Dramatic Pause

Labor negotiations for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra resumed on Tuesday, September 5, with musicians and management working around the clock to iron out a new three-year contract. According to one musician on the negotiating team, management suggested the schedule, and the musicians agreed, realizing that the hard-core bargaining is always delayed until the last minute. “In years past we’ve found that nothing tends to happen until we get closer to the deadline,” says the source, “so we’ve shifted the time frame for the substantive talks to reflect that fact.” Rehearsals for the orchestra’s 110th season are scheduled to begin Tuesday, September 12, which gives the two sides only a week to resolve such contentious issues as salary increases and the future of the CSO’s radio broadcasts (an additional source of income for the musicians). The season is scheduled to open September 15 with a gala dinner and a Parisian-themed program featuring Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Ravel’s Bolero.

Mike Greenfield, an attorney who’s represented the CSO musicians in most of their recent contract negotiations, described the meetings earlier this summer as “cordial and productive” but couldn’t predict what might happen this week. Attorney James D. Holzhauer, chief negotiator for management, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Compressing the time frame for negotiations is typical of management’s tactics; the previous contract was finalized only an hour before the first rehearsal was to begin, and in 1991, Daniel Barenboim’s first year as CSO music director, negotiations broke down, resulting in a strike that postponed Barenboim’s debut. This year the musicians may have an ace up their collective sleeve: on October 4 the symphony is scheduled to begin its first-ever South American tour, with performances in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires, where Barenboim was born and made his professional debut as a pianist at age seven. Management may feel compelled to cut a deal to avoid embarrassing the music director again.

It’s unclear whether salary increases will be a sticking point; a source said the musicians laid out their salary proposals earlier this summer, but late last week management had yet to produce a counteroffer. The recent decline in ticket sales could force management to hold the line on salary increases. Musicians say CSO chief executive Henry Fogel hasn’t addressed the ticket situation since last spring, when he indicated that sales had “stabilized.” Yet some sources in the orchestra recall looking out into the hall last season and seeing more empty seats than they ever had since joining the CSO. Another issue of serious concern to musicians, says the source, is the fate of the symphony’s broadcasts on WFMT FM; Amoco, the CSO’s radio sponsor, was recently acquired by British Petroleum and will conclude its sponsorship this season. A CSO spokesperson says the symphony and WFMT are negotiating a three-year deal with a new sponsor that could be announced within two weeks.

Erkert’s Exit

Jan Erkert & Dancers, the modern-dance company that won critical success and a string of awards while engaging serious social issues, will dissolve next month after more than two decades. “It seemed like a good time to walk away,” says Erkert, “because we had accomplished almost everything we want to do.” Erkert founded the company in 1979, and by the 90s she and her cohesive group had embraced an activist agenda, collaborating with social service agencies to create new works based on the voices of marginalized people; “Turn Her White With Stones” was choreographed with the input of Cambodian women from the Kovler Center for Survivors of Torture. Earlier this year the company premiered its multidisciplinary work “Streaming” at the prestigious Festival Centro Historico in Mexico City.

Despite the company’s artistic success and lack of debt, Erkert was never able to turn the company into a local institution like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. After 20 years the annual operating budget for Jan Erkert & Dancers was only $160,000–less than a third what it would have cost to employ its dancers full-time. “It was tough to increase the amount of touring we did,” says Erkert, “because most of our dancers had day jobs they were tied to. So we couldn’t bring in new revenue from that.” She sounded out the local funding community but concluded that in general foundations and corporations are more interested in giving money to larger, more visible institutions. Her own job as a full-time dance instructor at Columbia College has granted her the financial security to run her company on the side, but eventually her teaching commitment hindered the company’s growth potential. Erkert plans to remain at Columbia, finish a book about teaching dance, and pursue a career as an independent artist.

One Snappy Comeback

The grass is always bluer on the other side. In fall 1997 dance impresario Mario de la Nuez left Chicago for Lexington, Kentucky, where he’d been named executive director of the struggling Lexington Ballet. Ballet Theater of Chicago, the ambitious young company he’d founded a few years earlier, became a sister organization to the Lexington outfit, with plans for the two companies to share staff, talent, and repertoire. But de la Nuez couldn’t resolve the financial problems plaguing the Lexington Ballet and was let go in April 1998. Now he’s returned to Chicago to open a ballet school that he hopes will provide a financial base for Ballet Theater as it tries to regroup. Dancers Guillermo Leyva Barley and Meredith Benson (de la Nuez’s wife) will be among the faculty; classes begin Monday in a building at 2941 N. Greenview owned by Saint Alphonsus Church.

De la Nuez says that Ballet Theater will sit out the upcoming 2000-2001 season, though it will take part in the annual Dance Chicago festival at the Athenaeum Theatre. He’s assembling a group of 15 to 20 dancers to tour the U.S. later this year and soliciting contributions from individuals, foundations, and other sources to get the company back on track. His ambitions for the revived company are as grand as ever: he wants to mount The Nutcracker in late 2001, going up against the Joffrey’s annual production at the Auditorium Theatre. “This is a big city,” says de la Nuez, “and I think there’s room in it for two versions of this ballet.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.