Theater archives

Maelstrom at Martha’s


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.)

“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.

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.”