Joffrey Ballet dancers’ union lawyer contests management’s claims in contract dispute

Joffrey Ballet dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili in Yuri Possokhov's Bells

Joffrey Ballet dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili in Yuri Possokhov's Bells Photograph: Herbert Migdoll

See below updates to this story as of 1:30pm CST on July 7, 2011.

Barbara Hillman, a Chicago lawyer and the Joffrey Ballet dancers’ representative to their union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, vehemently contests recent claims made by Joffrey executive director Christopher Clinton Conway regarding the breakdown last Friday of contract negotiations between the company’s management and its artists.

In a letter delivered to the dancers on July 1, signed by Conway and Joffrey board chair Jason Tyler, the company of 43 dancers and two stage managers “must immediately remove their personal possessions from the Joffrey Tower” by tomorrow unless agreement is reached on a new five-year contract.

Further complicating matters, sources say that two dancers who serve as the ensemble’s representatives to Hillman and to AGMA, Mauro Villanueva and April Daly, are in Italy through this weekend. (The dancers are currently on unpaid leave; their prior contract, which expired on June 30, included 38 salaried work-weeks per year.) “I told the company on more than one occasion that it’s difficult getting responses, and getting together to provide new proposals, at a time when the dancers are so widely dispersed,” Hillman told me by phone this afternoon from her office at law firm Cornfield and Feldman.

Representatives from the ballet company have not yet responded to requests for clarification made immediately after I interviewed Hillman.

Hillman met earlier today with “about half” of the company members, “the ones who are in town,” she said, adding, “I think that the artists are actually more unified now than they were last week. The company’s actions were counterproductive.”

AGMA national executive director Alan S. Gordon [node:14838705 link=told me yesterday;], by phone from the union’s New York offices, that he was surprised by Conway and the company’s hard-line approach, given how close they and the dancers were to finding common ground. Conway has characterized Hillman as perpetually unavailable during months of negotiations, to which Hillman responded, “We met! A number of times. I don’t know what he’s talking about.” Hillman says she meets with Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service mediator Tom Jeffrey “at least twice a week” during negotiations.

Her last meeting with Joffrey management in person was in late May. “Communications go through a mediator to make sure that people don’t upset each other in getting to an agreement, which, of course, is the purpose of all negotiations,” she explained, adding that she’s “trying to work on the substance of this [dispute], as opposed to the news stories.”

In an article for the Chicago Tribune published yesterday, Nina Metz quotes Conway stating that salaries at the company “are in the healthy middle of AGMA companies.… None of the dancers make less than the mid-20s, and we have dancers that make 75-plus.”

“Not accurate!” exclaimed Hillman, when I read Conway’s statement to her over the phone. “I have, as I’m entitled to have under federal law, a list of everyone’s compensation for last year. The median is about 35 thousand,” she said, “and there is no one in this company who is making 55 thousand dollars a year. No one.”

Regarding another sticking point in the contract negotiations, the conditions under which Joffrey Academy students perform with the company, Hillman clarified that “we responded positively to the company’s proposals regarding Academy students, with some guarantee that they wouldn’t be [more than] 25 percent of the company. That’s all we were looking for and, actually, under their proposal, it wouldn’t [happen next season], so we were fine…based on employment for the 2011–2012 season.”

Further from resolution are arguments about the hiring of assistant stage managers. According to Hillman, the company argues they should no longer be mandatory, “regardless of the nature of the production, regardless of the scenery, regardless of the number of children involved, all of which things create safety problems.”

Lar Lubovitch’s Twitter account asserted just this morning that the Joffrey Ballet will revive the choreographer’s production of Othello next year, which employs complex and very large set pieces in line with full-scale opera productions, although the company has made no formal announcement of the revival. It does still plan to open its fall season in Chicago with a similarly sized production of Don Quixote, loaned along with rights to the choreography from San Francisco Ballet.

Hillman, who’s worked with both AGMA and the Joffrey Ballet since the dance company relocated here from New York City, was flabbergasted by Conway’s assertion that June 30 was a de facto deadline for AGMA and the company to solidify terms for the next five seasons. “No one was told that the company was insisting, in whole or in part, an agreement be reached by June 30. Ever.” She added that it would have been the first time during her 16-year relationship with both entities that new contracts were signed—or even drawn up—in advance of the expiration of their prior agreement.

“I specifically asked, during negotiations, whether the company is pleading that it could not monetarily grant what we were requesting,” Hillman told me. “The company specifically said that it was not, and I underline the ‘not,’ claiming poverty.”

Updates as of 1:30pm CST on July 7, 2011:

A publicist for the Joffrey Ballet stated this morning that the company does not wish to comment at this time on Hillman’s assertions, and could not confirm nor deny that dancers are currently “locked out” of the Joffrey Tower. It is unclear whether the letter delivered on July 1, which threatened the lockout, to take effect today, pertained to the company’s dancers only, or to other Joffrey employees such as its regular stage managers; and whether employee contracts in addition to the dancers’ are being negotiated as well.

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company did clarify via Twitter this morning that the choreographer and company have discussed “mounting [Othello] once again on Joffrey for [performances] in 2013,” adding that, “Right now it is in the planning phase, not yet definite, but we think the dance has looked great on the Joffrey.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)