The Martha Graham School

Martha Graham was the queen of modern dance. The New York school she founded 75 years ago is still a globally respected institution. So why is the man she left her legacy to taking steps to close it down? ... Report by Alix Kirsta

Martha GrahamThe sign outside the inconspicuous studio on Manhattan’s West 26th Street reads: “Stepping Out: Swing, Latin & Ballroom Dance Studios”. It is hardly where you would expect to find members of one of the world’s greatest companies taking class. But here, in a room overlooking Broadway, dancers and students from America’s oldest dance institution, the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, gather daily to teach, rehearse, and pray that this isn’t their last day at the centre. For, as things stand, by teaching and performing the late Martha Graham’s work, they could be breaking the law. And if Ron Protas, Martha Graham’s elusive heir, wins the lawsuit he recently brought against the centre, then the work of America’s high priestess of dance could be irretrievably damaged. You might as well talk of the Royal Ballet School or the Kirov shutting its doors.

Many consider the loss unthinkable, a tragedy that would wipe out three-quarters of a century of dance history. Martha Graham is the acknowledged pioneer of modern dance,who, according to the British choreographer Gillian Lynne, “founded a whole new language of dance”. From 1926 on, when Graham formed her school and company in New York, she defied balletic convention with a new technique born of limitless passion. Only her dancers fully recognised to what extent her complex, sometimes self-destructive nature informed her work. Exhorting her female dancers to “dance from the vagina”, and demanding realistic brute force from the men — “Martha’s premise was that an act of lovemaking was an act of murder,” remembers one — her works contained powerful depictions of seduction, rape and killing.

In 1962, her sexually explicit production of Phaedra prompted the House of Representatives to condemn her work as pornographic. But by then she was a legend, venerated by her peers throughout America and Europe. Virtually no dancer or choreographer since has remained untouched by her style. “She is as important an American monument as the Lincoln Memorial or the Metropolitan Opera House,” says Lynne. It is because of the court case, unprecedented in the history of dance, that the centre — whose alumni include the US choreographers Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Glen Tetley, Twyla Tharp and Robert Cohan — has been forced to operate in absurd semi-secrecy since it reopened in January after eight months’ closure.

Word of mouth

Protas, who claims exclusive rights to Graham’s name and work, has forbidden the centre to teach her technique or perform her ballets.With no nameplate or advertising allowed, information on classes and the teaching faculty, composed mostly of former Graham principals, is entirely by word of mouth. Performances at undisclosed locations are given to invited audiences only. What is baffling about this internecine power struggle is why Martha Graham’s heir, now in his late 50s, should appear to want to close the very institution she created. As her devoted companion and the self-professed guardian of her legacy, Protas’s behaviour has been denounced by some as a monstrous act of betrayal. And even if he does win the legal battle, who would want to work with someone The New York Times has described as “the most reviled man in dance”?

Some of Graham’s oldest friends say they always knew it would end in tears. Even before her death in 1991 at 96, when Protas, as anticipated, was named her sole beneficiary, there was widespread discontent. It was back in 1970 that Ronald Protas first entered Martha Graham’s life. At 75, too crippled by arthritis to dance again, she had sunk into alcoholism and depression, ceased choreographing and teaching, and was often gravely ill in hospital. Protas, the son of a New York businessman, was a dropout from Columbia University Law School in his 20s, trying his hand at show-business photography. In order to take photographs for a book he was supposed to be publishing, he began hanging around the Graham studios on 63rd Street. “At the beginning, Martha would often say ‘Get that creep out of here’” recalls Bertram Ross, once Graham’s leading principal and partner. “Once, he was even thrown out of the theatre; but he persevered until she got tired of throwing him out?

In time, he made himself indispensable to the lonely, ailing choreographer, especially during and after her hospitalisation, and soon moved into her home as full-time nurse, cook, minder, secretary and general factotum. The dancers accepted that Protas fulfilled a crucial need, but became alarmed when he started undertaking administrative and artistic functions. “He used to run after Martha with a notepad writing down what her choreography meant,” says Ross,who, like most of her friends, credits Protas with helping Graham resume choreographing by stopping her drinking and restoring her will to live. Over the years, they heard her state repeatedly: “Ron Protas saved my life.”

Martha's little boy

Soon she made him her unofficial assistant, says Ross. “He always claimed she taught him her technique privately in her apartment. But when he demonstrated one of her famous controlled falls by crashing heavily to the floor, it was just comical. Little was known about “Martha’s little boy”, as he was dubbed. Having recently lost his mother, he seemed to regard Graham as a surrogate, later claiming they had developed a profound spiritual bond. As Protas’s influence grew, Graham’s longtime principals and collaborators were fired or elbowed out. One leading dancer, Mary Hinkson, warned Ross, who had choreographed many roles and run the company with her during Graham’s illness, that old-timers like themselves would soon be out of the door. She was right.

In a 1996 interview with Robert Tracy, author of Goddess: Martha Graham’s Dancers Remember, Hinkson recalls: “I used to call Ron the Iago character, because he was continually whispering in Martha’s ear.” Linda Hodes, an ex-principal and friend of Graham’s, returned in 1977 to become joint associate artistic director with Protas. She was struck by the power shift taking place:”Ron had a significant hold on Martha. She depended on him for everything. He gave up his own life for her when no one else would. But,” she adds, “as she aged and became weaker, he became stronger. He attended all my meetings with Martha about casting and repertoire. She always had the last word, but he had the right to agree and disagree. He wanted very badly to be an artistic force, but lacked artistic sensibilities and real knowledge.”

Protas certainly seemed to excel at handling the glitzy lifestyle that accompanied Graham, however. These were the years of her emergence as a media icon: she advertised Blackglama mink, was honoured by heads of state and met the Pope, while simultaneously schmoozing with the hedonistic Studio 54 set. Protas revelled in the reflected glory of her association with Madonna, Andy Warhol and Halston, now the company’s star designer, while such unlikely guest artists including Baryshnikoy, Fonteyn, Nureyev, Maiya Plisetskaya and Liza Minnelli boosted the company’s commercial appeal. More importantly, Graham created another 28 ballets during that period (although critics are divided over their quality). Nevertheless, wealthy benefactors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Onassis were happy to open their chequebooks and seemingly secure the future of the Martha Graham centre.

But once Graham reached her 90s, increasingly feeble and infirm, some of her colleagues were alarmed by Protas’s influence. And soon after her death, when it became known that she had unconditionally bequeathed Protas her entire property, including her works, the gossip went into overdrive. Although it may well have been gratitude for his devotion, conspiracy theories abounded. Whatever the truth, there was doubt as to his ability to run a successful happy company. Most senior dancers and staff were dismissed or resigned citing his irrational nature and authoritarian behaviour. When Todd Dellinger was appointed executive director in 1996, he was appalled by the financial disarray and the “poisonous, psychotic atmosphere” permeating the organisation. “Without observing class properly, he’d peek through the door, blow in, abuse dancers, denigrate everything, stating imperiously, even to senior principals, that ‘Martha showed me everything. I know I’m right.”’

Mania for secrecy

Eventually forced to sell their dilapidated headquarters to cover debts, the company’s performances dwindled and funding plummeted. Although popular with a small coterie of elderly female socialites, as artistic director Protas was not generally rated. His mania for secrecy, which sometimes included booking into hotels under a pseudonym, prevented business associates from contacting him directly. He preferred participating in meetings via the phone speaker system rather than in person, and had a hatred of most of the press. One of his former PAs remembers her embarrassment at seeing him attend official functions in dishevelled clothes and a stringy nest of unkempt hair.
By the late 1990s, sponsors and promoters grew weary of his unpredictable nature: last-minute changes of mind, his insistence on controlling all aspects of productions, confrontational phone calls and reams of officious faxes.

“You think you’re going up a positive road with him, then something intervenes due to his paranoia and it all falls apart. That’s why I and many colleagues have said we will never again work with the Graham centre if it means dealing with Protas,” says Kenneth Fischer, president of the University of Michigan’s Musical Society, who presented the 1994 Graham centennial season.

Top: Martha Graham (centre) with Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, who were supporters of her dance company. Below: members of the company pose for a portrait to publicise the ballet Embattled Garden in 1979; Above right: Ron Protas, Graham's controversial heir.

Last year, Barry Fischer, associate professor of dance at Frostburg State University, reorganised a three-week Graham programme when Protas’s lawyer and agent warned him that if he wanted to use her works, he must dismiss four dancers who had signed an unpublished letter to The New York Times calling for Protas’s resignation as artistic director. “He’s always been a great manipulator, but telling me to break these contracts was immoral and unconscionable. I refused.We revised the programme and took out the Graham name.”

In 1997, perhaps sensing his back was to the wall, Protas offered the post of artistic director of the centre to Janet Eilber, a former Graham principal widely respected in the dance community. News of Eilber’s takeover was hailed by America’s arts-funding bodies as a crucial step towards ensuring the company’s survival..As part of Protas’s declared aim to distance himself from the management of the centre, Todd Dellinger, as its executive director, spent 18 months helping to negotiate a document distinguishing Protas’s function as sole trustee of the Martha Graham estate and clarifying his relationship with the company.

At this stage, nobody on the board even questioned Protas’s ownership of all Graham’s works. In July 1999, the so-called “licensing agreement” was signed, permitting the Graham centre to teach and perform her work without charge. In return, Protas would receive a “consultancy fee” of $100,000 a year, an office and secretary, a travel allowance for company tours, and the right as “artistic adviser” to inspect classes, rehearsals and performances. He also retained the right to license Graham’s ballets to other companies for lucrative fees. But it all fell apart when Protas withdrew his decision to appoint Janet Eilber as artistic director, saying he disagreed with her policies. Promises of funds, contingent upon her appointment, were swiftly withdrawn.

Verge of bankruptcy

The board woke up to the scale of the disaster. Marvin Preston, who replaced Dellinger in March last year, spelt out the facts: they were on the verge of bankruptcy. Numerous trustees also fell victim to Protas’s designs. Having stated publicly that a “faction” of the board was plotting to oust him, he appointed new members and engineered the resignation of the chairwoman, a trustee since 1975, by announcing her replacement in a press release to The New York Times. Ten trustees, including Betty Ford,Vanessa Redgrave, Gregory Peck, and even Protas supporters, resigned. The centre went into a tailspin: by June 2000, the board had removed Protas as artistic director and trustee, cancelled all engagements and suspended activities to avoid bankruptcy He terminated the agreement, forbidding the centre’s use for teaching Graham’s work.

Last December, however, things began to look up. Preston announced that they had signed a 20-year lease for new studios and offices in the building rising on the site of their old 63rd Street home. Funding was pledged; it included a $750,000 grant obtained by the New York state senator Roy Goodman, chairman of New York state’s Council for the Arts.The Manhattan Borough President’s Office pledged another $200,000, and three of the centre’s board members donated $750,000.

But Protas then announced plans to found his own Graham school, declaring that state funds intended for the Graham centre should go to him. By now, some people had begun asking what legal right he had to the ownership of Graham’s ballets, her technique and name. Suspicion was initially voiced by Eliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York state. Soon he was on the trail of possible violations by Protas of his fiduciary responsibilities towards the Graham centre. The attorney general’s office, together with Marvin Preston and the centre’s lawyers, discovered that Protas seemed to have given away important documents and financial records belonging to the organisation and which remain public property. A number were found in boxes at the Library of Congress, to whom, in 1998, Protas sold many of Graham’s possessions, including her archives.

Federal Court to decide ownership

The centre is now challenging whether he was even in a position to make a licensing agreement with it or anyone else. Obviously, much of the blame for the company’s misfortunes rests with the board, since nobody — until Preston’s arrival — questioned Protas’s ownership. Now, that issue is finally being thrashed out in a Manhattan federal court. The most telling indication of how seriously the attorney general takes this case is his participation in the suit as a “defendant intervener” on the basis that the citizens of New York have an interest and investment in the outcome. According to the assistant attorney general, Maria Simpson, “This is a tremendous New York City-based institution, [which] we believe is the true owner of the rights!”

As it emerged in court, although Graham left Protas everything, her will did not specify what this was, referring vaguely to “any rights” she might have. Under US copyright law, choreographers must register their work with the Library of Congress copyright office, using dance notation or video to identify it. However, she resisted having her ballets notated because she regarded them as unfinished and altered them for different dancers; many dating from the 1920s, her most prolific period, could already be public property. The rest may not have belonged to her, since she sold her school and company in 1956 to the non-profit-making Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and created works as an employee of the centre,which retained the rights.

All her actions indicate that Graham intended the centre to continue teaching and performing her works, and until her death she affiliated her name, technique and works exclusively with them. This undermines Protas’s claims that another institution would be better placed to carry on her tradition. Despite repeated requests to speak to Protas, including questions e-mailed to him, neither he nor his lawyers responded. But in a brief meeting, his chief counsel, James McGuire, defended his actions: “Who better than Protas, with 25 years learning the technique at Graham’s feet, to carry on the school?”

In a letter to the choreographer Jerome Robbins, written a year before her death, Graham stated: “The company must continue now and in the future!” In the next few weeks, when Judge Miriam Cederbaum comes to her decision, we’ll find out if Martha Graham’s wish will be allowed to come true.

This article in its entirety is copyright © 2001 Alix Kirsta.
First published in the Sunday Times Magazine, 8 July 2001.

Web site content © Alix Kirsta. Web site design by alano design.