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The Buzz, 1-22: Rebirth
Like the Phoenix, Martha Rises Again

By Darrah Carr
and Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- They triumphed during a protracted legal battle with Martha Graham's principal named heir Ron Protas. They are moving into new studios on the site of their old home on E. 63rd Street. They are embarking on their first New York season in four years at the Joyce Theater. The artists and staff of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance certainly have a lot to celebrate. And last night they did just that, with a jubilant preview performance and gala reception. The Joyce program ranged from the subtle and sublime "Lamentation" to the playful "Maple Leaf Rag," and served not only as a preview of the season, but also as a review of the incredibly broad spectrum of Martha Graham's choreographic vision.

Francis Mason, chairman of the Graham board of trustees, issued an eloquent and charming call for support to help "preserve these interesting dances, present them to future generations, and create new work." His words brought to mind the duty of legacy -- a legacy that belongs not just to last night's performers or audience, but also to the broader Modern Dance community. No matter if one thoroughly embraced Graham's technique or deliberately spun far away from it, it would be hard to find a dancer who could deny the influence of a woman whose work spanned eight decades.

Alongside legacy is family. Last night's performance gathered generations. Former Graham dancers in the audience gave a heartfelt standing ovation to the newest members of the company, who danced next to seasoned principals. Catherine Lutton, who is enjoying her first season with the company, noted, "As a younger dancer, working with people who have been teaching me for the past two years makes this feel like a family. There's a lot of generosity at Graham, especially when older dancers coach younger ones in their roles." Jennifer Conley, who will be making her debut in Graham's signature solo "Frontier" on Saturday, stated, "Learning these dances is part of an oral tradition. Each link is so important. I am thrilled to be part of the new generation of this revered legacy."

Ms. Conley will have plenty more to learn soon. Said Graham Center executive director Marvin Preston: "I have charged (artistic directors) Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli with the responsibility to get all of the dances that we have won, as well as those owned by others and those in the public domain, into performance within a three to four year period, with at least two people knowing each role in each dance."

In her ruling last August, Federal District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum found that 45 of the 70 Graham ballets at issue belonged outright to the center; ten in the public domain; and five to individual commissioners. She determined that Protas held the copyright to one dance, and that for an additional nine, neither side had demonstrated clear copyright ownership.

"We are determined to preserve what we have won," Preston told the Dance Insider earlier this week. "In parallel, Janet Eilber has been charged with making the Martha Graham Resources more accessible and beneficial to the company, the school, and the outside world. Accordingly, she will be setting about getting the videos moved to digital media, licensing the dances and (facilitating) training required to outside organizations."

Graham fans around the U.S. and around the world won't need to wait to 'go to the DVD'; while the details for the rest of the year are still being worked out, Preston said, "We have numerous presenters interested in working with us in the short and long term." A two-month domestic tour is anticipated for the Fall, and the company expects to finish the year with a tour of the premiere venues in several European capitals. While booking engagements in the short term is challenging because theaters are typically already booked up, Preston explained, "the short term interest is real, and we're finding some creative ways to get things started."

This schedule will redound favorably for the Graham dancers. In October, the center entered into an agreement with 27 dancers represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, guaranteeing 25 weeks of work over this calendar year. "We hope to move our level of activity for the MGDC to 40 or more weeks next year -- and, frankly, to even more than that thereafter," said Preston. "Our minimum guarantee under the AGMA contract is not likely itself to be moved. but we have every intention of increasing the number of weeks with or without a guarantee."

Just as important as the re-entree of the Graham company to the performing stage is the recovery of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. "The school is just now reaching break-even so that it is no longer a financial drain on us as it was in the past," said Preston. It was reinstated last fall as a charter member and accredited member of the National Association of Schools of Dance. Hardest hit during the school's six-month suspension of activities were the foreign students who flock to the Graham studios from all over the world to study her technique, and need the affiliation with a school to be able to stay in the U.S.. Earlier this month, the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service reinstated the school's authority to issue student visas for full-time foreign students.

....and now PBI would like to rave and rant a little, the following representing his opinions and not necessarily those of DC or anyone else on the staff of the Dance Insider.

Rave: Props for helping make this dramatic return possible have to go to Linda Shelton, Martin Wechsler, and the rest of the team at the Joyce Theater. The Joyce reserved the space last Spring -- before the outcome of the trial was certain. If Protas had won the rights to the dances and denied the company permission to perform them, the Joyce would have been left with two weeks to fill in a prime theater, with most of the major companies already committed. I don't see a "percentage" in this decision. Shelton, the Joyce executive director, and Wechsler, its programming director, didn't testify at the trial, but I wouldn't doubt that this quiet commitment of their theater spoke loudly and helped sway the Court.

From a practical viewpoint, making the Joyce available also made the season fiscally doable for a company that, while emotionally and artistically holding its spine upright (so to speak), is no doubt just regaining its footing financially. The Joyce is a fraction of the cost of, say, City Center. "The real economic difference between the two venues," Preston pointed out, "is that the scale of the undertaking at the Joyce is much smaller and accordingly the up front costs of making the productions work well there are much lower. You risk less money (and there is much less money to be made). The people at the Joyce have been and continue to be very supportive of us and we feel that they are doing a world of good by making the production of our performances at their theater easy, affordable, and a truly pleasant experience."

Rant: Despite the court decision, the New York Times continues to be dragged kicking and screaming into acknowledging the legitimacy of the Martha Graham Dance Company's claim to her legacy. Not being able to stop the legal landslide in the company's favor, the Times is now engaging in historical revisionism and otherwise diminishing the company and center's accomplishment in securing its right to the work and thus securing Graham's legacy.

Writing in Sunday's edition, Times reporter Kathryn Shattuck refers to Protas as "Martha Graham's sole heir." Well, no, not exactly. He was the principal heir named in her will, but the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was also named -- to replace Protas if he should die before Graham. And we all know who the true heirs of Martha Graham are, and there are many of them.

Discussing the company's one-night only return to the stage last Spring at City Center, the Times writes: "Last May 9, the company -- or what was left of it, filled out by student dancers -- performed formally for the first time since May 2000 in a benefit at City Center."

Huh? By my head count, the principal performers when the company took the stage last Spring were the same as before it suspended operations in May 2000, and the troupe was completed primarily not by "student dancers" but by the equally dedicated, and professional, Martha Graham Ensemble.

Finally, Kisselgoff, I mean Shattuck, can't resist asking "Is this what Martha Graham would have wanted?," thus joining the ranks of other non-dancers like Ron Protas who would presume to have a clearer channel to Martha's wishes than her dancers. As court documents and testimony affirmed, for her company to continue to live and breathe her work is exactly what Martha Graham would have wanted, and what she'll get tonight at the Joyce Theater.

For a complete schedule of the Joyce season, which runs through February 2, please click here.



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