It is the end of intermission and the lobby of the Joyce Theater is almost empty when Tadej Brdnik limps across it -- slowly, heavily -- on his way to his seat. He's just finished performing and is going to watch the rest of the program from the theater. After all, this is a historic night, one of the first performances by the newly reunited Martha Graham Dance Company. The limp? It's a broken toe. Snapped when he landed from a jump the night before, while dancing the lead in Graham's "Maple Leaf Rag," and then aggravated in "Dark Meadow," and then he really nailed it earlier in the evening by stamping and leaping through the role of the Husbandman in "Appalachian Spring."
He's taking three different painkillers. He's never been happier.
"Exhilarating," in fact, is the way Brdnik describes being onstage again after a nearly three-year hiatus, during which the Graham company ceased to exist while fighting in court for the legal right to perform again.
"It's getting fun now!" the tall, spiky-haired Slovenian exclaims with a booming laugh. "Now we are starting to be a company again, we are starting to breathe together. You know" -- he leans forward, momentarily forgetting the sore toe, for this is the most important point -- "it takes time!"
Time is exactly what this troupe hasn't got. It won the rights to Graham's choreography in August, when a judge ruled that the works belonged to the company Graham founded and not to the heir named in her will. The troupe had to hustle what was left of its dancers back to the studio, hire new ones, rehearse the works, prepare for the searing New York spotlight in an unheard-of hurry. (This performance series, which opened last Wednesday, continues through Sunday.) But to be back onstage! To heck with the butterflies, the nerves and hyperventilation. Injuries? No sweat. Stiffness, soreness, bunions, blisters -- bring 'em on. Pain means you're dancing. Dancing means you're alive. And in the ephemeral world of dance, where you must use it or lose it -- forever -- it means Graham's great art lives, too.
One of the most important American artists, Martha Graham has often been compared to other genre-benders like Stravinsky, Picasso and Joyce. She did for dance what Henry Ford did for transportation. If ballet was the horse-drawn carriage, Graham's modern dance was the Model T: more powerful, with a sleek, bold, aggressive look, unlike anything anyone had seen before. Starting in the 1920s, Graham yanked the art of dance in an entirely new direction, devising in a few years a training method and vocabulary that, for all its formal rigor and the magnitude of its influence, directly rivaled the centuries-old technique of classical ballet.
"Contraction and release" was the basis of her technique, with emphasis on the expressiveness of the torso -- the gut -- as opposed to ballet's focus on the flexibility of the legs. The Graham dancers had fabulous abs before there were fabulous abs; the flexed midsection acted as both fulcrum and winch. Many of Graham's works swell with a taut sexual energy, though the balance of power was far ahead of her time. The women are Amazonian -- powerful, dominant, all-seeing sorceresses. The men are typically in their underwear, dripping pheromones, yet often subdued by the fierce, wiry females.
Graham was a tiny woman with a grand persona. She was courted by celebrities like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Liza Minnelli and Madonna. Graham was glam and she was a diva, she was worshiped and parodied, she was high art and pop art.
But like many a genius before her, her personal life was a mess. The hornets' nest of confusion she left behind nearly eradicated her decades of art, as surely as if Picasso had torched his canvases and melted down his bronzes.
She was depressed. She drank. And then there was her increasing reliance on a young devotee, a former law student and photographer named Ron Protas who became Graham's shadow in her later years. He was a controversial figure from the start, with no dance experience and by many accounts given to erratic behavior. Several Graham veterans quit in protest over his involvement in the day-to-day operations of the company. Still, when Graham died in 1991, her will named him as her sole heir, granting him the rights to her choreography.
But the question of whether she had any rights to her choreography became the issue at the center of the litigation. Dance can be protected by copyright just like books or musical scores, using written notation, film and other means to "publish" the works. But bewilderingly, Graham had legally protected none of her 181 ballets. The likelihood that at least some of Graham's works could exist in the public domain, and thus outside of her heir's control, was first reported in The Washington Post more than two years ago. In fact, the recent court decision found 10 of her works to be in the public domain, among them her most well-known, including "Appalachian Spring," for which Aaron Copland composed his soaringly beautiful score of the same name.
The result was the highest-profile intellectual-property screw-up in history. "This was a classic case of just overlooking those rights," said Paul Kilmer, a copyright lawyer with Holland & Knight LLP and one of the first observers to raise questions about Protas's claims to ownership of the Graham oeuvre. And yet Graham's oversight has ultimately proved to be the saving grace of both her company and her legacy. Few could argue that the works would be safer in the hands of a nondancer who had antagonized so many of Graham's followers. But before the Graham organization could sort out who owned what, it ran out of money. Blaming its feuds with Protas for scaring off donors, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, the umbrella organization representing Graham's school and company, suspended operations in May 2000.
Protas sued the Graham Center when it reopened the school some months later, prompting two trials on the trademark rights to Graham's name and the rights to her choreography. The Graham Center won both, with the ruling last August awarding the bulk of Graham's existing works to the Center, under the theory that Graham created them as an employee of the organization. Protas, who through his attorney refused to comment for this article, is appealing the decision.
How close did Graham's art come to simply disappearing? Backstage after opening night, Christine Dakin, the company's artistic director along with Terese Capucilli, held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "If there is not a company to keep the work alive, the work will not be alive," she said. Dakin raised a bottle of beer to her brightly painted lips as she contemplated what might have been. Take the example of Antony Tudor, she said, another pioneering choreographer of the 20th century who created dozens of works, yet only a handful of them are in active performance, the rest forever lost because no one remembers their steps.
"Without the company to do the work," she said, "there ain't gonna be nothing."
The company leaped into action as soon as the verdict was rendered. Capucilli and Dakin, stalwarts with some 20 years of experience in the company, issued union contracts for 25 weeks of dancing to 26 dancers, up from the company's previous 15 members. The Joyce Theater was reserved. And less than two months after winning the works, the company began rehearsing. More than half of the dancers were newly hired, an almost unthinkable turnover for a company preparing such a large repertoire. Dancers who had been second-tier before the breakup were pushed into principal roles. New dancers were taught a whirlwind of repertory. During the Joyce series, which comprises 15 works spanning eight decades of Graham output, there will be nearly a dozen dancers debuting in principal roles.
"A huge abyss" is how dancer Elizabeth Auclair describes the company breakup. Having joined the troupe in 1993, she was just starting to move into soloist roles when the group disbanded. "It's almost impossible to put into words," she said. "It was so unthinkable and so devastating. On a personal level, it was the fear of not dancing. But the devastation of losing something that we all felt was so precious, that was the most painful."
At 22, Heidi Stoeckley is one of the troupe's youngest dancers. For Dakin and Capucilli, she represents the future of the organization. This weekend she debuted in the role of the Pioneer Woman in "Appalachian Spring," a daunting task for a novice -- this is the grounded, wise, maternal role model for the jittery young bride in Graham's synthesis of the icons and energy forming the American spirit.
At 5 feet 10, with broad, rounded cheekbones and deep-set eyes, Stoeckley has the dramatic proportions of a Graham woman. She talks like one, too.
"Martha Graham said you must dance from your vagina; she said that even to the men," Stoeckley noted, seated in the empty theater on a recent afternoon. "You dance with a very deep part of yourself. When you achieve that, it's as if your bones expand, your muscles expand, your whole emotional self expands and you become purely, 100 percent connected with the audience. You really lose yourself in it."
If keeping the dancers together during the breakup was an act of faith, moving on is now a matter of ambition and the business decisions to back it up. Having looked into the abyss and survived, armed with devoted veterans and fresh young talent, the directors have vowed to lead an organization that is bigger, better and stronger than ever.
"We're expanding the scale of things," said Executive Director Marvin Preston. The company's budget, he said, is between $3 million and $4 million; he hopes to make it $10 million in two years. After next week, the dancers will be laid off until the summer, when a college residency and limited touring will begin. Next year, the plan is for 40-week contracts and expanded national and international tours. Next week, operations shift to new studios on East 63rd Street, the site of Graham's former headquarters, which had to be sold in the company's pre-hiatus money crisis.
Now all the Graham organization needs is money. And that, insiders acknowledge, will take some concerted coaxing. After its three-year hibernation, the company finds itself in an even tougher fundraising position than before, with contributions stymied by the uncertain economy. Still, Preston said, the Graham plans will continue undaunted.
"You can't make tons of money by operating a minimum amount of time. We are scaling it up to a level of operations that is dramatically larger than it has ever been in its history. We're changing the nature of the whole institution."
At the company's first two performances last week, the buzz was palpable. Among the audience were members of other troupes, come to cheer on their colleagues and to savor the work of the woman who opened the door onto a brand-new world.
"It's nice to see a regeneration," said Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theater. "Given the circumstances, I think it's a miracle."
"How often do you see just a whole act of women?" asked former Paul Taylor Dance Company member Rachel Berman approvingly, after opening night's series of female solos.
The company looks good. Remarkably good. Somehow the dancers were forged into a single force, and in most cases the difficult musical timing, the shape and the intensity of the movements were thrillingly achieved. In the Joyce's intimate space, solos and small-scale works fit best; a good thing at this point, since there is more exposure for the veterans and less for the untested corps. Perhaps it was the closeness of the dancers, perhaps it was the drama of the occasion, but Graham's work came across as electric and vital.
The tense desperation of 1926's "Heretic," in which a woman in white (on opening night the birdlike, steely Fang-Yi Sheu) tries fruitlessly for acceptance into a coven of black-robed gatekeepers, can still make you feel as if you've had the wind knocked out of you. "Errand Into the Maze," where an unspeakable fear is confronted and overcome, was a revelation, given new potency and urgency by its leading women (Auclair one night, Sheu another).
And by some miracle -- or hard work and conviction -- the dancers have indeed become a company. The women are taut, tightly wired, like tigers poised for a pounce, though the youthfulness of many takes some getting used to. The granite-sculpted men flaunt a delineated musculature that Michelangelo would appreciate.
For at least one audience member, the company had managed to resurrect not only itself but also Graham's spirit. "I felt like Martha was here tonight," a woman told Dakin and Capucilli during a post-performance discussion, "and I thank you all for bringing her back to life."