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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 Opinion, 5-7: The Graham Case
If Protas Wins, Martha Will Die a Second Death

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

SAN FRANCISCO -- Of the 191 ballets created by Modern Dance pioneer Martha Graham over eight decades, only 70 survive. And those ballets could perish forever and Martha Graham's name with them if a federal district court declares former Martha Graham Center director Ron Protas the owner of the ballets. But if Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum buys the Martha Graham Center's argument that it owns the ballets -- or at least those created since 1956, when the center was formed and Graham became its employee -- the rights of other choreographers to the work they created could also be in danger.

As framed by Protas's attorney, Judd Burstein, the Graham Center's central claim --that it owns the work created since 1956 because Graham was its employee -- is "an offensive notion. People should be wondering why they should be supporting an institution that is so antithetical to the rights of dancers. The concept that a choreographer like Martha Graham is a worker for hire is offensive." The board, Burstein says, is "treating her just like a janitor."

On a global scale, Burstein's claim seems logical. But practically speaking, if the Graham work is consigned to Protas --a non-artist who has never taken a dance class in his life, and who would have difficulty finding a real Graham dancer to stage the work --it could indeed be relegated to the dustbin of history.

As to his claims that the Graham Center is antithetical to the rights of dancers, the, er, Graham dancers -- who unlike Protas, built the Graham work on their bodies and who keep it alive -- would seem to disagree. They have not only sided with the Graham board against their former director, but when they take the stage Thursday night at City Center for the first time in two years, they will be dancing for free. Even the dancers union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, has not insisted that the dancers be paid, agreeing that the most important goal is that the company get back on its feet again. Protas, by contrast, has reaped, by Graham Center estimates, more than $600,000 from licensing of and royalties for the Graham ballets he didn't create to other companies, including a whopping $225,000 from the Dutch National Ballet. (Most of these deals were consummated before the current legal action.)

(If you want to play follow the money, by the way, in figuring out why Protas is doing all this, look to the fact that ICM, Protas's agent, collects 20% of all licensing and royalty fees. If there were no Graham company to perform the ballets, the value of their rental to other companies would presumably go up, making for an extra incentive to Protas and his enabler, ICM, for the company's dissolution.) Protas was able to rent the ballets because, initially, he reached an agreement with the Center whereby he would remove himself from the directorship of the company and license the ballets to the center and other companies. But the center pulled out of the licensing agreement after, the way it tells the story, Protas continued to attempt to meddle in the company's affairs. When he filed suit to stop it from performing the ballets, the center responded with a defense whose central principle is that yes, Graham's will leaves Protas everything she owned, but she doesn't say exactly what she owns.

Summarizing the principal issue in the case when testimony concluded last Monday, Cedarbaum confirmed that the case was essentially about what Graham owned at the time of her death in 1991. "What is becoming more and more the principal issue in this trial is whether works created after 1956 were works for hire," the judge said. "The law in this case is not terribly complicated.... Its application here is complex."

The center has introduced voluminous documents to make its case that, at least since 1956, when Graham formed the non-profit entity that would become the Graham Center (encompassing both the dance company and the school), Graham was an employee and her work thus work for hire. However, taking a hint from the judge's noting, in her 2001 quashing of Protas's claim to own the Graham name and trademark, that Protas was not a dancer, center attorneys have also tried to make their case through expert testimony of dancers, including Stuart Hodes, Therese Capucilli, Chirstine Dakin, and Janet Eilber. "This is what it's all about," longtime Graham board member Judith Schlosser told the Dance Insider after watching these legends testify last Monday, with the judge in rapt attention.

Dakin, who worked with Graham, told the judge that Graham "frequently said that (Protas) didn't understand the work." And Capucilli testified to the extraordinary process involved in reconstructing Graham's "Harlequinade" and "Imperial Gesture" -- even for Capucilli, one of Graham's star proteges. Without the aid of these dancers in staging the work, Protas would be left with a cache of bright and shiny treasures which he has not the muscles to actually carry out of the treasure chest and deliver to anyone else.

The ballets of George Balanchine continue to circulate and breathe because of the Balanchine dancers who stage the work for the Balanchine Trust. Protas, whose meddling (a non-dancer, he often insisted on giving corrections) and dictatorial attitude has alienated Graham dancers, would not be able to draw on Graham dancers to stage the work. Without dancer involvement in setting the Graham ballets, the work would die. And not just the work. Martha Graham's technique is at the base of the spine of Modern Dance. And her name, once established as part of the Modern Art canon but flickering with the blows inflicted by Protas, has insured historical respectability to an art form that is still, in many people's minds, a wisp of the wind. Imagine a United States without George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King. Our history is what gives us credence as a nation. Having only existed for a little more than a hundred years, when Isadora Duncan first started performing her free-spirited interpretations of Greek themes, Modern Dance still struggles to get a foothold on the consciousness of the world. When I first saw a Modern Dance concert, it seemed to have little form and therefore little traction. When you see a dance which owes its origins to Graham technique -- and these include everything from the dances of Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Alvin Ailey to those of Pilobolus and Momix to the newest baby at WAX or Joyce Soho -- it has firmament. It has a technique which rivals ballet's in its rich structure. It has history and weight. It has permanence.

This technique, Graham's own charismatic personality, and, most of all, the dancers who helped her create the work and who have perpetuated it, are responsible for the work not just being considered as dance, but in the pantheon of great Modern Art Ron Protas (and his enablers, be they lawyers, agents, or sycophantic assistants), who has the nauseating temerity to refer to Graham by her first name, suggesting a familiarity he'll never never have, is interested in perpetuating only one thing: His bank account.

The attorneys for the center have produced reams of documents including, for example, letters in which officials from the center, in correspondence with others who want to perform the work, re[resent the center as the rightful owners of the ballet. They have also claimed that, shortly after he was fired as director of the Graham Center, Protas withdrew $12,000 from a center bank account (Protas blames the withdrawal on bank error, insisting that a bank employee filled out the deposit slip after he was unable to because he was having trouble with his eyes that day. The allegory is powerful: There are none so blind as those that will not see.)

But Judge Cedarbaum seems to have been most impressed by the testimony of the Graham dancers. Listening last Monday as Janet Eilber, who was supposed to succeed Protas as artistic director, described the process of having dances set on her by Graham, she leaned over the divider between herself and the witness. It is clear that this judge, an emissary of the "outside" world, offers something Ron Protas will never have: a love of and respect for and rapacity for knowledge about the art of Modern Dance and its true vessels, its true inheritors, the dancers.

Eilber, speaking to the Dance Insider after she stepped down from the witness stand, insisted that a decision in favor of the Graham Center would not threaten the rights of other choreographers as owners of their own work. "Martha's legacy is so different from anyone else's," said the former artistic director designate of the company, "it doesn't set a precedent. So it's not a template for anyone else." And indeed, the threat as precedent of a decision favoring the Graham Center -- i.e. a ruling that Graham was an employee, her ballets work for hire -- may be easily resolved by other companies addressing issues of ownership BEFORE the choreographer dies. Whatever Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum rules, the future of this company resides with dancers like Eilber. (If you watch her on the stand, especially with the dark shadow of Protas still lingering there, she takes on an almost spiritual glow and elegance and, most of all, grace.) It resides with dancers like the many who, Capucilli reports, will be dancing roles in Graham ballets for the first time Thursday. It is these dancers who are the true inheritors of the work of Martha Graham, and who in their bodies carry her legacy into the future.

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