Dallas — Last week, I received a press release announcing a new dance book about a topic that I constantly discuss in my dance appreciation courses: choreographic copyright.
University of California, Riverside associate professor of dance Anthea Kraut’s Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance, which will be released Nov. 2, draws on the ongoing discussion about ownership in dance in relationship to critical race and feminist theories.
It’s no secret that one of the most popular and prominent pop music figures, Beyoncé, has been in the spotlight in regards to this topic many times. First with her video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” in which she was “inspired” by Bob Fosse’s “Mexican Breakfast.” Then, when she was accused of plagiarism after her choreography and visual effects for her performance of “Run the World (Girls)” at the Billboard Music Awards was likened to one by Lorella Cuccarini—an accusation that Beyoncé actually admitted to. Then, she was cited for plagiarism in her single “Countdown.”
The latter becomes a point of contention in Kraut’s book as she works toward establishing a historical context for this and other debates over intellectual property rights in dance. When Beyoncé’s “Countdown” was released in 2011, story after story immediately came out noting the similarities between her work and that of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker—who had just created a work for the Opéra National de Paris. In one instance, there is a split-screen effect, with Beyoncé looking into the camera while three female dancers perform choreographic work behind her. A set-up that is taken straight from De Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas—as were the costumes, set, and choreography. In another, the gestural language and movement concept is oddly similar to that of De Keersmaeker’s Achterland (the film version won an award in 1994).
When De Keersmaeker was interviewed about it, she was quoted as saying that she “didn’t know anything about this. I’m not mad, but this is plagiarism,” a point that should be at the basis for any conversation about inspiration, references, and creativity. We all do research and find images and movement ideas that are sourced for the creative process, but there is a difference between inspiration and imitation. A major difference, in fact; a variation that could be the difference between you, as an artist, maintaining creative credibility, and you, violating another artist’s intellectual property rights (and possibility being sued). Context matters.
But who is to blame? If we must blame anyone. Is it Beyoncé? Or is it her team? While artists work in a bubble, it’s important to check—and cite—your sources as both an effort to edit, revise, and rewrite your work, and as an effort to protect yourself and your references. One way to do that is to surround yourself with people who you trust to be honest with you; people who will tell you if your inspiration has become your voice, or if your “borrowing” has become more than sharing.
Although U.S. federal copyright law did not officially recognize choreographic works as a protectable class until 1976, dancers started to attempt to secure intellectual property rights nearly 80 years earlier. “Some of the dancers who advocated for copyright protection—such as Loïe Fuller, Hanya Holm, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and George Balanchine—are well-known in the history of American dance,” said Kraut. “But I also introduce a number of marginalized figures, from the South Asian dancer Mohammed Ismail, to the African American pantomimist Johnny Hudgins, to the white burlesque dancer Faith Dane, who were equally interested in positioning themselves as the owners of their dances, rather than as things to be owned.”
Another way to protect both your artistic integrity and to uphold intellectual property rights is to check your work yourself. Say you are collaborating on a project; it’s easy to turn over responsibility of one aspect or another to your contributors and trust that they will maintain the same level of professionalism as you. And while you should always enter into a collaboration with an open mind and open heart, there is no reason or rule stopping you from being critical of each other work’s. That is only the way you can grow as an artist, and as a team, and provide a checks and balance system to protect your work.
As this topic is primed for further exploration, especially with the continued dissemination and free public sharing of work grows, it will be interesting to see how this discussion develops.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears the last Sunday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
Previous columns are:
- February 2014: Cash Choreography
- March 2014: Make the Fringe Your Future
- April 2014: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
- May 2014: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
- June 2014: Persevering Through Movement
- July 2014: Sharing in Success
- August 2014: To the Barre
- September 2014: Method Act
- October 2014: Fear of Flying
- December 2014: The Editor Dance
- January 2015: Community Relations
- February 2015: The Fabric of Movement
- March 2015: State of the Dance
- April 2015: The Dance Mom Complex
- May 2015: Who Wants to Date a Dancer?
- June 2015: Figuring How Men Fit In
- August 2015: Creative Economy
- September 2015: Dancing to Learn