Moribund Graham Dance Company revived

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Sept. 13, 2002 at 11:51 AM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- The Martha Graham Dance Company, suspended two years ago due to a complicated legal battle over ownership of Graham's dances, has been revived as the result of a favorable court ruling and will return to the stage next year.

The announcement of the company's return to activity was announced after a ruling by federal Judge Miriam Cederbaum late last month granting the Graham company clear rights to 45 of 70 dances in contention including such key works as "Acrobats of God," "Letter to the World," and "Penitente." The Graham dancers will open a new season with performances at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan in January.

The company was reactivated by Marvin Preston, executive director of the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, which suspended the Martha Graham Dance Company in May 2000, but was able to reopen its dance school the following year. He said Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, veteran Graham dancers, would continue as artistic coordinators of the company until a new director can be appointed.

The center, supported by a New York State grant of $750,000 matched by private donations, continued its court battle against Ron Protas, Graham's close associate and artistic executor, for control of her dance repertory even though it was forced to suspend the company after Protas forbade it to perform Graham works he controlled.

Cederbaum ruled that Protas owns the rights to only one of Graham's dances, "Seraphic Dialogue," and found 10 other dances to be in the public domain, accessible to any dance company without licensing or artistic supervision. She left the rights to nine other Graham works, including her celebrated "Clytemnestra," unclear.

Protas' attorney said the ruling would be appealed.

Graham died in 1991 at the age of 96, leaving the rights to all her dances to Protas. After her death, the board of the Martha Graham Dance Company removed Protas as artistic director and he, in turn, refused to let it perform Graham works. The board was forced eventually to close the school and its senior and junior dance companies after 71 years of existence, canceling national and European tours.

The school was reactivated under Stewart Hodes, a former Graham dancer, after New York state came through with a capital grant in 2001. Some of the school's top students are expected to be recruited for the newly constituted company along with former company dancers who have been invited to return. Some of these dancers presented several Graham dances at New York City Center last May even though Protas' suit had not been settled.

Cederbaum's decision is causing a sensation in dance circles because she essentially found Graham to have been an employee of the Martha Graham Center after 1956 when she began receiving a salary and benefits for creating dances. Therefore, she ruled, all dances Graham choreographed for the center and its company after that date was "work for hire" and the dances belong to the center.

Protas' attorney, Judd Burstein, said the ruling should have other choreographers "quaking in their slippers over what this case can mean to their right to control their artistic legacy," especially those who create dances for a foundation they have set up for practical purposes.

However, Paul Taylor, a former Graham dancer before he established his own famous company, said he agreed with Cederbaum.

"The thing about the works going to the company seems right to me," he said in an interview. "Not just because Martha was an employee of the company and the company therefore owns her dances. That seems logical. But because I'm glad the dances will be seen. And hopefully they'll be done right by the people who have studied her technique."

Taylor said rights to his dances will go to his company on his death. He noted that copyrighting of dances became easier after changes in federal law in 1978 but that few choreographers had taken advantage of these changes to claim undisputable ownership of their works. Most choreographers still rely on trusts to own and license their dances, he said.

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