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Dismissed Dancers May Get Wages

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the latest in a series of financial woes, John Clifford’s Los Angeles Ballet Company has been ordered to compensate its dancers for more than $1 million in unpaid wages as a result of a grievance filed on behalf of the dancers by the American Guild of Musical Artists.

As a result of a June 11 arbitration hearing in Los Angeles, Clifford’s 45 dancers, represented by AGMA, were awarded $1,197,960 in aggregate wages for 40 weeks of rehearsal and performance as guaranteed by Clifford in a May 1995 agreement with the Guild.

The award also requires Los Angeles Ballet to pay $23,866 to the AGMA pension fund on behalf of the dancers, as well as $110,880 to the union’s health fund. It includes two smaller awards to dancers Jessica Biron ($845 for insurance costs paid by the dancer) and Michelle Dahl ($485 as a reimbursement for business expenses).

“This is an enforceable [award] document,” said Patricia Waldek, attorney for the performers’ union. “If Clifford does not comply with the award, we would have to go into court and file a petition to confirm the award . . . then that becomes a judgment. Once you have a judgment, you can attach property.”

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In a telephone interview from New York’s Chautauqua Institution, where he has a summer post, Clifford said, “I’m not fighting anything” in the arbitration decision but said that “all the dancers I’ve been in contact with” expressed a willingness to settle for nine weeks’ wages--the time the dancers actually worked before being laid off as a result of serious cash flow problems--rather than the full 40 weeks promised in Clifford’s original agreement with AGMA.

Clifford said the union had recommended to dancers that they settle for nine weeks’ pay, although the union denies that it made such a recommendation. He also said most of the company dancers had found employment elsewhere during the July 31, 1995-July 31, 1996 period of their contract, and the original AGMA agreement specifies those wages would be deducted from the total owed by Los Angeles Ballet.

Clifford added he intends to pay back the nine weeks’ wages during the planned production of his full-length ballet “Dracula.” Although he would not reveal the source, Clifford said that funding is already in place for that ballet, which he estimates will cost $4 million to mount, and which he has been talking about producing for several years. While the new unnamed funding has revived the project, it is now indefinitely stalled because the composer dropped out and Clifford has not yet secured another one.

Clifford said that he plans to take part of the money slated for “Dracula” rehearsal salaries to pay off the nine unpaid weeks. When asked how that allowance will pay both “Dracula” wages plus the back pay, Clifford said that he plans to cut back on planned “Dracula” rehearsal hours. “We’ll just have to work harder,” he said.

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Waldek said that the dancers have submitted no formal offer to the union to settle for nine weeks’ pay so the Guild could not have recommended it. She also said Clifford was asked to present evidence that most dancers obtained work elsewhere at the hearing, but he failed to do so. “Until he presents that evidence, it’s just hot air,” she said.

“John [Clifford] said something at the hearing about ‘all of the dancers he has spoken to’ being happy to get nine weeks’ pay, but what does that mean?” Waldek said. “I spoke to them, and they’d be happy to get anything out of him. The question is: What are they entitled to? There is obviously no contractual question that they are entitled to the 40-week guarantee.”

Clifford, who in recent years has been best known for staging ballets for the George Balanchine Trust, started his first Los Angeles-based company in 1973. Until 1984, the former New York City Ballet principal dancer served as artistic director, principal choreographer and often its lead dancer. Three years later, Clifford put together a new company, Ballet of Los Angeles, to fulfill tour commitments of the defunct Chicago City Ballet, which lasted until 1989.

In April 1995, he announced the rebirth of Los Angeles Ballet, as well as an ambitious series of productions and tours that included a $2-million production of the George Balanchine “Nutcracker,” slated to appear at the Universal Amphitheatre, Anaheim Convention Center and other venues, as well as the future “Dracula.” He secured a $975,000 grant from Mervyn’s and Target retail stores, payable over three years.

Those plans fell apart in October 1995 when the company acknowledged dancers were not being paid, and the “Nutcracker” engagements were abruptly “postponed until next year” because, Clifford said, a loan against the Mervyn’s/Target grant fell through. Mervyn’s then pulled the grant because Los Angeles Ballet hadn’t met the terms of the grant agreement, according to Sandy Salyer, vice president of Mervyn’s/Target public affairs. She said the company has had no further conversations with Clifford.

“He never had enough money from the beginning,” Waldek said. “He didn’t have a million dollars, but he was going to do a 40-week guarantee? You don’t have to be an Einstein to know the numbers don’t match.”

Clifford said that although he believes he still has his dancers’ support, “if I had to declare bankruptcy or something I would, because ‘Dracula’ does not need to use Los Angeles Ballet. I’m the owner of ‘Dracula.’ If there is no Los Angeles Ballet, I will just hire dancers or hire another company that’s existing--or start another company.”

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