AGMA Goes to NLRB Over D.C. Ballet Dancers

The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) has charged that the Washington Ballet, located in the nation's capitol, illegally dismissed two dancers because of their connections to the union.

AGMA last week told the National Labor Relations Board in a formal "charge against employer" that the ballet company had informed guild members Nikkia Parish and Brian Corman that they would be terminated. AGMA claims the termination is in retaliation for the dancers' "support and activities" on AGMA's behalf and for their testimony in favor of the union at a January NLRB hearing to determine an appropriate bargaining unit for the company's dancers. While Parish and Corman are AGMA members as a result of their having danced with other ballet companies that have AGMA contracts, no union represented the other Washington Ballet dancers until they voted 18-2 in favor of AGMA representation in a Feb. 14 election.

That Valentine's Day election evidently saw no love lost between the company and the guild. According to AGMA, on March 1 Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet's artistic director, told Parish and Corman they would not be asked to return for the company's next season.

Eleni Kallas, AGMA's Washington representative, asked Webre to reinstate the dancers. But on March 9, the company's executive director, Jason Palmquist, "told the union that he would not allow Webre, or any other D.C. Ballet staffer, to respond to AGMA about anything," according to a union press release last week. "Thus, it became apparent that the Ballet had merely been seeking to avoid public disclosure of its actions and that it intended to continue its aggressive anti-union campaign."

AGMA followed last week by filing a document with the NLRB accusing the company of violating the National Labor Relations Act. The federal law allows employees to form unions and protects them from both employer and union discrimination.

Last week, Back Stage called the Washington Ballet and faxed the company a copy of AGMA's press release announcing that it had filed charges with the NLRB. The company responded with a general statement by e-mail:

"The Washington Ballet respects our employee's [sic] right to privacy; therefore we feel it is inappropriate to comment on the specifics of the charge filed by the union, except to say that the charge is completely unfounded, and we vigorously deny the allegations that the union has made. From the beginning, we have supported our dancer's [sic] right to choose whether to be represented by a union, and we continue to hope that the process of negotiating a first contract with AGMA will be a fruitful and respectful one."

The company did not comment on whether it planned to respond legally to the charges, which were filed with the NLRB's Region 5 office in Baltimore.

AGMA had filed an earlier NLRB petition in late December after the dance company's management refused to recognize the guild's attempt to organize a union election and negotiate on behalf of the dancers. Following the filing, the company informed the guild that it would "pursue every legal avenue available to it to resist unionization," according to AGMA.

An NLRB hearing took place on Jan. 5, followed by a Jan. 19 decision by the NLRB's regional director rejecting each of the company's legal arguments. The federal official then directed that an election take place among "all full- and part-time dancers employed by the Washington Ballet," leading to the Feb. 14 vote.

The Washington Ballet employs 20 dancers. Its studio company has 10 dancers, as well as three student trainees, according to the organization's website.

Founded in 1976 by the American ballet pioneer Mary Day and under Septime Webre's artistic directorship since 1999, the Washington Ballet refers to itself as "an ensemble of powerfully athletic classical ballet dancers performing a repertory of new work and creativity."

The company presents a full season each year at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Warner Theatre, and the Center for the Arts at George Mason University, and it performs biennially at the Joyce Theater in New York City. The company has toured nationally and internationally and performed at the 17th International Dance Festival in Havana, Cuba.

Parish was in her second season with the company, Corman his first.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Parish joined the Pennsylvania Ballet as an apprentice in 1996. In 1998 she became a member of the corps de ballet and seven months later, in April 1999, she performed her first principal role. According to the Washington Ballet's website, "She enjoyed a very successful 2003-2004 debut season with the Washington Ballet."

Corman is a native of Washington, D.C. After dancing in Houston Ballet's corps de ballet for two seasons, he joined CompaƱia Nacional de Danza in Madrid and later Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.