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After Bolshoi Scandal, A Russian Crackdown On Deadwood Dancers And Artists

New bill would require artists and others in the "creative" fields to prove they are competent, and active in their roles.

Training at the Bolshoi
Training at the Bolshoi
Victor Khamraev and Tatyana Kuznetso

MOSCOW - According to a new proposal from the Russian Ministry of Culture, “creative workers” will have to be tested every five years to ensure their professional competence. Those deemed unsatisfactory would be fired, regardless of whether or not they have an employment contract.

This new proposal – which has been in the works at least since 2011 – will be discussed by the government at the end of May.

According to the ministry, the new law would only apply to the ballet, opera and theater, although it is possible that journalists will be included in the final definition of “creative workers.”

The law is meant to address scandals in the theater world, but also to help the problem of dancers, singers and actors who remain on theater payrolls long after they have stopped actively performing.

Representatives of the artistic world approached then-President Dimitry Medvedev in 2011 with requests to further regulate the labor market in the arts, especially in the theater. Current labor Russian law merely recognizes the existence of “creative” work, which, is regulated by the labor code.

According to the law, “creative” workers include those who work in mass media, movie and television production, theaters, concerts, circuses and other organizations that put on events for entertainment.

The proposed law was first written in 2012, and the Ministry of Culture has since conferred with the unions representing professions that would be effected by the new law. According to the vice-minister of Culture Girgorii Ivliev, the proposal is going to be reviewed at an upcoming cabinet meeting on May 23.

The proposed law would change the labor code on creative work, specifying that there would be a general exam held every five years, and that individuals who either fail to pass the exam or refuse to take the exam would be fired, whether or not they have a permanent employment contract.

“A permanent contract is undoubtedly the best protection for workers,” said Aleksander Shershukov, the secretary of the Federation of Unions. However, the Federation of Unions has agreed that, in the case of artists, a permanent contract could be canceled if exam results were not satisfactory. The proposed law thus has the blessing of the unions, as well as the government and employers’ associations.

Trimming the dead wood

The Ministry of Culture explained that the proposal is motived by concerns about the many scandals in the artistic milieu. “Whenever a new manager takes over a theater, either the troupe outlasts him, or starts to get rid of people through inappropriate means,” explained Grigori Ivliev. That is where the idea to regularly verify the competence of creative workers came up. He said that the list of professions that would be effected would be short, and would not impact most artists.

According to Ivliev, between 70 and 75% of artists in the theater have permanent contracts, and of those, 25 to 30% do not actively work in the theater they have a contract with – that is, they do not have any roles and do not appear on the stage. Those are the people that Ivliev says will be affected by the law, and that that represents no more than 20% of artists in the ballet, opera and theater.

Anatoli Iksanov, the general director of the Bolshoi Theater, has long worked to find a legislative solution to this problem. However, Iksanov says he is not satisfied with the proposed law – that he had worked for something much more far-reaching.

The problem of actors who remain on theater payroll for years even though they no longer perform is a problem that dates from the Soviet Union. At that time, low salaries made it possible for theater directors to ignore the unavoidable list of artists who remained official troupe members until retirement without ever performing. But the became much more acute in the 1990s, when theaters did not have enough money for even poverty-level salaries.

With time, even as many troupes’ money troubles were resolved, the fight against non-performing troupe members only increased, in efforts to retain talented young actors as well as to keep the troupe mobile. But the law has always protected the labor rights of these actors, which did not allow theater directors to let unneeded actors go.

This can be especially important in the ballet, where performers are particularly prone to falling out of shape. In the past 15 years, there have been several attempts to get rid of dancers who are no longer in performance shape by having all the troupe members pass a competence exam. But each time, dancers who failed ended up staying in the troupe – sometimes by court decree.

There aren’t actually many middle-aged ballet soloists, but some hold onto the title and the younger dancers who actually perform the main roles are officially considered background dancers – which negatively impacts both their status and their salary.

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