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Ballet West dancers win a contract

Published November 12, 2005 12:01 am

Lengthy negotiations: Ratification is expected soon after a national union helped to make the deal
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The artists of Ballet West danced their way into a new era Thursday as a professional company whose contracts are negotiated by a national union, rather than dancers themselves.

Despite missteps along the way, the first-ever contract between Utah's premier dance company and the American Guild of Musical Artists was ratified by the Ballet West board of directors after nearly a year of negotiation. Contracts should be signed within the week, said Ballet West executive director J hann Jacobs.

The dancers sought national representation last December after the number of work weeks, performances and dancers in the company was trimmed to offset operating deficits at Ballet West. Early in 2005, AGMA negotiators demanded restoration of those losses and an 18 percent salary increase for the dancers.

Although those demands were not met in the new contract, the negotiations netted Ballet West artists something they lacked: a measure of stability.

Unlike in-house contracts, which were negotiated annually, the new AGMA contract covers three years, with a 5.5 percent increase in pay over that time. But the length of the Ballet West season shrank by another week, and the company will continue to produce four shows each year, not the five dancers wanted.

Jeff Herbig, a demi-soloist at Ballet West, said compromises came from both sides of the table. "When it was over, I think both sides were very happy with it," he said.

Dancers were stepping to a different tune last May, when AGMA filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming Ballet West's management wasn't negotiating in good faith. In August, those charges were withdrawn. After talks resumed, the tone was amicable, according to Jacobs and Linda Bartlett, AGMA's director of legal affairs and lead negotiator. But drawing up Ballet West's first-ever AGMA contract took time.

"There were a lot of details to work out," Jacobs said. "It is a completely new document."

AGMA negotiators claimed last May that administrative salaries at Ballet West were too high compared to what dancers made, but efforts to address budget issues at Ballet West have assuaged those concerns.

Jacobs said that the Ballet West staff has been reduced by six over the last two seasons. Richard Lane, Ballet West's company manager, was the most recent departure; his duties are being divided among other administrators. The belt-tightening continues, said Carol Carter, chairwoman of Ballet West's board of directors. The depth of the cuts, and how much they will affect Ballet West's artistic and administrative management, will depend on the success of fund-raising.

Bartlett wishes more could be done for dancers, whose salaries average about $28,000 annually for 35 weeks at 30 hours per week, but she is optimistic.

"As long as the dancers are getting the minimum that they need, however the board of directors wants to distribute the remainder is totally their business," Bartlett said. "We hope that the dancers have contributed to the financial well-being of Ballet West. And we hope the board of directors can do what's necessary to rebuild the company so that in three years when we renegotiate we will all be in a better position."

For now, there is relief on all sides that the negotiations are over - and there is pride.

"We're grateful to have completed this rite of passage," said Jacobs. "We join New York City Ballet, Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet as one of the companies represented by AGMA."

"We are now up there with the very large ballets in our country," said Carter. "I think it does lend an air of being a world-class ballet."

Terms of the contract

Weeks in season: 34 in 2005-06; 32 in 2006-07; 34 in 2007-08 - down from 38 in 2004-05.

Dancers in company: 35 in 2005-06; 34 in 2006-07; 35 in 2007-08 - down from 40 in 2004-05.

Programming: Four productions each season - down from five in 2004-05

Salaries: Dancers will receive a 5.5 percent increase over the three years. Some administrative positions and salaries have been cut and more reductions are possible.

Source: J hann Jacobs, executive director of Ballet West