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Flash View, 11-2: Boycott the Graham Trust
Destroying Martha's Legacy

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: The following commentary represents the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of anyone else on the staff of The Dance Insider.)

PARIS -- One of the reasons I cried to see Isadora Duncan's ever-so-humble, almost anonymous urn at Pere Lachaise cemetary here was its reminder of the historic lack of recognition accorded Modern Dance. Besides Duncan, only one name is universally recognized outside our circle of dance professionals and afficianados: Martha Graham. Martha's importance goes beyond that of symbol. If Duncan made natural movement legitimate, Graham gave it a technique that guaranteed it would be more than just a form of expression, but one with its own artistic language, equal in technical demand and expressive potential to ballet. A grounding in that technique has become as important to becoming a qualified modern dancer and giving justice to interpreting the works of modern choreographers as ballet training is to ballet dancers. Thus, when the Martha Graham company board suspended operations of both the company and school last summer, citing financial reasons, as tragic as it was to see dancers out of work and audiences deprived of their performances, dance insiders knew that the bigger longterm danger to the field was the closure of the school. So the news this week that the board had found the financial wherewithal to re-open the school at its old headquarters seemed indisputably good. However the board and former director Ron Protas, who owns the ballets, resolved their dispute, at least the training would continue.

So when a press release from the Martha Graham Trust, which Mr. Protas directs, arrived in the e-mail this morning questioning the legitimacy of the school and announcing the trust's plans to try to launch an "authorized" school of its own, it became clear that, whatever he thinks are his intentions, Mr. Protas's actions can have only one result: to destroy forever the legacy of the woman whose work he claims to prize. It also became clear that there can now be only one response for other companies and dance fans: Until Mr. Protas and the legitimate Graham company and school have come to some accomodation, other companies must not rent Graham ballets from the trust, and dance fans must boycott Graham ballets presented by non-Graham companies.

The school's return to 316 East 63rd Street, where it will re-open in 2001, was enabled by Benedetto Caiola, whose construction companies bought the building from the company a few years ago. The deal then was that the purchase would help the company wipe out its debt; Caiola would build apartments on the upper floors, while reserving the lower level, with the garden entrance that meant so much to Martha, for the school. Hugh Hardy will design the new/old facilities. Mr. Caiola's daughter, Rose, an honorary trustee of the board, was essential in arranging for the initial purchase.

To most of us in the dance community, aggrieved at not only the long-term threat to the Graham technique, but also the immediate threat to the students from all over the world who had been deprived of a home, this was good news.

Well, the mikes from the press conference were barely turned off before the trust fired off its own press release. Swearing that it is "committed to establishing a legitimate and authorized permanent Martha Graham presence in New York City and throughout the world," the trust now says that it has contacted the charities division of the New York state attorney general to suggest a plan for aligning the School with, quote, "a major New York City educational institution." This "school," the press release says, would be "authorized by the trust to avail itself of the Martha Graham ballets and technique and of the resources of the Martha Graham Archive at the Library of Congress for dance students and scholars."

HELLO!? Earth to Ron! Earth to Ron! What planet are you living on?

That's a little of a crass way to put my reaction, but, folks, Mr. Protas -- enabled, as usual, by others who see the dollar signs in his owndership of the Graham ballets -- is so clearly out of touch, that only such a direct clarion call will do. Let me put it this way: You can't teach a technique without teachers, and so far, everyone out there who -- UNLIKE MR. PROTAS -- would actually be able to teach this technique at Mr. Protas's mythical Bizarro world Graham School is boycotting the trust. In other words, they are refusing to assist in staging the ballets for other companies. They are doing this because Mr. Protas has left them with no choice. They are doing this, the dancers and former dancers that is, because they are fed up with years of keeping their mouths shut while the company under Mr. Protas's stewardship plummeted into debt, and its credibility among funders took a swan dive as well. They are doing this because they are tired, from what I hear, of this non-dancer sticking his head into class and trying to give corrections. They -- the dancers -- have chosen to boycott their former "artistic director" not for the money, but because they treasure the Graham dances they are now the true custodians of, in their bodies. Ms. Graham may have willed the ballets to Mr. Protas, but it is these dancers and former dancers who own the ballets in their bodies -- and who have persisted, throughout the years, in giving them to us, the audience, inspite of Mr. Protas's financial brinksmanship.

Folks, I have tried, previously, to give Mr. Protas the benefit of the doubt. After Richard Philp of Dance Magazine, I've been the only one, I think, doing so in the last year. Richard partly inspired me in this; his thinking, which he shared with me when I worked for him at DM, was, essentially, that Mr. Protas had to be indulged, for the sake of the ballets. But with this press release -- with Martha's legal heir trying to sully even the efforts to get the school back on its footing -- the blinders are off, and I can now see that there's no humoring him. I can't get inside Mr. Protas's mind and ascribe the motivations for his actions. I can only look at the results. Mr. Protas is spoiling the efforts of others to keep Martha's legacy alive. If he persists in this effort to start his own school, the danger of course is that it will hamper the LEGITIMATE school's efforts to raise money to actualize its plans.

I echo the pleadings of all the Graham dancers, former dancers, and teachers out there that no one in our community support the trust. The most effective way we can do that now, in addition to the dancers and teachers who are already boycotting it, is for no companies to rent ballets from the trust. And for dance fans to boycott Graham ballets presented by other companies, for which they pay the trust the fees that sustain Mr. Protas. You'll be depriving yourself of seeing a Graham dance in the short run, but in the long run doing your small part to maybe -- maybe -- save the Graham legacy that is so essential to Modern Dance as we know it. We can't resurrect Isadora or Martha, but we can keep their legacy alive.

P.S. On the off-chance the trust is serious about its plans for a school, you can also contact New York state attorney general Eliot Spitzer to set him straight. As well, contact the trust's agent, Jane Hermann of ICM, and Mr. Protas's assistant, the respected Robert Russo, and ask them why they continue to enable him. As well, call Louis G. Spisto, the executive director of American Ballet Theatre, and its artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, and ask them to stop renting "Diversion of Angels." Be nice, as I know you will!

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