Is It Ever Appropriate to Sue a Company?

Let's Not Be Irrational! - Carabosse (Shura Baryshnikov) w/Catalabutte (Gianna Gino Di Marco) w/artists from Festival Ballet Providence in Sleeping Beauty - (Photo: A. Cemal Ekin)
I wish legal issues were never the case in this beautiful world of the arts, but, at times, they unfortunately present their ugly face. Working in an underfunded trade where anybody from the truest professionals to the thriftiest amateurs can put together a production can mean that a multitude of issues can present themselves in the process of getting a dance work onstage. While certain issues may arise from the beginning phases through to the performances of a production, luckily most of these items don't require contacting a third party to reconcile disagreements. When is it appropriate to reach out to legal counsel if certain issues or disputes reach a breaking point?

I am lucky that there have only been two issues that have ever pushed me into considering legal representation. The first time this happened was when I was working with a small, fledgling company as an employee and the second time was after choreographing for a larger-scale small-town production that involved a school. What I have found in my 8 years dancing with large-scale, well-funded companies and my 4 years traveling the country working as a freelancer with some lesser funded organizations is that problems are much more apparent in schools and companies with less money or less interaction with the professional dance world.

A handful of the issues that I have encountered throughout my time as a professional dancer and choreographer relate to money. But there is a surprising number of other items that I have either experienced or watched other dancers experience. A general list of issues that I have seen range from not getting paid appropriately (getting paid less, late, never getting paid at all, not receiving compensation for travel, etc.) to withholding dancer rights (workers compensation for employees). I have had my choreography altered against my knowledge, seen dancers per diem withheld, and watched abusive behavior inside the studio. Whether these items arise because of a lack of professional understanding, negligence, or devious behaviors, none of these actions are ever appropriate. Unfortunately, instead of admitting to these errors and working to resolve the situation, those few employers that committed these acts tend to fight a difficult battle instead of admitting to their erroneous ways.

The best way that I can offer up advice is to discuss the two times that I have considered reaching out to legal counsel. The first time was when a company decided to break my employment because I had been injured. When I got hurt, this organization decided to hide that I had a right to use workers compensation to regain my health. When I had to pull out of a program, the director went into a week-long rage against me and, eventually, fired me for what they claimed was a different reason than that they didn't want to finance the healing of one of their employees.

The second time that I encountered a situation that might have led me to speak with an attorney was when a small-town organization violated a choreography contract by adding their own choreography for a public performance into a work that I had already created. After finding my work on Facebook and not recognizing the movement, I reached out to the organization to resolve the situation. Instead of hearing the sincerest of apologies, I received an angry, defensive response naming articles in my contract where they tried to convince me that they could do whatever they wanted with my choreography.

While these were both very different experiences, there were certain similarities in them that differentiated these behaviors from other situations that may have been testy, but wouldn't be worth reaching out to a legal representative. In both situations, my rights were compromised. The first situation was a legal right as an employee, while the second was a violation of a contract. I have found that it is best to reach out as soon as possible to the source in order to work to resolve a situation. In most occurrences, people are reasonable and willing to work with you to maintain a relationship and make sure that all parties are content. But what made these two above situations distinctly different was the stressed and incensed reactions to my attempt to resolve the situation. When an opposing party responds with irrationality, it may be time to reach out for legal advice.

Irrational Puss n' Boots?
It is never a bad thing to reach out to a lawyer to use as a sounding board for extreme issues within the workplace. Being that I am an independent contractor and my partner owns his own business, we hold legal insurance that allows us to get counsel at no additional charge beyond our monthly fee. When stress, money, intellectual property, and/or passion for your work are involved, it can be easy to get lost in an irrational place. Speaking with a lawyer can help you determine whether your emotional reaction to the situation is legally rational or just protective.

After having a conversation with an attorney, the next step is to determine if you want to take the plunge and enter a legal battle to resolve your case. While there may be some situations that necessitate suing an organization, I have found that it usually isn't worth your time to spend the emotional energy that is required to fight for what is right. It is a sad, sad situation, but people in the arts are generally reluctant to go the lengths that it takes to protect themselves from wrongdoing.

The first reason for this is due to poor funding. This works on both sides. Rarely does an organization have the money to fight a legal battle. It is also rare that a dancer or choreographer has the funds to hire an attorney to represent them. Beyond this, the dance world often lets go of minor issues, which is representative of the submissive nature of dance artists. Lastly, the dance world is so closely connected that if a dancer is to sue a company, other employers may fear hiring that dancer out of fear that they will sue their own organization.

Two examples that I am aware of with dancers suing companies involved two friends of mine. The first situation was when a dancer was representing the other dancers of a non-unionized company. When the organization decided to stiff the dancers on per diem from their international travels, this dancer contacted a lawyer and started working to help the dancers collect their contractually agreed travel pay. At the end of that season, the dancer was not reengaged and lost their job.

The second dancer I know who sued a company was put in a position where they were essentially forced to break their contract. They sought counsel to make the company follow through with paying the rest of their contract for that lost season. While I don't remember whether they won or lost that battle, I heard whispers from others in the new company that we were dancing with blaming that dancer for creating that situation. This seemed odd considering none of us were present in that company when things went down.

Challenging times can make one lose faith in the dance world; a place of beauty, perfection, and dreams. While the modernized world has a system for those who have been wronged to fight to protect their rights, the dance world sometimes feels like it exists on another plane. I don't feel that it is appropriate for me to guide anybody towards seeking counsel. Instead, I can provide information to help dancers and choreographers make their own decisions. I have always been an advocate for dancers and choreographers to protect their rights. This would lend me to offering the advice to fight for them. At the same time, there is a great deal of time and emotional energy that must go into legally resolving situations. Consider how important the violation of your rights is to you and the amount of yourself you are willing to put into a legal battle. Also weigh the possible repercussions, fair or not, that you may experience for trying to protect yourself. While this dance world isn't always fair, it is our passion. And sometimes you need to give up a little of yourself to share in this beautiful place.

It is beautiful, isn't it? (A local sculpture in Philadelphia)


  1. As always, the answer depends. Is the one who is more aggrieved and disenfranchised the person or the company? A company does involve more than a few people who depend on its infrastructure to thrive, so there's a kind of domino effect that should be watched out for there, as far as the consequences of litigation is concerned. There are no good and bad people in litigations, there's just the bigger victims. Anyway, thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts! All the best!

    Hubert Singleton @ RDF Attorney

  2. Thank you for your insight, Hubert!

  3. I’m sorry to hear that you had to go through these kinds of situations. It is such a shame that something you love doing can be mired with legal matters. Anyway, I agree that it is not a bad idea to seek legal counsel – even if it’s just for a sounding board, since they are more informed and has proper knowledge with regard to the matter. Anyway, thank you for sharing this with us, Barry. All the best!

    Modesto Culbertson @ D&Z Law Group