Maelstrom at Martha’s

Embattled Graham Dancers Send a Letter to the World

At six foot four, Richard Move, playing the diminutive Martha Graham, packed the club Mother. Now he calls for political intervention to save her company. "Hers is the greatest body of work by anyone in the art form. Janet Reno and Madeleine Albright should be brought in to mediate and save it."

Move indicates the desperate state and the international prominence of Graham's legacy. She founded this country's oldest continuously operating modern troupe, and in her long life—she died in 1991, at 96—she taught millions of students, including Gregory Peck and Madonna.

But at 6 p.m. on August 16, Graham dancers will band together for a free performance at Union Square Park—without her choreography. Rights to her works are held by Ron Protas, her designated heir, who has been cut off from his connections with the company and the school. (Numerous requests for an interview with Protas and his lawyer, Michael Quinn, went unanswered.)

illustration: Carly Castillon

"Because of the whole drraaamma, artists from the company and ensemble are choreographing," says dancer Tadej Brdnik, a Slovenian. "Unfortunately we have no studios, so the number of dancers and the pieces involved are smaller. Members of the company, ensemble, and several guests will be dancing."

Robert Tracy, dance historian and author of the 1997 Goddess: Martha Graham's Dancers Remember, says, "It's a travesty. Protas owns the ballets. There's nothing anyone can do. It's too late. . . . Linda Hodes says it best [in Goddess]: Martha did this on purpose. She always said she wanted the company to go when she died. Linda says Martha tried to change her will and [Protas] went to the lawyer and changed it in his favor. [Protas] is not an artist, not a dancer, not a choreographer. How could he possibly make the right decisions?"

This November Tracy releases Spaces of the Mind, his book on Isamu Noguchi, Graham's set designer, which contains 110 pictures, many never seen before. "[Protas] doesn't own the rights to them. I do."

Given the current crisis, such records may be the future of Graham's choreography. On July 10 company members released a statement affirming their unity and attempting to thwart Protas. "We ask all artists to refrain from participating in the mounting of any Graham work. We ask all dancers to refrain from accepting engagements to perform any Graham work." Their widely distributed communication included statements of support by and signatures of more than 600 current and former Graham dancers, teachers, and staff, as well as other arts luminaries.

On July 14 The Washington Post reported the cancellation of the Martha Graham Summer Dance Retreat at Maryland's Frostburg State University, due to disagreements between Protas and participating dancers.

Following Graham's death, Protas became director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. This March the troupe's board ousted him from his position.

"Ron invited me to join the board," says Robert Solomon, a lawyer. "He can be very warm and generous. But he treats subordinates in a very condescending and abusive manner. The dancers were in a position that if they spoke up, he would fire them."

At the Joyce in February of 1999, the troupe performed beautifully and debt-free. "I heard the season helped to secure a lot of touring," says Linda Shelton, the Joyce's executive director. "But touring fees never pay all the costs. If you are not constantly raising money, you get yourself in a hole. The Graham company's internal problems have really hurt: They didn't work out the issue of choreographic rights in a way that would suit both the company and Ron Protas."

Says Francis Mason, a board member since 1973 and now acting chairman: "Nothing is ever easy with the Graham enterprise. [Martha] needed a new person whom she could turn to for help and could control. That is what [Protas] was. He was an eager stargazer who adored Marlene Dietrich and Maria Callas and he pursued them. When they wouldn't pay any attention to him, he pursued Martha."

A photographer with no dance background, Protas ingratiated himself with Graham when she was ill. Grateful for his care, she gave him the rights to her works. Solomon says, "The will was probated long ago; I can't change the terms of it. That doesn't mean Ron has all the rights he thinks he has."

Problems with Protas began in the '70s after he isolated Graham from her troupe, especially dancers Bertram Ross and Mary Hinkson, the originators of many roles. His lack of artistic leadership and failure to raise money came to a head last year after the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance decided to sell its historic home on East 63rd Street. The $3 million from the sale allowed the company to pay off its debt of over $1.5 million. Janet Eilber, a former Graham principal dancer who was to have succeeded Protas as artistic director this summer, says, "The money gave us the illusion of health. We were debt-free. Unfortunately, we were living off our last asset [the building] and new money was not coming in. The funding community was holding off until the transition [the separation of the Martha Graham Trust from the Center] took place."

Theodore Bartwink, executive director of the Harkness Foundation for Dance, says he's "looking for some sort of reconciliation of the problems between Ron Protas of the Trust and the board of directors" before Harkness continues funding the troupe.

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