In-the-Red Shoes

Once more with feeling: The Martha Graham Dance Company fights for its life

But Graham dances transplanted to American Ballet Theatre a few years back looked, frankly, lousy. Martha herself said that it takes 10 years to make a dancer, and by that she meant a decade of exclusive immersion in her idiosyncratic technique. Says Move, "My first classes ever, as a teenager, were Graham classes, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The technique is hard; it requires a complete and utter commitment, physical and emotional, to master it. It's easier for a young dancer to take one of the release-oriented techniques, or a ballet class for modern dancers." And it requires a thorough knowledge of the Graham vocabulary to do her works correctly.

Move launched his portrayal of Martha at the Andy Warhol Museum, in Pittsburgh, Graham's birthplace. "And no one could even tell me what part of town Martha was born in," he says. "Our culture is based upon commodity. Martha's work is a unique scenario." Needless to say, there's no Graham museum, though her chief design collaborator, Isamu Noguchi, has one in Long Island City. For a choreographer, a functioning company is the best monument to the work.

"The former Graham regime alienated a lot of people," says Move. "Through the decades when Protas was in charge, people stuck around because they adored and worshipped Martha. After she died, they kind of dried up. Janet is left with a big issue."

The right Move: Can dead dance?
photo: Josef Astor
The right Move: Can dead dance?

Eilber concurs: "The dance world had moved on. When we started performing again in 2004, we had no earned income. Funders were leery of giving us money because we were in a court case. We had to retrain dancers, make new costumes, remind people that we're the oldest modern-dance company in the country, pre-eminent in the world." The costs of being suspended, and under a legal cloud—and the cost of reclaiming the art at the scale it deserved, with live music—put the troupe into enormous debt.

Is the fact that Graham is dead the crux of the problem? Move says no. "Look at Ailey. I went into their building for the first time in January; everywhere you look there's a donor's name. It's glitzy, chic, gorgeous; there's hardly a toilet in there that doesn't have a donor's name on it. It's safe to say that Ailey never anticipated these kind of headquarters, or this kind of money. When Martha became ill, Protas stepped in. The lawsuit revealed a lot of fiscal mismanagement. Janet Eilber has inherited 30 years of that, plus the lawsuit, coupled with the anti-cultural climate. We're living in a more conservative environment politically; I believe that trickles down to foundations and funders. There's a very bad thing happening in New York: Everyone and their mother is putting up new space, but there's no money left over for artists, to present the work itself. People are eager to invest in the building, and the resources are wiped out to support what's supposed to happen in it." The Graham Center spent down the value of its building, and now makes do with a too-small space in the basement at its old East 63rd Street address. "Bloomberg should have stepped in and saved that building; it should have been a historic landmark," says Move.

The Limón company, about to turn 60, has never owned property; it recently gave up its rented studio, and now has offices in the garment district, classes at Peridance in the Village, and rehearsals all over. But it survives; a gala honoring Maxwell, who's been with the troupe since 1965, is scheduled for May 9, with a full season at the Joyce in November.

"We showed people that a company could go on," says Maxwell. "If people are not living the dances as they're intended to be, then the dances become something else. Dance is like an oral tradition, passed on from person to person. You can't divorce events from the time in which they're happening. Just like in Chopin, Beethoven, Bach: The music stands for the beauty it has, but you have to wrap your soul and your head around what the creator was putting out there for you. Your training has to reflect that, and open the possibility for you to do that. And that takes time, and time is money, and we're a quick throwaway society now. We went through many struggles, too, demonstrating that there's a vital, important reason the work should continue, to show its timelessness and the magnificence of the choreographic craft it involves."

"What we need to do," says Graham dancer Brdnik, "is make it through April.Starting in summer, our negotiated fees are doubled, and we have great national and international tours scheduled. All we need is an angel to help us through this time. I hope America proves me wrong and shows that they really care about something that's so distinctly theirs. That's what I'm hanging on to, personally."

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