Seeking Their Balance

Picket Line by Washington Ballet
The run of "The Nutcracker" by the Washington Ballet was canceled after dancers picketed at Warner Theatre. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Walk into the Washington Ballet headquarters these days and you could almost believe things are back to normal. There is faint piano music from one studio. Dancers converse in the stairwell, and the bulletin board is full of notices. But the piano plays for a class of high school students; the voices you hear are the high-pitched chatterings of grade-school girls. Posted on the wall are dates of Washington School of Ballet performances and auditions.

The school, which shares the low-slung building on Wisconsin Avenue NW with the company, is in full swing. But that's where normalcy ends. The professional company has been on hiatus since mid-December, when negotiations on a first-time union contract for the dancers turned sour. Among the issues still unresolved: how the school's students will be used in professional productions, how many dancers will be in the company, and terms of employment. By all accounts, these are standard fare for the negotiating table. In other dance companies, somehow a balance of interests is achieved and shows go on.

So what's holding up the Washington Ballet? A year after its dancers joined a union to correct what they say were poor working conditions, and after months of negotiating an employment contract, why is there no deal? And no dancing?

Beginning with a scratched tour of Italy last summer, cancellation has become a modus operandi for the organization. "The Nutcracker": canceled after 10 of its 22 scheduled performances. The winter series at the Kennedy Center last month: canceled. Ditto for an engagement at New York's Joyce Theater later this month and another Kennedy Center series that was to open tomorrow. Even the annual fundraising gala, typically held at the end of April, is in question.

Today through Friday, the dancers and management plan to meet with a federal mediator. Both sides say this is a hopeful sign. But while Artistic Director Septime Webre says he is "guardedly optimistic" about reaching an agreement soon, he adds that he cannot say whether any performances will be scheduled later this season.

Out of eight companies contacted for this story, the directors of five refused to speak on the record about their own negotiations. Just mentioning the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that represents the Washington Ballet dancers as well as dancers at 21 other companies, is enough to bring a chill into the conversation. The reason for this, observers say, is that in recent years AGMA has become especially combative.

AGMA Executive Director Alan Gordon does not dispute this. His guild, he says, is "extremely aggressive and litigious."

"My basic belief," says Gordon, "is until you sue them, they don't pay attention to you."

Dancer contract disputes are rarely made public, but they do bubble up on occasion. Three years ago, the San Francisco Ballet's contract with its dancers was settled only after a federal mediator was brought in (the same mediator, Joel Schaffer, is stepping into the Washington Ballet negotiations). Last year, Salt Lake City's Ballet West spent eight months hammering out a first-time union contract with its dancers.

Even so, the stalemate at the Washington Ballet has been unusually bitter. After "The Nutcracker" was canceled, board member Ann Walker Marchant, through her public relations firm, sent an e-mail to news organizations containing unsigned statements from "families of the student dancers," one of which labeled the professional dancers "no better than thieves who steal children's presents."

Gordon has suggested picketing outside the home of board president Kay Kendall.

Before the Washington Ballet dancers marched outside the Warner Theatre in December, the last dancers to walk a picket line were the members of Dance Theatre of Harlem, in 1997.

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