Professional dancers ‘paid less than box office assistants’ at Royal Opera House

Low pay for freelance actors and dancers urgently needs addressing, says Equity performers’ union

The Royal Opera House was at the centre of a pay storm on Monday after it was claimed that professional dancers were being paid just £9.14 an hour during rehearsals.

In a website statement, since taken down, the Equity freelance dance network said dancers were being offered less than the £10.70 an hour that a box office sales assistant might get.

The post said that there was “a huge strength of feeling among professional freelancers” that the minimum amount “shows a huge disparity and a lack of value when compared to the other work that freelancers carry out.”

It continues: “A dancer working on a small-scale/independent production, with a comparatively tiny budget, will receive a minimum of £430/440 per week. So the question everyone asks is; why are we not paid above or at least equal to that amount when working for one of the largest, most heavily subsidised arts organisations in the country? Particularly when compared to the wages of other artists working on any given opera.”

The statement was taken down on Monday and replaced with one by Hilary Hadley, Equity’s head of live performance. It said Equity had been asking for feedback from the freelance dance network in advance of its negotiations with the ROH: “Unfortunately this request was made more public than was our intention and dancers’ concerns have been picked up by the press. We regret this as we do not want to harm our good relations with the ROH and the negotiation process.

“However, we do feel strongly that the issue of low pay for actors and dancers at the ROH does need urgently addressing and we are confident that we can work with the ROH to achieve this.”

A spokesman said it was a mistake that the statement was posted publicly: “It was not our intention to antagonise the Royal Opera House.”

The ROH confirmed that negotiations were taking place for freelance actors working with the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet and dancers working with the Royal Opera. The negotiations do not concern rates of pay for dancers at the Royal Ballet.

Responding to the mention of box office rates of pay, Sally O’Neill, the ROH’s chief operating officer, said: “Rates of pay differ across the Royal Opera House for numerous groups of staff doing a diverse range of jobs. Pay levels for our box office staff are negotiated and agreed with Bectu, a separate union. We believe that all theatre staff and artists are part of a collective process in producing very best opera and ballet in the world and all have role to play in making this happen.”

The two sides are due to meet on Monday.

The original statement said: “We see that the weekly rate during rehearsals calculates to an hourly rate of just £9.14 an hour, which when compared to the rate of £10.70 per hour you offer to Box Office Sales Assistants (advertised April 2014), this seems highly disproportionate.

“The dancers you employ will be highly skilled, qualified, experienced professionals who will have gone through a rigorous audition process to achieve their position. I’m sure you can understand how disheartening it is to then be valued so poorly.

“When employing a freelance dancer you’re getting a level of versatility, skill, and commitment easily comparable to any other worker in a production.

“What is often overlooked is the amount of time, effort and financial investment it requires for a freelance dancer to continue training in between jobs in order to be at a professional level when they start a job with someone like ROH.

“The strong work ethic of dancers is well known within the industry, and we would hope that an organisation like ROH would be able to recognise this.”

Contributor

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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