Ballet Rejects Offer By Michael Kaiser To Mediate, Returns To Bargaining Table

(By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser has offered to mediate the bitter and drawn-out contract negotiations between the shut-down Washington Ballet and its dancers' union, but the ballet's leadership has rejected the idea, an official confirmed yesterday.

"The fact is there is still a lot of bargaining that needs to take place," said Jason Palmquist, the ballet's executive director. "We don't feel that this time is the right time to seek mediation."

Palmquist, who was vice president of the Kennedy Center under Kaiser before joining the Washington Ballet a year ago, noted that his former boss was "absolutely a mentor to me" and is "one of the preeminent arts administrators in the country." But, he said, "I also think in this particular instance we're just not there yet."

Officials from the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union representing the dancers, had agreed to allow Kaiser to mediate. Refusing Kaiser's help at a time when the ballet is effectively shuttered, with the next three months of performances scrapped, was "asinine," said Alan Gordon, AGMA's executive director.

"The dancers are out on the street, they're not getting paid, they're not in production, and it's too soon to invite a mediator?" he asked.

Dancers and management returned to the bargaining table this week for the first time since the ballet announced Dec. 23 that it would cancel two future Kennedy Center engagements as well as one at New York's Joyce Theater, citing a lack of funds because 12 performances of "The Nutcracker" had been canceled.

The profitable "Nutcracker" run was scrapped beginning Dec. 15 when contract talks broke down and the dancers, frustrated at the slow process, told management they would not dance without agreements on job security and safety issues relating to what they say is a high injury rate. Management refused to negotiate on the dancers' draft of an "interim" agreement and shut down the production, claiming the dancers had threatened to strike.

Although management and the union met twice this week, Artistic Director Septime Webre and Associate Artistic Director Jeff Edwards were not present. They took part in earlier meetings.

The dancers view management's actions as a lockout, but they recently learned their unemployment claims have been denied, meaning they will be without pay while the company is on hiatus, said AGMA local representative Eleni Kallas.

A major issue for the union is maintaining the size of the company. Dancers view this point as a health issue, arguing that cutting dancers will lead to overwork and increased injuries for the rest. Management's refusal to negotiate on a proposed requirement of a minimum number of dancers is evidence that "nobody really cares" about the dancers, Kallas said.

Palmquist, however, viewed the meetings differently. "I think great progress was made this week," he said. Issues such as parking spots and numbers of performances were discussed. Company size is not open to negotiation, he said, because "it falls under the ballet's ability to chart its artistic path."

Kaiser said he was willing to help the two sides reach an agreement "if both sides feel it's appropriate and helpful." He refused to comment on the specifics of the situation.

But generally speaking, Kaiser said, the key to negotiating union contracts is looking at the long-term future of the organization. A former executive of other unionized dance companies -- American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- Kaiser has also had his share of contracts to work on at the Kennedy Center. He has negotiated nine different pacts in 2005 alone, ranging from the National Symphony Orchestra to the stagehands.

"Ideally, you want a contract that is very beneficial to the dancers but preserves the ability of the arts organization to function," Kaiser said. "My focus always in my dealings with unions has been the long-term, the health and happiness of the artists and the health and happiness of the organization. They both have to be balanced."

Kaiser was asked to step in to the Washington Ballet situation by Lori Rosecrans Wekselblatt, who had worked under Kaiser when he was executive director of American Ballet Theatre and she was the company's principal stage manager. Wekselblatt is vice president of the Independent Artists of America, which represents ABT dancers and stage managers.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company