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The Buzz, 5-16: Canticle for Innocent Artistic Directors
Graham Chronicles: The Banished Mothers & the Absentee Parent

"At base this seems to have been a power struggle, which we did not know was being fought. We were too busy working, and we have lost."

-- Christine Dakin & Terese Capucilli, former artistic directors of the Martha Graham Dance Company, in ArtsCure.

"Janet... is in New York at least once a month."

-- LaRue Allen, executive director, Martha Graham Center, on current artistic director Janet Eilber.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

For nearly a year now, we have been waiting for Francis Mason, chairman of the board of directors of the Martha Graham Center, to explain to the world why the board fired the legendary Graham dancers Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin as artistic directors and replaced them with a director, Janet Eilber, who would not even commit to living in the same town as her dancers. (Initially, the board tried to spin the firing as an 'elevation,' a claim quickly torpedoed by Capucilli and Dakin.) Now we finally have a response from LaRue Allen, executive director of the Martha Graham Center. Her statement below is followed by a response from Capucilli and Dakin, and one from me.

LaRue Allen states:

"When it became clear that the center was likely to emerge from its legal difficulties, it adopted a business plan with the goal of rebuilding the organization. The plan was to invest money in the artistic product, assuming that presenters and sponsors would be attracted to the Graham product in its full manifestation and that this, in turn, would lead to profitability. Briefly stated, income did not keep pace with expenses. The center self-audited its finances post the 2005 City Center season, at which point the deficit had grown to $5 million. The Center had tapped out all sources of loans and had to reconsider the plan. Marvin Preston called a senior artistic and administrative staff retreat two weeks after the season. Under the leadership of facilitator Fred Harmond, the group developed a new method of operations and a new organizational model. Among the changes the group unanimously agreed upon (and there were many) was the consolidation of the artistic leadership. Where there had been four autonomous artistic directors, the staff recommended that there be one. The staff did not make a recommendation about who that person should be.

"It should be noted that to the outside world the two artistic directors of the Martha Graham Dance Company often appeared to be the "real" artistic leadership, since the company is the most visible of our various departments, but within the center and consistent with the board's understanding of the structure, they were equal partners with the directors of the school and Martha Graham Resources. I have read that Christine Dakin has said that she went into the retreat believing that our task was to address an acute shortfall through a six-month plan. In fact this was our intention going into the meeting but, once in retreat, the facilitator made it very clear that our situation was dire and that only drastic and fundamental reorganization coupled with long-tern discipline and a creative approach to operations could save the organization. Both dance company artistic directors participated fully and honestly in the discussion, even though they found Mr. Harmond's assessment hard to come to terms with.

"All staff participants agreed to forward the new plan to the board but, a couple of days later, Christine and Terese had second thoughts. They proposed that more modest, across the board cuts be made, but that the structure remain essentially the same. Both ideas were presented to the board at their next meeting. Everyone had the opportunity to explain his preferred plan. In closed session, the board voted to retain all who had served in positions of artistic leadership -- no one was to be fired -- but they also decided to appoint one artistic director, Janet Eilber, to lead the organization artistically. Since I was not present when the vote took place, I can't tell you anything you haven't already heard about the decision. I will say that in my personal opinion, it was evident that Christine and Terese had a difficult time understanding the degree to which we would have to change our operations in order to recover financially.

"Many attempts were made, by me and others, to try to communicate with Christine and Terese about redefining their role. They met with two representatives of the board, among other things. In the short term, they were asked to direct and to perform in a new program being developed for Jacob's Pillow. Everyone clearly understood how important they had been to the company's artistic recovery. Emotions run high at times such as these and they were unable to participate or to even return any of my many phone calls and e-mails. I fully understand; we all regret the present estrangement and hope that things can change some day.

"Janet does spend much of her time in California where she and her husband still have one daughter living at home. She is in New York at least once a month and meets up with the company at important touring sites. She plans to be with them in Germany and in Greece this summer. We all wish she were with us more; we know life would be easier if she were, and she will be in the future. That said, it is possible to make too much of her California residence. As we both know, it is not at all unusual for a senior artistic director to spend less time in the studio than say a choreographer-director who is building a new company. In my final years at Trisha Brown, it was not unusual for Trisha to spend long months in Europe, perhaps working on an opera project, while the company rehearsed in NY or toured. The dancers had difficulty with this at first but, ultimately, it worked out with assistance from a good rehearsal director. Janet wants to work on her vision for the company and the implications the vision holds for the field at large. Janet cares deeply about the dancers but she is not and does not want to be a rehearsal director. Our company has a weakness in this area at the moment and we are working on it. Janet needs a partner in the studio who can match her capabilities in long-term planning and vision building. It's in the works.

"It is nearly impossible for anyone to understand how hard the financial situation has been. Sure, all dance companies have hard times and, after more than 35 years toiling away in the field, no one understands this more than I. Still, I have never seen anything like this and until now couldn't comprehend how a company could continue under such pressure. It is simply the lack of money that is impeding our progress since we cannot hire either administrative or artistic staff. But we have made it through the worst and we have a good plan for working our way out of this. More about that later, if you are interested."

We forwarded the above to Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli and requested a response. "Isn't it sad that what we did to bring back Martha's work and the company's reputation has been dismantled and that the Graham Center has to re-write history and defame us to explain their actions?" they commented. "However, as we have always said, the important thing is how Martha's great work is being seen now and how it is produced." Regarding the details of their firing, they referred us to the following statement, originally issued to Eri Misaki of ArtsCure last fall:

"In the organization of the Martha Graham Center, the artistic directors were supervised by and reported to Marvin Preston, the (then) executive director. Without his imagination, leadership, and incredible diligence it would have been impossible for the center to win the complicated legal battles to regain control of Martha's work. His lack of any experience with the performing arts was actually an asset. He was able to see outside the narrow limits of conventional wisdom.

"Mr. Preston's business plan for the center was based on his belief that to be sustainable we had to be operating at a level that required a budget far in excess of what we had this past (2005) May. His plan was for us to grow even more than we had. While we agreed that it was necessary to make investments in the artistic quality, our experience led us always to search for the least expensive and most efficient means to the most glorious result on stage.

"In March of (2005), Mr. Preston assured the board of trustees that 2005 would be a 'break-even' year. But in May the center's annual strategic planning meeting was reorganized to develop an 'Emergency Recovery Plan' to find $1 million in cuts from the budget for the rest of the year, so that expenses would match income. A plan was proposed to make cuts and reorganize the center. The company was to cut $800,000 in costs, including firing dancers and staff. We met with the then general manager of the company to try and implement the plan, and it became clear it would irremediably damage the future of the company. We created alternatives for financial and operational cuts that would achieve substantially the same savings but would have avoided the gutting of the company's already overtaxed staff and maintained the critical continuity we had worked so hard to regain. We met with Mr. Preston and also tried to explain that central to any 'Recovery' was addressing the administrative problems of the Center.

"With so much at stake, we were surprised that Mr. Preston, Ms. Eilber, and LaRue Allen, the newly hired director of development, asserted that their plan was agreed on and could not be changed, and that the board would not be satisfied with less than a dramatic restructuring. There was no discussion of our proposal. The board's discussion was held in closed session. We were not invited to discuss our objections or present our alternatives. We have every indication that the board was not even made aware of the danger to the company that we saw. We do know now that in previous meetings they had been told damaging and untrue things about our work.

"The following day Mr. Preston announced the board's decision: to 'elevate' us to Artistic Directors Laureate, and make Ms. Eilber the Artistic Director of the entire center. What had been presented as an emergency meeting to deal with a financial crisis became a change in the company's philosophy and artistic direction.

"Clearly, no thought had been given to the practical implications of this move. No transition had been planned. No strategy had been formed to mitigate the tremendous break in continuity, which is already damaging the carefully nurtured relationships with the outside world, or to minimize the human damage to the collaborators within the company and center. The title 'Laureate' was not defined. Mr. Preston only said that Janet would be in touch with us to suggest possible projects we might in the future be involved with.

"The following week Ms. Eilber made us each an offer to rehearse the company in one dance and to perform a couple of nights at the upcoming engagements at Bard and Jacob's Pillow. We had obviously been deeply involved in the planning for these performances and it would seem odd if we were not there. Ironically, given the grim financial situation, we were offered more money than we would have made as artistic directors and performers, for a fraction of the work.

"We were troubled by Ms. Eilber's announcement that her management style would delegate the work in the studio and on the stage. Much had already been changed; four of the dancers had been fired, and the staff at the center was in chaos, as no one knew who would be next. In the aftermath of this incredibly painful event, after 30 years of Martha's work and the honor and chance to bring it back to life, we were seeing the company dismantled. After much agony we decided that we could not work under those conditions at that time.

"Since that one offer, we have had no others.

"Although we frequently requested it, there was no artistic director on the board. We trusted the board and Mr. Preston to stand behind us as we struggled to start up the company. If they had had any problems with our direction, we trusted them to address us openly and honestly. We had no hint that they were displeased with us, but had had only accolades for our work. Knowing after the fact that they had been told untruths about us, we wanted to defend ourselves. We have come to know that there were charges of artistic inefficiency and financial irresponsibility, even though we provided the center with accurate projections of our costs and understood that the board had approved them.

"In our letter to the board we wrote: "The company, while producing great art, has focused on productivity improvements rather than adding staff. The staff that we were using to create 73 performances in 32 cities in 2005 was smaller than the staff we used for 24 performances in 12 cities in 2004. There were fewer rehearsal weeks this year to prepare for eight tours than for only three tours last year. It is regrettable that we do not have an accounting system that can adequately capture the extent of many other savings. The size of the roster of dancers has been controlled to expose us to the least financial risk as regards the union contracts, with care to remain competitive in the touring arena yet assure maximum quality and impact and maintenance of dancer resources for the New York seasons.

"We said we understood that the board had every right to choose the artistic direction for the company. We felt, however, that after all our years with and for the company we were owed an explanation for their action. We felt we were owed an opportunity to answer false charges. Most importantly, we felt we were owed the opportunity to explain why we thought their action was devastating for the work that we have devoted our lives to.

"There has been no response.

"Subsequent events have born out our worst fears. The chaos continues. The financial situation remains grim. We are among the artists and other vendors owed debts the center has not met. The dismantling of the company continues. Several dancers have announced that they will leave the company. We have heard from agents and presenters who have shared with us great concern over this change.

"At base this seems to have been a power struggle, which we did not know was being fought. We were too busy working, and we have lost. It is our sorrow that it will not be our vision that will lead the company in the future. We are now taking steps to begin a new kind of life for ourselves. Martha is in our blood, whatever we do, and we will always share that with Martha's audiences. We wait to see if we can continue to be a part of the Company."

My simple response to Allen's explanation and Dakin and Capucilli's statement: You tell me, dance insider: Why on Earth would a board of directors in its right senses want to replace two obviously devoted women like these two with a dilettante who disdains the dance studio, who apparently is more interested in explaining the work to audiences than teaching it to dancers? (Eilber recently told the New Yorker's Joan Acocella she wants to "contextualize" Martha.) You wouldn't delegate parenting; how can you delegate directing a dance company?

PS: Eilber apparently prefers to delegate to dancers the job of begging for money to get the company out of its current financial mess.

PS 2: The Graham director du jour's 'vision' so far seems to consist of trying to book the company on cruise ships. Now that's what I call out at sea.


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