"Okay," announced ad-hoe auctioneer Billy Pitts, "we have here the practice tutu worn by Gelsey Kirkland for 'Giselle.' I'm gonna start it at $35. Do I hear $40?."
Kirkland, the celebrated American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, was herself in the audience, along with a contingent of fellow ABT dancers, and about 250 Washington friends and adherents. The auction of dance memorabilia, at the Washington Project for the Arts last night was held to help raise money for the special fund the dancers have set up to tide them through their current lockout.
Pointing at the tutu, Kirkland remarked, "It's still got every ounce of sweat in it." As the bidding proceeded, a question came from the crowd: "Will Gelsey take a picture with the buyer and the tutu?" "I'll take 10," she rejoined. "I'll put it on."
In a few moments she made good her word, when the garment was sold for $60. Mugging to beat the band and striking "classique" poses, she climbed into the flimsy shirt, hoisting it brusquely over her jeans and tucking it under her bulky sweater. Then she threw an arm around the shoulder of the large, bearded, beaming purchaser, who promptly lifted her off her feet in mock ballet heroics, to the huge amusement of the audience.
The evening was like that, a series of impromptu jests and performances, amid a general feeling of camaraderie-for-the-cause, the cause being the dancers' claim for "a decent living." Contract negotiations with the ABT management are stalled.
The evening began with an open house -- wine and cheese and lots of mingling -- and a "boutique" sale of such items as autographed toe shoes and photographs, ballet posters, souvenir booklets, and also hand-painted eggs by Kennedy Center Opera House usher Elaine Dudley, who organized the Washington side of the event. The sale tables were manned mostly by dancers, including Kirkland, Kirk Peterson, Cynthia Harvey and the chairman of the dancers' negotiating committee, Frank Smith.
The costliest item auctioned was a large self-portrait in oil by Natalia Makarova, depicting the ballerina in the title role in "Firebird." Painted during her pregnancy in 1977, it is the first work of art she had made public, donated for the dancers' compaign. Started at $350, it went up to $700 before being sold to Elizabeth M. Hardy, who is box-office manager for the Washington Ballet and also vice-chairman of the troupe's board.
The auction started off with "Ballet Theatre Belly Busters," a loose-leaf bound collection of recipes by the ABT dancers, which brought $50. Sometimes the dancers themselves joined in the bidding, including Kirkland, who was outbid for the baton conductor John Lanchberry used for the premiere of ABT's "Don Quixote" at the Kennedy Center in 1978, in which she starred with Mikhail Baryshnikov. In another instance, two company dancers, Marianna Tcherkassky and Greg Osborne, carried on a neck-to-neck battle for a sizable silkscreened Baryshnikov portrait by Kenn Duncan. Just before Osborne took it for $410, Tcherkassky cried out, "Greg, you can have it for one year, then I'll take it for the next year."
Kirkland's autographed fan for the same production of "Don Quixote" was bid up from $15 to $95.The auctioneer told the purchaser, "You get a tax deduction for this -- it's an energy saver!"
ABT dancer George de la Pena was also on hand to autograph a color photo of himself in the title role of the forthcoming Herbert Ross movie, "Nijinsky," which he's been off on leave to shoot. The photo went for $105.
Between donations at the door and the contribution box (patrons were asked for a $10 minimum contribution), along with the boutique and the auction, about $7,000 was raised in the course of the afternoon and evening. Hitherto, the ABT Dancers' Fund had amassed some $12,000 in contributions from other sources.
Earlier in the day, Kirkland spoke as one of a panel of dancers at an afternoon press conference.
"I'm not here because I don't make enough money, she said. "I do. But the corps de ballet and the soloists of the company work much longer hours than the others, and I sympathize with them. What they're asking for is reasonable. If the Washington season (set to start Dec. 4) does go on after only two weeks rehearseal or less, then it's a tribute to these dancers that they could make such a thing happen."
Among other dancers on the panel were Patrick Bissell, Kevin McKenzie, Rebecca Wright and Frank Smith. After the conference, 11 dancers, including Kirkland, where led in a free, demonstration ballet class conducted by Kirk Peterson. Upwards of 300 specutators crowded into the upstairs studio space at WPA, which was also donated for the occasion.
During a question-fielding period after the demontration class, Peterson put the dancers' case succinctly: "We're the main attraction -- we assume you come to the ballet to see us, the dancers, that is," he said. "We only want to be paid at least as well as the stagehands and the musicians."
The ABT dancers have been locked out of rehearsals by the company management since Oct. 29, which was to have been the start of a five-week rehearsal period for the Kennedy Center engagement here. A number of dancers held an "informational picket" in front of the Kennedy Center on Oct. 30. The last negotiating session, called by a federal mediator, was held the following day, Oct. 31. Yesterday, the dancers confirmed that a new meeting may take place sometime this week, but as of last evening no definite date had been scheduled. Both sides have emphasized that the last offers were not their final ones.
The main outstanding issue is the wages for beginning corps de ballet dancers, who currently make $235 a week for a 36-week guaranteed season.
The dancers have been asking for a $450-a-week corps minimum after two years, plus supplementary unemployment benefits, and an upgrading of the present per diem for touring, which is currently $30 a day to cover room and board. The company's last offer called for a $280-a-week minimum after three years and an increase of the per diem to$36.
The dancers have scheduled a benefit performance at Goucher College in Baltimore for Nov. 25, in which many of the company's best known principals will be featured. Another benefit in New York City is in the planning, in the event the lockout continues. The company schedule, after the Kennedy Center season, calls for a special New York gala for the troupe's 40th anniversary on Jan. 13, and the beginning of a new national tour in February. But in the meantime, as of the start of the lockout, the dancers have been idle for 17 out of the previous 20 weeks.