To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dancing's demise are greatly exaggerated.
In truth, the school is alive and well, and moving to new digs.
For most of last year, the school—along with the Martha Graham Trust and the Martha Graham Center—has been embroiled in squabbles over rights to the late dancer-choreographer's works. Of the three, the school has always been the least involved in the fracas and the most likely to survive. As Martha Graham Center Executive Director Marvin Preston pointed out in July, "Typically it operates at or near a break-even point" financially, unlike the other two Graham entities.
In her will, Graham specified a labyrinthine arrangement that gave the Graham Trust exclusive rights to her copyrighted dance works, which the Trust can license as it sees fit. The Graham Center and the Graham School share a board of directors and report to the Internal Revenue Service as a consolidated entity, but they are separate. The Center produced the dances (when granted the licenses by the Trust). The school trained aspiring dancers and operated an ensemble company that is its own legal entity. Now it gets complicated: Last summer the Center removed Ron Protas, the director of the Trust, from the Center's board. Protas revoked licenses when his other attempts to maintain a presence on the Center's board failed.
For more than a month, charges and countercharges flew, with executives from the Center claiming Protas was variously guilty of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance; Protas responded that Graham had specifically named him as her successor at the Trust. While the bickering continued, every entity suffered. Performances and classes were cancelled, locks and allegiances were changed, and allegations were lodged with funders and legal authorities.
Things had settled somewhat by last July, when the Center moved into new headquarters in the Citicorp building and Preston promised that the school would be "up and running by the beginning of the calendar year." Now, with the new year upon us, Preston told Back Stage that the school has enough funding to move to new studio spaces at 37 W. 26th St., and would open Tues., Jan. 16. The space is temporary, but the commitment to maintaining the school is permanent.
"We're all excited about getting going again," he said. "We have a long list of people who want to study. That doesn't mean all of our problems are over, but the problems are more bounded now." Stuart Hodes, a former Graham dancer and teacher, will oversee the school.
Preston said the publicity over the earlier problems helped bring the Center's needs to the attention of funders, and that it has funding lined up beyond operations needs.
"That includes a new grant from the State of New York," he said proudly. Then, after a pause, he said, "However, funding is always being put in place, so we'd be happy to hear from anyone else who wants to help."