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Leigh Witchel

Cubans prevented from dancing Sylphides

57 posts in this topic

It's nice to be able to say that, but scholarship doesn't back up the "made in three days and never changed it" claim. How does one account for the differences in the Royal Danish, the Royal, and the American Ballet Theater versions? And worse, how do these square with the longhand notes from the Fokine Ballet (ca. 1935)?

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On the other hand, ABT may be in hte right about the behavior of people who are NOT balletomanes -- all of US might be willing to spend a lot of money to see Sylphides again right away, but not hte general public... ("I'm having salmon for dinner -- maybe I won't have it also for lunch")

I'm prompted to think this by reading "MRs. Stahlbaum's" report on the "SFB in LA" thread. SFB might have made a mistake taking Don Q to Los Angeles so soon after ABT appeared there with THEIR Don Q -- the house was so empty they invited the cheap seats to come downstairs and sit in the orchestra, and it still wasn't full

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Oh Major Mel, I didn't mean to imply that I BELIEVED him --

William Faulkner used to enjoy lying to interviewers, and artists still do it, much more than most journalists seem to think, i'm convinced. I'm inclined to believe that Fokine deceived himself.... but I'm sympathetic, I do that myself sometimes.

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Oh, tell me about Faulkner! One of his whoppers is preserved today in the interpretation of his house which is now an Historic Site! The docents, AT THE FAMILY'S INSISTENCE, must explain to visitors that the railing around the fireplace was for him to rest his bad back on as he warmed it by the fire. Truth is, WF got so falling-down drunk every night, that he had the thing put up so he wouldn't fall into the fireplace. Them Estate limitations set by the beneficiaries can be can be all Hell on history. :rolleyes:

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I just wanted to post my very strong agreement with some statements made upthread by Mel Johnson and GWTW. First, I think Mel Johnson's suggestion that a carefully worded statement -- that's what they pay lawyers for -- specifically indicating why, in this particular case, the company would be willing to accept another company's performance and emphasizing Alonso's connection to ABT -- would have been a nice solution. Though I bet Mel is also right that their legal department told them (or would have told them) not to do it.

I do think that the general public often likes to see a range of repertory and is not as concerned with comparing and contrasting performances as your average poster to "ballet talk." ABT has a right to be concerned with these issues in general. I do think, for example, that it was a kick in the teeth for ABT when NYCB started dancing Fancy Free at a time when ABT was performing it regularly and very well; of course, Robbins had the right to make that decision...it was HIS ballet, but it certainly didn't help ABT's cause. I also remember one season when the Metropolitan imported the Kirov's Sleeping Beauty right on the heels of ABT's production. That may have been a ballet fan's dream but (in my opinion) ABT had something of a legitimate gripe with the programmers at the Met. who were responsible for presenting BOTH companies, and I heard rumors at the time that the company felt that their ticket sales were hurt, not helped, by the conjunction. I have to add, though, that the Cubans are dancing at City Center and City Center now draws on a different audience than Lincoln Center -- especially the Met. (I know NYCB and New York City Opera have a history at City Center...the audiences are still, partly, different audiences.)

However, even if I accept that there are legitimate concerns about how to preserve and market the company's repertory and distinctive profile, I do not understand the decision to make Les Sylphides the ballet on which to spend the company's money and make a stand...For one thing, like GWTW, I think the money would be much better spent on getting the best coaching for their dancers in the ballet (oh...say...someone as good as Alonso...). But, in any case, Les Sylphides has long been one of the most frequently performed ballets throughout the world -- I first saw it with students! -- and it has been a long, long time since it could remotely be considered an ABT signature piece. It's also one of the great classics of the ballet repertory, so that treating it like some sort of specialty work does it (and ballet itself) a disservice...

One might counter, considering the situation in the abstract, that some sort of limitation on performances helps with quality control. (In this particular case, of course, that would not be an issue...one thing that probably irritates a lot of fans is, indeed, the suspicion that the Cubans might well give a deeper, richer, more thoughtful account of the ballet than ABT.) Certainly 'quality control' is what the Balanchine trust is, presently, trying to achieve...One interesting question to consider is how fans would feel if Alonso wanted to stage Theme and Variations in 'her' version and the trust said "No"? Of course, something like that is happening at the Paris Opera Ballet with Symphony in C/Palais de Crystal...and fans are not altogether happy about it. However, my mind keeps returning to the fact that we are discussing Les Sylphides -- it's been danced by, let's say, dozens of companies professional and amateur. As far as quality control is concerned, that can hardly be what the Fokine trust or family (or whatever it is) is really concerned with...This seems to be an economic and legal transaction plain and simple. (For myself, by far and away the best performances of the ballet I have ever seen have been with the Kirov NOT ABT.)

In a way, I hate to see ABT take such a hit publicity-wise (at least among fans), but I also feel they deserve it.

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Just a question, why do many people"hate" ABT so much?

Joe

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A point of clarification. There is and was no reason for a Company's legal department to tell the company not to enforce a copyright in a given case or not to issue a statement explaining why they were not enforcing it in a given case.

It is Trademarks, not copyrights, which must be enforced, at the risk of not being able to enforce them at all. If ABT had wanted to let the Cubans do this, all they had to do was nothing. If they had wanted good PR, they could have done something along the lines that Mel has indicated without legal consequences of any kind.

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And wouldn't the task of any enforcement of a trademark or copyright fall in this case to the Fokine estate, as the entity that granted the license to ABT?

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Just a question, why do many people"hate" ABT so much?

That's a topic unto itself.

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Which version of "Les Sylphides" were the Cubans about to bring to USA? Because there is one "Alicia Alonso" version. It was danced here in Uruguay as staged by a Cuban ballet mistress. Though it was still Sylphides, there were some subtle changes: for instance,in the waltz danced by a soloist, she was made to put her hands crossed at her back on the balance that follows her entrance grand jete, like this: after she landed from the jump, she then rose her right arm on the "up", and then brought right arm behind her back, together with her left (picture it?????? sorry if I am not clear).

Also the Prelude was quite different: she did not go to stage center (point 5 Vaganova, back turned to the audience, arms raised "a la Isadora"), but rather she went to point 4, 4th arabesque plie pointe tendue, arms as if "sweeping" the air. There were other changes in the Prelude I do not recall right now.

Also in the ballerina's mazurka, she did pas de bourre in 6th position (i.e. feet parallel) between each of the 3 grand jetes in the diagonals. She did not chasse, or coupe - coupe as ABT does.

silvy

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Does anybody remember the Mercedes ad which had the pitchman-as-interviewer with a Mercedes engineer, who carefully explains that Mercedes developed and patented the "crush zone" in car bodies, which protects the passengers somewhat from injury? When the "interviewer" says, "But all cars have that now! Did you license it to them?", the engineer says, "No, we have never enforced that patent." :) Crazy like a fox!

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Michael -- thanks for the clarification -- though, if that's so, it makes ABT's attitude even more puzzling...

Bingham -- many, if not most, posters to this board love ABT -- no quotation marks necessary! -- but I think a lot of people are kind of floored by this policy. It doesn't help that Alonso herself is one of the icons of ABT's history...

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Bingham, I think that most of us simply would like to love ABT more. Those among us who know the artistic staff know that they're a decent, intelligent, friendly bunch (Kevin McKenzie is my idea of an authentically real nice guy), but when the company does something dumb, like mangle a classic in staging, or get low marks in "works and plays well with others", as in this situation, it frustrates us. :wallbash:

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In helping get a dancer ready for a competition once, I recall that one of the variations he was going to do was the mazurka variation from Etudes. We were supposed to, in all cases where it was applicable, get a letter of permission from the choreographer or person who held the rights to the ballet. In this case Etudes was at the time (I don't know about now) held by Lise Lander, who was Harald Lander's widow. She wrote a nice note giving permission for the variation to be done at the competition that one time and if necessary on television, and there was the usual sentence included about the limitation of this permission. Such a thing didn't compromise her rights in the situation and everyone was happy. I know that Etudes has been licensed, as other ballets must have been, over the years to different companies for different amounts of time, with different royalty agreements, etc., but I've never heard of an exclusive license for it. Now in the case of ABT, who I understand hold this license they've secured from the Fokine estate for the New York area, it probably wouldn't be for ABT to give permission for a special occasion performance, but rather for the Fokine estate, who granted the exclusivity to begin with. Does that sound right so far, Mel? It doesn't me feel much better that such an exclusivity was demanded, but apart from what I previously called Disney-type tactics, it really does sound like trying to create an artificial market of sorts (though the idea that it could be done with a 90-odd year old ballet is rather bizarre in a way, and I'm really curious about what quirks in the copyright law would have allowed them to assert a copyright so long after its creation). Being that Sylphides was on the program at ABT's very first performance in 1940(?), I understand the connection with it being special to the company, but it sounds suspiciously like somewhere along the line there's an employee who just doesn 't understand the business they're working for and thought to himself or herself "now wouldn't *this* be fab" or something to that effect. Just doesn't seem to make sense somehow.

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Right. I don't know who would act as an enforcer directly from the Fokine estate in NYC, although I do know that Isabelle's brother lives there. I do not know, however, if he is a beneficiary of the estate with respect to the ballets. He's a lawyer. The copyright material is apparently the longhand version of the ballet written down ca. 1935 for the Fokine Ballet (NYC). The general rule of copyright archival record is that anything created before 1926 is public domain. That may be the reason why some productions can escape the copyright bind, as "Chopiniana" is from 1907, and any further work to prove the identicality of a "Chopiniana" with a "Les Sylphides" could prove difficult in an ordinary copyright proceeding. You are correct that there seems to be something odd going on here, something not right, somewhere. There are just too many questions to answer, though. Who, what, when, where, why, how?

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So that would mean, then, that as the law is being enforced now, all future productions of Les Sylphides have to conform to that set of notes from 1935, right? I always understood that "publishing" meant fixing in a written or photographed form of some sort, and that one didn't have to have an official copyright registration in order for the law to consider that you have "published" something and for you to be able to assert rights under the law. Fokine having set Sylphides on ABT in 1940 - even though I don't know whether or not that was filmed, anything in fixed form (film, paper) or "unfixed form" (memories of dancers in it) would be invalid according to that, then, if it differed at all from that set of notes, regardless of what Fokine himself might have done with the dancers, and it would then all hinge on Isabelle Fokine's interpretation of what notes she might have from her grandfather's files? Does that make sense?

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Mme. Hermine -- Typically, in the copyright licenses I have seen, the licensee (in this case ABT) is granted the right to subassign or grant exemptions from, or enforce or not enforce its license within its limits. In that typical scenario it would have been up to ABT, not the Fokine Estate, either to allow or not to allow the Cubans to perform the work.

I note that, in the Times Article, it was the Chairman of ABT's Board who personally took responsibility for preventing the Cubans from performing this, expressly noting that ABT had paid a great deal of money for the work and was not about to let anyone else perform it. That, I think, settles the question. Whatever the Fokine Estate's position, the Chairman of ABT's Board -- and not the artistic staff of the company -- chose personally to take responsiblility for this action, and for the express reasons he gave. There is no reason to create scenarios therefore to take the Board or the Company off the ethical/moral hook. The record speaks for itself.

With respect to what productions must look like to conform to a copyright, that can be up to the copyright holder if, as the Balanchine Trust or Estate does, it creates a functional test, saying that what conforms to its copyright is what one of its repetiteurs says conforms to its copyright,or that it licenses only what its repetiteurs say is ok. But if the license agreement simply remains silent, and the estate later thinks the work as performed does a disservice to the original intellectual property, it will -- at least in dance -- have no say at all in correcting this. This is the traditional, previously the only scenario.

Thus, the area of artistic fidelity and what a post above calls "Quality Control" can be dictated in the license agreement and increasingly, since Mr. B's death, estates have attempted to do this. Traditionally, however, "Quality Control" was not really a copyright issue.

There has been, in the visual arts, a set of laws enacted according to the doctrine of what was called, when the idea originated in Europe, "Droites de Suites." This doctrine indeed concerned itself with "Quality Control." It was meant to protect the artist's reputation by enabling the artist to prevent someone using their name on the work when the work had been defaced and altered in such a manner as to detract from the artist's reputation in the public's eyes should the work as mounted continue to be associated with the artist's name. Note that one has to prove that the representation is so degraded that it would harm the artist's reputation. New York has such a law.

The thing is that, as so defined, Droites de Suites will pick up only where Copyright leaves off. That is, it is only when the original Estate or Artist says, "that is so bad it is no longer my work, don't use my name" that the right arises. But by definition, at that time, if you continue to mount a work as, say, "After Petipa," or under a totally different name (e.g., "Alica Alonso's meditation upon Chopin"), you are not infringing a copyright. There are hard cases at the boundaries and unfortunately most of the cases liable to arise fall into this category, but at least in intellectual principle the holder has by definition said "this is not mine."

This is somewhat simplistic, but lays out the general concepts in a confused and developing area.

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As you've laid that out, Michael, would that then prevent a company, say, from mounting a ballet called "Sylphides in the Woods" and crediting the choreography to "after Fokine"? Theoretically?

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I think what irks me here is that in this case, a non-profit institution has spent resources doing something that is clearly not in the best interests of its customers.

We're used to that kind of behavior from for-profit corporations --- they answer only to their shareholders and only secondarily to their customers. But non-profits are different, since there aren't really shareholders in the traditional sense.

I think this is probably the result of someone who decided that ABT needed to be managed more like a "real" corporation, so it can balance its bottom line. Probably, the board brought in some top management brass with corporate experience. And now we see a company that looks more and more like Coca-Cola every day --- first in its advertising and marketing, now in its possesive approach to intellectual property as well.

Whatever the cause, I think that if you make contributions to ABT and you like to watch ballet in New York, then you need to ask why the company is now doing something that will diminish --- not enhance --- your experience as a ballet lover.

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The only way I can think of to alert this sort of mentality that Something Is Wrong is to hit them in the wallet. I have friends, regular longtime balletgoers, who hate what's been done to Alonso, and plan to boycott ABT the next season they present "Sylphides", whether by program or entirely. Some have said that they will not be renewing their donations to the company, with a sharp letter explaining why.

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Right. I don't know who would act as an enforcer directly from the Fokine estate in NYC, although I do know that Isabelle's brother lives there. I do not know, however, if he is a beneficiary of the estate with respect to the ballets. He's a lawyer.

LOL; Wasn't it Shakespeare that said something like lets shoot all the lawyers? :wallbash:

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Mme. Hermine -- As to your inquiry, my head is spinning. Ultimately, the key issue would be how much does the choreography actually resemble or borrow wholesale from the protected original. If the resemblence is too close, then what they try to call it won't save it from infringement.

The thing is that, practically speaking, you wouldn't want to create even a close case. A company that is going to devote time, money, effort, scheduling, advertising -- that is going to sell tickets, and promote a work, etc., wants predictible security. It wants to know, not that it's going to prevail in the end in proving that it hasn't infringed another work, but that it's not even going to be challenged in the first place.

I agree with Mel about hitting them in the pocket book but I've been piping up here to add shaming them on this board. Anything that gets their attention. It is one of the great things about this board that it can be a bit of a conscience for the collective Ballet world. And the more I see of it, the more I realize what a small small world it is.

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Right, Michael. As long as we stay away from libelous or malicious statements, I think we're on firm ground as critics and commentators.

So:

NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY ABT! :angry:

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Right. I don't know who would act as an enforcer directly from the Fokine estate in NYC, although I do know that Isabelle's brother lives there. I do not know, however, if he is a beneficiary of the estate with respect to the ballets. He's a lawyer.

LOL; Wasn't it Shakespeare that said something like lets shoot all the lawyers? :wallbash:

A word here about lawyers and copyright, or any other kind of rights laws, as well as other aspects of the profession: Shakespeare has the line, "First, kill all the lawyers!" The character who says this would probably have had lots of experience of lawyers in the form of Crown Prosecutors, so his view of things would be a little jaundiced. When you have a law problem, who ya gonna call? I esteem and admire my own lawyer and other good practitioners of the profession, and the few bad apples in the barrel are generally detected and their tickets yanked by their peers.

Secondly, I am loth to ascribe paltry motives to the Fokine estate, as I was a student of Vitale Mikhailovitch, and will give his children the benefit of the doubt in any matter where I am not in full possession of the entire story. Apparently, the material known as "Les Sylphides" was not copyrighted until after Vitale Mikhailovitch's death in 1977, so the copyright has many, many years to run. Before VMF's death, the ballet world kept its Fokine intact through professional discipline of the "oral tradition" of passing along ballets, and goodwill toward the Fokines. Indeed, that's the way much of the world works: goodwill. Most people in commercial ventures, left to their own devices, will try to do what's right. To do otherwise would destroy goodwill, and injure future business. It's sort of what Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations, where he says that gouging and profiteering will be restrained by self-interest. All it takes to wreck many enterprises, from message boards, through ballet companies, and on to international comity, is some individual or group not of good will to become players in the game, and much mischief may be worked.

Add to that my previous statement about the goodness of the artistic staff of ABT, and you have a presentation of my biases. I just thought I should put my cards on the table.

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