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Ballet Puts Its Foot Down on Pay Impasse : Arts: ABT dancers are handed a deadline for settling on a new contract. The company owes $4 million and wants to freeze wages.


NEW YORK — The American Ballet Theatre's board voted unanimously Wednesday to disband the company if there is no satisfactory labor agreement with dancers by the time rehearsals are to begin next week, board Chairman Charles Dyson confirmed Wednesday night.

Dyson said the company, long the nation's prime showcase of classical ballet, is $4 million in debt. He also said that financial problems were not the only reasons for the decision. "It's partly (money). That's the only thing I want to talk about," he said.

As to whether the company will survive, Dyson said: "I don't know whether it can or not."

Leonard Leibowitz, attorney for the dancers, said he took the threat to disband the company "very seriously."

Leibowitz said the dancers were offered a three-year package that would freeze their pay the first year. It would also cut per diem expenses and take back a hard-won concession: private rooms for dancers when they travel. "That's more than a money issue. That's a quality of life issue for a company that lives on the road," Leibowitz said.

He would not give details of the dancers' counteroffer. "It's really not appropriate to go through specifics," he said. As to whether a pay freeze might be accepted, he said: "It depends on the package. I'm not saying that anything is impossible."

Leibowitz blamed the board for the company's financial bind. "The real issue is not whether there is money in the bank," he said. "The issue is what kind of commitment is the board prepared to make to raise money, as they ought to have been raising money all this time. They have not gone out and done a fund-raising job." The board has treated the ballet company "like a mom-and-pop store," he said.

Dyson said the board has been "seeking a fair contract." He complained that the dancers did not respond to a contract offer made several months ago. "I don't know what they have in mind," he said.

The dancers' contract expired Oct. 31. They are due to begin rehearsals for a new season Tuesday.

Leibowitz said that a counteroffer was made, but discussions broke off three weeks ago. The two sides were to meet today to discuss the board's action of Wednesday, he said.

Jane Hermann, director of the company, acknowledged that the board's authorizing its executive committee to disband the company, was "extraordinarily drastic," but said "it may not be as important as it may sound. . . . The board was trying to empower the executive committee to make a decision." She noted that the board also authorized the executive committee to ratify a contract.

"We very much intend to settle," she said. She said she could not identify any single issue as a sticking point in the negotiations.

She said in authorizing the action by the executive committee, the board was attempting to "streamline" the process and that the full board does not plan to meet on this issue again. "We're in a limbo state," she said. "We had to determine where the power lies."

Asked whether she thought the company would disband, she said, "Oh, no! I would hope not."

Another source close to the board said the action Wednesday had been anticipated because of the failure of fund-raising efforts.

"The fund-raising just didn't meet any of the goals of last year. It's a choice of restricting the company in its artistic achievements or cutting back costs. No one wants to restrict the artistic achievements," the source said.

Hermann said that the amount of money raised last year was "in excess of what had been expected." She said the board raised about $7 million last year, nearly $1 million over its goal. Still, she said, that was not enough to deal with the accumulated debt.

Dyson said money is coming to the strapped ballet company "in dribs and drabs. If you know some white knight who has $4 million or $5 million, have him call me."

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