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New York City Ballet and its dancers resolve contract dispute [Updated]

May 3, 2011 | 12:37 pm


Lengthy and tense contract negotiations between the New York City Ballet and its dancers reached a resolution at 12:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday. The dancers had been working without a contract since August.

The new two-year contract represents a victory for the company on one salary matter: no pay increases for the current year. But for the year beginning in August, the dancers will receive a 2.5% increase; they had requested a 3% raise for each year.

Joel Schaffer of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service joined the negotiations at the request of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the 91 dancers, and the company, He was crucial in helping the parties reach an agreement, according to Alan S. Gordon, AGMA's executive director, who was present at the four extended negotiation sessions held in recent weeks. "The dancers were certainly angry enough to picket the [May 11 spring] gala; they've been angry for years, but things calmed down, thanks to the mediator,” Gordon said by phone Tuesday.

[Updated at 12:53 p.m. Tuesday: NYCB Executive Director Kathy Brown released this statement: "New York City Ballet has reached an agreement with its dancers that we believe is reasonable and fair and takes into account the concerns of both sides. The new contract will enable NYCB to further address some of its deficit issues, which is essential to ensuring the future of the Company. We are pleased to have resolved this negotiation, and while there is still further work to be done to lower our operating costs, we can now turn our attention to our wonderful spring season, which begins this evening."]

The ballet company is facing a $6-million deficit on its $62-million operating budget; administrative and orchestra personnel have taken salary cuts and freezes, and the company's management had cited the difficult financial situation to justify the terms it had offered for salary, overtime and illness/injury policies.

"The mediator made a pitch to the dancers that the company's deficit problems were real, and that he believed as I do that the NYCB's board prohibited them from granting a wage increase for 2010-11, which was the issue," Gordon said. "Importantly, under the new contract, there are a number of changes in the scheduling and casting provisions that gave the dancers more time to plan their personal lives."

Gordon said the dancers blame the deficit on the artistic management of the company. They believe, he said, that it is not appropriately focused and that "the marketing activities of the company are antiquated, and that the combination of the wrong programs and bad marketing is what caused the deficit"

"They have very little faith that management will fix those problems over the course of the next contract," he said.

[Updated at 1:06 p.m. Tuesday: NYCB's Brown responded further: "In terms of marketing, last year NYCB instituted a marketing campaign that is a major departure from the past, and was meant specifically to appeal to younger and new potential audience members in addition to the loyal core. It has made an enormous impact and in fact was written about extensively in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, both publications having identified it as a groundbreaking campaign."]

Another divisive issue during negotiations was the recently announced New York City Ballet Moves -– tours by smaller groups of dancers, with live musical accompaniment, to venues where the full company would not be able to appear due to the expense. AGMA had initially moved to block this, but Gordon said an agreement had been reached and that those tours would take place. Announced so far for the smaller company are appearances at the Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado, July 31-Aug. 2, and at the Center for the Arts in Jackson, Wyo., Aug. 5-7.

"We agreed to a structure of two kinds of partial-company tours: large tours with more than 50% of the dancers, and small tours calling for less than 50%," Gordon said. "For small tours, participation is voluntary. The company will tell the Dancers Committee, and the dancers whom it wants to go, what the deal is for each small tour up front -– dates, hours, pay. The working conditions are covered by the contract language that applies to any NYCB tour."

Gordon said was impressed by the dancers' involvement in these negotiations. "Usually there's just a negotiating committee, but in this instance, the dancers cared so much that we would average 50, 60 dancers at each session, spending the entire day, including the principals, which is even more unheard of. There were still maybe 35 dancers there at 12:30 a.m."

The vote was 63-1 in favor of accepting the new contract.

-- Susan Reiter

Photo: Peter Martins' "Swan Lake" by the New York City Ballet in 2006. Credit: Paul Kolnik