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chauffeur

Total novice question on choreography

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As our family keeps slogging its way deeper and deeper into this world of dance, one of the things that still puzzles us is this notion of who gets credit for choreography. I'm a writer by profession, and, boy, if somebody used the words I crafted and didn't credit me, my paper's lawyers would be all over them. But in dance....

We started noticing it with the Nutcrackers first. These pre-pro programs especially seem to think nothing of putting on a Nutcracker with dumbed-down but nevertheless clearly identifiable choreography from the Balanchine or Royal Ballet versions, yet no credit is given for that. In fact the directors will more often than not give themselves choreography credit, too.

I remember the first time my daughter, at 8, noticed this. Her former school was doing a production of a well-known story ballet and had even made a big to-do over bringing in a well-known dance teacher from another country to choreograph. In the midst of rehearsing the show, we watched a videotape of the same ballet as done by a big company. My daughter went marching into the school's director the next day, took her aside and asked her if she knew that the visiting choreographer had stolen the choreography from such-and-such company. The school's director looked at her as if she had two heads, chuckled indulgently, then went along her way without offering an explanation. And she wasn't the sort of person you could ask questions of, so I didn't press her for an answer either (hence part of the reason why it's our dd's former school).

But can anyone give me a good explanation for why this is? Is it just sort of a tacit arrangement in the dance world that schools can filch choreography without giving credit? Even just a "based on..." credit would be a lot more honest.

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It's because the Ballet Police can't be everywhere, and if the copyright holders, if any, of a given piece of choreography don't know of a derivative production based on their copyright material, they can't enforce it. They often have no way of proving the infringement if there is no recording of the alleged plaigiarism.

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Her former school was doing a production of a well-known story ballet and had even made a big to-do over bringing in a well-known dance teacher from another country to choreograph. In the midst of rehearsing the show, we watched a videotape of the same ballet as done by a big company.

Of course, if it was a story ballet by Petipa, it would be in the public domain, wouldn't it?

In cases where the choreography isn't yet in the public domain, yes, there are intellectual property rights involved, and there are sometimes lawsuits. I seem to remember hearing a while back that the Balanchine Trust subscribes to a clipping service and sometimes catches copyright infringement situations when the productions are reviewed. Sometimes people think if they're doing the production 'out in the middle of nowhere', that no one will find out that they've stolen choreography or used a name without having obtained the right to do so. If they're never reviewed or mentioned in the press, sometimes they do escape.

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If it were a traditionally-passed-on version of a Swan Lake, then I think it would be public domain. If it were obviously cribbed from a distinctive version of the ballet, then, if the version were copyrighted, there would be infringement involved. However, these are hypothetical cases, and the law always functions perfectly in hypothesis. In the real world, far more subtlety comes into the picture.

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It's because the Ballet Police can't be everywhere, and if the copyright holders, if any, of a given piece of choreography don't know of a derivative production based on their copyright material, they can't enforce it. They often have no way of proving the infringement if there is no recording of the alleged plaigiarism.

Apologies in reviving an old topic, but a question was put to me last week regarding ownership of a particular piece of choreography. There are recorded instance where dancers actually create steps and even sections of choreography but never get credited for them. When a solo is evolved from dual contributions how in all honesty can the copyright be enforced by heirs to an estate. We know why, but has anyone knowledge of such a challenge to ownership in this particular aspect (Not others, as in recent legal history)?

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No problem with bringing up an old topic, leonid! It's a classic, and needs to be revisited from time to time. The prevalence these days of the video recording makes the issue all the more pressing. It's not as simple anymore as Petipa and Ivanov just sitting back and letting Pavel Gerdt compose his own variations. Whole choreographies exist (especially in modern) where the steps and movements are the creation of the dancers, and the choreographers act more like an editor. I generally refer to this practice as the "mouvement trouvé" or "found movement" method of choreography. I believe that most dancers or other contributors to a new work of dance are generous about giving content and forfeiting any rights they may have. That doesn't mean that they don't have any rights, it's just that I haven't heard of anybody bringing an action for a choreographic work assembled in this manner.

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I never thought about this before, but how do you go go about figuring out what constitutes "original choreography"? Most ballet steps are in an ancient public domain, as are just about all the combinations. At what point does what the choreographer DOES with these steps become "original work"?

There is no issue when the entire concept of a ballet has been conceived and constructed by a single person, especially if there is a recognizable personal style. Common sense tells us what is "original" and what is not in such situations.

However, what if a choreographer were to take something out of the public domain -- let's say the Act II pas de deux between Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier -- and totally rearrange the movements, using traditional steps, but in an order of combination not seen before?

(I'm thinking of something more "original" than Balanchine's reworking of the Ivanov choregraphy, but not as far afield as Morris's. The basic classical concept, technique and details of the Petipa-Ivanov ballet are retained.)

'The new version appears on a publicly-issued DVD. Someone copies this pas de deux for performance by his/her school performances, making changes here and there in the pas de deux to simplify the dancing, but never requesting permission or giving credit to the source. The entire section takes only a few minutes. A video is made of this. And a copy of the video is sent to the choreographer by a friend.

Would this be in violation of copyright? Would it be stealing an a piece of "original choreography"?

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One of the reasons for choreography not to be attributed is to avoid the scrutiny of the Foundations. There are the ones that are highly publicized, like Balanchine and Robbins, where there are prominent permissions blurbs in the programs, and others that most people would assume are old enough to be in the public domain, like Les Sylphides, unless they read that a company cannot perform the work because of Folkine family restrictions.

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