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Ballet Chicago's Union Tangle/Report From the International Theatre Festival

Ballet Chicago owes its union money and wants a five-week-only contract for its dancers next year. The union's Alexander Dube is continuing to negotiate "in good faith."

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Ballet Chicago's Union Tangle

Ballet Chicago and the American Guild of Musical Artists are in the middle of contract negotiations that may cost the ballet company another of its nine lives. Meanwhile AGMA--the artistic arm of the AFL-CIO--is seeking to collect more than $25,000 in back payments from the dance company for union contributions, health and unemployment benefits, and sick pay, monies that the union contends have already been deducted from dancers' paychecks. AGMA administrator for dance Alexander Dube says the guild is also planning to file a request for arbitration on severance pay owed to several dancers who've left the company.

First and foremost, AGMA is trying to fashion a response to a baffling proposal from Ballet Chicago management for a 1994-'95 employment contract that would last a mere five weeks. Covering salaries for 25 dancers and stage managers, the contract would run from March 6 to April 9, 1995, which includes the proposed dates for the Spring Festival of Dance, when Ballet Chicago has apparently reserved the Shubert Theatre for a week of performances. That engagement is believed to be the company's only scheduled performance in Chicago next season. The proposed five-week contract would cover the same number of employees at the same salaries as last year's 32-week contract, which expired May 31. Last year's base weekly salaries ranged from $451 a week for new dancers to $619 for soloists and $677 for principal dancers.

The proposal came by fax to AGMA negotiators on June 30. Talks had already been in progress, with Dube representing AGMA and Colleen Loeber sitting in for Ballet Chicago. But Loeber left her post as the company's general manager at the end of June, which left artistic director Daniel Duell as the ballet company's front man in the negotiations. Initially AGMA had proposed a 33-week contract for the upcoming season and a 36-week contract for the 1995-'96 season, while Ballet Chicago countered with a 20-week contract in 1994-'95 and a 22-week contract in 1995-'96. AGMA also expected to negotiate--and hasn't ruled out negotiating--such issues as salary increases, work-day length, and a new rehearsal dance floor.

Duell declined comment on the drastically shortened proposal, but observers wonder whether the core company can be held together with the promise of just five weeks' employment and a pitiful $2,255 in salary. "I think this kind of contract offer is going to force a lot of dancers to look for other serious job offers," says Ballet Chicago soloist Robert Remington. Indeed, Dube said one of the reasons the union has been unable to respond promptly to the proposal is the difficulty of polling members of the company's dancers' negotiating committee because they've been dispersed around the country looking for work.

Assuming the company would need several weeks of rehearsal to prepare for next spring's performances, the five-week contract also would not allow for much if any touring. Late last week Duell said some kind of tour was still being planned for February 1995, but he declined to elaborate. Normally touring is an important money-maker for Chicago dance companies.

And most likely it's lack of money that's at the heart of Duell's contract proposal. Ballet Chicago's ongoing money problems are no secret to readers of this column. The company was tentatively scheduled to perform Labor Day weekend at the new Skyline Stage on Navy Pier, but about a month ago it apparently ended discussions with Pier officials and canceled the dates. Duell says the cancellation was due to cash-flow problems and concern about whether the company could attract an audience on a holiday weekend.

For the moment the company's uncertain future rests in the hands of Duell and his board of directors. As far as the current contract talks are concerned, Duell is in a somewhat difficult position. Though he now represents management, Duell has been both a union representative and a trustee of AGMA's emergency-relief fund, and he's therefore sympathetic to the union's perspective. "I wouldn't consider myself antiunion," he says. Whether he's up to the task of hammering out a contract that can hold the company together, though, remains to be seen. The artistic director said a search is under way for a new general manager, but it's not clear when--or if--a new manager would come on board. One source close to the company said management's five-week contract proposal might be an attempt to drive out the union. But Dube says only the dancers can vote out the union, and any attempt by management to interfere in their right to representation is illegal. AGMA suffered a setback recently when dancers at New York-based American Ballet Theatre, one of the nation's largest and most prestigious dance companies, voted to leave July 31 to form their own union. As for Ballet Chicago? "We are continuing to negotiate in good faith," says Dube.

Report From the International Theatre Festival

After a meeting last week of the full board of directors of the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, the fate of the biennial event remains up in the air. Executive director Jane Nicholl Sahlins told the board that attendance fell well below the festival's projections of 67 percent of capacity, which precipitated a six-figure deficit. None of the festival's major events--Juno and the Paycock, Communicating Doors, and Camel Gossip III--performed as well as hoped. The board agreed not to discuss publicly the exact size of the deficit, but one well-informed source puts it at about $250,000. That's on top of a previously accrued loss of $250,000. A marketing subcommittee headed by Sandra Guthman is launching a study to determine the reasons for poor ticket sales and to decide what, if anything, can be done to improve sales should another festival be mounted. Guthman, a former IBM executive who did not return a call to her office, is going to have her hands full this summer: she's also chairman of the board of trustees for the Chicago Music and Dance Theater project, which is in the throes of a major fund-raising campaign. In an interview last week Sahlins conceded that it may be tough to ensure strong ticket sales at a future festival without the attraction of a high-profile star or two. The board will meet again in September, presumably to make a final decision about the festival's future. In the meantime Sahlins has pared staff to a bare minimum and is moving her offices into space donated by auctioneer Leslie Hindman.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linda Rosier.

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