Out of step
Their work is in the spotlight, but choreographers still lack clout within the industry.Even as dance takes center stage in everything from iPod commercials to big movie musicals like New Line's upcoming release "Hairspray," choreography is one of the few professions in Hollywood with no union. And though they are recognized during the Emmys and Tonys, there's no Oscar category for choreographers.
Historically, each studio employed a choreographer, so their numbers have never been large enough to lend them much bargaining power. "You can't do a strike because there are only 35 of us that are working and about 50 that would love to have that job," says choreographer Alan Johnson, who has worked on films ranging from 1968's "The Producers" to 2003's "Neverland."
It doesn't help matters that even experienced choreographers often are viewed by producers as being easily replaceable. "The basic (situation) is that if they want Larry Gelbart as a writer, they're going get Larry Gelbart as a writer, and they're not going to take a 23-year-old. But with choreographers, the same logic doesn't apply."
The many failed attempts at unionization support Johnson's theory. More than a decade ago, a core group of choreographers and dance agents -- including Johnson, Vincent Paterson, Michael Peters and Lester Wilson -- met and created the American Choreography Awards to draw attention to their profession and their predicament. They asked to receive health benefits and pension through the Director's Guild, but negotiations faltered over concerns that choreographers might demand their share of royalties. The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers tried to fold media choreographers into their membership, but the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers blocked this attempt.
A year ago, SAG and AFTRA -- which has long provided coverage for dancers -- took choreographers under their wing, guaranteeing them health and pension benefits though not residuals. "Even though they've been recognized, it's still a constant battle to get them on a SAG contract," Clear Talent Group agent Brooklyn Lavin says. "There's the few core choreographers that have been around for a while, that know their rights and that definitely want their pension and health. I would say the majority of other choreographers -- they're fine not having it. I hate to even say that, but usually, they say they just want to do the job."
While many choreographers are happy to be a part of SAG, some see the DGA as a more appropriate home, and others still hold out hopes for a union of their own. And while director-choreographers such as Anne Fletcher, Rob Marshall, Kenny Ortega and Adam Shankman have helped raise the profession's profile, the question of a union is ultimately a numbers game.
"The truth of it is, there's not enough (of us)," says JoAnn Fregalette Jansen, a choreographer whose numerous credits include 2004's "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" and 2006's "Take the Lead." "You couldn't fold yourself into a health plan. The smaller the number, the more difficult and more expensive health insurance is and pension. It's such a specialized unit that the numbers wouldn't be enough financially to provide what (choreographers) need."