Sweating the Small Stuff

December 15, 2011

Companies’ union reps help find the compromises that keep everyone dancing.



You begin taking dance classes at around the same time that your parents enroll you in kindergarten. For a decade, you balance serious training with homework and some semblance of a social life. You have a resumé by the age of 17 or 18, and portraits taken by a professional photographer. You keep an ear to the ground for which companies are hiring dancers and begin auditioning. Maybe you attend a “cattle call” and try to take the best class of your life in a crowded studio, with a number pinned to your T-shirt or leotard.

You catch an eye. You make a good impression. Someone offers you an apprenticeship and you are a professional dancer.

If you’re hired by one of the top 20 ballet companies in the United States, you’ll also join AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists. Ditto three of New York City’s biggest contemporary troupes: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Hispanico, and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Given everything you’ve gone through to get where you are, signing your AGMA contract and paying your dues won’t be nearly as exciting as putting on your costume for your debut. Two weeks into her 12th season with New York City Ballet, Gwyneth Muller says that joining the union “isn’t something young dancers are concerned about. They’re just excited to be employed. But, once you get past that initial excitement and find yourself sometimes working 10- or 12-hour days, you realize that certain protections have to be in place so that you can do the best job that you can, and the company’s best possible product is what people see onstage.”

In AGMA companies, up to five members are confirmed by majority vote to represent their fellow dancers. These delegates work with a representative from the union, or sometimes a local lawyer, who leads negotiations with management at the start of each new contract cycle.

Muller, now a union delegate at NYCB, first helped finalize the dancers’ contracts for 2005–2009. A four-year agreement was longer than usual, but the economy was strong and, as recently retired Houston Ballet delegate Nicholas Leschke puts it, “If the numbers were right and both sides were satisfied, we’d say, ‘Great! Let’s not make ourselves sit down again for another four years.’ ”

But everything changes in a tough economic climate, and when the current recession began in 2008, dance companies found themselves facing grim financial challenges. “It was clear that the arts were going to be impacted significantly,” says James Fayette, who became an AGMA rep after retiring as a principal from NYCB in 2005. “Companies came to the union and, very respectfully, asked their dancers for help and the dancers responded in kind.” When the recession continued, he says, companies came back and asked for a second round of concessions, to which dancers and AGMA were more resistant. Indeed, last summer saw highly contentious contract negotiations at some unionized companies, such as Ballet San Jose and the Joffrey Ballet.

The tipping point could be found on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where companies are increasingly open with the public, and where dancers nationwide compare notes on their experiences. This transparency, says Fayette, prompted a paradigm shift. “There were still extravagant expenditures on productions and new works and, meanwhile, managers were asking dancers, who have such short careers, for further concessions, for very little or no pay increases at all. And so the tone changed. Dancers asked the union to be more aggressive.”

Last July, talks at the Joffrey collapsed in a brief lockout, nearly forcing the company to cancel some performances. A central request by management—to increase regular rehearsal time from five to six hours daily—was accepted by the dancers and will be implemented over the next two years. Artistic director Ashley Wheater feels that the experience, on the whole, reopened lines of communication. “Ever since we came back this summer, we’re able to sit down and have really good discussions.”

Fayette represents the members of nine dance companies from New York to Utah. He concedes that all arts organizations have limited resources. “You can’t pull blood out of a stone. But you can look closely at how a company handles a situation, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Both he and his colleague in the mid-Atlantic region, Eleni Kallas, also AGMA’s national director for training and organizing, stress that the union strives to act in the best interests of the art of dance itself. Executive and artistic directors, dancers, chorus members, divas, stage workers, and board members “have all come to realize that we have a symbiotic relationship,” says Kallas. “If we don’t work collaboratively to keep the classical arts alive, then none of us will have jobs.”

The Washington Ballet dancers’ representative since they voted to organize in 2005, Kallas is grateful for negotiations that increasingly are brief, friendly, and peaceful. The company’s artistic director, Septime Webre, sees progress as well. “We collectively take responsibility for running TWB professionally,” he says.

During the company’s most recent contract talks, an overwhelming majority of TWB’s 20 members were involved. That high level of engagement is more common among the opera companies with which Kallas works. She explains: “Ballet dancers start and end their careers at a very young age, so they’re much more submissive. Singers can sing until they’re 80 years old.”

At first, Muller was concerned about being a delegate but says she’s never felt targeted or treated unfairly. She does affirm that, “as dancers, we’re so disciplined that we’re almost taught not to have a voice, to not speak up and express what we’re feeling.” For her, improving working conditions and solving problems amicably make being a delegate rewarding despite the extra hours.

For example, she says that “the whole operation is running more smoothly” since a perennial source of friction was finally struck from the NYCB artists’ contract. Until last summer, dancers had to wait until the night before to see their rehearsal schedules for the following day. Their agreement now provides two days’ notice, which, in addition to making it easier to arrange doctor and physical-therapy appointments, provides time to research new roles and brush up on back-burnered repertoire.

A key element of keeping the process on track is nipping potential flashpoints in the bud. Two decades ago, when Kallas began working for the Guild, negotiations she helmed could take months to wrap up. She and other representatives added off-cycle talks such as joint dancer-manager committees and end-of-season roundtables. “We resolve things along the way, so that negotiations don’t become heated or long and drawn-out,” she says. Likewise, whenever possible, Leschke pow-wowed with the Houston Ballet dancers once a month. Fayette mentions that Ballet West’s dancers have held regular get-togethers since they organized six years ago.

Companies that spend most of their seasons touring, such as Ailey, share a different culture. “They’re constantly together and constantly communicating,” says Fayette. “Unless they run into a problem that they don’t know how to solve, I don’t generally get a call.”

One policy that Muller says works particularly well at NYCB is ensuring that there are delegates at all ranks within the company. Corps members can come to her or Devin Alberda with their issues, while senior dancers can discuss their concerns with the principal delegates, Jared Angle and Teresa Reichlen. All four plus a soloist delegate, Craig Hall, understand that they serve at the dancers’ discretion. “We’re voted in,” she explains. “If any one of us was someone that the dancers didn’t want representing them, we wouldn’t be on the committee.”

Muller admits that the work isn’t easy and, sometimes, fellow dancers come to her with grievances outside of her jurisdiction. “If the contract doesn’t address it,” she says, “I don’t necessarily have the right to talk to management about it.”

Leschke confesses that delegating was often uncomfortable, but when he considered stepping down, none of his colleagues were eager to replace him. “It’s easier to complain than it is to take on responsibility,” he notes with a dry chuckle. So he remained in the role for 11 seasons, participating in five rounds of contract negotiations.

The best length for delegates’ terms varies from company to company. Whether they serve for one year or 11, Webre says, “it’s a bonding experience for everybody.”

Fayette notices that delegate positions tend to draw an ensemble’s harder-working members, the ones cast frequently, and those who take college courses. Serving as a delegate is, he says, its own education: “I think it’s very frustrating for dancers to experience negative working conditions, a bad schedule, or a difficult tour and think, ‘Why is the company doing this?’ But when you go into negotiations and start understanding the variables that go into running a dance company,” you’re more sensitive to your employer’s concerns and priorities.

Kallas is in the audience every time The Washington Ballet opens a new production. Her favorite shows tend to be the ones right after new contracts are signed. “It gives me great pleasure to be able to see artists enjoy performing because everything is in place. When they know that all the necessary safeguards are there because their union has demanded them and management has agreed to them. When they’re being paid a professional wage and respected for the artists they are. Then, you really see them get into their roles.”


Zachary Whittenburg is the dance editor at
Time Out Chicago.


From top: Ashley Wheater working with members of the Joffrey, which weathered a brief lockout last year. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey; Nicholas Leschke with Mireille Hassenboehler in Stanton Welch’s
TuTu. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB; Gwyneth Muller as the Fairy of Courage in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.