When a choreographer dies, the art left behind is imperiled, no matter what steps have been taken to protect it. 

This sobering fact is on my mind in light of the New York City Ballet’s performances next week at the Kennedy Center of two ballets by George Balanchine, in addition to works by Jerome Robbins, Justin Peck, Gianna Reisen and Kyle Abraham. At the same time, there’s a cloud over the guardians of Balanchine’s ballets: The trustees of the Balanchine Trust, which licenses Balanchine’s nearly 100 extant ballets around the world, have been accused by one of their own of mismanagement.

Balanchine, who died in 1983, would surely be surprised by both. Divorced and childless at the end of his life, he had to be talked into writing a will, and he didn’t believe his ballets would be worth anything once he was gone. He couldn’t have known that his works would grow in popularity after his death, that they were destined to add refinement and sophistication to ballet programs everywhere and that they would delight audiences for decades to come. 

Perhaps he didn’t even believe that NYCB, the company he founded with impresario Lincoln Kirstein, could continue without him. When Balanchine finally wrote his will, he left no ballets to the company or its school, the School of American Ballet. 

Balanchine didn’t seem to want any single power over his works. He parceled out the rights to his ballets among more than a dozen dancers and friends, including Robbins and ballerinas Karin von Aroldingen, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell. He left the bulk of his works to Von Aroldingen, Le Clercq (his last wife) and his longtime secretary, Barbara Horgan.

“It was a very messy will,” says Horgan, 86. She founded the Balanchine Trust in 1987 as a one-stop shop for companies and student groups seeking permission to dance his ballets — works such as “Symphony in C” and “Kammermusik No. 2,” which are on the upcoming NYCB program in Washington, and more.

Yet according to Susan Gluck, a trustee and former NYCB dancer, Horgan only made things worse. Gluck filed a 136-page petition last month in New York Surrogate’s Court, seeking an accounting of how the trust manages its finances. She says she has discovered that all the rights to the Balanchine ballets have been taken out of the trust and moved into two private Delaware companies that Horgan controls as the general partner, with Paul Epstein, a lawyer who helped Horgan establish the trust, as her successor. 

“My petition is focused on financial matters,” Gluck says. “I believe that there are things that don’t add up here and I’d like to get the information to clarify the situation.

“If I told you that Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, or Picasso’s body of work was controlled by his personal assistant and then her own hand-picked lawyer, and contractually could come to be controlled by that lawyer’s housekeeper, you’d probably giggle, and then you’d get very scared. Yet I am telling you that . . . could happen to all of Balanchine’s timeless masterpieces.”

Gluck says she was forced to file the petition because she couldn’t get access to “complete financials, because all the rights to the ballets, both economic and artistic, were transferred to those partnerships when they were signed by Barbara and Paul in 1990.”

Horgan says that the trust sends financial records to the heirs every year and that she has given the information to Gluck. “Whatever we showed Susan, it wasn’t enough,” she says. “We don’t do a spreadsheet.” 

Horgan confirmed that she is the general partner of the Delaware partnerships and that Epstein is her successor. The partnerships were put together, she says, “to save the heirs and beneficiaries from paying state and local taxes.” The partnerships will dissolve, she says, as the Balanchine ballets “go into the public domain, and as the heirs die.” 

Horgan says Balanchine’s works will likely come into the public domain in 2053. Until then, her successor is a matter of key importance to the stability of an evanescent art. Unlike a painting or the written score of a symphony, a dance is uniquely fragile because there is no foolproof way to preserve it and steps are easily forgotten. Even a complete work can be changed in subtle ways so that its vivacity is flattened. The petition raises a thorny question: Who is truly in charge of this peerless treasury of artworks for the next decades? 

Dance, to paraphrase the Roman poet Catullus, is all but written in wind and running water. Much of the world’s dance catalogue has vanished. Choreography from recent years can easily go the same way if it’s not continuously performed, or if an inexpert person finds himself in control of it and changes it, or decides to halt permission to dance it.

The Balanchine situation harks back to the greatest choreographic debacle of recent years: the shutdown of the Martha Graham Dance Company in 2000 over a dispute with Graham’s heir, Ron Protas, a former photographer who befriended her in her last decades. Protas claimed he owned all the rights to her works.

Graham, like Balanchine one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, led her pioneering modern-dance company for six decades, until her death in 1991, when Protas began overseeing rehearsals. After dancers complained about his micromanagement of artistic matters, the board of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance fired him. Protas then barred the company from performing her dances; the company had to cancel tour dates and eventually closed down. 

“We empathize with the dancers’ frustration over this situation, but the root cause lies with a minority group who has usurped control of the Martha Graham Center,” Protas’s attorney at the time, Michael Quinn, told The Washington Post. “Whatever feelings there are about [Protas] as controversial, the quality of the company was very high when he was directing it.”

Two years later, a judge ruled that the overwhelming majority of Graham’s works were owned by the Graham Center under the “works for hire” doctrine, which holds that she was an employee of the entity she created and so her creations belonged to it. Finally, dancers could perform them again, but the two-year hiatus had the dance world wondering whether Graham’s legacy had perished along with her.

It’s difficult even in a stable situation to maintain a dance repertoire without the creator’s oversight. In Balanchine’s case, there are a number of former dancers who, under the auspices of the Balanchine Trust, teach his ballets around the globe. But even among them, questions arise about what version is best, as Balanchine updated and tweaked his works from time to time. 

And even in the case of such renowned masters as Balanchine and Graham, issues of succession and inheritance can arise, and with them the risk of disaster. In Graham’s case, rights issues and one person’s claim of control almost snuffed out her company and erased her works from the stage.

Balanchine’s work is too important for its management to be happening in the dark. The processes need to be conducted in full public view, for these are not only Balanchine’s works we’re talking about. They are American treasures.