Dance Commentary: Contract Dispute Between Union Artists and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — ‘Buked and Scorned?
By Debra Cash
The Ailey dancers’ demands around salaries and the length of their contracts reflect the resurgent strength of organized labor in the cultural sector.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is arguably the most important touring dance institution in this country. I’m willing to bet that more audience members have been transformed into dance lovers by experiencing Revelations or Ailey’s Blues Suite than any other dance except The Nutcracker.
Yet with a contract set to expire this week, a bargaining unit of the Ailey company — 32 dancers plus two stage managers — has been at the negotiating table under the auspices of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) with no resolution in sight, according to a press release and petition sent out by AGMA yesterday apparently designed to ratchet up the pressure on Ailey management.
The Ailey company’s annual budget is approximately $45 million. AGMA Director of Communications Alicia Cook responded to questions from the Arts Fuse by mentioning that AAADT refused to share a detailed budget with the union, so that, for instance, it cannot disentangle the revenues earned by the company and by the Ailey School. However, the press release notes that the artists believe their compensation accounts for no more than 15 percent of Alvin Ailey’s overall operating budget.
According to AGMA
The Artists are asking for their guaranteed work weeks to be increased from 35 weeks to 43 weeks, so that they have time to safely rehearse repertoire and keep their bodies in condition during a long and grueling season. The Artists are also asking for salary increases to bring their earnings in line with other dancers and stage managers at leading companies.
Most audience members — and most aspiring and local dancers — would be shocked to realize how little some of the best and most successful concert dancers in the United States earn. According to AGMA, first year dancers earn $42,000 on a 35-week contract, a number that was reduced during pandemic closures to $38,400. (Keeping the dancers on payroll at all when the company could not tour and in-person classes were suspended — even assuming AAADT was able to obtain federal and local relief funds — is to be applauded.) Fifth-year dancers earn $53,200. (As an unranked company, Ailey dancers do not have specific opportunities for promotion.) If these were 52-week contracts, the equivalents would be livable if not princely. But few dancers can fill in all the extra weeks with equally well-paying, not to mention reliable, freelancing. Those of us who guide young dancers argue that they must have a portfolio career, combining their dancing with other activities whether that be teaching, modeling, or making lattes, but that Ailey dancers are in the same situation is distressing.
Adding another eight weeks of paid rehearsal time would not only help the dancers keep their instruments in condition — a basic requirement for doing the job — but by my calculation, would bring their salaries up to $51,600 and $65,360.
AGMA goes on to say
At the table, the Artists have repeatedly highlighted the structural inequality built into Alvin Ailey’s business model. Alvin Ailey’s artists are primarily BIPOC, and they are compensated well below other peer dance companies whose rosters happen to be made up of a majority of white dancers.
This is somewhat disingenuous. AGMA benchmarked its numbers against companies they represent that have comparable budgets — American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, and Boston Ballet. All of these are classical ballet companies. Classical ballet companies are overwhelmingly white. Where racially diverse, ballet companies’ BIPOC dancers tend to be Latinx and of Asian descent rather than Black, a situation that is slowly, slowly shifting.
There are other majority Black contemporary dance companies, such as PHILADANCO, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, but they are too small to be usefully compared. And I can’t think of another dance company in this country that in ordinary, nonpandemic years tours as much as Ailey.
From the press release
Alvin Ailey’s primarily white senior management, however, is compensated at or above industry standard.
In full disclosure, I am friendly with Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle, with whom I taught at the Bates Dance Festival before he was named to succeed Judith Jamison as the company’s Artistic Director in 2011 . I like him a lot — he’s smart, unpretentious, and enthusiastic — and have been impressed with the repertory and commissioning choices he has made and the shine he has renewed at the company. There is no question that AAADT senior management is very well compensated. Nonprofit management team salaries are a matter of public record. Battle, in the most recent accounting I could locate, was paid $419,316. Executive director Bennett Rink has worked for the company since 1994 when he was manager of special events, and worked his way up to the top spot where he earns $512,140. Compare this to Boston Ballet where artistic director Mikko Nissinen earns $666,193 and executive director Meredith “Max” Hodges earns $387,676, or ABT where, before Covid, the artistic director earned $462,492 and executive director $466,515. (There have been staffing changes at ABT since that filing.) Salaries, at nonprofits, are set by the board of directors.
Battle, the public face of the company, is Black, as are Tracy Inman and Melanie Person, co-directors of the School, and Tiffany Barnes, who directs the school’s Junior Division. Bennett Rink is white, as is chief financial officer Pamela Robinson; Ines Aslan, chief external affairs officer, is Latinx. Given the demographics of the arts sector, there doesn’t seem to me to be an especially racially unbalanced staffing ratio in Ailey leadership, certainly not one that accounts for the differences in salaries between dancers and management.
What it does reflect is two fraught conversations happening in the cultural sector. The first is one around investing in institutional oversight, fundraising, and management rather than in the compensation of frontline workers. We’ve seen this in academic settings for decades now, where university administrators and financial managers are treated as professionals whose compensation “has to compete with corporate salaries,” while more than 70 percent of most college courses are taught by adjuncts with PhDs who are paid laughably small stipends, accrue few benefits, and have no job security. All of this is possible because of the classic imbalance between supply and demand. In both dance companies and universities, the message is that you are lucky and should be grateful to have a job — and that if and when you leave it, there are lots of talented people lined up ready to take your gig.
Professional concert dancers, who skew young and who have by and large short performing careers, have been asking why, given their investments in training, they cannot command middle-class incomes that at least cover the high cost of living of a place like New York. (Even if you’re living out of a suitcase on the road, the landlord back in Brooklyn still expects to get your rent the first of the month.) The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the pay of professional dancers — and it doesn’t define the genre — is $26.57 per hour, $30.96 in New York, which comes to something on the order of a full-time $64,000 per year equivalent.
It has to feel unjust that athletes at the top of their fields with similar levels of training and dedication routinely find themselves multimillionaires. Certainly, unless you are Misty Copeland, there is no possible comparison of the likelihood of auxiliary income like product endorsements. So it’s back to making lattes.
The Ailey dancers’ demands around salaries and the length of their contracts also reflect the resurgent strength of organized labor in the cultural sector. It used to be very hard to get artists to acknowledge that they were workers, but those days are past. While dancers at ballet and major modern dance companies have long been represented by AGMA and SAG-AFTRA, that representation has not been as visible as unionization in the commercial entertainment industry on Broadway (Actors Equity), in the film industry, or even in the orchestral pit of the Metropolitan Opera. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ curators, administrators, and conservators — all of the nonmanagerial employees who were not already represented by another collective bargaining agreement — are ratifying their first contract under the auspices of the UAW this week. The labor movement, despite its shortcomings, is being seen as one of very few instruments available to effect long-overdue structural changes in the sector.
In 2018, the Ailey company reached a four-year agreement with its dancers minutes before their existing contract expired. But as we emerge from Covid into a changed environment, no one can predict this year’s outcome.
Debra Cash, executive director of Boston Dance Alliance, is a founding contributor to the Arts Fuse and serves on its Board. All opinions in this article are her own.