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Flash Flashback, 5-30: Graham in Turmoil
Seasons Cancelled, Union Suing

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2005 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: To celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Flash Archives. This article originally appeared on May 27, 2000. For more on Martha Graham in the news and onstage, see also the Dance Insider's Graham Archives.)

The ongoing tragedy afflicting the Martha Graham company took another dramatic turn yesterday, when the dancers' union announced it will file an unfair labor practice complaint against the company with the National Labor Relations Board after the Graham board announced it was suspending operations and canceling upcoming performances.

"Any employer has to bargain with its employees about the effects of going out of business, and the company didn't do that," Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, told The Dance Insider. "The company doesn't have the right to just go out of business when they're union... If they're not paying anybody and not doing performances, legally it's going out of business. The company had an obligation to bargain with us in advance. If they had, we might have been able to act sooner."

Fortunately, Gordon said, in its last contract negotiations the union got the company to agree to post a security bond. "It looks like we have at least a week's salary for everybody, and maybe more," he reported. The dancers are in the 23rd week of a 25-week contract, he added.

"Everyone's sorry they had this financial crisis, but it shouldn't be our dancers who bear the burden of their fiscal mismanagement," he said.

Just who is responsible for any alleged fiscal mismanagement was the subject of much finger-pointing Friday. Acting board chairman Francis Mason blamed ousted artistic director Ron Protas. "He is the cause behind the entire matter," Mason told The Dance Insider. "The deficit is an accumulated matter, and he has been the artistic director and guiding light of the company." Mason was not immediately ready to comment about the union action, as he only heard of it when The Dance Insider asked about it.

Protas, who could not be reached for comment by the DI, told Lewis Segal of the L.A. Times yesterday that the board was to blame. "They haven't raised the money to go on," said Protas, who now chairs the recently established Graham Trust, which owns the ballets. The trust's attorney, also speaking to the Times, said a just-concluded U.S. tour had wracked-up a deficit of $300,000, leaving the company "a half million dollars in the red."

There seems to be some general agreement on that figure. Mason said the board voted Thursday to suspend operations and cancel upcoming seasons at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. and at the Kennedy Center because otherwise, it would have faced an accumulated deficit of $500,000. (An October season in Los Angeles is also in jeopardy, according to the Times.) "We owe people so much money, we can't go to Durham and pay the dancers when we can't pay the people we owe money to," Mason said.

Charles Reinhart, co-director with his wife Stephanie of ADF (of which Graham was a co-founder some 70 years ago) and of dance programming at the Kennedy Center, told Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times, "I'm going to try everything possible to make the performances happen. We have no other choice." He insisted, "You cannot cancel performances you contract for just before they happen." The Graham company is slated to open the ADF's season June 8, with a three-day program that includes the classics "Satyric Festival Song," "Diversion of Angels," "Deep Song," "Lamentation," "Errand into the Maze," and "Appalachian Spring." With the Paul Taylor company, it is scheduled to open the Kennedy Center dance season in September. Neither Reinhart nor a Kennedy Center publicist returned phone calls yesterday.

The betting among some dance insiders is that in some form or another, the ADF season will happen.

The irony is that a company founded by one of the strongest women dance has ever seen now sees its immediate fate largely dependent on the machinations of three of the field's wiliest old male foxes: Protas, an amateur photographer who Graham latched on to and to whom she eventually willed her ballets after he faithfully attended her when she lay mortally ill in hospital in 1968; Mason, longtime editor of Ballet Review, one-time literary collaborator with George Balanchine, and strong-willed chairman of the Graham board in the 1970s; and Reinhart, perhaps dance's last true impresario.

None of these men are dancers.

The betting here is on Reinhart, as ingenious as he is tireless, the ultimate paragon of the saying, "The show must go on." Reinhart has pulled rabbits out of his hat before, continuing with Stephanie to lead an organization that thrives despite federal funding cutbacks. One dance insider speculates that Reinhart might negotiate to acquire a post-Graham troupe of ex-Graham dancers to perform her choreography at ADF.

But even if Reinhart pulls that off, the company's long-term future appears to be extremely problematic. This episode is just the latest fracas in a five-year recent history of financial crises, cancelled seasons, AGMA complaints and political contretemps. The company sold its building in 1998 to pay off a deficit of $2.4 million, and Protas agreed about the same time to turn over the artistic reigns to former Graham dancer Janet Eilber. He had a change of heart in March, and the board had to force him out.

If the potential long-term tragedy is the threat to the Graham legacy, the immediate one is the threat to the livelihood of the dancers. Indeed, the irony is that they have never been performing with more artistry or dedication. And that even though it is on their shoulders and their artistry that the legacy of Martha ultimately rests, they have very little control over the actual fortunes of the company. While the dancers are just about the only thing that has been reliable about this company in recent years, they are always the first to suffer when the administrators and funders around them can't get their acts together. So the company finds itself in the bizarre position of having the premiere choreographic canon in modern dance, authentic and dedicated dancers ready to deliver, presenters eager to book it and audiences ready to cheer it -- and nonetheless being not ready to deliver.

Said senior Graham dancer and associate artistic director Christine Dakin: "The dancers are shocked and feel horrible, not just for themselves but for the audiences that will miss this opportunity, and we'll try and be hopeful."

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