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Flash News & Analysis, 7-8: Representing
Graham Signs with Shagan and Re-ups with Pesle

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

In the latest chapter in its resurrection, the Martha Graham Dance Company took a giant step towards its return to full-throttle touring Monday when it announced it would be represented everywhere but Europe and Japan by Rena Shagan Associates, the singular management and booking agency that thinks big for its clients without sacrificing the personal touch. In Europe, the company signed with its long-time booker and the dean of European agents, Benedicte Pesle, and his partner Julie George. And in Japan, it announced, touring will be handled by Kate Elliot, the energetic producer who shepherded the company's return to the stage as it secured ownership of most of the Graham ballets in a lengthy court battle.

"(Shagan) is a high-integrity, extremely well-experienced person with a sound collection of collaborators," Marvin Preston, executive director of the Graham Center, told the Dance Insider. "We have the utmost confidence in her and only wish that we had been able to seek out and establish a relationship with her sooner. I have an excellent feeling that Rena will actually surprise us by outperforming even our most optimistic hopes for her."

At RSA, the Graham company immediately becomes the star attraction of an eclectic roster that also includes, among US artists, Garth Fagan, Hubbard Street Dance, Stephen Petronio, Ballet Hispanico and the Houston Ballet. Shagan also books US tours for the Ballett Frankfurt, Ballets Preljocaj, and Sydney Dance Company.

Shagan, a no-nonsense booker whose agency has been around for nearly a quarter of a century, wasted no time in framing how she would represent the company. "The Martha Graham Company is the seminal modern dance company, and we are proud to be part of (its) much-deserved return to international performance."

The Graham company's given prominence as the progenitor of the modern field doesn't mean touring engagements are a given. Aggressive representation is rare in dance and, with big companies, agents are often content to sit back in expectation the bookings will come. Effective agents realize that, even for companies whose name-awareness extends beyond the cloistered dance world, presenters still need to be educated and cultivated. To regain its stability and its stature, and keep its 24 dancers (also represented, by the American Guild of Music Artists) employed, the company needs representation that will be active, cultivating new presenters and rebuilding relationships with former presenting partners still wary after years of instability in which the company seems to have spent more time in the legal theater than the dance arena. Presenters who might not have followed the court battle with a former director over ownership of the Graham name, technique, and ballets will still need to be educated that the company is no longer in court and fully owns most of the surviving ballets. Theaters and audiences less familiar with Graham -- yes, they exist -- may even need to be convinced that the Graham oeuvre is not just "seminal" or "important" but vital, not just "modern" but contemporary.

Shagan, part of a handful of smart, authoritative agents (Jane Herman, Jodi Kaplan, World Arts, and Elsie Management complete this rarified circle) has the moxie and respect among presenters to put the company back on its touring feet in the US.

Abroad, the task will be even more staggering. Just as reports of an earthquake seem worse the more removed one is from the epicenter, presenters in Europe are likely to think the company is still in court. After the agent has informed them this is not the case, he or she will face an evening more daunting task: Convincing them the work still matters. With the absence of a living, breathing version of Graham on its shores, Europe -- or at least dance audiences in France -- have come to equate Graham with just the type of outmoded, literal, non-obscure and non-chic dance they have no use for.

To re-establish the company in Europe, the Graham center has started by re-signing Julie George and the legendary Benedicte Pesle, the company's long-time representative in Europe. The center couldn't have picked a better team; for the past forty years, Pesle has also been the European representative for the most popular American company in France: Merce Cunningham's. (As reported earlier in these pages, the center scored a coupe when it hired Pesle protege David Pini away from the Cunningham company as its new touring manager. Another Pesle pupil, Therese Barbanelle, handles another of the handful of US artists who have been able to establish some presence in France -- Trisha Brown.)

"I have dealt with Benedicte and Julie since the moment that I arrived at Graham," said Preston. "These are wonderfully patient, good-natured, caring, fair-minded and resilient people who have stuck with us through thick and thin. I would like nothing better than to make them exceedingly wealthy by virtue of them booking us everywhere imaginable in greater Europe."

In Japan, for which Preston hinted at "some long range " plans, the company will be represented by Kate Elliot, who acquitted herself so well producing the company's splashy returns at City Center in May 2002 and at the Joyce this past winter. Gary Lindsey will represent the junior company, the Martha Graham Ensemble.

Special thanks to dance insider JB for background on the European representation scene.

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