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The Buzz, 9-23: All the News that's Fit to Spit
The Gray Lady Blurs the Lines

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

These are contrary days at the New York Times. In its editorial pages, Times columnists, notably Paul Krugman, have fearlessly criticized the Bush Administration when it makes things up. But in its reporting of dance news, the paper has been enabling some bizarre world-views. First, its European cultural correspondent described William Forsythe as relatively unknown in the United States. (To non-dance specialist journalists living abroad, maybe.) Next, it gave irresponsible credence to claims that the Bolshoi Ballet had fired a ballerina because she was fat. And this past Saturday, the Times's Jennifer Dunning in effect likened the Martha Graham Dance Company's fight to retain the rights to Graham's ballets to the issue of illegal downloading of music.

The lead of Sophia Kishkovsky's September 17 story on the firing of Bolshoi dancer Anastasia Volochkova, replete with tired cliches about ballet, was more fitting for a tabloid than a paper that normally offers some of the most serious dance criticism in daily journalism:

"One of Russia's best-known ballerinas and post-communist celebrities was fired today by the Bolshoi Theater after a war of insults over whether she was fit for a pas de deux.... Theater officials are charging the ballerina, Anastasia Volochkova, with one of ballet's deadly sins: they say she has become too fat."

To support this contention, Kishkovsky cites a Bolshoi publicist, Katerina Novikova, as saying, "She is heavy for a ballerina; she is hard to lift." The ballerina, says the reporter, responded by speaking of "mysterious forces working against her -- she wouldn't identify them -- and also said theater administrators, working on behalf of those forces, did not like her and had plotted to push her out."

The reporter does cite Volochkova and others as saying weight or height should not be an issue in ballet, but the writer ignores these arguments by persuading the dancer to allow the New York Times to measure her, supposedly with a view towards finding out whether she is, in fact, of an "unwieldy" height.

Kishkovsky's story is misleading on the case in hand and, in the larger picture, potentially hazardous to the health of young dancers.

According to Bolshoi insiders, the dispute between Volochkova and the Bolshoi does in fact boil down to a personality dispute. The Times allows for that possibility, certainly, but it's not the way the story is framed. Volochkova stands accused of the "deadly sin" of being too fat to dance, and the rest of the story is built around that contention. Meanwhile, at least one important detail that supports the political basis of the firing is left out. While noting that the dancer was offered a contract extension through December 31, the paper neglects to mention that this would be one day before the Bolshoi's new artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, starts work.

By enabling the Bolshoi's (alleged) point of view that Volochkova was in fact fired because she was "too fat" -- it's even inferred that one of her partners was hospitalized after dancing with her -- the Times will no doubt help produce a new generation of young dancers who think they must starve themselves in order to win and maintain a job in dance. (At presstime, Novikova had not responded to a Dance Insider request to confirm her comments to the Times.)

It's no secret to dancers that the Times has for many years enabled Ron Protas's fantasies that he owns the work of Martha Graham. Ever since Protas took the Martha Graham Center to court three years ago, in a losing battle to wrest Martha's name, technique, and ballets from her school and company, the Times has extended that support to enabling Protas's legal spin on his claim: This is not about one non-dancer attempting to usurp the rights of Graham dancers to perform the work that's in their bodies -- it's about trying to deprive choreographers of the right to their ownwork!

I guess even the Times's editors must have gotten tired of that spin -- or maybe they read Federal District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum's opinion in favor of the Center and were disabused of it -- because now the Times dance writers are trying a new spin on Protas's spin: The fight over Graham's works is just like the debate over online music piracy!

This, anyway, was Jennifer Dunning's premise for giving Protas another day in the court of public opinion, albeit with the same old arguments. Here's the lead to Saturday's story:

"Contentious debates over artistic ownership generally seem to revolve around online music piracy or Mickey Mouse. But dance is facing unexpected and vexing questions about artists' rights as well. Do choreographers own their dances? Or are they simply employees who give up ownership to organizations that commission or support their work?" She continues: "As dance moves out of studio and into the world of corporate support, such issues have become more urgent.... Stories of musicians and writers losing the rights -- and the royalties -- to their work are familiar. But the problem has not really cropped up in dance until recently."

In point of fact, the Graham Center to which Cedarbaum awarded the rights to the work a year ago was not just a commissioner of the ballets or a "supporter" of Graham; it was the not-for-profit entity she set up so that she could afford to continue to create the work. The Times has been spinning the case as a fight over choreographers' rights to their work for a long time. One might have thought the paper would shut up, even if Protas (who has appealed) won't, after reading the judge's soundly reasoned opinion, which was based on the specifics of this case, not on a re-thinking of authors' rights to their works. In a word, Graham (as, to be fair, Dunning notes towards the end of her story) sold her school to the not-for-profit entity that would become the Graham Center, in return for which she got a salary and the Graham organization the not-for-profit status and tax exemptions that came with it.

But no, the Times has used every opportunity, not excluding reviews, to raise the spectre of the loss of choreographers' rights portended by the Graham victory.

So what's the excuse for regurgitating this tired old claim once again? "In the latest twist," writes Dunning, "several prominent names in dance and theater have joined the grueling legal battle over the rights to Martha Graham's name and work, which has once again spurred a lively debate over a dancer's artistic legacy."

In the mind of Ron Protas and the pages of the Times, maybe, but Dunning's supporting material is weak.

There may well be "several" "names" who have filed fr briefings in support of Protas's appeal of Judge Cedarbaum's ruling, but Dunning mentions just three: Theater director Gordon Davidson, Joffrey Ballet of Chicago director Gerald Arpino, and American Dance Festival director Charles Reinhart.

If Reinhart's right to speak as an elder statesman on dance issues is unquestionable, his objectivity on this particular issue is not. In sharing Reinhart's remarks favorable to Protas's claim, what Dunning leaves out is that when the Graham company suspended operations in 2000, it had to withdraw from the ADF, a few days before it was scheduled to open the season. Reinhart certainly had a right to be miffed, and maybe even the right to approach the dancers and Protas separately to try to save the season. (The dancers refused to work under Protas.) And his opinion supporting Protas's claim might not be influenced by this history. But Dunning's readers had a right to know that as concerns the Graham company, Charles Reinhart is not necessarily a neutral party. (The company has not been invited back to ADF since.)

Dunning also quotes Reinhart -- and it's a familiar refrain to Times readers -- as saying, "The whole structure of the Martha Graham Dance Company and its legal entities was to support Martha, not the other way around."

I asked Graham executive director Marvin Preston about this point. "It is not the case that the citizens of the State of New York created a structure to support Martha Graham," Preston began, referring to the not-for-profit organization set up at Graham's behest in 1956, initially for her school. "It is the case that the legislators of the State of New York created a bunch of tax exemptions and incentives to apply to organizations that wished to conform to the requirements of qualifying for the benefits flowing therefrom. The benefits include an exemption from taxation on income, possible exemption from the payment of sales taxes, providing tax deductions to American tax filers who make and disclose contributions to qualifying not for profit organizations," and others. "The requirements are fairly simple: The organization must have as its raison d'etre a purpose that the government finds beneficial to the citizenry and worthy of receiving the benefits described."

In other words, the state had made an investment in the work, by granting Graham's Center a not-for-profit status that, among other things, exempted it from certain taxes. (Dunning does excerpt a letter from Graham to her mother in which she explains how the not-for-profit status will make her life easier.) Thus Graham's ownership of the works -- and her right to give them away to Protas -- is called into question not just because she created many of them as an employee of the company, but because the state of New York -- the citizens -- were vested too. That's why New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer weighed in on the side of the defendant Graham organization.

And speaking of investments, Reinhart also tells Dunning, "These problems would never have existed 50 years ago, because the concept of a penny being made by a choreographer or from a dance was unheard of. So now that the commercial aspect of making money has prevailed in this nonprofit world of dance, and the valuable asset is the dance itself -- hey, that's a success story. Now we've got to straighten it out and make sure we keep that value with the creator, the choreographer."

Dance could certainly use more commercialism -- better promotion, for one thing -- but "making money," strictly speaking, is not a question for a not-for-profit company. "The single key distinction between not-for-profit organizations and for-profit organizations," explains Preston, is that "not-for-profits cannot have any shareholders. That's all there is to it. Where a for-profit organization can make money and reinvest it in operations, growth, equipment, new business, buildings --anything including distributing those profits to shareholders in the form of dividends -- a not-for-profit cannot. All of the gain from operations (if there is any) must be reused by applying it to the purpose of the organization. No one is allowed legally to personally benefit from the existence or operation of a not-for-profit. Period."

(Author's Note: The first headline above borrows exactly from Bill Sokol.)




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