according to AGMA, was in 1997 by members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

On the mezzanine level of the Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday afternoon, the dancers prepared to go on the picket line.

Nibbling the edges of chocolate chip cookies and tying twine around placards they would wear, they fell silent when Kallas, their local union representative, came in and called for attention.

"We proceed?" she asked.

"Yes," they answered.

"I need to hear that," Kallas urged.

"YES!" they shouted, then began stringing around their necks the posters that read: "Washington Ballet Dancers are LOCKED OUT. No contract -- no Nutcracker. DANCERS NEED YOUR HELP. BOYCOTT THE WASHINGTON BALLET." Silently, they filed out of the room, sneaking looks at themselves in the mirror.

The dozen and a half dancers walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, turned left on 13th Street and formed a circle in front of the Warner Theatre, where they began to walk and chant: "No contract, no 'Nutcracker.' " "What do we want?" "A contract." "When?" "Now."

By 5:30 p.m., they numbered more than 50. The dancers had been joined by members of the stagehands union, the wardrobe union and others. The Metropolitan Washington Central Labor Council inflated a 15-foot rat with red eyes and mouth. Around its claws hung two placards. The last two times the council used the rat were against an asbestos-removal company and a demolition contractor accused of unfair labor practices.

With their toes pointed out, the dancers marched in the rain. "We're all a little bit scared," said 20-year-old Kara Cooper, in her fourth season with Washington Ballet. "But we feel we need to stand up for our rights."

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