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This Spring's Dance Insider coverage of Martha Graham is also sponsored by Nancy Reynolds, Doug Frank, Nora Ambrosio and Slippery Rock University, Karen Bradley, Barry Fischer and Frostburg State University, the Arts Paper, Scott Killian, Sharon Montella and Pine Manor College, Toba Singer, Esaias Johnson, Alice Helpern, and several anonymous donors. And by Karen Potter, Kelly Holt, and by the MFA students, faculty and Friends of Dance at Case Western Reserve University, where dancers receive professional level training in a conservatory setting, and who are are proud to support the Dance Insider's coverage of the Martha Graham Dance Company. To find out about becoming a DI sponsor, e-mail paul@danceinsider.com.

Flash News and Analysis, 4-26: Errand into the Legal Maze
If Protas is Defeated, Would Dancers Win the Battle but Lose the War?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK -- When the Federal District Court trial known as Graham v. Graham resumed in lower Manhattan Monday, the attorney for Ronald Protas emphasized that the trial was about who owned the works, not who deserved to own them. But while lawyers for defendant the Martha Graham Center have produced mountains of documentary evidence meant to support the claim that the former center director does not own many of Graham's ballets, Protas's erratic, ingratiating, spiteful, dissembling, un-mindful, vindictive, simpering and quite possibly demented personality has also been on trial.

Thursday's events, in which Protas took the stage, I mean stand, for a second straight day, centered on just how much diligence he had applied to applications for copyrighting Graham's dances.

To open, Graham Center attorney Katherine Forrest produced a battery of documents -- both sides have often used witnesses simply to introduce documentary exhibits into the record -- suggesting that after Graham died, Protas had not followed up on attorney recommendations that he investigate just what she owned.

The most damning interchange came when Protas said he could not recall receiving a faxed memo from Estate attorney Peter Stern, forwarding advice from another attorney, Allison Hirsch. In the December 17, 1992 memo, faxed to Protas on December 21, Hisch urged:

"...we should, once again, recommend to Ron that an investigation be made as to what rights the Estate actually owns and the status of copyright registrations if any, so that we can ensure that these rights are adequately protected and properly assigned."

Protas -- in a response perhaps more damning in its diction than in its content -- then testified that he could not recall receiving the document, but that Stern and Hirsch were in touch with another center attorney, and that he had "confirmed I owned the things."

"Your honor," Forrest explained to Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, "this is a document addressed directly to Mr. Protas."

The judge then asked, incredulously: "You're telling me you didn't get a letter addressed to you?"

In an explanation that was as familiar as it was confusing, Protas blamed his failure to receive the letter on what he said was Stern's incompetence, saying that ultimately, "I fired him."

Forrest then veered into familiar territory, raising the issue of blank Center stationary that Protas allegedly had the elderly Graham sign, the inference being that he could then later fill in the content of the letters and attribute them to Graham. She also suggested that a letter sent by Graham requesting that an attorney help her prepare a new will had "indicia of unreliability."

"This is just character assassination," objected Protas lawyer Judd Burstein, shooting up from the plaintiffs' table.

The judge, as she's often had to do in this case when either side ranges too far from the actual claims being contested, got the trial back on course: "We're not going to have a will contest in the courtroom. The question is what the will left, not whether the will is authentic."

It wasn't long before questions of authenticity reared their head again -- this time, involving $12,000 which Protas allegedly removed from a center bank account shortly after it severed its relationship with him in the year 2000.

Protas said it was all a misunderstanding, produced when a Citibank clerk filled out a slip for him "because I was having trouble with my eyes that day." When he discovered that instead of withdrawing the money from one of his own accounts as he'd requested, the employee had taken it from the center account, he was incensed and wrote the bank immediately to insist it replace the money in the proper account. That letter, he said, should be in the bank's records.

At times, the center attorney seemed particularly to be reaching, as when she questioned Protas as to why a card for his personal photography business listed the center's address.

At other times, the manner of Protas's responses has been more assailable than any factual culpability brought out by a line of questioning. For example, Forrest zoomed in on several applications Protas filed for copyright registration in which, she revealed, he had failed to note that the works involved had been previously "published" -- the term here meaning that they had been circulated on film. On the one hand, Protas's answers revealed a lack of responsibility: He relied on others to actually read the applications he was signing, he said, which the judge found odd. On the facts, though, the judge appeared not to give such inaccuracies on the copyright applications much weight.

It's possible, though, that rather than being meant to indict him for the specifics -- withholding, unintentionally or not, information required for a copyright application -- what Forrest was really doing was trying to paint a picture of Mr. Protas as someone who makes ill-considered claims, omitting facts because they're inconvenient or perhaps because he's just careless.

Or, she may be simply keeping Protas on the stand to better reveal his character to the judge, who in this phase of the trial has moved from rebuking to simply ignoring some of Mr. Protas's inappropriate witness stand behavior.

The weather in New York has veered from 95 to 40 degrees over the past week, leaving many coughing, including this reporter and including Protas. Finally, the latter exclaimed Thursday, "Sorry, your honor. I'll get mints next time."

"Yes," said the judge, "I would suggest that you suck something."

At this point, a helpful citizen got up and gave the man some mints.

"I've just received a very nice gift," beamed Protas, who on the stand appears intent on creating the impression of a naive schoolboy. Crumpling open the wrapping of a morsel and popping it into his mouth, he paused and turned to the judge: "Your honor, would you like one?"

The judge ignored the witness. Less hard to ignore is what the episode demonstrates about the man who has become perhaps the most reviled person in dance, and the trait most responsible for that revulsion: This is a man with no boundaries. When that lack of boundaries just goes to bad courtroom demeanor, it's pretty harmless -- in fact it's most harmless to him. But when it goes to the frequent forays by this non-artist into interfering with the art, especially in the period from Graham's death in 1991 to his ouster in 2000, this chutzpah has had more serious consequences and left Protas -- and the company while under his direction -- with few friends.

And yet, watching the most reviled man in dance prove why this is so over the past year, one can't help but think of the American Civil Liberties Union's willingness -- even avidity -- to defend the right of Nazis to hold demonstrations. This is not of course to equate Mr. Protas with the Nazis; rather, it's to make the point that our beliefs are most truly tested when we have to, and are able to, stick to them even when it means defending those whose behavior is almost indefensible.

Consider, if you will, the same scenario but with different players:

What if the choreographer were not Martha Graham, but Merce Cunningham?

What if the person to whom Cunningham left what he owned was not a willful, non-artist interloper, such as Protas, but one of his beloved dancers -- an artist?

What if a Cunningham company board, headed not by someone like the respected and esteemed Francis Mason, who leads the Graham board, but by someone like, let's say, Ron Protas, then tried to say that Cunningham couldn't leave the dancer the rights to his works because he didn't own them? What if it said he didn't own them because after all, he may have been a genius, but he was a genius for hire, an employee of the board, and thus it owns whatever he produced?

There is no question that the Graham company, and Dance, would be better off in the short-term if ownership of Graham's dances was maintained by the center, and not the loco Mr. Protas. (No insult is meant; this is how mucht of the dance world thinks of him.) It is also questionable if the work would even survive if Mr. Protas were given control over it. And who would want to plunge the dancers back into the misery of toiling under his twisted direction?

I only ask: what Pandora's box are we opening? It always starts by their taking away the rights of those we all agree don't deserve them anyway. Today in our country, our rights are being taken away as we speak, but we acquiesce -- as many did in the 1950s -- because after all, it's not us, but the "terrorists" who are the targets.

There's a Bertolt Brecht poem that goes something like this:

They came to get the Cripples, and I did nothing. After all, I am not a Cripple.

They came to get the Catholics, and I did nothing. After all, I am not Catholic.

They came to get the Muslims, and I did nothing. After all, I am not Muslim.

They came to get the Jews, and I did nothing. After all, I am not Jewish.

They came to get me, and there was no one left to stop them.

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