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ABT Dates At OCPAC In Jeopardy : Negotiations: The troupe’s board has been empowered to disband company if labor agreement is not reached. However, the likelihood of that happening is being downplayed.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Will American Ballet Theatre still be in existence in March for its scheduled stint at the Orange County Performing Arts Center? Or will Draconian measures voted on Wednesday by the company’s board sound a death knell for the 50-year-old troupe?

Today, no one knows, as meetings continue between ABT dancers and management in an effort to renew a dancers’ contract that expired Oct. 31.

The ABT engagement at the Center, March 12 through 24, was announced seven months ago and tickets have been on sale since May. A Center spokesperson Thursday would only say that “the Center does not comment on labor negotiations involving other arts organizations, but obviously we are hopeful that the issues will be amicably resolved.”

The ABT’s history has been checkered with periodic economic downturns and has approached the brink of collapse before.

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According to Sanford (Bud) Wolff, national executive secretary of the American Guild of Musical Artists, representing the 90 ABT dancers, a vote empowering the board’s executive committee to disband the company--failing an agreement on the proposal package--is a usual one.

“It’s like a manufacturer and a merchant saying to each other, if we can’t strike a deal on the product then we’ll close the business,” he said. “It’s just a statement to remind everyone that agreement is essential and that dickering cannot go on.”

Robert Pontarelli, ABT press director, downplayed the idea that the company would disband. “People get excited whenever collective bargaining comes down to the wire,” he said. He acknowledged that on paper the company’s $5-million debt looks ominous, but he believes that the executive committee will deal with its primary obligation, ratifying a contract and/or making the necessary changes in terms to do so.

He also said the company--with an annual budget of about $18 million--normally carries a $2-million bank debt and incurs $1 million in operating expenses at this time of the season.

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“Everything had been going well until the last month and a half,” Pontarelli said, referring to the negotiations with the dancers. “And then suddenly, new items were added to the proposal.”

But Alex Dube, AGMA’s dance administrator, denied this. “The package we put together at the beginning has not changed. The sticking points are the same now as before.”

They concern dancers’ wages and living conditions, he said, matters that severely tax the budget in these arts-beleaguered days. Management wants a three-year freeze on meal money and doubling up of dancers in hotel rooms, instead of each dancer having a single.

“There’s no question that the dancers want concessions,” said Dube. “But their quality of life is at stake. After all, they spend nearly all their time touring. Meanwhile, management acts as though it’s shopping at Godiva’s instead of at a store selling prepackaged chocolates. It’s not possible, I think, to pick and choose items, to ask for dark bitter with all the vanilla cream centers removed.”

When the atmosphere of bargaining is entirely hopeful, said Wolff, an extension is adopted, “but I can’t say if that will happen or not here.”

The company, on layoff now, is due back for rehearsals starting Tuesday and is scheduled to begin its touring season Jan. 15 at Kennedy Center in Washington.

ABT and the Music Center Operating Co. in Los Angeles have been in talks on the subject of presenting the company at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a two-week run in July or August, according to Sandra Kimberling, Music Center Operating Co. president, and Jane Hermann, co-director of ABT.

Kimberling said the Music Center had been keeping the summer dates open for the ABT and that no contract had yet been signed. However, Kimberling also said the Music Center would “move to its backup options” if ABT folded.

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