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
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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."
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