No Joy in Movement Of a Historic Studio

Where Martha Graham taught dance may disappear.

Dancer Katia Swan recalls how Martha Graham used to tell her students that they couldn't avoid challenges. "I saw a film once where she says in life you cannot avoid difficulties. You have to take them, to embody them, and make them become your strength and grow up with them," Ms. Swan says.

Now, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, where America's grande dame of dance choreographed many of her great works, faces one of those difficulties. The center's board wants to sell the property to a real estate developer, who would build apartments where Ms. Graham, who passed on in 1991, once taught dancers the art of movement. The board hopes that as a result of the sale, it can eliminate unpaid debts and fund an endowment to keep both a dance school and performing company going.

The prospect of the dance studios being replaced by luxury apartments has begun to galvanize some of Graham's former students. This summer, former first lady Betty Ford, actor Gregory Peck, and singer and actress Madonna wrote Peter Vallone, the New York City Council Speaker, asking for help in finding funds for the center.

Although the letter generated some moral support, it did not bring in any multimillion-dollar donations. Instead, Todd Dellinger, managing director of the center, expects "a public announcement in the near future" that the property will be sold.

The Graham Center's problems are not unusual. Nonprofit groups often inherit old buildings - the center dates back to the turn of the century - that are expensive to maintain.

But they also are often in neighborhoods that don't want additional development. That's the case with the Graham Center. "This is a historical connection that would be lost with development," says Patricia Namm Saffran, a local resident who studied at the center as a child.

Managing director Dellinger says the center would rather not sell the property, but has no other options if it wants to continue. It operates both the Graham School of Contemporary Dance and the Graham Dance Company. The school, which has about 350 students, would continue in a new location, as would the dance company, which will next perform at New York's Joyce Theater in February.

"We could not let that falter to save a building," Dellinger says. "We continue to pray for the best solution. Ideally, an angel would come along and make it all happen."

For dancers, the Graham Center is a special place. International stars such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov danced there. Dancer Swan compares it to Rodin House in Paris or Chopin House in Warsaw. "It is where contemporary dance grew up," she says. "This is where freedom started: freedom of movement that expresses the woes, the anxieties, the joys, the integration of the 20th century."

The Graham Center itself is a modest three-story red brick building covered with ivy on East 63rd Street in Manhattan's Upper East Side. In 1952, Lila Acheson Wallace, the Readers Digest heiress, gave Graham the building.

Dellinger says Graham always felt there was a lot of energy and rejuvenating spirit in the building and its garden. "A stream once ran through the property when it was a farm in the 1800s, and it helped to nourish the plants - to the extent that little saplings would spring up through the dance floor," Dellinger says.

The garden has an unusual feature, too. When Graham moved in, she found two young saplings growing outside of a chain-link fence that surrounded the garden. Over time she watched as the chain-link fence became enveloped by the trees. Today, the fence still goes right through the heart of the trees. For Graham, it was symbolic of the life of a dancer.

Each tree "didn't avoid the difficulty, but went through it, made it its strength in order to grow up," Swan says.

The center is working with the real estate developer and conservationists, exploring ways to save the trees. "It's one of the major symbolic elements that maybe we can save," Dellinger says.

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