The Wrecking Ball

Graham Company Embraces Change

The little red-brick building at 316 East 63rd Street isn't much to look at, but, like the diminutive diva who put it on the map, it has a seductive charm. Built near the turn of the century, it has served as a settlement house, a Montessori nursery, a school for show dogs, and, since 1952, the home of America's oldest dance company. A sign out front reads "The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance," but devotees once gave it a more evocative name: "The House of Pelvic Truth."

Graham's barefoot expressionism and stomach-snapping contractions changed dance the way Picasso changed art and Joyce literature. Yet she left a more precarious legacy than her fellow creative titans when she died at 96 in 1991. Saddled with debts from her last years, her company entered a 17-month labor dispute in 1993, canceled a City Center season in 1997, and cut back to less than 15 weeks of rehearsal and performance work last year.

Now, during a momentous return to the New York stage, comes the hardest blow yet. The board of trustees that governs the troupe and its affiliated school has voted to sell the House of Pelvic Truth to a local developer, M1 Properties, which plans to raze it this spring to make way for luxury apartments. Proceeds from the sale, which awaits the state attorney general's OK, would pay off nearly $2 million in debts (including $1.5 million owed on the mortgage), launch an endowment of nearly $500,000, and attempt a fresh start.

"We would have liked for the city or a foundation to help us save the building," says artistic director Ron Protas. "The need was expressed, but there was simply no interest. So we decided to take control of our future and make it work at the expense of the building."

As the troupe prepared for its three-week season at the Joyce (continuing through February 21), the moving vans lined up on East 63rd Street. On Monday, the Graham school began holding classes in rented studios at 440 Lafayette Street, across from the Public Theater. The company is renting office space around the corner. They plan to return to East 63rd, as tenants in the new building, when construction is finished next spring.

Protas's faith in creative destruction— scaling back to fuel growth— isn't likely to sway his many critics. To them, he remains an outsider who charmed Graham, 50 years his senior, into leaving him her entire estate. He denies any impropriety, noting that their friendship lasted 30 years. "Martha was perfectly capable of making her own decisions," says the middle-aged Protas, whose tousled black hair and solicitous eyes suggest a younger Walter Matthau. "I didn't hypnotize her."

Wreathed in smiles, he voices regret for dealing so brazenly with dancers and funders in his more ardent days. "If Martha didn't get money, I'd call the head of the New York State Council on the Arts to ask why. 'Aren't you ashamed?' I'd say. I was that subtle."

What irks Graham purists more than anything is Protas's artistic direction. A former celebrity photographer, he's tinkered with her choreography (adding men, for example, to the 1935 Celebration) and given commissions to people with little or no training in Graham technique (like Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson, and Broadway's Susan Stroman).

Linda Hodes, a former Graham dancer who briefly shared the title of artistic director with Protas, says Graham told her, "I made a mistake" by putting him in charge. Such accounts (this one from Robert Tracy's 1997 Goddess: Martha Graham's Dancers Remember) are problematic: both Protas and his detractors cite private conversations with Graham that can't be verified.

"The reputation I have now is really horrid," he says, a situation fueled by Agnes de Mille's 1991 biography of Graham, which includes some damning passages on Protas. His counterpunch: "Agnes was never close to Martha. Martha loathed her. She found her lachrymose, boring, highly sentimental, and she didn't trust her. That book was full of inaccuracies and was overly dramatized."

It seemed inevitable that the troupe would implode. But two years ago an unlikely whiz kid named Todd Dellinger came along and started shaking things up. A former actor with deftly moussed blond hair— a dead ringer for Beverly Hills 90210's Jason Priestley— Dellinger's smarter than he looks. Now in his early thirties, he has a master's in arts administration from American University and managerial experience at places like the Acting Company, a classical touring troupe based in Manhattan.

Signing on as development director, he quickly got Protas's ear— and a promotion to managing director— with his ideas for renewal. "I went through graduate school and did all the case studies of arts organizations dealing with these problems. I think I was able to articulate them to Ron, and make a case for these changes, in a way that no one had before."

Dellinger's Vision 2000 plan has the staff pursuing an ambitious but achievable regimen to get the 73-year-old troupe back on its feet. He's working to close the deal with M1 Properties, move the school downtown, license Graham's dances to other companies through the newly created Martha Graham Trust, and ship Graham's archives to the Library of Congress. All in all, a busy year so far.

Perhaps most importantly, he's negotiating the appointment of a new artistic director, Janet Eilber, to succeed Protas in July 2000. Eilber danced many of Graham's roles in the '70s and '80s and has guested with the company recently.

Protas, who'll devote his energies to the trust and other projects, sounds relieved. "In the past we were always dealing with crisis management," he says. "This is the first time in 20 years I've had someone to work with on the future."

At the Joyce, the troupe's focusing on the very old and very new. Twelve of the 14 Graham dances scheduled predate the company's arrival on East 63rd Street, as if to downplay its significance. The older pieces run from the frontier ritualism of Primitive Mysteries(1931) and Appalachian Spring (1944) to the sex-and-death allegories Errand Into the Maze and Night Journey(both 1947). Also scheduled is a suite by Wilson, Tharp, Maurice Béjart, and Lucinda Childs, called Duets for Martha, and Stroman's But Not for Me: Gershwin/Graham.

The company performs later this year in London and on the continent. Bookings for 2000 already include 25 cities. Things are picking up at the school, too. Sophie Maslow and Pearl Lang, who danced with Graham in the '30s and '40s, are back teaching and enrollment's inching upward.

Leaving the House of Pelvic Truth has been hard, but Protas and Dellinger plan to save the floorboards and barres and reinstall them in the new studios. The deal with M1 Properties would give the operation 55 percent more space than it has now, at well below market rate. If the city lets the developer build two floors higher, the troupe will end up with nearly twice as much space rent free. The favorable terms came about because Rose Caiola, the daughter of M1 Properties chief Bennedetto Caiola, used to take dance classes at the school and just joined the board.

The move raises questions about which parts of Graham's legacy are worth saving— and at what cost. At least one leading arts manager comes down on the side of Protas and Dellinger. "In the end it's about the ballets, not the space," says Michael Kaiser, who helped the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theatre wipe out multimillion-dollar debts.

Protas puts it more grandly: "Martha is more than East 63rd Street. Martha is universal."

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