Glasco vs the National Ballet

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 5, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

The couch in Kimberly Glasco's sunny den is deep and comfortable, but not for a second does the raven-haired ballerina relax into it.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 5, 1999. Partner content is not updated. The couch in Kimberly Glasco's sunny den is deep and comfortable, but not for a second does the raven-haired ballerina relax into it.

Glasco vs the National Ballet

The couch in Kimberly Glasco's sunny den is deep and comfortable, but not for a second does the raven-haired ballerina relax into it. She sits perched on its edge, as poised as if she were dancing in Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake or any of the other classical ballets she has starred in during the course of a 20-year career at the National Ballet of Canada. The impression she gives is one of fine-tuned alertness, though this may have as much to do with the ordeal she is undergoing as with her many years of training. There are circles under her eyes, and her handsome face seems paler than usual: since she was fired as a principal dancer from the Toronto-based National last December, Glasco has been fighting for her professional life.

Her struggle - which may ultimately change the way artists and the organizations they work for relate to each other - has involved her in endless meetings with lawyers and interviews with the press. She has also kept up a correspondence with a growing circle of supporters and well-wishers that includes hundreds of ordinary ballet fans as well as former National star Vanessa Harwood, Canadian Auto Workers boss Buzz Hargrove and Dr. Nancy Olivieri, who recently won back her own job as a top researcher at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

In the past three months, Glasco has simultaneously launched a lawsuit against the National (alleging, among other things, unlawful dismissal) and complaints with Ontario's Labour Relations Board and Human Rights Commission. Her savings, she says, have been severely depleted, and sleep has been hard to come by. But on March 18, she finally heard some good news - the National, responding to court pressure, agreed to meet Glasco in the next few weeks for private, independent mediation, something the dancer has asked for from the beginning. If the two sides fail to agree, the mediator will have the power to decide the matter, and to give Glasco back her job if her case merits it. "Finally, after three very, very long months, this issue is on the table for someone to take a look at," she says of the process, which will replace both her Labour Relations complaint and lawsuit. "It's all I ever wanted."

Glasco has a lot to lose. At 38, she is a popular star with a salary that recently rose to an estimated $100,000 a year. Last June, she bought a small house overlooking the wooded slopes of Toronto's Don Valley. Decorated in tasteful pastels, it already has the feel of the comfortable, long-term home she hoped it would become. Now, however, she is not certain she will be able to keep it. "If I'd known what was going to happen," says Glasco, who is single, "I probably wouldn't have bought it."

Glasco's troubles began last Dec. 1, when the National's artistic director, James Kudelka, called her into his office. Glasco says she had had no warning that her time at the National Ballet was about to end: "There was never a discussion, or a meeting or a pull-aside. There was never a choreographer or a ballet mistress saying, 'Look, there's something going on here.' " In fact, Glasco had every reason to think her career was in full bloom. She had just finished a successful autumn season in which she danced lead roles in Manon and La Bayadère. Critics had praised the depth and subtlety of her performances. She was confident that many good years lay ahead.

At their meeting, Kudelka told her that her contract would not be renewed when it expired in June. Whatever else was said in their encounter has become a matter of critical importance - and in all likelihood the focus of the upcoming mediation-arbitration. Glasco has steadfastly maintained that Kudelka fired her for political reasons related to her work on the National's board, where until recently she sat as one of two dancers' representatives. Kudelka, Glasco says, told her he was letting her go because she had opposed his plans to spend $1.6 million on a new production of Swan Lake - at a time when the National was almost $3 million in debt - and because she had opposed his 1996 appointment as artistic director.

Glasco left the meeting in a state of shock, convinced that an injustice had occurred: "Every morning when I woke up, I knew that what had happened in that room was wrong." She wrote to the National's board members, explaining her situation and asking them to discuss it. The board wrote back saying that the decision not to renew her contract was an artistic one, and that it was final. So Glasco went public with her grievances, setting off a firestorm of controversy that has not subsided yet. In various newspaper reports, Kudelka - who, like Glasco, is currently prevented by their March 18 agreement from saying anything adverse about the other party - denied that Glasco's release had anything to do with her board activities. The problem was her dancing. "I don't think her classical work was as strong lately," he told a reporter. "Dancers want to dance forever and I don't think that they can." He also claimed that when Glasco did shine, it was due to his own skill in casting her in roles that flattered her: "I'd like to remind people that it is a credit to me as artistic director that she has looked as good onstage."

Kudelka explained, as well, that her dismissal was part of a larger strategy to expand the size of the ballet when cutbacks had reduced its budget from $16 million to $14 million. It seems that for the price of one Kimberly Glasco, the National could afford to hire four junior dancers. Valerie Wilder, the National's executive director, also pointed out that in the past season Glasco had not been extensively used by choreographers. "She danced eight performances compared with other ballerinas performing 28. Can we afford to have an expensive dancer who performs so little?" (Glasco claims Wilder's figures are completely misleading: "Until I was fired, I was dancing as full a schedule as any of the other principals.")

Other prominent names joined the fray. Karen Kain, who recently ended a stellar dancing career at the National at age 45, lamented that Glasco had gone public: "I'm really sorry that she's chosen to take this kind of route. I'm sorry for her, actually." A couple of Canadian ballet's grand dames weighed in, too. The National's founder, 77-year-old Celia Franca, spoke out in support of the rights of artistic directors and rapped Glasco's knuckles: "What a silly thing, to publicly go against your boss." Meanwhile, Franca's longtime antagonist, Betty Oliphant, 80, the founder of the National's training school, declared that Glasco - one of her former pupils - has eight or 10 years of topflight dancing left, even if she had to leave Canada to finish her career: "I think she's good enough to get into one of the major American companies."

Though silly at times, the debate has raised some important questions about the traditional rights of artistic directors to hire or fire performers as they see fit. Wilder believes strongly that Kudelka must be free to choose the dancers that will help him fulfil his artistic vision: "Typically, when a new artistic director takes the helm of a company, there's a fair amount of bloodletting." But others are critical of the arbitrary power wielded by artistic directors, saying that too often political or personal reasons for firing performers are conveniently termed artistic. Svea Eklof, a former dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and a Glasco supporter, argues that while most Canadian businesses and institutions have policies to help them abide by employment protection laws, "the National Ballet has put none of these in place."

A related issue concerns the abrupt manner in which Glasco and other dancers have been let go. Glasco has been with the company since she was 13, when the Eugene, Ore., native enrolled as a boarder at the National Ballet School. Except for one year away, when she danced in New York City with the American Ballet Theater, Glasco has made the Canadian company her home. For such a long-serving dancer, the National becomes "more of a family than your own family," says Harwood, who entered the National's school when she was 6. Summarily fired in 1987 after a 22-year career, Harwood says the trauma of being kicked out is "like learning you're going to die in six months. It's that serious."

Harwood maintains that the retirement of dancers should be managed more humanely and gradually. While the outcome of Glasco's case may help establish a precedent for others in her position, the ballerina herself is focused on getting her own job back. If she is reinstated in the National, will she be able to work with Kudelka again? Glasco says she will: "I've danced under six very different artistic directors and I've enjoyed working with every one, including James." Her eyes flash as she adds: "I love what I do. I only want to dance."

Maclean's April 5, 1999