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Martha Graham Dancers Return to the Stage

Tuesday night at New York's Joyce Theater, the Martha Graham Dance Company begins its first official season in almost three years. After a long legal battle over the rights to the late Martha Graham's dances, the company she founded won the rights to the majority of her choreography and will showcase a spectrum of her work, spanning eight decades of modern dance. Alicia Zuckerman reports for Morning Edition.

Ronald Protas, Graham's legal heir and the plaintiff in the case, battled the Martha Graham Dance Company and its dancers in court, arguing that he owned the copyrights to Graham's choreography. In August, a federal judge ruled that because Graham was an employee of the Martha Graham Dance Center when she created most of her dances, they belong to the Center. (The dance company is administered by the dance center.)

Protas is appealing the decision. His attorney, Judd Burstein, says Protas doesn't oppose the center performing her dances. "The issue was about them owning the copyrights themselves, as opposed to being allowed to perform the dances with the consent of Ron Protas," Burstein says.

Zuckerman finds "an atmosphere of elation at the dance studio where the company rehearses -- part reunion, part back-to-school."

Kathrine Crockett, one of the company's soloists, started studying at the Martha Graham School in the 1980s, when she was 18.

This season, Crockett will perform in Appalachian Spring, Martha Graham's legendary collaboration with composer Aaron Copland. After two years of not performing, she recently had her first rehearsal of Appalachian Spring. "The music came on and I did my walk-on into the space and chills just sparkled up my spine," Crockett says.

When Martha Graham died in 1991 at the age of 96, she left a body of work that defined modern dance. She was often the soloist in her dances and drew inspiration from Greek mythology, Native American culture, and uniquely American themes. She didn't stop performing until she was 72 and choreographed one of her rare light-hearted works, Maple Leaf Rag, just a year before her death.

For its first season in almost three years the company's artistic directors decided to show the range of Graham's work by presenting 17 of her dances.

Graham was driven to create technique that communicated power and emotion. Conveying these emotions in movement is challenging even for longtime dancers like co-artistic director Christine Dakin, who's been with the company since the 1970s.

"It's not soft, it's not vague, it's not easy... it's not easy to do," Dakin says.

Since many Graham dancers had to leave to find other work over the last couple of years, about half the dancers are new. They've been forced into a kind of fast-forward mode, in contrast to Graham's belief that it takes 10 years for a dancer to mature.

Co-artistic director Therese Capucilli has been with the Martha Graham Dance Company more than 30 years. "When I came into the company (dancers started) in the chorus and a few years down the line you get your featured roles, then you get your solo roles and then you get your principal roles," Capucilli says. "We're pushing these dancers a little bit beyond what they may be able to do right now, but we think ultimately it's going to make for a very strong company."

Dakin and Capucilli admit being nervous about presenting these works at the level Graham would have demanded, about rising to the expectations of audiences familiar with her choreography, and appealing to new ones.

The dancers seem more relaxed. Katherine Crockett draws inspiration from Graham herself. "Martha said, 'I'm a horse that runs best on a muddy track' and we've been through the muddiest of times these past two years, the lowest of lows, and we've come through. It's time for us to just dance."

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