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Flash Response, 5-16: Graham Party Pooper
Times Bites Martha on Birthday

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK -- For most of the 2,750 people in the audience at City Center Thursday night, the return of the Martha Graham Dance Company to the stage after a two-year absence was a lovefest, a celebration of the dance legacy of the mother of Modern Dance and an affirmation of her true heirs, the dancers and the audience. Performing as they did, for free, the evening was also an early birthday gift from the dancers to their artistic mother, who was born 108 years ago Saturday. What a pity that the New York Times, offered the serendipity of being able to record the event for posterity on Martha's actual birthday in Saturday's editions, should instead squander that opportunity in favor of being a party pooper, once again carrying the water for the Graham company's disgruntled former director, Ron Protas.

Contrary to the Times reviewer's assertion in today's paper, Saturday's performance, dubbed Indisputably Martha Graham, was not "a benefit for itself," i.e. the Graham company. As the Times senior dance critic should surely know, no one makes money on a New York season, especially when the venue is City Center, where it costs more than $100,000 just to get in and out of the theater. Had she bothered to ask the Martha Graham Center's executive director, Marvin Preston, what the purpose of the event was, he would have told her -- as he did The Dance Insider -- that it was to offer visible affirmation, in dance, that the company would continue to live up to its mission, which is to preserve the work of Martha Graham and build a foundation for its future.

The one-night only performance was of course a gala, and as at most galas, the board chairman got up to thank the many contributors. With its future in doubt thanks to Mr. Protas -- who, in contrast to the dancers who worked for free Thursday to preserve the legacy, appears to be only interested in lining his own pockets and nurturing his demented ego -- the Graham company has had difficulty attracting funds. Most foundations are taking a wait-and-see attitude. In this context, the commitment of state legislators like Republican Roy Goodman of precious public funds has not only provided needed money to tide the company and school over, but has sent a signal to private philanthropists that it is safe to contribute to Graham. It was natural, therefore, that board chairman Francis Mason should give a shout out to Goodman's possible successor, Manhattan Republican Party chairman Andrew Eristoff, so that the baton for supporting the arts might be passed to him.

The Times reviewer, however, starts her review of the historic performance not with a response to the dancing, but to Mr. Mason's speech, calling his reference to Mr. Eristoff "a bizarre digression." Treading into more dangerous waters, she then, instead of focusing on that at which she is presumably qualified to analyze -- the dance -- wades into politics. "One suspects," she writes, the one of the subject being her, "that the Graham fans who packed the house, especially the old-timers, are more apt to share the sympathies Graham expressed during Spain's civil war for Spanish Republicans rather than the American variety." The writer appears not to be familiar with another variety of Republicans, those who represent Manhattan's silk-stocking district,a more liberal area on Manhattan's East Side, and who in respect to many issues, including support of cultural organizations, tend to hew more liberal than not.

I was about to say the Times dance writer should stick to analyzing dance and not politics, but of course we all know that when it comes to reporting on the Martha Graham company and school, the Times coverage since the Graham Center -- lead by the courageous Mr. Mason -- jettisoned Mr. Protas two years ago has been almost entirely political. Its reporting on Thursday's historic performance was no exception; besides playing political analyst, the Times writer also seems more concerned with what's in the program than what's on the program, noting that it expresses gratitude to 28 lawyers and 19 paralegals. And even here, she forgets what she must have learned in journalism school -- that a reporter should always address the five w's: why, when, where, who, and what. Since the Times neglected to tell readers why the company felt it was important to thank those 28 lawyers and 19 paralegals, I'm happy to provide the answer: At least ten of those lawyers and ten of those paralegals are from the firm of Cravath, Swaine, & Moore, LLP, which is working for free, i.e. representing the Graham Center pro bono. Actually, in making its count the Times appears to have left out five lawyers, and perhaps the ones who matter the most: Eliot Spitzer, William Josephson, Marla G. Simpson, Barbara Quint, and Charles H. Smith III, these being, respectively, the New York State attorney general and the assistants who work for him. Well, really, they work for New York State taxpayers, who Mr. Spitzer has rightly decided have a stake in the outcome of Mr. Protas's suit to take the ballets of Martha Graham away from the Martha Graham company -- an ownership stake, Ms. Graham's company having reaped tax benefits from the state for fifty years as a non-profit entity.

Even when the Times does finally settle down to addressing that which a dance reviewer is qualified to address -- the dance -- she finds every opportunity to re-state the case for Mr. Protas, usually with little allegiance to the facts. "Given that the board shut down the company's operations two years ago," she allows, "a certain rustiness could be expected." The premise of the allowance is not entirely the truth. While it's true that it was the Graham board that made the technical decision to suspend operations in May 2000, the step was forced by Mr. Protas's refusal to relinquish control of the company after he had already agreed to do so, which made it harder to attract funders weary and wary of Mr. Protas's unsteady stewardship of the company.

You'll note that I have been careful not to name the Times reporter. This is bigger than her. The root problem is not this one writer's opinions. We as journalists all are human and subject to misguided loyalties which taint our reporting and reviewing. What really needs to be addressed is not this reporter's motivations, but why a newspaper which positions itself as the publication of record would allow such a political screed to sneak it's way into a dance review. When chief drama critic Frank Rich alienated theaters (read, "advertisers") with his harsh critiques several years back, he was yanked out of that seat quicker than you can say "To be or not to be." The Times cares about its theater criticism. Theater critics are monitored by their editors. With dance, it's the reverse. The Times editorial braintrust does not care enough about dance to hire editors with the authority and expertise to monitor its dance critics; indeed instead, its dance editors, typically qualified journalists but with little experience in dance, usually defer to the chief dance critic.

I think it is time for presenters who advertise their dance attractions in the Times, and/or for dance company board members who move in the same circles as the owners of the Times, to start exerting some positive pressure. In other words, not so much to move against specific critics, which would be misinterpreted and not received well, but to lobby for qualified dance editors at the Times who would be given supremacy in coverage decisions over the Times chief dance critic. I do not suggest that this critic should be fired; in fact, when she honestly addresses the dance, uninformed by political factors, she's quite good (even in some straight-ahead reviewing passages in her Graham story). Rather, I suggest that decisions about what to cover should be taken away from her and given to a more truly objective editor, one who is also savvy enough about dance to be able to detect when the reviewers introduce politics into their reviews, and to exorcise it post-haste.

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