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The 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 with artists."

-- 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

By Paul Ben-Itzak
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 month.'"

"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 this.

-- 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?

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