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Top Ballet Dancers File Lawsuit Over Pension Benefits

October 8, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Nine of the country’s leading ballet dancers filed a lawsuit Tuesday to change the way dancers receive pension benefits, arguing that most dancers are forced to retire years before they are eligible for them.

The $20 million lawsuit accuses their union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, and the guild’s pension trustees of discriminating against dancers.

The main complaint is that the pension plan’s retirement age is 65 when most dancers retire before 40 and have a ″desperate need″ for benefits. It also notes that injuries cut short many dancers’ careers.

The dancers who joined in the lawsuit are Cynthia Gregory, retired principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, and five current ABT dancers: Fernando Bujones; Kevin McKenzie; Martine Van Hamel; Cynthia Harvey and Marianna Tcherkassky.

The other plaintiffs are Judith Fugate, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Carole Valleskey, retired principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, and Donald Williams, principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

They filed the lawsuit in Manhattan’s federal court as a class action on behalf of about 1,000 unionized dancers.

″We’re just not taking care of the artists in this country,″ Gregory, 45, said in an interview. ″As a musician, you can go forward. Opera singers can sing later in their lives. Ballet is one of the few performing arts with a very short career.″

She said most dancers are underpaid and can’t save much money to start their lives over upon retirement. ″You can barely exist as a dancer,″ she said.

The lawsuit was prepared by Gregory’s husband, attorney Hilar B. Miller. He said the case was designed to help dancers less successful than his wife, who continues to make guest appearances after retiring in June after 26 years with the ABT.

″The person who really benefits from this kind of lawsuit is the dancer who never will really make it to the top and who could use the money to go to college and start another career,″ Miller said.

Sanford I. Wolff, a pension fund trustee, declined to comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit but denied that dancers were treated unfairly.

″There is no discrimination. All persons in the plan are treated precisely the same and equally,″ he said.

The lawsuit said the pension plan favored other guild members who are opera chorus singers by not taking into account dancers’ ″significantly shorter career expectations, high disability rates and a high incidence of early death due to AIDS and other causes.″

The lawsuit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages for alleged violations of the Labor-Management Relations Act and common law.

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