Joffrey letter to dancers threatens to cut season

July 5, 2011
Chicago Tribune
Nina Metz

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Citing "bewildering circumstances," the Joffrey Ballet's executive director and chairman of the board jointly sent a letter dated July 1 informing the company's dance corps that "we have, with great reluctance, been forced to cancel the beginning of our 2011-2012 season."

The drastic action — which constitutes a lockout not dissimilar to what the NFL is facing — is the result of an ongoing, unresolved contract negotiation between the ballet company and the dancers union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, which also represents major companies such as American Ballet Theatre in New York.

"All dancers and other AGMA-represented employees must immediately remove their personal possessions from the Joffrey Tower," the letter instructed. "Please turn in your key passes."

The Joffrey's three-year contract with its dancers expired Thursday. Unless an agreement can be hammered out this month, executive director Christopher Clinton Conway said Monday, the Joffrey would have no choice but to stand firm on its decision to cancel at least a portion of its season, which includes performances at the Chicago Dancing Festival Aug. 23-27, as well as choreographer Yuri Possokhov's anticipated new interpretation of "Don Quixote" Oct. 12-23.

Sounding frustrated but resigned, Conway said the major sticking point has concerned additional rehearsal hours.

"The Joffrey is the only major dance company in the world — and the only AGMA company in America — that has a 25-hour rehearsal week," Conway said. "All others have a minimum of a 30-hour rehearsal week. So we were very much bringing Joffrey in line with every other major dance company in the world." Conway said the company has lost out on opportunities because most internationally renowned choreographers expect to have 30 hours a week to work with dancers.

The Joffrey's last proposal, which was submitted to AGMA Midwest area representative Barbara Hillman (an attorney with the Chicago firm Cornfield and Feldman), called for a five-year contract that would include a 3 percent wage increase for each year.

That's less than dancers were getting under the old contract (which gave a 5 percent increase for each of the contract's three years), and it does not take into account the increase in work hours. "However, Joffrey already offers weekly wages considerably higher than many AGMA companies that require the six-hour rehearsal day/30-hour week," Conway countered, "and our sole motivation is to attract world-class choreographers for the dancers and audiences."

Despite the increasingly difficult fiscal landscape for arts organizations, he said, the Joffrey is the only AGMA ballet company in the U.S. to maintain yearly raises for its dancers. (Administrative salaries at the Joffrey have been frozen.)

"We're not at the (salary) level of the San Francisco Ballet or the New York City Ballet," Conway said. "The cost of living is less (here). But we are in the healthy middle of AGMA companies … . None of the dancers make less than the mid-20s, and we have dancers that make 75-plus. And all their health care is covered."

In the Joffrey's proposal, dancers would be required to contribute to their health benefits only if they also want family members covered as well. Dancers at the company work on a 38-week year. "Often, almost always, dancers have other sources of income when they guest (as dancers) for other companies and they teach at different schools and summer programs," said Conway.

According to the Joffrey, despite the approaching expiration date on the old contract, Hillman never responded to the company's most recent proposal.

"The greatest issue has been nonresponsiveness (from Hillman)," Conway said. "When I explain that to people, they're sort of bewildered by that. It's not uncommon for negotiations to break down over specific terms — one side wanting more than the other is able to give — but breaking down because the other side just doesn't call you back or is not willing to find a date to meet? It's pretty astonishing.

"We don't even know if that's been passed along to the dancers," Conway added. "Many of the dancers have contacted me at home over the weekend and said, 'I have no idea what you're talking about, I haven't seen anything (detailing the Joffrey's final offer).' So it's not even like they're saying, 'This is outrageous, you're not giving us enough money,' or 'Too many hours you want us to work.' They just haven't seen any of it."

Dancers contacted by the Tribune declined to speak on the record, and Hillman did not respond to requests for an interview. However, AGMA national executive director, New York-based Alan S. Gordon, replied to an email from the Tribune.

"I am not involved in these negotiations personally, although it looks like I may now have to be," he wrote Monday. "According to Barbara Hillman … notice of a lockout was a complete surprise to the union and to the dancers; probably illegal because no impasse in the negotiations has been reached; and certainly foolish, inasmuch as the dancers and the company are not all that far apart."

Conway described Hillman as perpetually unavailable. "It's not that Barbara doesn't respond at all, it's just very delayed and an unwillingness to find dates (to meet), that sort of thing. It's hard to feel like those sorts of things aren't part of a strategic playbook."

When asked, Conway (who has been Joffrey's executive director for six years) acknowledged there has long been tension between the union and the Joffrey, a sentiment echoed by AGMA's Gordon.

"In past negotiations," Gordon wrote, "the company's lawyer ... has tried to provoke strikes for no reason, and I can only assume that once again he is inappropriately trying to be 'tough' at the expense of the dancers' well-being and his client's well-being." Gordon added that he thought the ballet company "may be using the contract termination as an excuse to take this action to bolster its negotiating posture."

Unless there is a resolution by the end of this month, the Joffrey will be on temporary hiatus. Financially, the company should be able to weather the cancellations. "We have language that we annually enter into agreements that protects us from any kind of labor action, and we have insurance for labor actions," said Conway. "So I don't anticipate the financial impact being significant. It's more the inconvenience and disappointment to patrons that we would woefully regret." Subscribers and other ticket-buyers would receive refunds.

As for the letter to dancers, "We sent out the letter immediately, not to be threatening or intimidating to the dancers. It's actually the opposite," Conway said. "It's trying to keep things on track and trying to get this done as quickly as possible so we can have an uninterrupted season."