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Buzz Flashback, 7-12: Alison in Purgatory
The Day Pilobolus Fired its Mother and Sold its Soul or, How a Corporation Swallowed a Choreographer

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive and Buzz Archive. This article was first published on June 20, 2006.)

"I... asked (Pilobolus) not to perform my works, and to disclose to the dance world their new reconfigured Pilobolus.... In their now corporate style they just muscle forward claiming ownership of everything.... They hold up their interpretation of the Martha Graham case as their justification. But I still am contesting their ownership and lay claim to my works."

-- Fired Pilobolus director Alison Chase

"It is important to let the dance community know that Alison Becker Chase was fired, from the very organization that she has devoted the past 35 years of her life to.... I believe that as audiences prepare to watch an evening of "Pilobolus" this summer at the Joyce Theater, they should be informed as to the new structure of the company. There are currently three employed artistic directors and one executive director.... Alison Chase's work will be performed this summer, against her wishes, and without her artistic input or monetary compensation.... Alison is no longer being paid by the company and desires the rights to her own choreography, particularly the work that she has choreographed on her own, which is not in collaboration with any of the other directors.... Alison Chase is the mother of Pilobolus. She is the elegance and fairy dust that we all love."

-- A member of the Pilobolus community

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

This is a story that should strike fear into the hearts of choreographers everywhere -- and galvanize them to secure their rights to their work.

This is the story of the day a dance company fired its mother and lost its soul.

This is the story of the day an artistic enterprise founded on collaboration, in a Dartmouth dance class in 1971, acted like a corporation, firing the very same dance teacher to whom it owed its existence in a Manhattan lawyer's office, after its relatively new corporate-minded executive director -- to whom the artistic directors had relinquished administrative authority -- apparently filled the board with his allies.

This is the story of a dance company which shows every intention of performing the work of a fired choreographer/director against her objections and without her supervision of the work, which the company apparently insists it owns.

This is a story that suggests that those worried about the wider consequences of the Martha Graham Center's staking its claim to much of Martha Graham's work on her having created it as an employee of the center -- as the center did during its successful court battle to retain the work -- were right to be concerned about the threat such a legal precedent would pose to other choreographers' rights to their own work.

When Alison Chase arrived at the all-male Dartmouth College 36 years ago to teach dance, she brought with her a heady resume, encompassing training with the grand ballerina Mia Slavenska, Merce Cunningham, and Murray Louis, as well as graduate school at UCLA. It was this background that helped her make professional dancers out of three scholarly jocks: Moses Pendleton, Jonathan Wolken, and Steve Johnson, later to be joined by Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy. "I tried to see that from the beginning they choreographed and performed and got used to performing and to bringing in pieces of choreography every day, the way a writer gets used to writing every day," Chase recounted to Tim Matson for his 1978 book "Pilobolus," published by Random House. She also set the youngsters up with their first performance opportunity in 1971, connecting them with Louis. Chase would soon join the company as a co-director and choreographer. Because her dance class spawned it -- because it was she who turned these men on to dance -- she has long been regarded as 'the mother of Pilobolus.'

On October 28, 2005, 'mom' got a bitter lesson in filial gratitude.

That was the day that Alison Chase sat in a Manhattan law office and watched helplessly as Pilobolus's board of trustees -- many of whose members had apparently been brought in by a new, corporate-minded executive director -- voted her off the board and out of the company, authorizing the executive director, Itamar Kubovy, to terminate her employment. Only Tracy would oppose the motion.

"I knew that the vote was rigged, or they would not have called the meeting," Chase told the Dance Insider last week, in her first interview since being fired. "As the votes rolled in -- half of the board members were on speaker phones for the meeting and e-mailed in their votes -- as they were doing the tally I bid them goodbye. When I left the room I congratulated the chairman on his choreography. It was a surreal moment to say the least. The president ran after me as I headed to the elevators -- thank God there was one at the floor with the doors open. He was going on about waiting to see what the votes were and I made some last remark about his barbaric nature and how he sure knew how to treat a lady as the doors to the elevator closed. I put on my sunglasses and wept until I was safely out of the city. Then I called my family and my lawyer to relay the outrage of the morning.

"The reason for my termination was that 'I did not negotiate in good faith,' which boiled down to me not signing over my copyrights to the board of directors." Chase also believes that the maneuvers to fire her were set in motion after she asked for a 'non-exclusivity' agreement, which would permit her to create non-dance works outside the context of Pilobolus. While she accepted the company's refusal, she says, the request prompted Kubovy -- who had initially encouraged her to create outside of Pilobolus -- to seek her removal. When the company hired Kubovy, it reportedly gave him authority over the artistic directors.

A member of the Pilobolus community, who asked not to be identified, confirms that the board fired Chase on October 28. "She knew that the meeting was being held to vote her off of the board," the person says. "She said that she had asked for the outline of what was to be discussed but did not receive that info, but the other board members had. As I know, the board was made to believe that Alison wanted to be out of the company and from Alison's words, this is definitely not what she wanted."

That was October 28, 2005. On October 31, Dan Feith -- the company's former longtime technical director, now working for Pendleton's company Momix -- broke the story of Chase's firing, which the Dance Insider followed up.

On November 1, 2005, Kubovy sent the Dance Insider an e-mail stating, in part: "Alison Chase has not been fired. She is currently an artistic director and employee of Pilobolus."

Contacted by the Dance Insider last week, Kubovy said the company would have no comment. Neither Barnett, Wolken, nor Tracy have responded to repeated e-mails requesting comment on Chase's firing, whether and why the company claims ownership of work she created with Pilobolus, and other issues raised by Chase. Neither the three directors nor Kubovy offered to comment on why, if the board voted to terminate Chase on October 28, 2005, Kubovy told the Dance Insider on November 1, 2005 that she had not been fired.

Because neither Kubovy nor the three remaining directors will comment on the record, the account in this story is necessarily Chase's, as supported substantially by Feith's initial accounts, the member of the Pilobolus community who asked that his or her name be withheld, and others who spoke on background. The Dance Insider welcomes comment from the remaining Pilobolus directors.

Chase has written to the company explicitly requesting it "not to perform my works, and asking them to disclose to the dance world their new reconfigured Pilobolus. I said I felt they should dare to relay to the world who they now are as an arts organization and perform only the works of the choreographers who remain in the company and continue to create. In their now corporate style they just muscle forward claiming ownership of everything....There is nothing on paper and there have been no communications from Pilobolus as to paying me for the works of mine that they will be performing at the Joyce."

According to Chase, the men who thanked the mother of their dance company by kicking her out of it predicate their claim of ownership to her work on the 2002 Federal court decision awarding most of Martha Graham's work to the Martha Graham Center, specifically as it pertains to the court's acceptance of the center's 'work-for-hire' case. The center had argued, successfully, that when Martha Graham essentially turned herself into a non-profit organization from which she received a salary, the work she created from that point on became work-for-hire -- and thus belonged to the center, not to her.

"The Pilobolus stand is that they own everything and they hold up their interpretation of the Martha Graham case as their justification," Chase says. "But I still am contesting their ownership and lay claim to my works."

Can -- or should -- the Graham decision be used by a board to justify claiming ownership from a living choreographer? Without asking him to take sides on the dispute between Pilobolus and Alison Chase, we put the question to Marvin Preston IV, the Graham Center's executive director during its successful court battle to assert ownership of most of the dancers over Graham's heir, Ron Protas.

Rebecca Jung on top of Kent Lindemer (left) and Adam Battelstein of Pilobolus in the premiere of Alison Chase and Michael Tracy's "Collideoscope" at the Joyce Theater, June 27, 1994. Photo by Julie Lemberger.


"The proper question," says Preston, "even or especially prior to the dispute is: who owns the dances? If Company owns a bunch of dances created by Choreographer, then there is nothing to prevent Company from proceeding as a corporate entity to eject from its ongoing operations the Choreographer of those dances (and such ejection has nothing to do with ownership of the dances). If Company does not own the dances, then Company has no say in who can use the dances other than through contractual arrangements that it may have made with the owner (such as a license which may or may not allow them to determine some bounded amount of sublicensing).

"Legal resolution of any such dispute does not come about by someone marshalling self-serving arguments to get what they want; it involves setting the dispute aside and first determining who owns what and who has what rights prior to the emergence of the dispute itself. Even if there were no dispute at Company, one could define (by virtue of the historically accrued set of actions relating to ownership of all of the various dances) who owns what dances. Such definition for a large body of dances created over a long period of time can be complicated (as the Graham case illustrates). That complexity arises from the particular facts of history (and not from anything else).

"The lesson from the Graham case is that any creator of dances (choreographer) can and should make explicit arrangements documented in writing which define the ownership of the dances which are created. If no explicit arrangements of this sort are made, then there are rules of law (legal principles and precedents) which define the ownership circumstances of each and every dance." (Preston emphasizes that his perspective is a layman's.)

"There is a continued discussion about 'who owns the work' that needs to be had in the dance world," Chase says. "The Balanchine Trust has developed a terrific model that protects the artists as well as the producing organization. I encourage all working artists to do some research. Get a contract and have a lawyer look it over. I know this is hard to think about when every penny is needed for production costs. When we created some of our classics we never dreamed they would last more than a few years.

"This is not just a personal issue but an industry issue, at least for those of us in contemporary dance. The ballet world seems in better shape because of the Balanchine precedent. I hope this not just a lesson for me but others in the field."

While the Chase case has broad implications for the field -- and thus should be heeded by choreographers everywhere -- it's important not to forget that the soul of one particular and special dance company is involved here too. And not just any company; a company that issued from the '60s, retaining the era's collaborative and communal spirit for 30 years (notwithstanding some bickering over the last few -- are not all families so?). That such a company could now have gone corporate makes the story especially poignant -- particularly for its extended family.

"I have tremendous gratitude, respect and admiration for the directors of Pilobolus, the artistic directors, who built the beautiful, collaborative, creative Pilobolus," the member of the Pilobolus community who asked that his or her name be withheld emphasizes. "I am stunned and saddened to realize that they hired someone" -- Kubovy -- "who ranks above all of them. This means that they can be fired. I am not sure how this slipped by them all, as they are all highly educated people. Maybe they were so tired of arguing with each other that they decided to trust a fifth party to make the decisions."

The person reserves a special love for Chase, who, in turn, "loves the dancers and is all about making art! She has continued to expand her horizons as a choreographer, by exploring work on stilts, on silks, and en l'air. She believes in nurturing each other as artists, and this is where she and I have such a strong connection.... Alison is a phenomenal human being with an amazing ability to inspire her dancers, and to create an open, playful, and nurturing environment for her dancers to thrive in. I can't say enough about how much Alison Chase has influenced my life as an artist and as a human being. She will be tremendously missed by the dancers of Pilobolus. She was always the one that cared about us and our input. I look forward to seeing her flourish with her newly found artistic freedom.

"It is a loss for Pilobolus artistically. As they continue to perform her work, maybe they will see her elegance and dignity and give to her what she has spent her life creating -- her work.

"I love Pilobolus and wish them success. I hope that the company will maintain the family, grass-roots atmosphere that has made the company so successful and so much fun to be a part of....

"Alison Chase is the mother of Pilobolus. She is the elegance and fairy dust that we all love. Each director has such valuable and unique perspectives on dance and the creative process. I feel that it is a tremendous loss to the company to have booted her out. But if this has occurred, then (they should) just let the dancers know what happened so that we can try to understand and support Alison and 'Pilobolus.'"

Presenters, as well, should let their audiences know what's happened, in my view. Joyce Theater executive director Linda Shelton has declined to say whether the theater will inform patrons of the company's upcoming season that Chase is no longer with Pilobolus, and that her works on the program are being performed without her consent and supervision. (Three of the 15 dances on the Joyce season, which opens next month, were choreographed solely by Chase -- "Bugonia," "Tsu Ku Tsu," and "Ben's Admonition"; she collaborated on two others -- the classics "Shizen" and "Sweet Purgatory.") Why the Joyce, which issues 'partial nudity' warnings to its audience every time a female dancer takes her shirt off, would not issue a 'partial Pilobolus' warning to its patrons -- indicating that the company is performing her work without the cooperation and consent of one of its key directors and choreographers -- is puzzling.

That director, meanwhile, will not be idle this summer. In August, under the aegis of Opera House Arts in Stonington, Maine, and Island Heritage Arts, she'll be directing "Quarryography," a two-week workshop set in the Settlement Quarry on Deer Isle, culminating in site-specific performances August 19 - 20 involving, besides the workshop participants, a 25-foot puppet that can roll (designed by Mia Kanazawa), steel band composer Nigel Chase, Pilobolus veteran Matt Kent and Carolyn Dorfman dancer Wendee Rogerson, Rick Weed and his 'performing excavator,' and a whole lot of granite.

For an appreciation of Alison Chase by longtime collaborator Rebecca Stenn (and which does not take sides in the current dispute), please click here. To read the Pilobolus cover story from the Dance Insider's inaugural issue, posted online today for the first time, please click here. More Buzz
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