Unemployed Dancers Plan Benefit Shows

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Embroiled in a contract dispute since mid-December, the out-of-work members of the Washington Ballet have decided to take matters into their own hands -- and feet.

With a series of benefit performances March 9-12 at the American Dance Institute in Rockville, the dancers aim to raise money for themselves as well as return to the art form they love.

"It's important that we all get motivated and get back to what's important, which is our dancing," said Michele Jimenez, who has been heading the undertaking.

The Washington Ballet has been in disarray since negotiations on a union contract stalled, leading to the cancellation of many performances of "The Nutcracker." The resulting revenue loss prompted the ballet to scratch other scheduled performances. Negotiations have resumed, but with no pact in sight, the dancers don't know when they will be back on the payroll, Jimenez said. However, raising money through sales of the $35 tickets is only one aspect of the effort, she said.

"It's just as important to get back to what we love," Jimenez said, "to get back into that studio and partner each other and laugh with each other and make it normal, for our heads and for our bodies.

"Just putting your pointe shoes on again and trying on costumes -- it's positive and it gives us energy."

Ten to 11 dancers will perform, about half of the Washington Ballet roster. Many dancers are unavailable because they have moved in with out-of-state parents or have taken other jobs to weather the labor crisis, Jimenez said. She will not be dancing either, since she is still recuperating from a bone spur in her left foot that she developed last fall.

Dressed in an assortment of borrowed and homemade costumes, the dancers will perform duets from ballets such as "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote" and August Bournonville's "Flower Festival in Genzano." Dancers Jason Hartley and Jared Nelson will contribute their own choreography. Roudolf Kharatian, the father of dancer Sona Kharatian and a teacher at the Washington School of Ballet, also will contribute works of his own and is helping the dancers rehearse, Jimenez said.

American Dance Institute Executive Director Michael Bjerknes, a former Washington Ballet dancer and ballet master, has donated the performance and rehearsal space.

Preparing for the shows -- and taking on directing roles -- has already helped improve flagging spirits, said dancer Luis Torres.

"We're all looking forward to it, to escape the real situation for a bit," he said. "It's like a rebirth."

The dancers say they have invited Artistic Director Septime Webre, Executive Director Jason Palmquist and the Washington Ballet board members. Yesterday, Webre said he would attend at least one performance to support the dancers.

"I wish they weren't undergoing any kind of economic hardship," Webre said, "but the situation is such that everyone's having a tough time of it."

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