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Buzz, 11-2: Chase Chased?
Pilobolus Accused of Firing its Mother (and why choreographers everywhere
should be concerned)
"The Pilobolus board
of directors appears to be playing high level corporate hardball
-- Dan Feith, former
technical director, Pilobolus Dance Theatre
"This is an internal
matter.... Chase has not been fired."
-- Itamar Kubovy, executive
director, Pilobolus Dance Theatre
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider
Alison Chase, considered
the 'mother' of Pilobolus because it was her Dartmouth dance class
that spawned the dance-theater company 34 years ago, helping to
turn a couple of jocks into choreographers, has been fired, the
company's former long-time technical director charged Monday. While
the company's relatively new business-minded executive director
immediately denied the charges, if true, the clash between the troupe,
a creatively collaborative enterprise that issued from the communal
spirit of the '60s, and one of its four remaining artistic directors
could have implications far beyond the chemically calamitous effect
of removing Chase's female energy and choreographically broader
world view from the delicate Pilobolus alchemy. Centered as it may
be over Chase's right to retain the rights to her own work, the
dispute could have far-reaching consequences for all choreographers.
"On Friday, October
28, 2005, Pilobolus fired Alison Chase," Dan Feith, who spent 12
years as the company's technical director and still maintains close
ties to it, said Monday on his new blog, Blogobolus, continuing, "Alison is (was?) a founding
member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre. She has spent 32 years with Pilobolus
as a dancer / artistic director / choreographer / board member.
What prompted Pilobolus to fire her? Rumor has it that she was fired
because she refused to sign away the rights to her choreography.
Allegedly, she was not bargaining in 'good faith' with the Pilobolus
board of directors. I've heard that if she agrees to relinquish
the rights to her life's work and sign a non-disparagement agreement
within three weeks she'll receive a cash settlement. If not....
It's a damn shame."
Chase did not respond
to e-mailed requests for comments yesterday, as she did not to a
request sent October 13, when rumors of her departure first began
circulating in the extended Pilobolus community. "I think her lawyers
have suggested that she not go public," explained Feith. Also last
month, the DI contacted co-artistic director Robby Barnett to ask
him about Chase's situation. "This is a long and interesting conversation
of which Alison is only a small part," Barnett said in an e-mailed
response, prior to a discussion which he requested be off the record.
The DI yesterday sent
a copy of Feith's claim to Barnett, co-artistic directors Michael
Tracy and Jonathan Wolken, and executive director Itamar Kubovy,
as well as a series of related questions, requesting comment. Except
for Barnett's reply that a response would be forthcoming, none of
the co-artistic directors responded. Instead, we received the following
response from Kubovy.
"This is an internal
matter and out of respect for this crucial process, I ask that this
matter be allowed to resolve before it is publicly discussed," said
the executive director, who was brought in about two years ago to
make the organization's operations more business-like, and who is
credited with expanding its touring, to the extent that Pilobolus
has had to add a third 'satellite' company (in addition to 'P6'
and 'P2,' a duet company) to meet the demand from presenters around
the world. "Chase has not been fired," he said. "She is currently
an artistic director and employee of Pilobolus. For the last ten
months, Alison has been working with the Pilobolus board to redefine
her relationship to the company. Everyone at Pilobolus -- from the
artistic directors to the members of the board of trustees -- certainly
hopes that our fruitful relationship with Alison over the last 35
years will continue into the future."
Informed of Kubovy's
denial, Feith told the DI, "I certainly understand why they want
to keep the negotiations secret -- or 'internal.' It's a little
harder as a non-profit company to keep everything secret." Later,
he added, on his blog, "For the record, Pilobolus reports that Alison
hasn't been fired. I'm sure they believe it. Forgive me if I don't.
I can believe that she may still 'technically' be an employee. It's
very like Pilobolus to say something like 'You're fired as of next
"I think Alison was
fighting to retain some measure of artistic control over her works,"
Feith told the DI, "as well as the right to take her new works in
a direction that fulfilled her as an artist. The other three artistic
directors are not being taken to task like Alison is.... Until a
couple of years ago Alison had supporters on the board. These people
were voted off the board shortly after the arrival of the executive
director.... The Pilobolus board of directors appears to be playing
high level corporate hardball with artists."
While I salute Dan Feith's
courage and trust his intentions in coming forward on behalf of
his colleague, in the interests of fair play I need to relate that
another person close to the company, neutral on the current dispute,
notes that there was some negativity around Feith's departure from
Pilobolus. While I have not asked him directly about this, he did
volunteer, "I really hold no ill will towards Pilobolus. I'm not
a disgruntled ex-employee. (I'm very well gruntled, thank you.)
I simply think that, in whatever direction the company is headed,
they are handling things very poorly."
I have to add that knowing
Dan Feith, my impression is that he is not a person who carries
a grudge on his shoulders or has hidden agendas but that rather,
his motivation here is a) the investment in and concern of a dedicated
former contributing artist for an artistic enterprise to which he
gave 12 years of his life, and where he now sees corporate concerns
trumping artistic ones; and b) the loyalty, dedication, and love
Alison Chase inspires in all those who have worked with her, from
children in Cleveland to dancers in Connecticut and Vermont, to
presenters and, yes, extending even to cynical journalists.
Indeed, while current
and former company dancers and other employees have been reluctant
to discuss the current dispute on the record, some have expressed
worries over how the departure of Chase would ineluctably change
the chemistry -- and art -- of the company to which they remain
devoted. As more than one former dancer with the troupe has told
me, it was the alchemy of Chase's female energy with the masculine
energy of Barnett, Wolken, Tracy and, early on, co-founder Moses
Pendleton that made the company so uniquely provocative, endearing
and collaborative, with Chase the yin to the boys' yang. While the
aesthetic of the men -- who, except for Tracy, don't see a lot of
dance by other choreographers -- sometimes seems stuck in Dartmouth,
Chase has added a lyrical and sometimes more sophisticated aspect.
She brought the company elegance. If Chase is leaving Pilobolus
it could spell aesthetic disaster, or at least a major artistic
regression. (That's my opinion as a critic, anyway.)
As for Chase: While
declining to weigh in on the current controversy, Josie Coyoc, a
loyal veteran who still dances with the company and who also danced
with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, was happy to comment generally on
Chase's contribution to Pilobolus.
"I really respect the
works that Alison created for herself and with the dancers," Coyoc
told the DI yesterday. "Her ability to guide us respectfully to
create beautiful, moving, fun, funny, gentle, sensual, satisfying
works is a true testament to her care for the dancers and the audience
and herself. I have always enjoyed working with her. She has been
honing her craft as a choreographer and her work can stand on its
own. As a member of Pilobolus, it has always been exciting to be
a part of the creative process, because she really allows you to
shine at your best."
Here are some of my
own thoughts on the situation:
Moves which could profoundly
affect Pilobolus's artistic issue are not strictly an "internal"
matter, as Mr. Kubovy would have it, for a couple of reasons:
-- As a non-profit entity,
Pilobolus derives benefits from the public mien that therefore give
the public a practical investment or stake in its future, including
the right to be concerned by personnel moves which could drastically
alter its artistic product. The jettisoning of Alison Chase, if
true, would both alter the company's creative output and, perhaps
more fundamentally, to the degree it indicates a corporatization
of the one company that -- for all its commercial appeal -- has
remained true to the collaborative/communal spirit of the '60s,
shift the very nature and endanger the soul of the fungus.
-- More immediately,
the broad community of Pilobolus alumni, as well as Pilheads (and
media hangers-on), also has a right to be concerned and to know
if Alison Chase is being shoved out the door -- and not be spun
on the subject. Mr. Kubovy states, "This is an internal matter and
out of respect for this crucial process, I ask that this matter
be allowed to resolve before it is publicly discussed." Mr. Kubovy,
I have news for you: Pilobolus is not a private company; where exactly
do you get off executive directing it as if you're the CEO of a
Fortune 500 company whose ownership gives you the right to determine
its fate behind closed doors? No, Mr. Kubovy, the true stock-holders
in Pilobolus Dance Theatre are the dancers and technicians who have
forged it over the years, the fans and journalists who have supported
it and, most of all -- MOST OF ALL -- the artistic director/choreographers,
chief among them ALISON CHASE, without whom THERE WOULD BE NO PILOBOLUS.
Nearly 35 years ago, those young men walked into Alison Chase's
class as athletes and emerged as artists. She deserves better than
-- More broadly (and
even if you hate Pilobolus, please listen), as the issue of a choreographer's
right to her intellectual property has been raised here, more legitimately,
I think, than it was by Ron Protas and his allies at the New York
Times in his battle to retain the rights to the work of Martha Graham,
the entire dance community also has a vested interest in this case,
an interest which needs be be addressed NOW, while the situation
is still in flux -- and not a year from now by an after-the-fact
"Alison Chase has left citing artistic differences" press release
from Mr. Kubovy.
And finally, to Robby
Barnett, I would say: There certainly is another side to this story,
a side which goes to explaining certain necessary -- and healthy
-- institutional changes at the dance company we all love. Mr. Barnett
gave an eloquent case for this side and these changes -- a context,
essentially -- in our off-the-record discussion of two weeks ago.
With the best of intentions, I would request that Mr. Barnett now
allow me to share those comments with the public.
And to Pilobolus institutionally
-- by which I mean the board -- I would say: Who are you?