Maelstrom at Martha’s

Embattled Graham Dancers Send a Letter to the World

Relations soured when Protas objected to relinquishing control of the company. He established the Martha Graham Trust to oversee his rights to Graham's works, deriving his $100,000 salary from the licensing of ballets and the sale of her memorabilia to the Library of Congress. "Two and a half years ago Ron set in motion the separation of the Trust from the Center," says Eilber, "so that the Center could become autonomous. I hope that he will come back to this view."

Solomon describes Protas's tactics: "If you crossed Ron, or if he perceived you as crossing him, he would turn on you. The universe of his friends keeps getting smaller. Almost everyone on the board came on as a friend of Ron's." On June 22, 12 of the 13 board members present voted to remove Protas. "He was damaging the company by actions he was taking that were bitter and vindictive. Until we took this action we had no sense of how the dancers felt," says Solomon. "The board has never been as cohesive as it is now. It was much more disjointed when Ron was running things in his own way."

"Protas suggested Janet," adds Mason, "and we think it's a superb idea. He and the Trust make money on Martha's work. For him to be on our board, telling us what to do, is crazy. Barbara Horgan of the Balanchine Trust [on which the Graham Trust was modeled] is not on the board of New York City Ballet. He's not Martha Graham. He's Ron Protas."

The American Dance Festival had booked the troupe to open ADF's 67th season on June 8. The crisis deepened when the company canceled. "We thought we came up with a pretty good plan for ADF to hire the dancers and for Ron to give us the rights," says ADF codirector Charles Reinhart. But the dancers voted not to perform as a pickup company. "They said that then Ron would win. This is down-and-out dirty."

The Joyce had reserved three weeks for the Graham company this fall. "Marvin Preston [MGDC executive director] was prepared to go forward, but it would have meant a huge financial impact on us if they had to cancel at the last moment," says Shelton. The weeks will be filled by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and juggler Michael Moschen.

Solomon remains hopeful that the company will perform Graham's ballets even though Protas, as owner of the rights, has announced that he is withdrawing the license. "Ron has nothing to do with the performance of the works. When Ron licenses a work to another company, he doesn't stage it," says Solomon. "He doesn't know anything about it. We have a license. He has created problems by saying he's withdrawing it. But it's clear that there's no artistic decline which would allow him to withdraw the license. . . . It's ironic that he's yelling about our lack of artistic quality when he's licensing works to companies that can't come close to matching us."

The day the board removed Protas from his fiduciary responsibilities, a board member established a $250,000 challenge grant to be matched two to one by other board members. "People are stepping up their fundraising efforts internally," says Solomon.

Mason says the plan is to focus on one thing at a time: "Raising $500,000 among ourselves to match the challenge, then paying off our debt, then returning to 316 East 63rd Street, and the school coming back there. Then we fire up the company again."

At Union Square on August 16, the Graham dancers will make their first public appearance since the Center suspended operations. Many have stayed in shape by taking classes at Peridance, a downtown studio. Igal Perry, its director, transferred visas of international students from the Graham school to his studio, allowing them to stay in this country to train. Peridance offers Graham-based classes taught by master Graham dancers: Yuriko Kikuchi, Donlin Foreman, Linda Hodes, Pearl Lang, and others. Says dancer Brdnik, "Peridance was able to get teachers from different generations of Graham technique." Company members were invited to teach. "We opened classes here as soon as we could," says Perry, who offered Graham's dancers classes free of charge.

Brdnik calls his own piece for the Union Square concert In Every You, One of Me. "Graham is a part of our life. I think it's beautiful: Here we are, all the dancers, with no income. We have been working so closely to survive the outside interference. We became a very solid group. That says something about our commitment, our belief."

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