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The High Cost of Conflict.

ALL OF US LOOK backward occasionally and wonder at the peculiarities of human behavior--our own, certainly, but often the behavior of others as well. One of the great American psychologists and original thinkers, B.F. Skinner, proved in his research (working in the lab with rats and pigeons) that animals rewarded for good behavior learn more quickly and effectively than animals punished for bad behavior. Humans work pretty much the same way, most of us would agree, as effective teachers know from their classrooms and studios. Persuasion is a skill, an art form. How well we use that powerful tool is a measure of our effectiveness on stage, in the studio or behind the scenes.

This past March an event occurred "behind the scenes" on the board of directors of one of the most significant historical American dance troupes, the Martha Graham Dance Company. The result of the board's action threatens the future of the company as well as the priceless repertoire to which Graham, one of the seminal creative forces of the twentieth century, committed her life.

What happened in March is not as important as the potential results, which concern all of those in dance who are indebted to Graham, who understand the importance of keeping her legacy alive through the company trained to perform her works at the same high standard we have seen in recent years, as raves for the company's latest two-week season in New York City affirm.

The company's board voted to remove artistic director Ron Protas, whose presence has been a bone of contention almost since he first began working with Graham and her company in the 1970s. The former photographer is widely credited with having given Graham the personal and professional support she needed in order to continue working the last two decades of her life. Upon her death in 1991 at the age of 97, she left Protas the rights to her name (trademarked to protect her landmark technique) and, even more important, all her works.

Under pressure from the board, Protas eventually designated Janet Eilber, a friend of his and a former Graham principal with excellent qualifications, to become his successor.

Protas's lawyer, Peter Quinn, said that the board, although approving Eilber, failed to raise the necessary funds to bring her back to New York from the West Coast. Eilber says that as a result of this financial situation, she had no alternative but to resign. As a result, everybody is unhappy.

A life member of the board and director of the new Graham Trust (which is based on the exemplary Balanchine Trust), Protas is required by contract to oversee the quality of the Graham productions. And as the Graham repertoire is being made available to regional ballet companies in America--a controversial but, I believe, a necessary recent development in order to keep the Graham legacy alive--the need to oversee this great American artistic heritage is more important than ever.

At the present, both sides seem to agree on the following facts: The company's financial managers (Protas is not among them) have not had a financial audit for the past two years, a major obstacle when seeking the support of charitable foundations and private benefactors. The company tour this past winter ran up a $200,000 debt, Quinn said. Protas paid $40,000 of his own money to meet the dancers' salaries on that tour--in addition, he and his attorney said, to having given or lent from his personal resources more than $1.2 million to the company over the past three decades. And Protas may now, as a result of the board's action, withdraw the rights to the works and to the use of Martha Graham's name from the Graham company, leaving the board with a nameless company with nothing much to perform. That would be a great disservice to everybody.

The survival of this company is of primary importance: Imagine what might have happened to the ballets of George Balanchine if, after his death in 1983, there had not been a company of the caliber of the New York City Ballet and its attendant school to maintain a high standard. Since Alvin Alley's death, his company has expanded greatly and attained a solid financial footing. Ailey's unique creations are now being performed better than ever before, as a result of his company's survival. Looking ahead, we might ask what will happen to Paul Taylor's repertoire if the Taylor company is not there to keep it alive. Would the setting of his works on companies other than his own guarantee his legacy?

There remain many questions regarding the Graham matter, all of which will be discussed for a long time. But right now we have the specter of a stalemate. Graham's company and repertoire are at stake. Taking a page from the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, reinforcing good behavior and putting behind us the bad is perhaps the best path to follow.

At least, it's worth a try.

Richard Philip, Executive Editor
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Article Details
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Author:Philip, Richard
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:833
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