In Paris, Even the Ballet Dancers Are on Strike
PARIS — Among the banners and placards at a demonstration in Paris on Thursday, one statement stood out: On top of what looked like a real pair of dancer’s legs and a tutu, a sign read, in French: “Your retirement from ballet.”
Dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet were taking part in their fourth major protest so far as part of nationwide strikes, which began in December, over a pension policy overhaul by the government of President Emmanuel Macron.
The ballet employees stood with transportation and health care workers and others to oppose a universal pension plan based on points instead of the current patchwork of 42 different retirement systems in France, many tailored to individual professions.
On Saturday, officials announced that the government would withdraw, at least temporarily, a plan that would have raised the full-benefit retirement age, now 62 for many workers, to 64 for all professions.
The Paris Opera Ballet’s dancers currently stop working at 42, then receive monthly payments equal to 45 to 48 percent of their top salaries. (According to the company, an entry level dancer’s gross earnings total about 35,000 euros, or $39,000 a year; an “étoile,” or star, whose salary is negotiated privately, may make upward of €77,000, and often much more.) While retired dancers often work as teachers or ballet masters, the pension insures a smooth professional transition. The average annual wage in France is €35,856.
Even a mandatory wait until the age of 62 would leave 20 years between a dancer’s hanging up their point shoes and being able to collect a full pension, although there are temporary unemployment benefits and welfare available.
The strike will carry on, Matthias Bergmann, a union representative, said. “We remain completely opposed to this reform, which goes against our values, and will continue to do everything we can to put an end to it,” he wrote in an email on Sunday.
While 42 may seem like an early age for retirement, the extreme jumps, lifts and contortions standard in classical ballet technique take a physical toll on the dancers. Alexandre Carniato, 41, a member of the company and a union representative, said professional dancers expect to endure pain and injuries comparable to those in the most demanding professional sports. “My ankle joints have been destroyed,” he said. “At a certain age, it is against nature to continue dancing.”
France’s ministry of health has acknowledged that it is impossible for the dancers to perform until their 60s. But under the government proposal, members of the company (or at least those hired under the new legislation) would have to find alternative employment when they could no longer dance, and would receive pensions at the same age as everyone else in France.
When The New York Times sought comment from the company on the issue, the Paris Opera’s director, Stéphane Lissner, declined to comment, and the director of dance, Aurélie Dupont, was on vacation.
Matthieu Botto, 32, a dancer in the company, said government officials had shown “that they know nothing about our way of functioning.”
On Monday, Franck Riester, France’s culture minister, tried to sell a compromise to the dancers. He restated an offer made in December that would allow current company members to retain their existing privileges; the new rules would apply only to new hires.
“In order not to penalize those who didn’t foresee this change in the social contract, the idea is that we’ll only count those who are hired after Jan. 1, 2022,” Mr. Riester said on LCI, a French news channel.
The first time they refused that offer, the striking dancers said in a statement, “We are a small link in a chain stretching back 350 years,” adding, “we cannot be the generation who sacrifices those who follow.”
Opera singers, technicians and artisans are also on strike. Hours before officials said Saturday that they would amend their proposal, the Paris Opera announced that the evening’s performance of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” — the return of the opera season after a holiday break — would be canceled (the opera website warned that the next performance, on Tuesday, might also be affected). The next ballet is “Giselle,” scheduled to open on Jan. 31.
While the Paris ballet receives generous government funding for its dancers’ pensions, not every company in France does. Mr. Riester has noted that regional ballet troupes, which lack the pension resources of the Paris Opera, find local employment for dancers who retire.
But Sandrine Deshaie, a former dancer in the Ballet Nice Méditerranée, said she had been offered no such alternative. After 17 years of working on short-term contracts, she said, she was “left to my own devices to find employment.”
She added, “When there were problems at regional companies, Paris Opera Ballet dancers knew about our precarity and did nothing to show solidarity.”
“Social rights are great,” she added. “At the same time, financial problems are proving themselves to be real right now in France.”
Mr. Macron’s reforms aimed to standardize an array of pension rights negotiated by France’s unions, which have been a strong force in the country’s politics since the 1930s. But the Paris Opera’s superannuation fund is much older: Retirement privileges for dancers have existed since 1698.
“The pension comes from Louis XIV’s era, when dance was revered as one of the most important cultural assets,” said Benjamin Millepied, a former director of dance of the Paris Opera. “It’s a wonderful tradition from a time when culture held that kind of place in society.”
Since the Paris Opera’s inception in the 17th century, its ballet dancers have been considered representatives of the state. “The Paris Opera Ballet is presented first and foremost at the most important diplomatic occasions,” said Philippe Gerbet, a former dancer with the company who is on the committee overseeing its pensions. “The corps de ballet represents France through the world.”
According to a 2011 study commissioned by the International Federation of Actors, long-term contracts followed by lifelong pensions were the norm in Europe’s national ballet companies until recent decades. This kind of security is no longer common. “Even in countries where there is still such a pension scheme in place, there is an increasing reluctance to extend it to new dancers, who are often employed on short-term contracts,” the study says.
Christine Thomassen, a former principal dancer of the Norwegian National Ballet and vice president of the union representing that company’s dancers, said members reached out to Paris Opera Ballet colleagues to express support for the cause.
“Dancers are extremely passionate about their art form and audience,” she said in a telephone interview. “If the dancers at the Paris Opera have been on strike for over a month, it is because this is actually very serious — both for them as individual workers and for the future of the art form.”
A reform of the pension system in the Norwegian National Ballet is looming, Ms. Thomassen said, and her union is watching developments in Paris closely.
In the United States, the European model of state-funded ballet was “looked to as a dream or a fantasy,” said Griff Braun, an official at the American Guild of Musical Artists, a labor union. Mr. Braun said that even in top companies, most dancers are offered yearlong renewable contracts. American dancers generally have access to retirement savings plans, but nothing that resembles the Paris pension benefit.
“You tend to hear about those who make spectacular transitions, and become doctors and lawyers as second careers,” Mr. Braun said. “But those are the exceptions.”
The Paris Opera’s striking dancers say that eliminating the pension would reshape the company and destroy elements of its celebrated style. For example, the generous provisions encourage retention, which allows the members of the corps de ballet, or ensemble, to develop unparalleled uniformity of movement, down to the angles of their wrists and fingers.
“Without the pension, dancers trained at the Paris Opera School of Dance will move elsewhere for better compensation,” Mr. Carniato, the dancer and union official, said.
Mr. Millepied said that the company’s long history created an atmosphere in which change was resisted. “The Paris Opera Ballet is very respectful of traditions, but then there’s the question of how to take those traditions forward,” he said.
He said, however, it’s “impossible for me to be against these dancers wanting to save their pension.” He added, “During this difficult time for the arts, it is exactly the kind of thing we should be saving.”