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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)

Webre said he believed Palomo had a history of injury before joining the Washington Ballet. "Cortney was certainly a dancer of great talent and a nice guy. . . . I honestly never asked him for more than he was willing to do. It's regrettable that his career was as brief as it was, and a lot of dancers unfortunately experience that."

What happened to then-21-year-old dancer Marcelo Martinez in November illustrates, the dancers say, why stricter guidelines are necessary. Martinez was in a "Nutcracker" rehearsal, performing a series of explosive jumps from the acrobatic "Russian" variation. The rehearsal session, the day's last, was to end in a few minutes. Webre had been threatening to take Martinez out of another role in the ballet, Martinez said, so he had been pushing himself especially hard.

One moment he was up in the air, and the next there was a loud pop -- Coleman described it as "like a chicken bone breaking" -- and Martinez was on the floor, curled into a ball, gripping his right foot.

Martinez had broken his fifth metatarsal, the bone that runs along the outside edge of the foot. He underwent surgery a few days later to implant a metal screw in the bone so that he could eventually dance again.

Webre disputes the account. "In that particular rehearsal I did not expect everyone to dance full out," he said. He said he had been especially generous to Martinez: "I've given him many opportunities to learn roles, and from time to time I've had to remove those opportunities because of how the work was going."

Several dancers say it was Martinez's injury, along with those to three others, that prompted them to bring the ultimatum to management in mid-December when they saw little progress in the contract talks on workplace safety and job protection.

"We thought, if time goes by, the season will be over and none of this will be addressed," Torres said.

On Webre, "Nobody thinks he's an ogre," said AGMA's Kallas. The dancers "just think he needs to work with some work rules."

Webre says the injury issue has been overstated. "Injuries are really noticeable here because we are a small company," he said. He said five-minute breaks every hour during rehearsals, which are an industry standard, are a "tradition" at the ballet, but he acknowledged sometimes forgetting them -- "when you're on a creative roll, you don't necessarily look at the clock" -- and he says he sometimes relied on the dancers to remind him.

Concerns about performing full-out in rehearsals came as a surprise, he said, adding that this was never raised by the dancers.

However, he said, "one of my priorities in coming here was to increase the kinetic energy of the company and increase the energy onstage, and certainly that requires the body to get used to that kind of physical output."

He says he has taken steps to ensure the dancers' well-being by including physical therapy services in the contract.

Webre says he realizes he did not always address the dancers' concerns. "I certainly take full responsibility for that," he said. "I do wish there had been more communication."

Steven Libman, former executive director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, said that while he was there, his contracts mandated formal quarterly meetings between the dancers and management.

"What tends to happen is, dancers rarely communicate the major issues directly to the artistic director," said Libman, who is now managing director of La Jolla Playhouse. "They are very often afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of not being rehired the next year. Dancers need to be free to communicate their concerns, and artistic directors need to be willing to listen."

Regular check-ins are a way to streamline the process, said Amy Marshall, executive director of the Milwaukee Ballet, "so when you sit down to negotiate everyone knows what the other is thinking . . . [The dancers] had a good sense of what is important to us and we had a good sense of what is important to them."

Reflecting on what has gone so wrong in the past year, Gaither can only sigh and look away.

"Sometimes I wish we could just go into Septime's office with no lawyers and no nothing, and just talk," she said. "But you can't go back. You can never go back."

'Waiting for Good News'

In a letter to the dancers after the "Nutcracker" fiasco, board treasurer Loy wrote that the company has "suffered damage to our donor, subscriber and ticket-purchaser base." Webre says he has seen signs of donor nervousness, though he says no grants or funds have been withdrawn because of the labor problems, and no board members have resigned.

"I think the funders are holding tight and waiting for good news," he said.

Assuming the dancers went back to work at the end of the month and worked through June -- a timeline that would include rescheduling some of the canceled productions -- the company would post a deficit of $850,000 for the 2005-06 year, Webre said. "That's a big number," he said, "but our board is analyzing it. That's the best-case scenario."

Webre said none of the ballet's staff has been laid off nor has anyone taken a pay cut. (According to the ballet's most recently available tax return, for the tax year ending in June 2004, Webre was paid $161,000, which places him at the top end of directors' salaries for companies that size.)

Strong Loyalties

Ask dancers why they chose their career, and you get mystical-sounding statements about fate and passion. The dance profession "chose me," said Gaither. "I'm addicted to it." Yet, she says, at the age of 32, "I don't know how much longer I'll be in this field and I don't want it to end like this."

So why, if they felt they were being put at physical risk, did they wish to stay at the Washington Ballet?

The dancers point to the friendly atmosphere at the company; Gaither says Webre, whatever his excesses, did generally create an environment that is unusually warm in the competitive field of ballet. "He has qualities that bring people in, very human traits," she said.

There is also their undimmed desire simply to dance. Michele Jimenez, whom Webre has described as his muse, was hobbled this fall by what she initially thought was a stress fracture in her left foot; it turned out to be a bone spur. Doctors placed a rigid "boot" on the foot while it heals. Despite the problems at the company, she says, she is eager to dance with the Washington Ballet again.

"I'm just dying, I just want to get back out there," she said. "I've been dying since the day they put me in the boot."

The dancers will get their chance March 9-12 at Rockville's American Dance Institute during a series of benefit performances they're organizing themselves, four shows they hope will raise enough money to help them defray the costs of being unemployed for the past two months.

Webre looks back at the process: his dancers rebelling, his "Nutcracker" production shutting down, his dancers out of work and the studios that would ordinarily be devoted to polishing new productions sitting empty. What he takes away "is a real desire for us to heal," he says. "I don't want it to sound disingenuous. I regret the ways in which there's been miscommunication this year, but I have a kind of respect for the dancers. I know it took a lot to go to the union."

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