Washington Ballet Cancels 'Nutcracker' Run

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

Facing a stubborn impasse with its dancers over labor issues, the Washington Ballet has canceled all remaining performances of "The Nutcracker," which was to have run through Dec. 24 at the Warner Theatre.

It was a decision made with regret, said Kay Kendall, president of the ballet's board of directors. "We have spent the entire day trying to salvage it," she said last night. "We offered the dancers a contract proposal that we thought was quite fair and very generous. We wanted to make this work . . . and they didn't accept it. They chose to strike."

News of the cancellation came as a shock, said Eleni Kallas, local representative of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the dancers. "I didn't even get a call from the ballet myself," she said. "We have to hear this from another local union, who heard it from Warner Theatre."

Kallas added: "We are ready to go to the table. If they gave a damn, they'd be at the table with us."

The cancellation marred a holiday tradition of more than 40 years, disappointing thousands of ticket holders and putting the rest of the company's season at risk. As with dance companies in many other cities, the Washington Ballet counts on "Nutcracker" revenue to help pay for its other productions. Kendall said ticket sales from the production were expected to bring in 64 percent of the organization's annual earned revenue. The ballet's operating budget for the 2005-06 season is $7.3 million.

Closing the show "will affect our bottom line hugely," she said. "We've offered to refund money to people who have bought tickets, so that's probably around a million dollars that we've projected that we won't get."

Attempts to negotiate an employment contract with the union broke down early this week. One of the most troublesome issues is the degree of authority Artistic Director Septime Webre has over scheduling and conducting rehearsals. Dancers say rehearsals for Webre's version of "The Nutcracker" have been unreasonably grueling and have led to too many injuries, while company officials have said injury rates are comparable with those at other companies.

In general, money is not the source of the dispute as much as control over rehearsals, hiring and dismissals, the size of the company and how students at the ballet's affiliated school may be used in productions.

With progress on an overall contract moving slowly, AGMA presented a draft of an "interim agreement" Monday, asserting that it was necessary to put measures in place immediately to protect the dancers' health and safety. The union's demand that its draft be adopted was rejected by management, which then canceled the Thursday evening performance. AGMA declared that the move was a lockout, and the dancers, joined by numerous other unions, picketed Thursday and last night outside the Warner, where "The Nutcracker" opened Dec. 2.

The ballet management countered Wednesday with its own draft of an interim agreement, which the union refused to sign.

"We were willing to make some changes in our proposal in order to work this out so that the show can go on," Kallas said. "The response was that [Jason Palmquist, Washington Ballet executive director, had] made his position clear to us yesterday. It was take it or leave it," she said.

Kendall agreed with that characterization of management's position: "It was: 'If you don't sign it, you don't have an agreement.' "

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