Happy hour has just begun at the 600 Restaurant at the Watergate, but save for a man bent over a burger at one end of the bar, the room is empty. The bartender, a leggy young woman whose perfect skin and arresting eyes are set off by her crisp white blouse, leans over a scrapbook, slowly turning the pages. Frozen moments from her other life flip by.
There she is in one of those pretzel moves only dancers can do, folded up on the floor, her knee elegantly pressed to her nose. In another shot, she's in a ruffly pink tutu and tiara, poised on one leg at the center of a production of "The Nutcracker," the bandage crisscrossing her knee barely visible under her tights.
"Wow, Nikkia, you can do that?" says a passing busboy, glancing at the photos. "I gotta get you to dance on the bar."
Nikkia Parish laughs. She's used to a bigger stage than the narrow slice of floor behind her bar. Some of her scrapbook photos were taken at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, across the street and a world away. For the past two years she was a member of the Washington Ballet, dancing at the Eisenhower in the neoclassical masterpieces of George Balanchine, the traditional full-length story ballets, and works by leading contemporary choreographers.
Then in late February she was told that, after the spring season, she would not be welcomed back. And now her biggest role, aside from slinging booze weeknights at the Watergate and weekends at downtown's Avenue Nightclub, is as the subject of an unfair labor practice complaint against the Washington Ballet.
The American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that has represented the company's dancers since last winter, has charged that Parish and another dancer were unlawfully discriminated against in retaliation for their union activities.
Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre would not comment on the case except to say that both dancers were dismissed for "artistic reasons."
The regional arm of the National Labor Relations Board investigated the matter and found it to have sufficient merit to schedule a Sept. 12 hearing before an NLRB administrative law judge.
As organized labor has become more and more disorganized -- witness the recent split in the AFL-CIO, reflecting unions' loss of influence and falling membership nationwide -- it may come as a surprise that a dancers' guild is trying to throw its weight around. Other unions may be losing might, but men (and women) in tights are organizing.
"Our membership grows every year," says AGMA National Executive Director Alan Gordon, with a barely perceptible sniff. "It's not declining."
But Parish's story is not only about labor issues. It's about what a ballet company can demand of its dancers in the name of art. It's also about ballet culture, where typically the artistic director takes the role of the feared father figure and the dancers are the cowed children, afraid to speak up, used to the futility of protesting the myriad personal slights levied at them under the guise of artistic prerogative. They all want the director's favor, and the better roles and star turns that flow from it. Make waves and you may find yourself forever in the back row, or worse.
So Parish, who says that speaking up for better working conditions is what got her in trouble, is unusual. But she's used to that. Standing out is nothing new for her, a black ballet dancer in one of the world's least-integrated fields. Of the Washington Ballet's 22 dancers, she was the only African American woman.
As a newcomer to the Washington Ballet from the much larger Pennsylvania Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, Parish says she became alarmed at the frequency of injuries in the company. She began making a connection between the company's chaotic rehearsal schedules and the aches in her knees and her back, and in the foot that eventually became too painful to dance on.
Voted by the dancers last fall to be their representative, she not only raised concerns with Webre, she says, she proposed solutions. Both of the other companies she had danced with had been unionized. Remembering the hourly take-fives and dependable schedules, Parish added her voice to the growing campaign to organize the Washington Ballet.
For this, she says, she may never dance again.
Stair-Stepping to D.C.
"The funny thing is, Nikkia and Septime were always laughing together," says longtime company member Runqiao Du. "They always seemed to get along."
Both boss and ballerina are peppery extroverts. Webre is given to wickedly funny wisecracks and asides, and Parish likewise possesses a quick wit and a sharp tongue. Like Webre, Parish, 29, is from Texas.
After getting a degree in business management from Texas Christian University (in case a dance career didn't happen), Parish joined the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Ballet. She left after a few years in hope of dancing more prominent roles with the predominantly African American Dance Theatre of Harlem. When she saw that the Harlem company's severe money shortages were threatening its existence, she came to the Washington Ballet.
Parish arrived at the company at a time when the ambitions of its artistic director had ramped up sharply. Since taking the helm in 1999, Webre had led the company to Cuba and had collaborated with Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith and the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
He has presided over impressive growth in the ballet's budget, subscription sales and national profile. In his first season, the ballet's operating budget was $3.9 million; for the 2005-06 season it is projected to be $7.3 million. Subscriptions to the company's season numbered fewer than 1,000 in Webre's first year; as of last week, with months still to go in its marketing campaign, the ballet had 2,445. Webre has achieved this by injecting a moribund institution with a more youthful, marketable attitude and by infusing the repertoire with new works, sophisticated classics and large-scale ballets that the company had never attempted.
Administratively, things have not gone as smoothly. Jason Palmquist, a former Kennedy Center vice president, was hired in December as the fourth executive director to serve alongside Webre.
Parish's first year at the Washington Ballet went well, she says. She danced featured roles in such works as Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," William Forsythe's devilishly technical "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," and "The Nutcracker."
At her first annual evaluation meeting with Webre -- a ritual in the ballet world, during which the director tells dancers if their yearly contracts will be renewed -- in the winter of 2004, Parish recalls he "told me he knew I wanted to step up to the 'big people's table,' as he called it, to be one of the senior or featured dancers with the company, and he gave me a list of things I needed to do in order to do that." She says his chief issue was that he wanted to see her performing "full-out," as she says he required of all his dancers. In other words, dancing at top performance level in rehearsals, rather than "marking" the steps, or sketching them out -- no matter how many hours rehearsals lasted.
Webre had praise for her as well, Parish says: "He spoke about how much he loved my energy. He said, 'The audience loves you and you go out there and make things happen.' "
Parish worked on Webre's suggestions, and in her second season she was rewarded with a starring role. For two performances of the company's full-length production of "Giselle" last October, Parish was cast as Myrta, queen of the vengeful ghosts. Of the female parts in "Giselle," it is second only to the title role in importance, coveted by ballerinas for its grand dramatic dimension and the high technical demands of the solo that starts off the ballet's second act.
To augment her dancer's salary of around $750 per week (paid only during the nine-month season), Parish tended bar on weekends if she wasn't performing. Come the next week, Webre would notice the strain, she says.
"He would say, 'You seem tired. You seem overworked.' I'm thinking, 'Duh,' " she says with a laugh. "He said I should quit my second job. But I wouldn't be able to make ends meet. I have school loans to pay off."
Then came the injuries: a pulled hamstring, an aggravated disc in her spine, a sprained ankle, tendinitis in her left knee. Last fall, her right knee began to ache during rehearsal. Her doctor told her she had damaged the cartilage and should stay off it. But Webre was preparing his "Nutcracker" for its world premiere at the Warner Theatre, the company's first new production of the holiday chestnut in 42 years, and Parish didn't want to drop out.
She completed the 21/2-week "Nutcracker" run, performing several different roles. For her efforts, she says, she acquired a new injury: swelling around the second metatarsal of her left foot, causing piercing pain if she put weight on it. She had to pull out of the company's February program at the Kennedy Center.
Parish wasn't the only injured dancer. Three company members needed surgery and could not perform dancing roles in "The Nutcracker," according to AGMA.
One of those was principal dancer Jason Hartley, who underwent his second knee surgery in three years. "With some dancers, Septime can give you leniency because we've been with him a lot," he says. "With the younger dancers, he wants to see them full-out, more so than is necessary, in my opinion. We dance six hours a day. . . . His ballets are quite vigorous, jumping nonstop."
Some dancers had talked over the years about joining a union, Hartley says, but it was during last year's Christmastime rush that they united around the idea.
"Septime was scrambling to get his pieces together -- ['Nutcracker'] was a big production with new scenery and new costumes -- and that's when the dancers threw up their hands," Hartley recalls. The dancers, he adds, were frustrated with working overtime and missing breaks without compensation.
In interviews with several dancers, a common issue was frustration with being unable to influence working conditions on the most intimate level: how their bodies were being used. "Someone once said ballet is not a democracy, it's like communism: You do what you're told and you don't ask why," Hartley says. "But if you're telling me what to do, you're not using me to my potential."
The company was achieving things that few believed it could -- but there was a cost. "We never thought that we could do a full-length 'Giselle,' a full-length 'Romeo and Juliet,' a full-length 'Coppelia,' " says Du, who has danced with the company for 15 years. "The company wasn't large enough, the skill wasn't large enough, the belief wasn't large enough." The result, Du says, was what audiences might expect "of a company twice the size, in terms of type of ballets and quality. There's the problem. I think the dancers are tired, physically tired."
The Washington Ballet, he says, "obviously needs better organization to make this run smoothly. There's a lot of work concentrated on a little group of dancers."
"The dancers are getting older and don't want to live paycheck to paycheck," says dancer Erin Mahoney. "We've grown. People are starting to think of their own future. In the U.S., people automatically think 'artist' translates to suffering, starving, broke. Why should it be that way?"
In early December the dancers contacted AGMA, which represents the Washington National Opera, the New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, among others. A petition authorizing the union to represent the Washington Ballet dancers was signed by all but one, who was hospitalized at the time, Parish says.
During a January proceeding at the regional office of the NLRB, the question arose of whether apprentices -- younger, trainee dancers -- would be part of the union. Both Parish and a new hire named Brian Corman had been apprentices at other AGMA-represented companies. That's why AGMA called them both to the stand.
Their testimony, says AGMA representative Eleni Kallas, was "absolutely factual." Neither she nor the dancers would comment further about what was said.
After the proceeding, Parish says, "some of the dancers said, 'Oh, you should've seen Septime's face when you got up to testify.' " She never found out if it was her words or the mere fact that she was testifying at all that caused her boss to turn, as she says others told her, "all different shades of white."
Two weeks later, the NLRB ordered the ballet to hold an election among the full company members and the apprentices, and on Feb. 14, the dancers voted to allow AGMA to represent them. One dancer, who AGMA officials say had wanted to get out of the company, had already left by this time. All the others had their contracts renewed for another year.
Except for Parish and Corman.
The Flawed Pirouette
Corman, 24, a Washington native, had come to the Washington Ballet after dancing with the Houston Ballet and other troupes. He danced leading roles here from the outset. The acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, whose ballet "There Where She Loved" was performed in February, picked Corman to dance the starring male role in the first cast.
Webre put off Corman's contract meeting for weeks. Parish, too, had to wait longer than the others to meet with Webre. When they finally met, Parish says, Webre told her he had concerns about her technique, and when she pressed him for specifics, he cited an instance in the ballet "Coppelia" -- which the company performed in her first season -- when she did not pull off a turn from a kneeling position the way he had wanted. "I said, 'Were there any other ones?' and he said, 'No.' "
Parish says Webre told her he had made up his mind not to rehire her but that, after sitting down with her, he now wasn't quite so sure he wanted her gone. He told her he would sleep on it, she says, and call her in the morning.
The next morning, she says, he called to say her contract would not be renewed.
Parish was devastated. "I really felt that I had started to carve out a niche with Washington Ballet, like this is finally where I fit in," she says. "And to be told that, based on the fact that you don't do a pirouette from the knee like I want you to, I'm not going to rehire you, it was quite a blow."
Parish says the notion that her dismissal was tied to her union involvement came to her gradually. "It's kind of like putting a puzzle together," she says. "Once during 'Nutcracker,' [Webre] said, 'Everything was fine before you got here. It never seems to be an issue until you say something.' I started thinking, is this honestly about my technique?"
In addition to the sting of being let go, Parish says, she was dismayed at the timing of it. By now it was well past the audition season, when dancers can seek jobs for the coming fall with other companies. Those tryouts are held in the winter months. Come June, she would be out of a job, and now she was out of time to find another one.
Within days of these meetings, AGMA filed its charge on the dancers' behalf.
A Change in Plans
In April, the Washington Ballet abruptly canceled plans for a week-long tour to Italy after negotiations with AGMA broke down over how the dancers would be compensated on the trip. The day Palmquist announced the cancellation, Corman says, he was summoned to a meeting at the studio. There he found Webre, Palmquist and Board of Directors President Kay Kendall, who told him that his contract would be renewed after all.
Corman says they also discussed the union matter, but he declined to be more specific. Now that he has been hired back, he says, he does not want to comment on the matter. "I don't want my personal opinion to fuel any sort of fire that's going on," he says.
Despite the reversal, Corman remains part of the AGMA case. "The labor board is aware that he was rehired, but the fact that they were fired has an intimidating effect on everyone else," says Gail Lopez-Henriquez, the attorney representing AGMA. "We're pursuing it to show the other employees they cannot be subject to that kind of intimidation."
Gordon, the AGMA chief, says the Washington Ballet has done "exactly what I would do if I was trying to beat the union."
"If I were the lawyers for the ballet, I would say hire one of them back," he says. But Gordon says he is confident AGMA will prevail.
And just what is the truth? Was Webre simply doing his job as artistic director, weeding out dancers who did not fit into his vision? Or was an anti-union bias prevailing under the guise of artistic decision-making?
Like Webre, Palmquist declined to elaborate on the case. "Because we respect the privacy of our employees, I'm not able to speak about the specifics of the case, except to say the decision to not reengage those dancers was made specifically for artistic reasons and only for artistic reasons."
"I want to dance; dance is in my heart. I love being onstage," says Parish. But she fears her reputation has already been damaged beyond repair. "Do I want to put myself out there when people think, 'Oh, this is a difficult dancer'? I might not even be considered." She says she has hesitated to contact other companies because she needs to stay in town for her impending hearing date, and she's not sure what will happen to her after that.
People lose jobs all the time, and despite federal laws protecting them, people who engage in union activities sometimes lose jobs too. But losing a job is particularly poignant for dancers because their dancing lives are brief. Ten, 15 years, in rare instances 20 -- that's the window of time for a dance career. Legal proceedings can drag on for years. AGMA officials say any victory before the labor board will almost surely be appealed by the ballet company.
But there is something even larger at issue in unfair labor practice cases such as this one, says Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues. The right to join a union "is a core democratic right that we all should cherish. . . . We are a democracy not simply because we hold elections but because we are a strong, open civil society -- you can hold meetings and organize around issues. If you can't organize, you've undermined the very foundation of democracy."
If Parish wins her case, the judge will endeavor to have her "made whole." But, Parish wonders, what will that mean? Her bartending wages will be subtracted from any back pay she may be entitled to. She says she is eager to be rehired if the judge orders Webre to give her her job back, but she is realistic about the possibility of retaliation.
Will anyone compensate her for the ballets she might not get to dance, for the applause she won't hear?
Now her biggest fans are the happy-hour regulars: the suits who come down from their Watergate offices for Heinekens after work, the stagehands who pop over from the Kennedy Center, the elderly couple who come in for a Dewar's and water. As customers begin to drift in, Parish greets them with a wide smile and moves to take their orders quickly -- and gracefully, with regal posture, as if something overhead were pulling up her collarbones.
In a quiet moment, she is asked if she wouldn't be in a better position career-wise if she had meekly accepted being fired.
"Personally I don't think that's something that I could've lived with," she says. "I've been told things: I'd never be a classical dancer, why don't you try Alvin Ailey, that's what you guys are good at. . . . I know I don't suck at it. I know I'm not horrible. I know I'm a better-than-good dancer -- that's part of the reason I've gotten to where I've gotten in my career.
"There are so many things that dancers sacrifice to become a dancer," Parish continues, "but I don't think I should have to sacrifice my respect for myself."