Musicians at New York's renowned Lincoln Center, one of the premier venues for live performances in the world, are protesting a major ballet company's decision to perform to canned music.
The visiting Paul Taylor Dance Company took over the stage for an almost three-week period in Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater starting Tuesday.
But while the soaring dancers are as real as ever, the music they dance to, ranging from Bach to jazz, will come from recordings.
K.C. Boyle, a spokesman for Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, a union representing players at Lincoln Center, said they are furious and worried.
"As of right now this is the first major performance at Lincoln Center that has used recorded music for serious performances," he told Agence France Presse on Wednesday.
"We see this as a very dangerous precedent. There has been a trend to put profit over quality. It's a very scary precedent to establish."
John Tomlinson, executive director for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, said the situation was the fault of unaffordable salaries demanded by union-protected orchestras in New York.
"Esthetically is it acceptable? It's certainly not ideal," Tomlinson admitted in an interview.
But estimating the price of an orchestra for the three-week period at $450,000 -- more than half the run's entire costs -- he said: "My problem is we also have to run a budget and I don't have that money."
Major cultural institutions, which in the United States rely heavily on private donors and endowments, are encountering challenging times.
In fact the David H. Koch Theater was freed up because the New York City Opera, which had been based there, had to move out in the face of its own financial crisis.
As a result of that economic squeeze, as well as improved technology, use of recorded music is growing in orchestra pits, particularly on Broadway.
But with the prestigious New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, as well as the famed Juilliard School, all housed at Lincoln Center, use of canned music was sure to be controversial.
The union vows to keep protesting by handing out leaflets to theatergoers.
"Never did we think this would creep toward Lincoln Center, which is considered one of the United States' cultural epicenters," Boyle said.
In a 12-page brochure featuring pictures of Paul Taylor's dancers leaping through New York streets, the absence of information on the musical accompaniment is glaring.
Tomlinson said no one wanted live music more than he does, but that union musicians are both unaffordable and making it impossible to hire non-union alternatives.
"Live music is an extraordinary thing to have," he said. "I think that any person alive can tell the difference."
However, Tomlinson bristled at what he said were union suggestions that raising ticket prices by a mere $2 would finance the hiring of a live orchestra.
"They gave out a great deal of misinformation," he said.
According to Tomlinson, the only solution would be a major new outside donor.
"I have great thick knee pads and I'm ready to go begging anywhere," he said. Until that white knight appears, the company will continue to put on an "excellent show with one small flaw."
The curtain appears unlikely to come down quickly on the discord.
Critics, including leaders from the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera and the Philharmonic, signed a letter sent last week calling on the Lincoln Center simply to ban recorded music in its major theaters.
"We are concerned that the allure of saving money by eliminating what is an integral component of live ballet not only diminishes the quality and emotional impact of the performance, but is not in keeping (with) Lincoln Center's core values as a champion of live music," the high-profile signatories wrote.
"We call on the Board of Directors for a commitment to mandate the use of live music for major performances in residence at Lincoln Center."
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