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Time to learn the next move

The Martha Graham legacy has atrophied during a long legal battle. But a court decision may help revive her languishing dances.

November 24, 2002|Anne Midgette | Special to The Times

New York — Four women skitter across the floor, arms held with geometric intent. Another lone woman, exuding a quiet radiance, paces at an angle to them, oblivious.

"More like this," explains Terese Capucilli, rising from her seat against a wall of the tiny, sweltering room. A former lead dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, now its co-artistic director -- and expecting a baby in March -- she demonstrates to the young chorus a gesture: a bit of the most famous movement style in the modern dance repertory. The dancers go through the motion, echoing it, assuming it and finally catching some of the quality that gives it the unmistakable accent of Graham technique.

It's almost like watching a game of Telephone, in which a sentence, whispered from one player to another, starts to change. The idea of owning a dance is bound up with reversing this process, bringing the movement, intact, from another's body into yours. The dance they're working on is "Appalachian Spring," from 1944. It belongs to everybody -- and nobody.

The Martha Graham Dance Company, rehearsing for its first season in three years, at New York's Joyce Theater, is emerging from one of the dance world's most-watched lawsuits. The company was shut down starting in 2000 while Ron Protas, Graham's legal heir, and the board of the Martha Graham Center and School of Contemporary Dance battled over the rights to the Graham name and the dances she created.

In court, Protas' argument was that Graham, in her will, left him everything she owned. The center's argument was that Graham had created her dances while technically a center employee, and that they were therefore "work for hire" and belonged to the center.

The issue has proven hotly divisive. Protas, on the one hand, is widely loathed in the dance world, accused of manipulating Graham when she was weak and elderly, selling off parts her legacy after her death for his own profit, running the center into the ground.

The term "work for hire," on the other hand, has been a red flag to others who bristle at the idea that a choreographer should be viewed as a mere employee of her own board.

There was, accordingly, much debate when, on Aug. 23, U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Cederbaum ruled in the center's favor. Of the 70 Graham dances that can still be reconstructed, the company, she decided, has rights to 45; commissioning organizations own five; nine are ambiguous; and 10 -- including "Appalachian Spring" -- are in the public domain. Protas holds rights to one.

To the company, it's a clear-cut victory for the rights of artists. Dancers speak of Graham's work being "liberated." "So many individuals and companies share our excitement that the work is back in hands of the people," says Capucilli.

Others are not so sanguine. "It raises some serious legal issues," says Charles Reinhart, president of the American Dance Festival in North Carolina, who sees the ruling as a blow against the rights of choreographers. "Suppose ADF says, 'Wait a minute: We commissioned her to do that work; that should belong to ADF.' We, ADF, have commissioned 500 works. We've never said who the work belongs to."

And Protas -- who is appealing the decision -- seems to be in a tailspin, repeating a litany of his grievances. Graham "did not want her name and her aesthetic controlled artistically by anyone except me," he says. "History is being rewritten. Martha has been misrepresented, by this board, and these people, who knew the truth."

Advisor, caretaker, companion

Martha Graham and Ron Protas first intersected in 1967, when he was an aspiring twentysomething photographer and she was in her 70s, still head of her dance company and its umbrella organization, the center. But the pioneering grande dame of modern dance was also ill, and uncertain about her future.

The two were soon inseparable. "We were joined at the hip; she was my family," says Protas, who became her advisor, caretaker and constant companion. Graham, he says, was "terribly worried" about attempts to displace her at the head of her empire, and Protas took it on himself to help shore up her authority -- and by extension, his own. He began working at the center in 1972; within a few years he was co-director; and, as Graham's sole heir, he took over as artistic director at her death in 1991.

He was not, however, popular with many of the dancers or board members. "Ron mistreated people," says Elizabeth Auclair, who joined the company that same year. "A lot of fear was generated; very rough energy. The environment was very difficult to work in."

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