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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, 5-10: Back to the Future
Dancers, Audience Take Back Martha

"It was exactly as I remember it."
--Tony Randall, actor and former Martha Graham student

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK -- They say possession is nine-tenths of the law, and long before the Martha Graham Dance Company's first performance in two years concluded last night at City Center, it was clear who possesses the dances of Martha Graham: the dancers and the audience. Or, as Jacob's Pillow director Ella Baff put it when asked who owns the work: "We all do." (To read Tom Patrick's review of the performance, please click here.)

Legally speaking, the question of who owns the ballets of Martha Graham -- former director Ron Protas or the Martha Graham Center which includes Graham's company and school -- has been batted around in federal district court for the last year.

"Part of me wishes the judge could be here tonight to see what all this is about," quipped attorney Dale Cendali, who helped convince Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum last year that Protas owned neither the name Martha Graham nor the term 'Martha Graham technique.'

The marquee custodians of that work -- the members of the Martha Graham Dance Company -- had not performed since May 2000, when the Graham board, with the dancers' eventual concurrence, suspended operations because of debts it said were incurred in large part because Protas would not exit gracefully. Last night, with the concurrence of their union the American Guild of Musical Artists, the dancers performed for free.

Before, during, and after the performance, the dancers veered on a roller-coaster of emotions that ranged from trepidation to pride, expressed in tears and triumph.

"When that curtain went up, we all started to cry," said veteran Christine Dakin, referring to the first moments of Graham's 1955 "Seraphic Dialogue," which she and co-artistic coordinator Terese Capucilli selected to open the evening. In this dancer-designed program, they also chose 'Conversation of Lovers,' the duet from the 1981 "Acts of Light"; the 1958 "Embattled Garden"; the 1947 "Night Journey"; and the somber procession of female strength in numbers 'Steps in the Street' from the 1936 suite "Chronicle."

Feeling the weight of "the audience waiting to see it and us loving to dance" the work, Dakin confessed, "I was glad I was not dancing the first dance, because I was in tears."

Virginie Mecene, who was dancing 'Seraphic,' portraying her fellow Frenchwoman Joan of Arc as a Maid, also "felt overwhelmed by the welcoming of the people. Before we started, in my chest I felt trembling -- because I was so happy to hear all these people.... I was trembling from happiness because it was all so lovely."

"It felt like a dream," said Martin Lofsnes, who gave the "Acts of Light" duet opposite Katherine Crockett. "But on the other hand, it felt like no time had passed -- of course we should be doing this work."

Explaining what he was feeling to well-wishers at last night's after-party, Lofsnes said that unlike some dancers with the company, he never knew Martha -- all he knew was her work. For last night's "Indisputably Martha Graham" program, the performing dancers had the assistance of veterans who were taught the work by Martha Graham directly and other past artists of the Graham company, including Jacqulyn Buglisi, Carol Fried, Ellen Graff, Linda Hodes, Stuart Hodes, Pearl Lang, Peter London, Susan McGuire, Bertram Ross, Ethel Winter, and Yuriko.

. As Dakin and Miki Orihara pointed out, the forced retreat of Protas, who was known to banish former dancers from the Graham entities, cleared the way for the return to the fold of dancers who had not been welcome at the company for years.

"It's like a pilgrimage," said longtime principal Donlin Foreman, surveying the alumni-laden lobby.

As soon as the program began, Stuart Hodes found himself "crying like a baby," his glasses fogging up. If the dancers in the audience couldn't help but be impressed with the moment of the occasion, it was obvious from their heightened intensity that those on stage felt, as Protas successor Janet Eilber put it, "the weight of the evening." "This is either the first step of the future, or..." Eilber trailed off, reluctant to note the alternative scenario, that Protas could always be declared the winner and the work that is their legacy snatched from the dancers. "I can feel that they're hyper-intense tonight," she intuited, quickly adding that this did not affect the performance quality. "I'd like for them to be able to have a long run."

The potential for a long run was precisely what executive director Marvin Preston IV, who many have credited for the Graham Center's amazing financial resiliency in a time of uncertainty about its future, hoped to achieve last night. "We wanted to show the world that this stuff still exists," Preston said after the performance. "These dances haven't been lost; dancers are learning them; and we are determined to carry out our mission to sustain Martha Graham's art and build upon it." The inclusion of not just veterans but also members of the junior company the Martha Graham Ensemble, as well as students at the Graham school, was meant to demonstrate, Preston said, that the work is being "passed on to the next generation," and that "we have a deep bench."

And a deep team all around. "We have a strong, generous, and tenacious board," board chairman Francis Mason told the audience before the second act, also crediting the contributions of Preston and "dancers who believe we're on course and who are doing everything they can to assist the cause. We have the support of remarkably generous and talented attorneys. We have the support of city, state, and federal government." In addition to funding support, the state has intervened in the Protas lawsuit on the side of the defendant Graham Center. (State attorney general Eliot Spitzer has been represented at trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan by assistant AGs Barbara Quint and Marla Simpson.)

Speaking to the Dance Insider after the performance, and noting that some had commented that the program was too serious, Mason pointed out, "Women don't have enough art [portraying] the serious side of women....'Night Journey' is a heavy piece of work, but not for this crowd. This is an audience of serious persons, and they know Martha can be serious as well as fun."

Martha herself was present offstage last night in both her serious and fun sides. "I can remember Martha sitting in the wings," Orihara shared. "First wing on the right side. I remember her presence."

Sophie Maslow, whose recollections of Graham go back 70 years to when she danced for Martha in her first decade of making dances, was asked what Graham might think of last night's event. "I don't think she'd give a damn, if you want to know!" Maslow shot back.

Not content with this surmise, the Dance Insider cornered Martha during the second intermission and pressed her on her feelings on seeing the return of her work to the stage. "Ask Terry Capucilli," Graham, a.k.a. choreographer Mark Dendy, told the DI in an exclusive interview. "I've possessed her body tonight."

Martha Graham, freed temporarily from the restraints of courtroom battles, possessed many bodies on and off the stage last night.

Said actor and former Graham student Tony Randall: "It was exactly as I remember it."

The Martha Graham Dance Company gives a two-week season opening next January at the Joyce Theater in New York. The Martha Graham Center returns to Graham's old facilities at 316 East 63rd Street in September. Testimony in Protas's lawsuit wrapped up in Federal District Court in Lower Manhattan last week; Judge Cedarbaum is expected to render her legal opinion over who owns the works of Martha Graham within two months.

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