Martha Graham's Company of Contemporary Dance

Martha Graham was the queen of modern dance. She founded her famous school of dance 75 years ago. The man she left her legacy to is now closing down one of the oldest American institutions of dancing. It was on Manhattan, West 26th Street. She "founded a whole new language of dance". She started forming her school in 1926 in New York, defying balletic convention with a new technique born of limitless passion. She exhorted her female dancers "to dance from the vagina" and with brute force as regards to men; Martha's premise was that an act of lovemaking was an act of murder. She was a legend, venerated by her peers throughout America and Europe; no dancer or choreographer was untouched by her style. Her alumni included the US choreographers Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Glen Tetley, Twyla Tharp and Robert Cohan. But Martha's heir, Ron Protas (now in his 50s), was described by the New York Times as "the most relived man in dance". Her friends say they always knew it would end in tears. She died in 1991 at 96 years old; Protas was named her sole beneficiary. There was a wide spread discontent. He entered Martha's life in 1970. She was already 75 years old, too crippled by arthritis to dance again.

She was an alcoholic and suffered with depression. She ceased choreographing and teaching and was very often ill in hospital. Ronald Protas (the son of the businessman in his 20s) was trying to show-business photography. He was supposed to publish a photo book so he started to go around to the Graham studios on 63rd Street. Martha at the beginning would say "get that creep out of here". Once he was even throw out of the theatre but eventually his persistence tired her and she stopped throwing him out. He made him self-indispensable to the lonely, ailing choreographer especially during and after her hospitalisation and he became a full-time nurse, minder, secretary and general factotum. She stated over the years "Ron Protas saved my life" and she made him her official assistant. He always claimed she taught him her technique privately, in her apartment. Hinkson, the author of Goddess: Martha Graham's Dancers Remember, recalls, "I used to call Ron the Iagao character, because he was continually whispering in Martha's ear. As she aged and became weaker he became stronger. He attended all 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. "

She became a media icon. While advertising Blackglama mink, she was honoured by Heads of State and met the Pope. Protas basked in her reflected glory, going to the hedonistic Studio 54, meeting Madonna, Andy Warhol and Halston was the company's star designer and visiting with the company were Baryshnikov, Fonteyn, Nureyev, Maya Plisetskaya and Lisa Minelli. During that time she created another 28 ballets as she had wealthy benefactors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Onassis. Anyway this successful, happy company went downhill after she died and Protas took charge. Staff were dismissed or resigned citing his irrational nature and authoritarian behaviour. Without observing etiquette, 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 am right!"

He sold the headquarters to cover debts, the company's performances dwindled and funding plummeted. 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. They are on the verge of bankruptcy. Ten trustees including Betty Ford, Vanessa Redgrave, and Gregory Peck resigned last year. He sold Martha's school and company to the non-profit-making Martha Graham Centre of Contemporary Dance and created works as an employee of the Centre, which retained the rights. In fact Graham stated in a letter to Jerome Robbins years before her death, "The Company must continue now and in the future". So in the next few weeks Judge Miriam Cederbaum will decide what is going to happen to Martha Graham's Company of Contemporary Dance. But if Protas wins the legal battle the company may close down!!!

I will leave you with the inspirational words of Martha Graham: "Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion. "Ah, so there is still hope for me to become a dancing legend like Mata Hari!

Verinha Ottoni.


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