Ballet Dancers Hit the Bricks—Gracefully—in a Stubborn Dispute Over Wages
In the rarefied world of classical ballet, they are the chorus line—the young, hopelessly hopeful sub-swans and spear-carriers who sweat and sacrifice largely unheralded. As members of the corps de ballet of the American Ballet Theatre, they have accomplished the all but impossible—surviving years of competition and grinding labor at the barre for a position in one of the best dance companies in the world. Now they are doing the unthinkable: demanding a wage increase. "We're underpaid and overworked," says soloist Rebecca Wright, 32. "Nobody in his right mind would do what we do—but then dancers are a little crazy."
Though at the top of a fiercely demanding profession that begins in grade school and is over for most before age 35, starting corps members make only $235 a week—about half the salary of stagehands—and nothing for their 16 off-season weeks. The corps is demanding a starting salary of $460 a week for the 1981 season; ABT management has offered $275 by 1982. Negotiations broke down, and the corps has been locked out for six weeks. The ABT has been forced to abandon its December season at the Kennedy Center in Washington—the first cancellation ever caused by labor problems—and the condition of the dancers ranges from poor to starving. Yet they are determined to hang tough. "Dancers have been exploited for a long, long time," says ABT's Eric Weichardt, 26, a veteran of the Canadian, Chicago and San Francisco ballets, now making $275 a week. "I'm ready to fight as long as it takes to get a decent salary."
With a spirit generally unknown in the self-absorbed dance world, most of the company's stars have put aside their legendary rivalries and rallied to the cause. Gelsey Kirkland helped to organize a benefit performance at Goucher College in Baltimore two weeks ago. After Natalia Makarova had danced the pas de deux from Don Quixote with Patrick Bissell, Edward Villella spoke out strongly for the corps' demands. The ABT's newest star, Soviet defector Aleksandr Godunov, resigned from the company when his reported $150,000 salary became an issue between dancers and management (and then autographed a charcoal portrait for a benefit auction). Cynthia Gregory believes the dancers' negotiating strategy is unwise ("They should be dancing"), but she supports their demand for more money, remembering that she joined ABT 14 years ago for less than $1.50 an hour. "Today corps members earn no more than that," Gregory says, "and things must change. Ballet has become big business, and dancers must share in the profit from their art."
Their sense of privilege at dancing at all has historically outweighed any financial concerns. "But eventually," as Villella told the audience at Goucher, "it gets down to dancers subsidizing their own art form." Out of their salaries, ABT corps members must pay some $80 a month for classes, another $80 for crucial massages to prevent muscle cramps—and spend more than normal on the high-protein diet they require. "I haven't got any savings, taken a vacation or bought any clothes," says Lucette Katerndahl, 22. "My entire income goes to ballet needs." Dancers supply their own stage makeup and jewelry, and on the road they are responsible for any expenses beyond the company's $30 per diem. "The per diem usually doesn't cover the hotel room, let alone food," says Eric Nesbitt. "Sometimes I just don't eat."
Once the lockout began, corps members pulled their already cinched belts a notch tighter. Jan Hamel has had to take out a loan just to eat, and she won't be seeing her husband this Christmas—he's in med school at UCLA. "I can't even afford to call him, much less go there," she says. "It is very rough. I think it's worth the struggle to be an artist, but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to survive. Unless we take a firm stand now we'll never make it in the future."
For the moment, ABT management is standing fast. "We have trouble meeting our payroll," says general manager Joyce Moffatt. "I sympathize with the dancers on a human level, but we're running a business." The corps argues that their salaries are only nine percent of the ABT's $8 million annual budget and that their services have been undervalued for too long. "We are always treated like children," complains Raymond Serrano, 29. "It's even part of the jargon—they call us the kids, and the rehearsal schedule has 'boy corps' and 'girl corps' as headings. I'm getting a little old to be called a kid. When I rent an apartment or pick up the check at a restaurant, I don't get any discount for being a kid."
Because they are out of work in a labor dispute, the dancers are ineligible for unemployment compensation. The ABT Dancers' Fund has raised some money with auctions of memorabilia (a self-portrait in oil of Makarova went for $700), and the Goucher College benefit cleared some $10,000. Emergency loans from the fund are helping to alleviate the worst financial burdens, but for most of the corps the cruelest hardship is not being able to dance. "We thrive on the work," says soloist Cynthia Harvey. "It's like racing to a racehorse. We don't think of it as dancing for a living. We live to dance." The problem, says Hamel, is that "they expect us to live off that love of dancing, and we can't anymore. We haven't been cheated—we've been naive. All that is changing now."