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You can (under very specific circumstances) copyright a dance - but is that the best way to protect an artist's "intellectual property"? Freely sharing kinesthetic thought and image is common among dance makers - but it's not an ethos broadly shared in other art forms. Should it be?
February 20, 2015
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Rosas danst Rosas, performance in 2009. Photo: © Herman Sorgeloos

Steve Paxton’s coming to Minneapolis this past fall was a gift.  In a series of rare lectures and performances, his pedestrian-focused dance work and contact improvisation, brought here by the Walker Art Center, filled much of November’s dance calendar.  To those in attendance, his generosity was certain.  Owning all of the poetically nuanced knowledge transmitted these weeks was desirable yet realistically impossible.  The work as well as the lectures given were perfectly ephemeral, and the revered artist, relatively reclusive.  I was thrilled to witness as many of these offerings as my schedule and pocketbook would allow.  One can’t rely on saving an old copy of Paxton’s work to read on one’s death-bed, as Henry Miller planned to do with Dostoevsky’s body of work.  November has long passed, we’ll have to be satisfied with traces left as evidence of this happening and folk-like retellings from those who were there, shared in future conversations around the nation’s dance communities.  Kinesthetic thought and images are passed this way: in rehearsals while warming-up, in the moments after talk of recent shows, around campfires between sing-alongs of This Land is Your Land.   

This sort of colloquial sharing is particularly familiar to those working within the medium of dance.  Preciousness with one’s own work can be difficult to defend with an intangible form, especially one that is also structurally integrated with other creations more concrete and recognizable.  A dance artist does own their own “intellectual property;” you can copyright a dance if you wish, so long as the work can be defined as “choreography, the art of creating and arranging ballets and dances” and “does not include social dance steps and routines” (clearly outdated terms, though this statute was established in 1976).  Given those requirements, with so many walking steps and pedestrian poses, it is no wonder that Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker didn’t involve herself more in the battle between Rosas Danst Rosas, also presented this fall at the Walker, and Beyonce’s Countdown video. It’s possible this modesty, this lack of self-importance, could be seen as freeing, a healthy reminder that there are other reasons to make art beyond one’s ego.  In a sense, one could say it’s encouraging to see a dance maker like de Keersmaeker reach such a point of establishment that her work has sufficient strength and life of its own to suffer without lasting detriment the lack of attribution in press material about Beyonce’s all-too-similar piece. (The video below is an entry for de Keersmaeker's Re:Rosas Remix Project, created in response to the pop icon's appropriation.)

There is a Paxton anecdote, given in recent conversation as an aside, that warrants retelling around this fire -- about his reminiscence of Goldberg Variations.  Paxton explained that, within a presentation of this series, his video excerpt was regrettably neglected on the host festival’s promotional website.  (A sample from this series, performed at New York’s Danspace, can still be found online here.)  It seems Paxton alone was left unacknowledged; the reasoning around his exclusion, fear of copyright lawsuit, was not communicated to him at the time.  I’m glad to hear that the credit caught up with him, and that the work was finally passed forward for new audiences to glimpse.  It’s too bad that Bach, long dead though still mightily protected, wasn’t around to catch the compliment of a mind like Paxton’s engaging, moving between, within, creating a fresh and tangential beginning for his old songs.    

Recently, while driving and listening to classical NPR playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D -- you know the one -- the DJ recounted hearing the piece for the first time.  He described seeing a performance of a ballet company dancing on television when he was a child.  He spoke of being arrested by the tune and gave due credit, too, to the visual display.  His speech was pleased and impassioned, but he finished his tale by raising the question of whether the song should have been used for dance at all. The DJ noted that the composer had not expressly intended the song to be used so, and then prompted the listening audience to share other musical work that had been similarly appropriated by choreographers.  Regrettably, I missed the suggestions that followed, but I’m certain there were many.   His word choice, his tone expressed his sense that the choreographer’s action was a violation, even though artists at this caliber must surely have correctly navigated the legal formalities required to use the music.  Perhaps the host would have preferred the piece to be accompanied by the sight of winter gray suburban traffic, as it was for me in this listen.

I assume -- or I hope, anyway -- that most artists are motivated to mine something meaningful and unnamed from inside themselves, even when their work is created in support, or with support, of that made by another artist.  In dance, a form by nature encircled and layered with other forms, the unique expressions of the individual artist(s) are so easily lost or muted.  Maybe this is one reason why the medium remains an underdog in the art world, where self-promotion is key to winning the game.  Seen more optimistically, the collaborative character of the form may be why dance can still utilize folk-like means, affordable and personable exchanges.  It may also be why we often see experimental dance paring down and pushing away from surrounding constructions: dancing to silence with minimal design elements, or opting for nominal (sometimes domineering) collaboration.  The projection of one’s individual artistry through the confusion of all else that’s present in dance is a struggle, regardless. But surely limiting dance work to an ever-constricting arena of creative possibility, on the chance that work might be seen (and esteemed) more clearly isn’t the only answer. 

As a student in the University of Minnesota dance program, I was urged to use certain sound when composing work: music without lyrics, things that were not too pop or too current, music that wouldn’t direct the audience’s thoughts elsewhere.  I could see no harm in dancing to Paul Simon and thought little at the time of the legality of doing so; and yet, even then, questioning these guidelines caused waves. Such were the values and aesthetics of my educators, but not necessarily in service to an unobstructed artistic process.  Ironically, rumor has it that the U of M was fined recently, when a visiting artist sampled under a minute of Ben Frost’s music in a University Dance Theater performance -- a program harmlessly attended by proud parents and friends. 

The fact is very little sound exists in the public domain, and permission from musicians can be difficult to gain. I know I am still waiting to hear back from Eddie Vedder, and Stussy has not bitten at my invitation to sponsor.  U2 may be happy to give their music away, but a dance artist would nonetheless be subject to fines if caught using their sound.  In fact, not getting caught is one clear benefit to dance not having large audiences. I am ever pleased to see the many, even established, dance artists that disregard the risks of liability for the sake of creating their work as they need to.  These limitations have proven inspiring for many: John Cage and Merce Cunningham had the quite kismet thing going, and David Gordon rocked the music of public domain with Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever in Chair. 

Intellectual and emotional constraints abound in the creative process.  Legal limitation of artistry, laws created with the best of intentions, seem to crop up in only the most awkward places. Such legal restrictions on use are certainly not protective of or lenient towards the underpaid and unnoticed, as dance artists are wont to be.  Budgeting to involve a collaborator for original accompaniment or design is an extravagant choice when the production has no budget.  An organic and free exchange of creative material may seem folksy and unsophisticated to those who vigorously guard the intellectual property of their work, but such generosity has maintained in dance culture -- no mean feat in this time of technological dependency and increased social distance. 

Sporadic fines surely aren’t cause for complaint relative to other methods people could choose to protect personal property and closely held ideas.  Still, I’d argue there’s good reason to question even such small penalties. Does not mounting restrictions on dancers’ use of sound carry the risk of homogeneity?  When dancers who can’t afford to generate their own accompaniment (or other collaborative elements) are all bound to draw from the same limited pool of available material, what is that resulting sameness but another sort of a disappearance of voice and artistry?  

Anna Marie Shogren is an artist and dancer recently returned to Minneapolis from Brooklyn. Her dance and visual installation work has been seen around Minneapolis, along both US coasts, and Iceland.  Previous to Mn Artists, she has written with Hunter College, InDigest, Critical Correspondence, and NY Arts Magazine.

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