Ballet Announces '06 Cancellations

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Washington Ballet yesterday canceled or postponed several engagements for next year, prompting the dancers' union to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an injunction to keep the schedule intact.

The union's response came within hours of the company's announcement that it would drop three engagements in the wake of a labor contract dispute that scuttled several of the troupe's highly profitable "Nutcracker" Christmas performances.

The ballet said it lost approximately $800,000 in ticket revenues from the "Nutcracker" cancellation -- revenues it relies on to subsidize other shows during the year. The company's annual budget is $7 million. (Union officials say the shutdown saved the ballet a considerable sum of unpaid salaries.)

Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the dancers, said the injunction is necessary because the company must discuss work schedule changes with dancers first. The cancellations would cost dancers about three months' pay, he said.

"It's illegal not to bargain with us first," Gordon said yesterday. "The dancers are willing to work and have been willing to work. . . . [The company] can't unilaterally close down the schedule."

It was unclear yesterday when the labor board might respond to the injunction request, but Jason Palmquist, executive director of the ballet, said management had expected the filing.

"The ballet believes that the NLRB will find these charges to be without merit," he said.

"When employees engage in strikes, then employers can make adjustments."

The company announced yesterday it will cancel the world premiere of "The Bach/Beatles Project" at the Kennedy Center, scheduled for Feb. 1-5, and the March 1-5 presentation of "7x7-Women," also at the Kennedy Center.

The "Bach/Beatles" production was to be one of the highlights of the season, featuring the music of the Fab Four along with dances set to Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg" Variations.

Palmquist said the company would try to move the "Bach/Beatles" and the "7x7" performances to later in the year.

But those shifts could force cancellation of an "Othello" production in May.

The ballet will also scrap performances at the Joyce Theater in New York, scheduled for March 21-26.

The company said financial considerations forced it to cancel rehearsals until at least Jan. 16.

The two sides are scheduled to resume talks Jan. 3, but it was evident yesterday that the dispute seems to be escalating.

Dancers maintain they are not on strike but are victims of an unreasonably harsh lockout by management.

The company insists the dancers effectively went on strike during "Nutcracker" when an interim agreement on a work contract fell through.

There has been labor conflict at the ballet since late last year, when the 20 dancers began efforts to unionize.

The primary issues do not seem to concern increased pay.

Dancers, who have been working under annual contracts, have sought longer terms of employment and, in response to several injuries, a less grueling rehearsal schedule.

Both sides say they made concessions to the other before the cancellation of "The Nutcracker," and each says the other is responsible for a breakdown in communications.

"The mood is, 'Why won't they talk to us?' " said Eleni Kallas, the union's regional representative. "All the dancers want to do is dance. We were ready to continue with 'Nutcracker,' we were ready to rehearse this week for 'The Bach/Beatles Project,' and they are just not interested in talking to us. . . . You can't resolve these issues if you can't talk."

Palmquist, who denies that the company is unwilling to work with the union, said the cancellations were necessary after losing so much money from the canceled "Nutcracker."

"We had to make responsible financial decisions," he said. "But we are committed to preserving as much of the season as possible. I will certainly be approaching the negotiation with high hopes for an agreement."

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