- 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.

Story Continues →