- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

The Washington Ballet had the most successful year in its history in 2004 — followed this year by so many missteps and setbacks that 2005 may go down as the company’s annus horribilis.

In some ways the glories of 2004 may have led to the fallout of 2005.

Last fall the company mounted “Giselle,” a major milestone, and, close on its heels, unveiled its new million-dollar production of “The Nutcracker.” To do that the dancers rehearsed nonstop, skipped scheduled rest periods and incurred a record number of injuries.

In that pressure-cooker period, the dancers’ long-smoldering resentment at having their requests for safer working conditions ignored came to a head. They approached the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) about joining that union, and a couple of months later they voted overwhelmingly to do so.

The ballet’s board, in turn, hired a labor lawyer, Lawrence Levien, and the union brought in its lawyer, Alan Gordon, AGMA’s executive director. This precipitated a situation that quickly turned confrontational and left behind the wreckage of a planned tour to Italy, two pending appeals to the National Labor Relations Board, growing distrust on both sides and a poisoned atmosphere as each side prepares to sit down to hammer out a contract.

The Washington Ballet’s rise in its six years under Septime Webre’s ambitious direction has been swift, even meteoric. Along the way, its flamboyant style has delighted and energized its board and a growing number of supporters.

The budget has increased from $3.9 million for Mr. Webre’s first season (1999-2000) to a projected budget for next season of $7.5 million. By next season, dancers’ average salaries will have risen 57 percent in four years, and the subscription base has tripled, from 1,000 to almost 3,000.

But in its headlong pursuit of success, some things have been left untended, giving rise to some of the company’s current woes.

A case in point is the company’s recent celebration of the 60th anniversary of its Washington School of Ballet at a glittering gala last month. The school, which has an international reputation, was founded by Mary Day and run by her for 58 years until she retired. But when gala planners declined to seek her input for the event — the celebration of her life’s work — she chose not to attend.

When Mikhail Baryshnikov received the Mary Day Award and addressed her from the podium, she was not there to hear it.

Dancers stood in the wings, listening, as Mr. Baryshnikov spoke. “I was so happy for Mary,” said one. “I didn’t find out till afterwards that she wasn’t even there. Anyone can sense there’s a problem when she wasn’t at a program practically dedicated to her.”

Onstage, the sense of history was brushed aside except for a brief duet from a dance by the late Choo-San Goh, who brought the company its first national attention. Instead, the program was a tribute to the Washington Ballet’s achievements under Mr. Webre. Several scenes from his “Romeo and Juliet” and “Nutcracker” were danced, and he performed with antic energy in front of a backdrop of children from the school, showing his Pied Piper way with youngsters.

That same night brought the bad news that the company had just canceled its long-planned tour of Italy. The presenters at three Italian festivals where the company was scheduled to appear were furious; the damage to the company’s reputation and credibility has been considerable.

The negotiations that led to this failure are a textbook case of how not to do it, beginning with both sides turning to abrasive, in-your-face lawyers. If any one moment could be said to have shattered the dancers’ trust, it might well have been when the board’s lawyer, Mr. Levien, addressed the dancers by speakerphone and dismissed their request for bottled water on the proposed Italian tour.

“Well, if there’s no water, there’s no water,” he said, according to several sources.

(A telephone call to Mr. Levien for comment was not returned.)

Those words became almost a rallying cry for the dancers. “He wasn’t the one going to Rome to dance outside in 100 degree heat,” said one. “He has no idea how much we sweat.”

“I blame their attorney for this mess; it’s like bringing a cannon to shoot a mosquito,” said another.

The result of the failed negotiations — which both sides acknowledged was a dry run for the union contract to follow — was to strengthen the developing group identity of the dancers.

“There’s an Old World element to the organization,” says Runqiao Du, a leading member of the company. “They regard dancers as children. I love this organization; I’ve been here 15 years; people have known me since I was a kid. But in fact, we are adults. If we can change that attitude a bit, I think things will get easier.”

One thing seems clear: The lawyers only made things worse. It’s possible the dancers would have been more open to concessions if they’d perceived their initial requests as being met with concern for their welfare rather than contempt.

Of course, the board has a duty to preserve the financial health of the organization. Reports from around the country show some dance companies disbanding or retrenching while the Washington Ballet, even in this lean time for the arts, has been steadily expanding.

The board thinks of itself as a benevolent supporter of the dancers, but it seems not to have had a clue about their grievances.

The ballet’s management, however — Mr. Webre and Jason Palmquist (the company’s fifth executive director in six years, who arrived on the scene too late to affect the union decision) — acknowledge they knew the dancers had legitimate complaints that had not been met.

Jason Hartley, a prominent member of the company who has served as dancers’ rep, recalls a pattern of fitful attention to their concerns. “We’d bring up issues with management, and they’d write it down in their little notebook, and that would be the end of it,” he says. “Or attempts would be made for a week to give us what we need, like breaks between rehearsals, but as soon as an emergency arose — and it always did — the breaks would disappear.”

“I’m trying to negotiate a difficult course,” says Mr. Webre. “I agree with the idea of the ballet being fiscally prudent, but I really prize my relationship with the dancers — that’s a big priority for me, so that’s tempering my involvement.”

In the midst of all this rancorous discourse, the studio, where the company makes its art, has been a haven, a place where both sides put away their hurts and slights and anger and frustration and grievances and do what they have trained and sacrificed to do — try to make beauty.

“Talking about money, that’s fixable,” says Mr. Du. “What’s not fixable is bad relationships in a rehearsal room. I totally realize that Septime and his staff understand how important it is to maintain a professional, civilized working environment. Because we can’t do art, we can’t perform, if everybody’s angry.”

The Italy fiasco reared its head again, probably for the last time, on May 5. AGMA sent out an e-mail with the bold headline: “Washington Ballet Dancers Propose Plan To Ressurect (sic) Italian Tour.” It went to 58 members of the media across the country but not to a single one of the dancers.

Among other things, the press release claimed that if the Italian presenters would provide the dancers’ meals free of charge, the dancers, who had previously demanded a per diem of $80 for food and incidentals (a figure management said it could not meet), would now be willing to accept a per diem of $75 for incidentals alone. That figure was widely seen as outlandish, even by the standards of hard bargaining.

Indeed, the company dancers themselves were stunned.

“I’m outraged,” said Mr. Du. “We have no clue what’s going on. When we went to the union we just wanted balance, we didn’t want to harm anyone. The Washington Ballet is the place where we work, we breathe — this is our livelihood and our career.

“Before we voted to join, the union promised us they would consult us on every step. In the beginning they showed us their press releases, and we changed the language. Now stuff goes out on our behalf, and they don’t check with us. I think we’ve lost all control. ‘Dancers Propose Plan’ — that’s nonsense. Most of us have made other plans by now.

“Before we joined the union, they had meetings with us every week. Now they don’t — and we don’t have meetings with the Washington Ballet, either, because Septime’s not allowed to talk to us about these issues unless Eleni Kallas, the union representative, is present.”

Mr. Hartley was frankly puzzled. “I e-mailed Eleni Kallas saying, ‘You left the dancers completely out of this.’ She answered, ‘You’re right, and we’ll have a meeting soon.’ I think AGMA is toying with our management.”

The announcement was put out by AGMA’s executive director, Mr. Gordon, who admitted he was at fault, the plan was his. “It’s really not correct to say the dancers came up with the idea,” he said, adding, “I think most of them made other plans.”

So it appears that the May 5 broadside was dead on arrival. That leaves a contract, the dancers’ first since joining the union, still to be negotiated. Stay tuned.

If there is a lesson learned here, it is that “lawyering up” has been a dismal failure, and it’s the studio atmosphere that has saved the day — the dancers are performing at their peak.

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