‘Indisputably Martha’

World-acclaimed Martha Graham Dance Company returns to stage under the guiding hand of Princeton resident Marvin Preston.

By: Michael Redmond
   One of the most important performances of New York City’s dance season will take place on Thursday when the Martha Graham Dance Company presents "Indisputably Martha Graham" (1894-1991), featuring five of Martha Graham’s landmark dances, with their original sets and costumes, in City Center.
   In the eyes of some, the program’s title is a waggish pun on a headline-making dispute which has been a crucial factor in the absence of the Martha Graham Dance Company from the stage for more than two years. In short: a battle royal over the rights to the choreographer’s name, dance technique and artistic legacy between her legal heir, Ron Protas, and the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, which Miss Graham founded in 1948 as the umbrella organization for her dance school and dance company.
   Well, the dispute is still in the courts, but it hasn’t kept young dancers from learning the Graham technique and repertory; the world-acclaimed company is now returning to the stage, and the creative genius of one of America’s icons of High Modernism remains alive.
   On Thursday the spotlight will be on the dancers — which is as it should be, Marvin Preston would agree. Full-time, hands-on executive director of the Martha Graham Center, the 18-year Princeton resident is a management and development consultant who has worked for Exxon, Scott Instruments and HealthTech Services Corp., and who continues to run his own firm, NewMarkets Inc. So what’s he doing running an arts organization?
   "I view this job as a surprisingly good and natural fit with my business background," Mr. Preston said.
   "The nature of my work in the technology field has been with creative people. My work is to transform invention into business and marketing, so one can see the parallel here. My business-focus and detachment from the artistic issues is beneficial to the Martha Graham Center, where people had become emotionally over-involved. They needed somebody objective and detached and analytical to run the business."
   Which is not to say that Mr. Preston has no personal investment or background in the arts. He plays French horn. He loves symphonic music. "And I knew of Graham’s work and its stature, he said. "I’ve always enjoyed the arts and enjoyed dance. I’m not particularly agile, so it amazes me how some people can move."
   The Martha Graham Center brought in Mr. Preston two years ago to deal with the legal imbroglio, to restore the center to financial health and, basically, to reinvent the center’s operations along sound business lines.
   "I do phase management, startups, turnarounds, and so on. When an organization confronts a turnaround, it’s almost always a cultural issue. What the organization needs is a new way to look at how they operate."
   The one problem that the Martha Graham Center did not have was, well, the product.
   "They needed business work. The artistic side was fine. The 2000 world tour had been a wild success, artistically. That’s why it was worth doing this work — the art had in no way deteriorated. The art was so good that it was worth putting in the effort to sort out the other problems. It’s a building process," he said.
   Mr. Preston believes that many nonprofit arts organizations are "poorly run" because they focus almost exclusively "on the supply side, on providing the product," while they lose sight of their constituency.
   "The ‘audience’ is not only your subscribers and ticket-buyers, but the philanthropic community. The real job is to involve and serve the audience that is broader than those people physically in the seats, and to win their support. You must ‘market’ to the philanthropic community," he explained.
   "As the performing arts become more and more expensive to produce, which is an inevitable development, the role of the philanthropic community gets bigger and bigger. So more important than studying expenses is studying revenue: What do we need to do to raise the money?"
   When he’s not busy with business or else saving national treasures, Mr. Preston enjoys cycling, rowing, skiing, hiking and taking trips with his wife, Candace Preston, herself a prominent businesswoman. Their two children — Catherine, 28, of Cambridge, Mass., and Christopher, 25, of Oakland, Calif. — are both graduates of Princeton High School.
   Mr. Preston is a charter member of the Carnegie Lake Rowing Association and served as its president for 10 years.
   "That’s quite an operation. Actually, it taught me all about nonprofit creation and nonprofit management, development and constituency issues," he said.
The Martha Graham Dance Company presents "Indisputably Martha Graham" on Thursday at 8 p.m. at City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York City. Repertory includes "Seraphic Dialogue" (1955); Conversation of Lovers from "Acts of Light" (1981); "Embattled Garden" (1958) and "Night Journey" (1947). For tickets, call CityTix at (212) 581-1212.