Colorado Ballet Stares Down Union

Article excerpt

Denver - In late autumn, gale winds up to 70 mph rattle along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, wreaking havoc over everything in their path. An equally fierce flurry recently blasted into the Denver arts community - disrupting the equilibrium between artists and audience, dragging in local government and funding organizations, and spreading bad faith.

Martin Fredmann, artistic director of Colorado Ballet, wanted to raise dancers' salaries and extend artists' contracts, continuing a two-year process of bringing CB's pay closer to the national average. He discovered he could rent a superior sound system for the entire season for $50,000. The cost for an orchestra for Nutcracker alone: $133,600. The choice seemed obvious - and, for one season, artistically and fiscally sound. CB normally uses an orchestra of thirty to forty musicians for two of its four ballets per season; this season it would not use any.

Although many saw Fredmann's logic, a debate, stirred up by the local musicians' union, has raged. Following CB's announcement in late September that "moneys historically used for live accompaniment... must be channeled to further the health of the primary product: the dancers," the Denver Musicians Association saw red. Despite never having been hired for the season, despite no contract being broken and no work agreement extant between the DMA and Colorado Ballet, union president Pete Vriesenga went on the offensive.

Money drives what has become a cause celebre in Denver. Union musicians earn $90 to $100 plus 10 percent pension per two-hour performance; their call is curtain time. Those working a seven-performance week earn $700 for 17.5 hours of work.

During the Nutcracker run, the dancers work from noon until 9:30 p.m., six days per week. They receive no pension and minimum benefits. Depending on rank, during the same seven-performance week of Nutcracker, dancers earn $150-800 per week for 51-plus hours of work. This schedule continued during the Nutcracker run, as CB prepared for January performances at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts.

CB's budget of $3.2 million leaves no room for pensions. Executive director Rita Sommers explains: "The only employees to receive pension benefits are contracted musicians and stagehands. No one else does, not Martin, not the staff, not our dancers - no one." Fredmann has refused a salary increase for the past two seasons, explaining, "Though the board voted me a substantial raise this year, I spent it all on my dancers, every bit of it."

For the four seasons prior to this one, musicians have been hired on a show-by-show basis. Although none were contracted for 1997-98, Fredmann and CB's board of trustees have been incorrectly accused of breaking an agreement. Patrons arriving at the opening-night of Romeo and Juliet October 11 faced musicians in evening dress, carrying instrument cases and distributing flyers that accused CB of selling "a full-price ticket for half a performance." A tuxedoed Vriesenga stood next to the line at will call, accusing Fredmann and his board of "perpetuating public fraud."

Vriesenga has not stopped there - he filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming, inaccurately, "CB refused to bargain in good faith." The sting was felt immediately, when Colorado Symphony Orchestra canceled a performance with six CB dancers. The union head wrote to Denver's Scientific and Cultural Facilities District - which collects a percentage of taxes to fund arts and science organizations - questioning CB's "budget priorities. …