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DANCE / CHRIS PASLES : Refusing to Stand Still : Ron Protas Says Using Tharp's Work Is in Keeping With Graham's Philosophy of Embracing Change

January 27, 1994|CHRIS PASLES

Ron Protas is getting used to being in the hot seat. Criticized for the way he has run the Martha Graham Dance Company since even before Graham's death in 1991, Protas most recently has been taking heat for bringing in choreographer Twyla Tharp to create a work for the troupe.

An outside choreographer for the Graham company? The first in 60 years? Graham fans protested.

But Protas says that Graham herself sanctioned the idea of getting new work from outside choreographers and even named Tharp as a possible candidate.

"Martha didn't want the company to be a museum," Protas said Monday in a phone interview from Phoenix, where the company was dancing before dates at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts tonight and Friday.

"That's very dangerous. Martha felt that the only constant was change. She liked that animating force of something new. On the other hand, she said the only sin is mediocrity. . . . She did mention Twyla as one of the ones I could pick. She also picked (Jerome) Robbins."

Tharp created "Demeter and Persephone" for the company in October. The title refers to the myth in which the ancient Greeks accounted for the seasons. Daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture, Persephone is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. But Zeus, ruler of the gods, intervenes, and Persephone is allowed to return to Earth and to her mother, but only for two-thirds of the year. Her annual return is signaled by the arrival of spring.

"In a way, (Tharp) did what Martha would have done--take a Greek myth and give it a universality," Protas said. "It was an interesting choice. (Tharp) had just lost her mother, and in a way, the company had lost its mother. This was about death and desperation and rebirth. It was a very wise choice."

But Tharp did not treat the myth "in a linear fashion," said Christine Dakin, who dances Demeter. "The dance stands as an abstract piece (and) lots of people not familiar with the story can follow it."

Working with Tharp was "an amazing process," Dakin recalled. "She had really fascinating philosophical ideas about cycles of life and relationships between family and people, ideas she's working with herself. Yes, she talked about that, though not as much as we would have liked, probably."

Dakin finds the ballet to be "very tightly structured. Tharp is mathematical in her organization. For instance, there's a phrase that's reversed, then inverted, then inverted and reversed. All that needs to be worked out . . .

"But it was physically a challenge. Essentially working at that speed was basically different for us. A lot of footwork, a lot of quick footwork. And that's very difficult."

Dancer Terese Capucilli agreed. "First of all we were working in jazz boots," she said. "Generally we are barefoot. In working that way, it makes the floor very 'fast,' which means slippery. You have to use your legs in a totally different way when the floor is that way.

"We're not used to moving as fast as Twyla moves. The footwork is quite rapid. So it was painful. Three weeks of a lot of pain. Other than that, the whole piece was wonderful."


What role does Capucilli have?

"That's the ultimate question," she said, laughing. "Twyla has kind of played a joke on everyone by not labeling the who's-who in the program. She's left it up to everyone to guess. But it's very clear to me. I am what Twyla called the Interloper, kind of like the Greek chorus. I see everything."

Capucilli said Tharp's new work "shows each of us in a different light, something that our die-hard Graham dancers might not be seen doing, although many of us do other works on our off-times."

But she has a reservation.

"There is always that worry when a company starts bringing in an outside choreographer that the work of the mentor, the Martha Graham, will diminish because the attention will be not be placed in the right direction. The focus will have moved. That is a fear of mine.

"But being who I am and having that fear, I recognize that the Graham technique is in my body. I fear mostly for those coming up, those who have never worked with Martha. But I believe that this company is really holding fast with much integrity to Martha's work and what we have had from her."

Protas shares the concern and said that while he plans to acquire more new work, he will limit such acquisitions to "one a year, and that's it. Because if it gets into five new works (a year), you'll lose sight of Martha. You'll have evenings when she isn't represented. That makes me very nervous."

Protas and Tharp are "talking," he said, about acquiring two more of her works, but dances that are already choreographed. When Hubbard Street Chicago acquired the rights to four Tharp works in 1990 for just three years, the price tag for the Chicago-based troupe was about $300,000.

Tharp created "Demeter" for the Graham company for free.

"She would not accept any pay," Protas said. "Martha was her teacher, she said. She adored Martha and wanted to do it as a gift."

* The Martha Graham Dance Company will dance tonight and Friday at 8 p.m. at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. Tonight's program includes Tharp's "Demeter and Persephone" and Graham's "Appalachian Spring," "Errand Into the Maze" and "Steps in the Street." Friday's program includes Graham's "Acts of Light," "Night Journey" and "Maple Leaf Rag." $28 to $40. (310) 916-8510.

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