Joffrey Season Threatened

July 4, 2011
The New York Times
Melena Ryzik

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The opening of the Joffrey Ballet’s coming season could be canceled because of a contract dispute between the ballet company, based in Chicago, and the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the dancers.

The Joffrey’s three-year contract with the guild expired last Thursday, and with no new agreement in place, the group sent a letter to its dancers Friday, warning them of the possible shutdown, The Chicago Sun-Times first reported the news early Monday.

“We have, with great reluctance, been forced to cancel the beginning of our 2011-2012 Season,” the letter stated, the Sun-Times reported. “Without any agreement with your Union, we simply cannot consider going forward with our season under the cloud of a lingering threat that, at any time, AGMA could shut it down with a strike.”

In a phone interview Monday, Christopher Clinton Conway, executive director of the Joffrey, said that there had not been any back-and-forth between the groups, or any discussion of an extension to the current contract. “It’s not that we don’t agree with what’s been coming back to us, it’s just that nothing’s coming back to us,” he said. “We are awaiting any response from AGMA and its representative, that’s really been the complication. It’s been us negotiating with a wall.”

But in another phone interview, Barbara J. Hillman, a lawyer representing AGMA, disputed that account. “We’ve been communicating through a mediator” for the last several months, she said. “We were in negotiations, we were hopeful of getting a contract.” She added that she and the dancers were blindsided by the letter. “ We were in the process of getting a response to the company when we heard about this lockout,” she said. “We were totally surprised by this.”

Mr. Conway said the Joffrey was seeking a five-year contract, with provisions for annual pay raises for its dancers, and an increase in weekly rehearsal time, to 30 hours from 25, to bring the company in line with other dance groups. The company’s first scheduled performance, and the first threatened by the cancellation, is Aug. 20 at the Blossom Festival in Ohio with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, an annual event. “From there we would begin canceling things” depending on whether an agreement could be reached, Mr. Conway said. “But we will not begin the season without an agreement.”

Ms. Hillman said that the sticking point in the negotiations included the increase in rehearsal time, and that the suggested annual pay raise — 2 percent a year for five years — was not commensurate with the added work. Another sticking point was the use of ballet students rather than professional dancers to perform.

Though the letter notified company members that they must empty their lockers and turn in their keys by Thursday, the dancers are on a regularly-scheduled break until July 25. Both Mr. Conway and Ms. Hillman said they were hopeful that an agreement could be reached upon their return.