In-the-Red Shoes

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

When the curtain goes up at the Skirball Center on April 18, 80 years to the day after the debut of the Martha Graham Dance Company, we'll be watching great modernist choreography fight for survival. Graham, who died at 96 in 1991, changed the face of the art form. She achieved notoriety at an age when most performers are hanging up their shoes, and performed well into her seventies. She famously preferred to be remembered as a dancer, but her remarkable works belong in the front ranks of 20th-century achievement, along with Picasso, Stravinsky, and Balanchine.

Once again, the 20-member troupe that bears her name is struggling. In 1998 Graham's heir, Ron Protas, sold its historic Upper East Side studio to pay off a huge debt. Five years ago the company won a court battle for control of Graham's dances, wresting them back from Protas, but its desire to get up and running again led to overspending. Now the company finds itself, says artistic director Janet Eilber, with "a $4 million cement block around our ankles, the debt accrued because we suspended operations for two and a half years." Eilber says she took over the direction of the troupe last year, from Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli, because "attention needed to be paid to how the world had changed; we needed a new skill set to connect the work to new audiences, a broader view of the artistic direction needed for the Martha Graham Center."

"The city of New York is about to lose a major cultural institution, one of its most valuable assets, unless we can get rid of that debt," says Eilber, who danced with the troupe through the 1970s and has guested with them frequently since. "There's a possibility that the court case may yet kill us. It's not Ron Protas anymore. This is a big scream for help: We've done everything possible to try to lead the field. The classics of modern dance can't just be discarded."

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

Everyone connected with the Graham enterprise has worked without salary for months, except the dancers, who are protected by a union contract but played a recent engagement in Taiwan for deferred compensation. The troupe's overspent about a million dollars a year since it started up again at the turn of the millennium. An open letter from principal dancer Tadej Brdnik, 32, brought its plight to the attention of the dance community last month, followed by word that a planned three-day anniversary season would be reduced to one performance.

That show, under the honorary chairmanship of Mikhail Baryshnikov, features guest artists Desmond Richardson and Richard Move, the latter playing Graham's role in Part Real—Part Dream, a rarely performed 1965 work.

"It's amazing," says Move, who made his mark channeling Graham at the nightclub Mother. "Talk about the ultimate irony! This November is the 10th anniversary of the first Martha show. Our birth was marked with cease-and-desist orders from Protas and the Graham entities. And here I am, performing, with the Graham company itself. I never in a million years thought the company would be inviting me to perform. It's a wonderful opportunity to reconstruct this beautiful work, have these legends coach me."

Move, says Eilber, is part of the company's effort to "connect to audiences in new ways, give them new points of access and context. Richard has been giving Graham context for 10 years: The goddess is no longer up on the mountaintop. We're trying to be accessible and relevant. NYU students can get tickets for 12 bucks." The concert includes, for those with short attention spans, excerpts from great Graham works like El Penitente, Appalachian Spring, and Dark Meadow, as well as archival film and photos and the whole of her late work Maple Leaf Rag.

Sustaining a modern company whose director dies is one of the biggest challenges confronting the dance world. The first American troupe to face it was the Limón Dance Company, which survived the death of José Limón in 1972—but that troupe, says artistic director Carla Maxwell, "was a repertory company at its inception; he produced the work of his company members. There was a tremendous affinity among the people creating at the same time as Limón— to talk about the American experience, to be a reflection of their times, to use the language of movement. I'm looking for people whose work reflects a similar humanistic concern. Our legacy is not just José's dances, or the technique, but the fact that we talk about the human experience. It's about creativity: making new works and having dancers with the gift of interpretation."

Can priceless repertory be kept alive without maintaining performers on salary? Wouldn't it be cheaper to license the dances and send teachers to other troupes to get them up to speed? Artists close to the situation say, "Absolutely not."

"We do license the work," says LaRue Allen, Graham's current executive director. "We have a tool kit that includes videos, CDs, lighting designs. We rent out costumes, we send someone out who knows the work. We've worked with several universities. It's a growing income stream. It'll take some time to build it. We want the work to be out there."

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."

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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