Dancers & Companies

Is Appropriation the Same as Stealing and Why Is It Happening More Now?

Rebecca Warner and Eleanor Hullihan in Sarah Michelson's Devotion

Watching Sarah Michelson's piece Devotion at The Kitchen, I was getting more and more upset as her dancers donned a series of outfits that mimicked Norma Kamali's costumes for Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room. That ballet was heavenly for me, whether danced by Tharp's own dancers or ABT. I loved it for both its supreme challenge to and faith in the dancers, and for the spiritual uplift, riding on celestial waves of Philip Glass' music. The momentum was exhilarating.

In Devotion, the costumes were not the exact design of Kamali's for Upper Room, but you couldn't miss the little black-and-white striped dress, the red racer-back leotard, the red socks, and the rolled down leotard over baggy trousers. At least two of the moves were also borrowed from Upper Room, namely, a jolting run, and a run-and-leap by a woman caught mid-leap by a man. After the show I got even more upset when I searched the special thanks page (the longest I've ever seen) and did not find the names of either Norma Kamali or Twyla Tharp.

So how deliberate was this connection? Did Michelson want us to recognize Tharp's piece inside hers? Was she creating an ode to Upper Room? Or was she exploiting a 20th-century masterpiece? Clearly the paintings by TM Davy, mounted high up on the walls, with their saintly glow, were odes to baroque religious paintings. And I didn't mind that. And I didn't mind the fact that she was using some of same Philip Glass music (“Dance IX") that is heard in Upper Room. A lot of choreographers use his music, and it was credited in the program. (I also want to say that, before the first Norma Kamali costume made its entrance, I was enjoying Rebecca Warner's long solo quite a bit.)

I called Jodi Melnick, who had danced in Upper Room as part of Twyla's company, and who was listed in Michelson's special thanks. She calmed me down, and together we recalled some of the times we've seen this kind of appropriation before. Jodi herself ran off with Giselle's mad scene for about five minutes in a piece of Vicky Shick's called Repair in 2005. I loved it. I thought it was hilarious and moving at the same time. Vicky had embedded an over-the-top melodrama within her cooler, more fractured phrases.

And in 2008, Juliette Mapp inserted Trisha Brown's short “Spanish Dance" in her piece Anna, Ikea, and I. (“Spanish Dance" is something I had been in long ago and was pleased to do it again, with Juliette.) She loved that iconic piece of Trisha's, just as Michelson, presumably, loved Upper Room. But in this case, Juliette got permission from Trisha to do it, and we were coached by (and joined by) Diane Madden, Trisha's rehearsal director. And Trisha was invited to attend.

However, in that same concert, Juliette also replicated the exact choreography of a section of Merce's Septet (1953). For this she did not get permission, thus stirring up some indignation from the Cunningham foundation. She had seen the segment on YouTube while looking for traces of Viola Farber's dancing. (Viola was a ghostly but definite presence in Juliette's piece.) Juliette told me recently that she never meant to antagonize Merce or his people, and said that, looking back, she wished she had requested their permission.

YouTube: It's changed the dance landscape. So much of our dance past is posted on YouTube (and other sites, like dancemedia.com) that we are awash in our past. I think the reason visual artists started appropriating way before dancers did is that their past is out there, in galleries and museums, for anyone to snatch ideas from. Duchamp drew a mustache and goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in 1919. This was called a readymade, and the readymades challenged the notion of originality in art—just as Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans did decades later.

But the soup cans and the Mona Lisa were immediately recognizable. Warhol and Duchamp were not trying to pass those things off as their own work. Their own work consisted of Doing Something with those iconic materials. And I admit, Sarah Michelson Did Something with her Upper Room materials. For Devotion she combined text (by Richard Maxell), actors (from the New York City Players), dancers, and especially lighting (by herself and Zack Tinkelman) together in a uniquely striking way. The piece had a hypnotic quality. (Read the Dance Magazine review here.)

Appropriation caught fire in the 1980s. Artists like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine made careers out of appropriation—taking something that exists and putting it in a new context.

In that environment, choreographer Susan Rethorst actually titled a piece Stealing. For a publicity shot, she posed as Laurie Anderson, with white jacket and white opaque sunglasses (above), to simulate Anderson's look for her album Big Science. Rethorst later wrote a brilliant essay on the topic, in which she says that when an artist borrows from someone else, that artist does not lose her own voice. "As if, in forcing a move that comes from outside oneself, the self imposes itself with more clarity." She concludes that there really is no such thing as stealing, and "that any part of any dance, aided by the power of suggestion…can be said to be [either] derivative or referential." (Read the entire essay here.)

Derivative or referential—or reverential: Which one was Michelson being in Devotion? No one else I spoke to was upset about this. Puzzled, maybe, but not upset. So I had to ask myself, why did it bother me so much that Michelson's dancers wore rip-offs of the Upper Room costumes? And would I have been appeased if I'd seen the credits given on her special thanks page? I do think it's fair to refer to, and even borrow from, older works, since we owe so much to our dance heritage. One of the many examples is about to come our way: Merce Cunningham spoofed Martha Graham in his piece Antic Meet (1958), which is currently part of the company's Legacy Tour.

A couple APAPs ago, Levi Gonzalez showed a solo for a group of presenters. He started with a sly confession that he couldn't think up anything so he decided to do other people's dances. As he went through some moves, he said, “This is from Miguel Gutierrez"…and “this is from Juliette Mapp." Of course he had come up with an idea: a concept for how to frame his appropriations that resisted the whole expectation of complete originality. I really appreciated that he credited his colleagues' ideas… But I wonder if he got any nibbles from presenters that day.

How far can an artist go—responsibly—in appropriating another artist's materials? It seems to be happening more in dance these days. And isn't that what an artist does: take materials from life and rearrange them? So what's my problem? Am I stuck with an outdated expectation that everything has to be created from scratch?

I think it's possible that this problem could have been resolved with a simple fix of the program notes. In Michelson's program for Devotion, the costumes were credited to three people. I think that if the credit had read, “Costumes by James Kidd, Shaina Mote, and Sarah Michelson partly based on (or inspired by) Norma Kamali's costumes for Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room," I would have considered this a responsible borrowing. And then I might have been able to focus on the more original aspects of Devotion that other people found amazing.

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Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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