Some very good news. The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance has won a legal victory over Graham's heir, Ron Protas, for the right to use her name and teach her technique. Protas had sued the Center and its associated school after he was fired as artistic director. He then revoked the licensing agreement that allowed the Center and school to use her name and perform her dances. If the Center had lost, it would have been the likely death knell for the technique itself.
The judge hearing the case found that Protas was "not a credible witness," and that he had misleadingly registered the names of the school and center in his own name at the federal Patent and Trademark Office.
The Graham Center’s lawyer said the ruling was a “complete and sweeping victory”. But Judge Miriam Cedarbaum has still to rule on the far more crucial issue of whether Protas can control the rights to Graham's ballets. The right to copyright dances dates from 1978, and most of Graham’s work has not been copyrighted. A victory for the Graham Center on this second issue could mean, according to some critics, that choreographers would have difficulty in establishing their rights to their own work. On the other hand, should Judge Cedarbaum find in Protas’ favour, Graham’s works could fade completely into oblivion, as the entire dance world has shunned Protas. Judgement is expected in late autumn.
Graham chose Protas to inherit, in the words of her will, "any rights that I might have" to the works she created. These rights may not enjoy copyright protection. Some may have fallen into the public domain or may belong to the Graham Center under the "works for hire" doctrine, which would mean that dances created by Graham while she was formally employed by the center belong to the center.
Protas was a controversial figure who as a young photographer insinuated himself into Graham’s life, and who made it his business to become indispensable to her. He saved Graham from her drinking, while systematically alienating her friends.
When Graham came to the ROH in 1976, Protas insisted that she not visit London Contemporary Dance Theatre, which had modelled itself on Graham and her methods. He dismissed LCDT as parasites deserving of neither acclaim nor notice. In his biography, A Life in the Arts, John Drummond, wrote:
“This seemed to me wicked, and I begged Graham to go to the LCDT’s studios at The Place. At once she became a troubled old lady and said sadly, “I don’t know who to believe. I don’t know what to do”. It was quite tragic. She never did make the visit, but when the LCDT company came to a closing party at the Opera House she at least spoke to some of the visitors, which in some way compensated”.
The judgement is reported in today’s Washington Post at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A51471-2001Aug8.html
The NY Times reports it at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/08/arts/dance/08GRAH.html?searchpv=
A copy of Graham’s will can be found at http://www.danceinsider.com/f2001/f118_1.html
A (partisan) account of Protas' evidence in the case can be found at http://www.danceinsider.com/f2001/f327_1.html