Canned Music for Ballet Sparks Protest

Volume CV, No. 10October, 2005

Lou Barranti

Click for larger image.
802 member Pedro Diaz with Kathy Caballero, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Opera and Ballet Orchestra Committee.

The “Ballet Handbook,” a primer for children on the Web site of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, defines ballet as “a way of telling a story using music and dance instead of words.”

Unfortunately “it doesn’t say live music,” said one of the ballet musicians gathered on Aug. 18 at the company’s annual performance at Pittsburgh’s Hartwood Acres Park.

The musicians weren’t there to play music. Led by orchestra committee co-chair Cynthia Anderson, they carried clipboards, petitions and cards that read, “We need your voice. If you believe that the orchestra is an essential part of the art of ballet, help us to restore live music to PBT.”

Earlier in the month, while still in contract negotiations, the employer notified the union that it was eliminating the orchestra from its Benedum Center season this year in order to trim the budget. This would be the first time the performances at its home theatre would be performed without the orchestra.

AFM Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh) promptly filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the ballet of failure to bargain. The charge incorporates both the unilateral decision to eliminate the orchestra for the season and the failure to provide all the financial information previously requested by the union.

At the protest, ballet musicians and their families, local union officers, other members of the union and many of the musicians’ supporters wore bright green T-shirts imprinted with “Save the Ballet,” and “Keep it Live.” Hartwood stagehands also wore them for the evening. The dancers, following their pre-performance rehearsal, wore the T-shirts to dinner with donors and members of the PBT Board of Trustees. (They were reprimanded at rehearsal the next day by Artistic Director Terry Orr, who told them that they had embarrassed the trustees by appearing at dinner dressed like that.)

Two Local 802 members – myself and Pedro Diaz – joined the ballet orchestra musicians’ protest, along with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony and orchestral musicians from Florida, Michigan and Ohio. (I’m a member of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra; Diaz performs in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and is a former member of the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra.)

Barbara Zmich, the president of the Regional Orchestra Players Association, was there to lend a hand.

So was Gene Tournour, the AFM’s international representative for the region, and Nathan Kahn, AFM negotiator for the ballet musicians. Members of other Pittsburgh trade unions also attended.

Many subscribers expressed their dismay that they only found out there would be no live orchestra this season until after they had purchased their tickets.

Press coverage of the controversy has been favorable, with an Aug. 4 editorial in the Tribune-Review beginning “Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre audiences never should have to ask ‘is it live or is it Memorex?'” and concluding, “And there still is no official refund policy for victims of the bait and switch.”

Lou Barranti is a member of Local 802.