NEW YORK, Feb. 28 -- The Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance has been given a new lease on life, but the fate of its Martha Graham Dance Company -- suspended nine months ago -- still depends on the outcome of a complicated legal battle over the rights to the world-renowned choreographer's works.
A New York State capital grant of $750,000, which is currently being matched by private donations, enabled the center's board to go ahead with plans to reopen its dance school at a temporary location in Manhattan last month in preparation for the move back to the site of its former headquarters on East 63rd Street in June.
Stuart Hodes, a former Graham dancer and teacher, heads the school.
A new building has been built on 63rd Street site, but the Graham center has signed a 20-year lease for studios and offices that are currently being built in basement space following plans by Hugh Hardy, a leading New York architect. The cost of construction already has been raised among the center's board members, board chairman Francis Mason told United Press International.
But Ron Protas, who heads the Martha Graham Trust, says he wants the state funds for a Graham school he is planning.
Graham left the rights to her dances to Protas, a close associate in her later years, when she died in 1991 at the age of 96. He refused to let the Martha Graham Dance Company perform her works after its board removed him as artistic director a year ago. The board was forced to close the school and its junior and senior dance companies after 71 years of existence.
Protas, who was never a dancer, presented a plan last October to the New York State Attorney General's office to reopen the Graham school as part of a major New York university, which he declined to name. He has described the closing of the school and the Graham dance companies as "reckless and unnecessary."
Mason noted, however, that when the Graham center's board decided on the closures last May, it was facing insurmountable financial problems as well as lack of permission from Protas to perform Graham's works. It meant canceling six months of booked tour performances in the United States, a European tour, and an engagement at Manhattan's Joyce Theater.
The board is opposing Protas' claim to the right to license Graham's dance works on the grounds that Graham was an employee working "for hire" at the center and school, and therefore did not own her dances or have the right to bequeath them to anyone.
The controversy is being mediated by the state's Attorney General's Charities Bureau. Spokesman, Brad Maione, reported "growing optimism" that a settlement could be reached.
The attorney general's office has been trying for a resolution of the case since last August, without notable success. Mason and his board turned down a Protas reorganization plan last September which would have split the school and dance company into two separate entities, with Protas in control of the school.
Meanwhile, Protas has licensed Graham works to other dance companies but he has not been able to control female impersonator Richard Move in his Martha Graham show with dancing that played to a packed house at New York's Town Hall last month.
Such watering down of the Graham tradition by other dance companies and imitators would mean that future audiences will no longer see her dances as she created themor feel their original impact. Graham had a style unlike that of any other modern dance choreographer based on difficult dance techniques that take years to master and cannot be recreated without the help of Graham dancers steeped in the tradition.
The Library of Congress acquired Graham's archives in 1998 with the understanding that the library would create a "living history" of her work on video and sponsor live dance performances. Videotapes of her work as well as notations of her choreography exist, but oral tradition has always been the chief means to transmitting dance movement from generation to generation of dancers.
"Martha created a school to train dancers who could then perform her work, and they stayed with her for long periods of time," said Tadej Brdnik, a Graham dancer and teacher who is loyal to the Graham Dance Center board.
"She created a unique, visceral dance style not learned from just a few years of experience. Having different companies just take a tape and teach it to people with no background in the technique doesn't work. If the world sees the works performed by people not trained in the technique, they are seeing something different.
"Our labors in the school are towards preserving her dances and carrying them on as they were originally intended."