Washington Ballet's Labor Problems Jar Dance World

Ballet companies around the country are watching a strike at the Washington Ballet with anxiety. The dancers' union feels an overly demanding work schedule is causing injuries, and union reps are pushing to organize companies around the country.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Strike, lockout, bitter labor negotiations--nah, I'm not talking about the recent transit strike in New York City, but rather the Washington Ballet in the nation's capital. Company startled the dance world recently when it canceled its "Nutcracker" and that's the show that keeps most ballet companies afloat. The unprecedented move came when the company just couldn't reach an agreement with dancers and their union. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: A ballet dancer's life span is short. Average retirement age is around 35, and yet it takes years of rigorous training to make it into a professional company, even a small one like the Washington Ballet. It's a competitive, high-risk field. The body is the dancer's instrument--just about every single joint of it.

SIMON: Dancers may seem like workhorses but they're also thoroughbreds.

BLAIR: Joseph Carman is a former dancer and contributing editor of Dance Magazine. He says in the ballet company's labor negotiations, the physical demands need to be considered.

CARMAN: And they really, really need particular conditions, including things like guaranteed free days, over time health insurance coverage to help them run as thoroughbreds.

BLAIR: And it's this highly physical ability that the artistic director of a dance company uses to bring ideas to life. A painter can work for hours and hours until he's happy with what he sees. But a ballet director is working with dancers and even their highly trained bodies have limits, and sometimes the result is injury. Most dancers understand this. Jennifer Cronenberg is a principal with the Miami City Ballet. She says injuries happen all the time.

JENNIFER CRONENBERG: I think it happens a lot of times not really on purpose. I mean, I can sit in the studio and watch a whole day of dancers rehearsing and not really realize the toll that it's taking unless I'm there doing it myself.

BLAIR: And that's one of the reasons dancers, like those at the Washington Ballet, join AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that also represents singers. AGMA negotiates contracts for dancers that limit the number of rehearsal hours per day.

ALAN GORDON: You don't get great dancers unless you treat them like great dancers.

BLAIR: Alan Gordon became AGMA's executive director five years ago. He says it used to be dancers felt the union didn't do much for them. So he made some changes, including hiring dancers with legal and business experience.

GORDON: We negotiate the contracts from a much more professional position than used to be done, and we develop a relationship with the various dance companies where we are, in fact, their partners. We have the same constituency and ultimately the same interests, which is the welfare of the dancers.

BLAIR: And more dancers seem to agree. Last year three new companies voted to unionize: Washington Ballet, Colorado Ballet and Ballet West in Salt Lake City. Chip Coleman has danced with the Washington Ballet for more than 10 years.

CHIP COLEMAN: We needed to have a union in place to represent us so that our needs and desires would be addressed in a more direct manner than dancer representatives and the board were doing. Most importantly, there were health and safety issues that weren't adequately being addressed.

BLAIR: Dancers at the Washington Ballet have complained that artistic director Septime Weber was rehearsing them too hard and too long. They recognize that under his leadership, the company is doing better than ever, both artistically and financially. But they say dancers were getting injured at an unusually high rate. Septime Weber doesn't dispute that.

SEPTIME WEBER: We have--you know, from time to time, have a number of dancers injured and then there'll be another period of time when there'll be fewer. All of them are lamentable and we're really working hard to reduce that level.

BLAIR: Weber says the company has offered the dancers a comprehensive health package and agreed to limit rehearsal time. But company officials say some of the dancers' demands go beyond what is standard in the industry. For example, the union wants a three-year contract. Managers say that's too long and would limit the artistic director's flexibility in choosing new dancers. Kay Kendall, president of the board of directors, says they don't want an agreement that would stifle the company.

KAY KENDALL: If every single time you have to make a decision and every decision has financial consequences they add up. You stop making those decisions. You think, `Well, I would love to do "Serenade" this year, but you know, that'll cost another hundred thousand dollars, or whatever, and so I guess I'll just do X instead.' And it changes the shape of the artistic product.

BLAIR: A lot of dancers think that rules that protect them can make the artistic product better. Some companies that don't have union contracts still follow AGMA's guidelines. That's the case at Miami City Ballet, the company founded 20 years ago by Edward Villella, one of the most respected figures in dance. Villella danced for George Balanchine, who was known for working his dancers hard, but with extraordinary results. Villella says he himself suffered injuries. Now as an artistic director, he says the day-to-day challenge is to aim high without stretching the dancers beyond their capabilities.

EDWARD VILLELLA: For instance, if we are at the end of a day and we have a very, very heavy ballet, I will ask the dancers to take it easy so long as I have seen what they have accomplished and what they know. The other side of it is you've got to rehearse dancers to the point where they are in concert form. So it's a delicate balance.

BLAIR: Nobody in the dance world wants to be distracted by labor issues. They'd much rather focus on getting more people to the theater. The Washington Ballet resumes contract negotiations next week. Septime Weber says they're hoping to resume performances in the spring, beginning with a new work he calls The Bach/Beatles Project. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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