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Flash News & Analysis, 3-27: Martha Lives!
Testifies at Graham Trial, in Body of Ron Protas
Didn't Much Care for Her Company, School, or Center

"There is no such thing as Martha Graham technique. It is variable, expanding, alive. It must not be thought of as fixed."

--The Real Martha Graham, quoted in "Martha," by Agnes de Mille

"This whole discussion is so irrelevant. (With) my 13 years of training in Graham technique, I'm teaching what I've learned in my body, and no one can change that, (or) own that."

-- Martin Lofsnes, principal dancer, the Martha Graham Dance Company

"The wonderful thing about Martha in her good days was her generosity. So many people stole Martha's unique personal vocabulary, consciously or unconsciously, and performed it in concerts. I have never once heard Martha say, 'So-and-so has used my choreography.' "

--Glen Tetley, quoted in "Martha," op. cit.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

By the time she died, Martha Graham had all but lost faith in the company, school, and center which bore her name, Graham heir Ron Protas suggested in Federal court Monday, producing appalled gasps among the Graham dancers in the courtroom.

Protas, who is suing the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance, and several board members for whom he worked for 28 years to stop them from using the Graham name, made his statements as he concluded three days of testimony in the Southern District Court. Deposed as artistic director of the Graham company last year, Protas recently set up his own "Martha Graham School and Dance Foundation," and has said his school would be affiliated with a university. Where lawyers for the existing Graham center and school have tried to establish that Graham and the institutions which bear her name are interchangeable, Protas and his staid attorney, James McGuire, have tried to separate the two.

"When, if ever, do you recall Ms. Graham speaking to you about her hopes for the school?" McGuire asked Protas Monday in the courtroom of Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum.

"She would like her school to continue," Protas answered, "but affiliated with a university, so the quality of the school could continue to be maintained."

"And her company?" McGuire probed.

"She was not happy with the way the company looked during her last few years."

And the Graham Center?, McGuire continued.

"She hoped it would dissolve."

At this fiery Graham Center attorney Dale M. Cendali shot up and demanded Protas produce documents to support his claims. He replied that he could produce none...except Graham's will, in which, he pointed out, she didn't leave anything to the center or school.

Graham principal dancer Martin Lofsnes was not surprised at the sudden appearance of Martha Graham on the witness stand, through Protas.

"He always claimed to channel Martha," said Lofsnes, the dancers' union representative. "He starts everything with, 'This is what Martha wanted.''"

Former Graham dancer Sandra Kaufmann questioned why after 28 years of being paid by the Graham Center, it had suddenly "become convenient" for Protas to "discredit the center."

Kaufmann also bristled at Protas's contention that Graham wanted the school to be affiliated with a university -- coincidentally, the plan Protas has proposed for the Graham school he would like to set up to replace the one already in existence.

"We had a lot of pride in the school -- that was cultivated in us" by Graham, she and others said.

While the dancers in the court -- from the main company and the Graham Ensemble -- gasped in shocked disbelief at Protas's remarks, they were exultant at what many Graham dancers view as their day in court after years under Protas, years in which, like children in a dysfunctional family, they felt powerless to speak up.

"What's happening now was in my wildest of dreams," said Alessandra Prosperi, a principal dancer with the company. "We dreamt of this happening for years, and in all the years no one had the courage. Unfortunately we had to close up the company" to make it happen. "It's hard on us, because we are not performing, but it's hard on him also, because he's not making any business."

Protas has declined to comment to The Dance Insider, saving his remarks instead for The New York Times, with whom he huddled, laughing and smiling, during a break Monday.

The Graham board suspended operations late last spring, roughly the same time frame during which it ousted Protas, first as artistic director and later as a board member.

While the Graham heir, as sole trustee of the Martha Graham Trust, has the power to rent the Graham ballets to other companies, he has apparently largely been unable to do so, in part because of a boycott organized by the dancers. They have asked other companies not to rent the ballets from the trust until the dispute is resolved, and have refused to assist in staging them.

Judge Cedarbaum denied a motion Monday by Cendali to admit the dancers' letter urging the boycott into evidence, saying, "I don't think that this has much relevance."

Protas's cross-examination concluded with the following exchange with Cendali and the judge.

"Isn't it true that you wrote to the Center's landlord" after the breach with the board, Cendali asked, "and encouraged him not to lease to the center?"

"I wrote a draft," conceded Protas. "I can't recall whether I sent it."

Cendali then produced a fax which Protas agreed appeared to be from the office of Camille Gardner, who had provided space to the trust.

"Do you deny sending (this) letter to the landlord?" she pressed him.

"It might have been sent," Protas allowed. "I don't know that I authorized it."

After a day's worth of aggressive grilling by Cendali, a haggard-looking Protas shook his head and shoulders as he stepped down from the stand and returned to the Plaintiffs' table. "Whew!" he said, with a wan smile at his attorneys, who continued looking straight ahead.

Then the Defense case began, with Cendali handing off to Victor A. Kovner, a spitting image for longtime Graham board member Gregory Peck as the lanky and laconic Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Kovner began by questioning Ciro Gamboni, a former tax attorney and board member for the center. Gamboni was brought on by Protas shortly after Graham died, as the Graham heir grappled with estate taxes, to find a way to help Protas make a "contribution" to the Graham center, Gamboni said. That contribution eventually amounted to a 60-40, Protas-center split in proceeds of some Graham-related income, Gamboni testified. However, he also said that a colleague told him it would not be possible to jointly register trademarks for the Graham name and technique under the names of Protas and the center. (McGuire later introduced into evidence copies of service and trademark certificates.)

Next up was longtime board member Judith Schlosser, with whom Kovner picked up a thread in Monday's session that was never completely untangled. The center and school's case rests largely on proving that Graham -- who left Protas everything she "owned" -- did in fact not exclusively own her name, because she had already ceded the school the right to use it when it became its own non-profit in the 1950s. Because the center would also like to continue to be able to use the name for the company, it has tried to prove that just as it is impossible to distinguish Graham from the school, it's impossible to differentiate the school from the company. Among other things, the center attorneys have tried to show that the boards for the two were interchangeable.

Despite some helpful prodding of witnesses by the judge to clarify this point, the issue still appeared foggy by the end of the day, when Schlosser told the court the officers of the two boards were essentially the same by the time Graham passed away in 1991.

Kovner also asked Schlosser about a licensing agreement the board and Protas signed in 1999 which enabled their parting of ways by setting up a protocol for Protas's future relationship with the company, including renting of the Graham ballets to it and fees and other compensation he would receive.

Also crucial to the center's defense is its contention that by entering into the agreement, Protas was abrogating his own responsibilities as a member of the board.

"We think the licensing agreement was entered into without the knowledge that there were certain questions in terms of ownership," Kovner told The Dance Insider, "and that he breached his fiduciary responsibility (as a board member and artistic director) in not advising the board of these."

If the most stinging testimony by Protas came through his channeling of Graham and her alleged feelings about the center, school, and company, the harshest from the other side surfaced when Kovner focused Schlosser on the reasons for Protas's expulsion from the company.

"He was very difficult to work with," said Schlosser, who joined the board in 1975. "He created turmoil and torment with the staff and dancers." Her understanding, she said, was that donors would be less likely to continue giving with Protas still around.

Kovner then asked Schlosser about a meeting that took place at the Harkness Dance Foundation in the late '90s, at which she, current acting board chair Francis Mason, development/executive director Todd Dellinger, and Harkness director Theodore Bartwink were present.

"What did Mr. Bartwink say," Kovner asked.

"Mr. Bartwink said 'If you got rid of Ron, you'd be a lot better off.' We would be more likely to receive funds from his foundation and others that give funds to dance companies."

A similar meeting took place with New York City's commissioner of cultural affairs, Schlosser said, in which he promised to arrange a meeting with funders once Protas was deposed.

Other details that emerged yesterday were charges by center attorneys, echoed outside the courtroom by Graham dancers, that after his break with the center Protas tried to interfere with and impose conditions on a planned summer program at a university last summer.

The day, like the last four years of the psycho-history of this company of Dance's original journeyer into the psyche, proved a true errand into the maze -- of uncharted questions of trademark law, backroom politics at American dance's oldest company, and the mind of Ron Protas.

In keeping with the grand mythic scale of both the company's founder and this epic battle, principal dancer Martin Lofsnes predicted that the company would rise "like the Phoenix." Perhaps, like Oedipus, it just needed to be burnt to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.

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