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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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,