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DON HO

Labor Pains at TWB

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WAMU (88.5) has a segment on the WB situation right now.

I'd imagine it will be available on line later.

A few notes from the broadcast.

Main page for today's WAMU show about the WB dispute

First they had on Chip Coleman, Luis Torres (WB dancers) and Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman. One of the callers was from AGMA. They all basically talked a bit about what the lives and careers of dancers are like (short and demanding), and about how the contract was basically "industry standard".

The topic of what brought things to an impasse at a maximally inconvenient time was not discussed. Alas, I was not quite quick-thinking enough to ask this question by calling or emailing in.

In the second half, Septime Webre was on. To my ear, he presented himself quite well in the sense that he was quite ready to lay out exactly which conditions were easy to agree on and which were not.

He said that in December, management was willing to agree immediately to the working conditions/health part of the proposed contract, and he further claimed that the proposed contract health/hours/etc. terms were roughly in line with WB practices already.

In addition, he gave some interesting figures on the growth of WB since his arrival 7 years ago (3000+ subscribers now vs. 725 before, budget up about 100-150%, etc.) and indicated that he thought a union was standard and appropriate for a company of WB's current size.

Webre laid out four points of (apparently continuing) contention:

1. Use of WSB students in WB productions other than Nut. He sees it as a casting question to be handled by the AD (himself). The dancers see it as a way of using cheap/free labor.

2. Size of the company: dancers want a guarantee that it will be fixed; management wants flexibility.

3. Hiring/firing decisions: the union wants these to be subject to review, to ensure that only artistic considerations (rather than, for example, union organizing activity) come into play.

4. Can't remember. :-(

All in all, an interesting broadcast.

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Thanks for that report, koshka. With (2), I have to go with the management, which has ultimate responsibility for budget (and therefore size). But with (1) and (3), it seems that some way of protecting the dancers from unfair practices and giving them a part in such decisions should be institutionalized. Either way, these don't seem insuperable disagreements. Hope they work it out!

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WAMU (88.5) has a segment on the WB situation right now....

Webre laid out four points of (apparently continuing) contention:

...

4. Can't remember.  :-(

Koshka, thanks for this. After listening to the broadcast, point 4 is the union's demand for a three-year contract for current dancers. The industry standard, I believe, is annual reviews. A three-year contract is wanted, in this case, in order to protect the current dancers from retaliation for union activity.

As a long-time subscriber (from the Choo San Goh era!) I'm bummed-out about the current season, but I feel even more concerned about the long-time viability of the company. WB has reneged on its local (Nut), national (NY), and international commitments; the company's resulting loss of credibility with presenting organizations, audiences, and donors must be very serious, and will take many years to overcome, no matter what the outcome of current negotiations.

It's clear from published news stories that management and the union are both playing hardball. My personal sympathies are with our dancers, because I know how hard they work and how beautifully they expresss their art. They sincerely feel, and have repeatedly said in print, that they have been required to work outside their "safety zone" - physically, psychologically. This is the primary issue.

Having spent a long career in large corporations, I think that I am able to recognize a breakdown in trust when I see it. Artists need (and deserve, as human beings) a basic level of security and trust to perform their best. When that trust is broken, in my experience, it is almost always due to improper management, and in my considered opinion it is up to management at all levels (AD, ED, Board) to take on the duty and responsibility to make things right.

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WAMU (88.5) has a segment on the WB situation right now....

Webre laid out four points of (apparently continuing) contention:

...

4. Can't remember.  :-(

point 4 is the union's demand for a three-year contract for current dancers. The industry standard, I believe, is annual reviews. A three-year contract is wanted, in this case, in order to protect the current dancers from retaliation for union activity.

Throughout this I've had trouble figuring out whether the "3 year" contract was to be for each dancer (I would expect "management" to find that unacceptable) or for the terms between AGMA and management, with annual reviews for each dancer but some oversight / review options for nonrenewals of contracts.

Can anybody clarify?

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1. Use of WSB students in WB productions other than Nut. He sees it as a casting question to be handled by the AD (himself). The dancers see it as a way of using cheap/free labor.

I was so wrapped up in Colorado Ballet's Nutcracker that I didn't surface for air until recently, and I was aware that this was happening (it's a small dance world), but I'd like a little clarification on this one part... forgive me, but I don't understand why this is an issue... CB uses the academy students/apprentices in many of their productions; this season we've done Sleeping Beauty, Nut, and we are about to dive into Cinderella... all of these productions have included parts for the littler ones... and they are very excited to be in them - mutually beneficial... they get to dance with the company, the company gets a full scale production... the students get a choice, it's not a requisite role... the apprentices are paid a very nominal sum, but again, they get the experience with it too...

Is it different because of the unionization? CB just unionized but it doesn't take effect until the fall season, so I am unfamiliar with the intricacies of that environment as yet.

Can someone clarify please?

Thanks!!

Golden Gate

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_As far as I know_ the issue is not whether students can be used in children's roles. For these cases there are waivers and in any case I don't think that it's the use of students _in children's roles_ that the dancers find unacceptable.

The issue is the [unlimited] use of upper-level students as part of the corps, or, in other words, as substitutes for company members.

Students are paid less and are not unionized.

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Golden Gate, I am not up on the latest edition of AGMA rules, but it used to be that extra dancers had to be paid a fee for performances of any sort. This included any children's roles in Nutcracker also. My only experience of being paid as an extra dancer in an AGMA company was back in the 1970s when we "students" were paid a per perfomance fee for our roles in Nutcracker or any other programs we performed in. This is one reason many companies have tried to keep the union out. It obviously can be a big financial commitment.

Maybe someone else has more recent information? :wink:

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Whether or not students are paid for their appearances with the main company depends upon the company. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't.

The reasons why professional dancers are wary of an artistic management using excessive numbers of students? For one thing, it is demeaning psychologically and artistically to be a professional dancer onstage surrounded by students. Secondly, it is morally reprehensible for a management to consistently use extremely cheap or free labor to do the same exact work as highly trained professionals. Of course, it is common and accepted practice to use advanced students to fill out the corps de ballet in large ballets, and to have those performance opportunities stand as both training for them and as a sort of "test" of their readiness to become professional. The real issue arises when those students are used consistently in more than corps roles, or as the backbone of a corps de ballet, in place of mature artists. If there is no limit on what they can do, what's to stop the management from eventually using large numbers of unpaid students around a handful of seasoned dancers, and calling it a professional company?

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Whether or not students are paid for their appearances with the main company depends upon the company.  Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't.

The reasons why professional dancers are wary of an artistic management using excessive numbers of students?  For one thing, it is demeaning psychologically and artistically to be a professional dancer onstage surrounded by students.  Secondly, it is morally reprehensible for a management to consistently use extremely cheap or free labor to do the same exact work as highly trained professionals.  Of course, it is common and accepted practice to use advanced students to fill out the corps de ballet in large ballets, and to have those performance opportunities stand as both training for them and as a sort of "test" of their readiness to become professional.  The real issue arises when those students are used consistently in more than corps roles, or as the backbone of a corps de ballet, in place of mature artists.  If there is no limit on what they can do, what's to stop the management from eventually using large numbers of unpaid students around a handful of seasoned dancers, and calling it a professional company?

...THAT puts it in a whole different light. I wasn't aware that companies were in the practice of doing that, and I agree, it is wrong. We all raised our eyebrows when one of the dancers in our Artist I company (three levels down from a principal) was cast (albeit 3rd cast, but still...) in a the roll of Princess Aurora in the fall production of Sleeping Beauty, but that is the first time I've seen unusual casting here... hadn't occurred to me that it might happen elsewhere, and I applaud the dancers who are trying to make sure it doesn't continue. I believe those roles are prestigious and must be earned through hard work and determination over a period of time... not given politically/for financial benefit to the company.

Thanks for the eye opener!

GG

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...THAT puts it in a whole different light.  I wasn't aware that companies were in the practice of doing that, and I agree, it is wrong.  We all raised our eyebrows when one of the dancers in our Artist I company (three levels down from a principal) was cast (albeit 3rd cast, but still...) in a the roll of Princess Aurora in the fall production of Sleeping Beauty, but that is the first time I've seen unusual casting here... hadn't occurred to me that it might happen elsewhere, and I applaud the dancers who are trying to make sure it doesn't continue.  I believe those roles are prestigious and must be earned through hard work and determination over a period of time... not given politically/for financial benefit

Are Artist I's part of the school and not the company?

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This is happening everywhere now. From the management side, it's one of the few ways a regional company can still manage the high labor costs of a corps de ballet needed for the full length repertory and stay in budget, but from the labor side it's practically slave labor. Companies have instituted a tiered structure and in some places there are two or three tiers of unpaid and paid trainee and apprentice positions before you come close to being a company member.

In other places, the apprenticeship is a mill with many more apprentices accepted than could possibly ever be absorbed into a company. In theory, an apprentice program should be offering dancers on the cusp of professional contracts further training and grooming and then future employment. If the program doesn't include this extra training and schooling, the only thing an apprentice is getting is to be treated like a company member except at reduced pay. It's not fair to anyone.

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Are Artist I's part of the school and not the company?

No, they are company dancers. That particular one is very good, but it was a surprise still. CB doesn't cast non-company dancers in anything other than very small/nominal roles.

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Are Artist I's part of the school and not the company?

No, they are company dancers. That particular one is very good, but it was a surprise still. CB doesn't cast non-company dancers in anything other than very small/nominal roles.

The contract issue being discussed above is the use of free or nominally paid students, either in lieu of or to supplement company dancers from the Washington Ballet, instead of expanding the roster or choosing repertory that doesn't require extensive use of students in multiple productions.

Casting from within a company is usually entirely at the discretion of Management (usually the Artistic Director or someone to whom s/he delegates the responsibility), unless guest choreographers or stagers are given casting rights. It isn't part of the general contract with the dancers, although a Principal dancer or a Guest Artist may have an individual contract with a company to guarantee specific roles or limiting appearances to major roles.

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We all raised our eyebrows when one of the dancers in our Artist I company (three levels down from a principal) was cast (albeit 3rd cast, but still...) in a the roll of Princess Aurora in the fall production of Sleeping Beauty, but that is the first time I've seen unusual casting here... hadn't occurred to me that it might happen elsewhere, and I applaud the dancers who are trying to make sure it doesn't continue. 

This sounds very much like the situation at NYCB a few weeks ago. Sara Mearns, who had been in the corps de ballet for a year and a half, was given the lead in the full-length Swan Lake. This was especially surprising, because prior to the Swan Lake run, she had never danced even a soloist role (the first such occurring a few days before her Odette/Odile debut). It happens from time to time in all companies, a relatively inexperienced corps dancer thrown suddenly into a principal role, but this Swan Lake was the most extreme in my thirty-plus years' experience.

As you can see, starting here, many people familiar with the company had their doubts. And the outcome, according to some of our members, begins here.

Other examples at NYCB were Alexandra Ansanelli dancing Dewdrop in Nutcracker during her first season with the company, Nichol Hlinka dancing Columbine in Harlequinade during her first. In other words, while the situation at Colorado Ballet is highly unusual, it is not unique.

I believe those roles are prestigious and must be earned through hard work and determination over a period of time... not given politically/for financial benefit to the company. 

Yes, there's usually at least one obvious candidate being passed over. Such are the whims of the ballet casting gods, alas!

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Back to the labor issue.

Jason Palmquist was quoted in mid-December as saying that Washington Ballet could not negotiate with the union because their attorney was not available! Are you kidding me? Then get another attorney. What BS. And to cancel Nutcracker, rather than hammering out an interim agreement, is just stupid. It's an INTERIM agreement. Can't Kennedy Cener sue them of something for cancelling their Feb. na dmRach performances.

This is just the latest in the series of actions reflecting the absolute inability of WB to deal with the union. There was the cancelled trip to Italy because of the inability to reach agreement with the union over the per diem, causing internatiional embarassment. And, if they are cancelling the JOyce appearnce, they are just idiots.

It's now almost two months later and still no agreement. Sit down and work out a damned agreement! Compromise. There are some very good dancers at WB and they are being screwed. Webre has indeed raised the level of subscribers but I hope he is booed off the stage when he does his egotistical pronouncements before any future performances.

There is something very wrong at WB. This needs to be fixed and that obviously involves people sitting down and really working out a contract and probably involves the depatures of one or more of Webre, Palmquist and/or Kendall. Or, how about Suzanne Farrell takes over, or Susan Jaffe?

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There is something very wrong at WB.

Indeed.

I notice, by the way, that the company website -- washingtonballet.org -- is now offline. I don't suppose they'd have much to tell the general public right now, but -- nevertheless -- it's a sad symbol of some sort of management disarray.

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Bart, I believe it was offline only to update it about the very sad news of Rebecca's Wright's passing. The website is up and running now.

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Thanks, vagansmom, for the update and correction.

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I'd like to thank you, too, vagansmom! Things loom a bit large sometimes for those of us who don't have a lot of experience to put things in perspective, (which would be me). :thanks:

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Back to the labor issue.

Jason Palmquist was quoted in mid-December as saying that Washington Ballet could not negotiate with the union because their attorney was not available!  Are you kidding me?  ...

This is just the latest in the series of actions reflecting the absolute inability of WB to deal with the union.... 

There is something very wrong at WB... 

Right on, Paolo! Nobody's talking right now... that's the problem. Unbelievably, the WB just now sent a "tea event" letter to its patrons (including moi). Like, we're all going to drink Lipshang Sulong when we don't even know if we still have a company here in DC! Honest, they should make this into a movie. My sympathies are all with the dancers...

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You got a tea event invite? I got a wine tasting invite! (Soooooo not my taste).

But I'm with you--<teen inflection>as if </teen inflection> I'd go at this point...

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Mike Gunther and koshka, maybe it would be positive to attend, find out what's happening, and express your concerns. Or if you don't want to contribute financially in this situation, you could send an RSVP that explains your reasons for missing the event, and your support for the dancers.

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Yes, I hope you'll both find a way to give the company your input. My limited experience with smaller and mid-sized companies is that they often don't have a clue about what their regular patrons are thinking -- until after ticket sales decline.

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The statement that "nobody is talking" is simply not true. Both sides are talking, and refraining from making public statements to the press which have so far, been self-injurious to the arguments of each, in my opinion.

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