At a hip-hop event in Dakar, Senegal, Onye Ozuzu, dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College Chicago, noticed a move that looked familiar.
"I had just come from seeing Don Campbell at a festival in Colorado, where he was talking about locking and the way people used to point at each other," she says. "At this b-boy battle in Dakar, I remember watching the points happen, but they were all loose in the wrists. The dancers weren't pointing at anything specific. I remember thinking, Oh, that's what happens when you learn something off of YouTube."
As early as 2001, hard-core dance fanatics with digital-media skills—not exactly a huge group of people—could swap rare dance videos using peer-to-peer sites like Kazaa. But it was four years later on Valentine's Day that www.youtube.com went live, and a vast repository of hidden dance history began circulating worldwide.
Soon anyone with an internet connection could access David "Elsewhere" Bernal's early viral video, the Ross Sisters' jaw-dropping trio from the 1944 film Broadway Rhythm, or episodes of "Great Performances" originally broadcast on PBS, all for free.
Today, choreography once considered sacred and only transferred person-to-person is now self-taught, edited and remixed in bedrooms and basements, across the U.S. and beyond. No aspect of the dance industry, however commercial or "purely artistic," remains untouched by the explosion of video around the internet over the past decade. It's made a profound impact on everything from how students learn to what audiences want, when choreographers succeed and which artists win support from donors, funders and presenters.
Increasing Movement Evolution
One of the most obvious effects of online access to dance videos is the collective reshaping of techniques and trends. "Cultural forms always change as they travel," notes Ozuzu. "The combination of video and social media is now just a mode of cultural transportation, which both expands what dancers make and can have the effect of homogenization."
Even choreographers who are less seduced by the screen feel its pull. New York City– and Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson doesn't spend much time browsing Vimeo.
"The purpose of dance is to communicate kinesthetically and through energy, which I find hard to capture on camera," she says. But even she admits, "I very much appreciate being able to look up things that I'm geographically very far removed from, like the work of Aboriginal dance groups in Australia."
Quality Control and Trust Issues
Perhaps in part due to the likelihood that the defining characteristics of a dance will get lost in translation, many artists are wary of what and how much they're willing to share. As media specialist at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) at Florida State University, Chris Cameron documents the creative processes of 10 to 12 resident artists each year.
"You might assume that the ubiquity of technology today might lead people to let down their guards and to be more comfortable around cameras," he says. "But it can go in the other direction too, when they're more hyperconscious of its power and of how it can color things. There is more tension now that more artists have brands over which they want to retain some control."
There is no shortage of examples of original work being appropriated—or stolen outright—due to the sheer amount of video online. Accusations of Beyoncé's plagiarism in 2011 of choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker seem at this point almost quaint postcards from another era.
"Someone once sent me a link with the note, 'Hm. This looks familiar…' and it was an exact replica of something I had done," Johnson reveals, before adding that she ultimately chose to brush it off. "I didn't pursue it, I didn't contact the person, I just let it be. I do recognize that ideas circulate in the world."
Ozuzu points out how fundamentally the internet turns tables. "People who've never had the experience of their work being appropriated before, because they always retained control over where and when it got presented and who could access it," she says, "are now sharing in an experience that many other creators of cultural content have had for a long time—only they experienced it because their people were conquered, or had to give lessons to those with more power. Now anyone with an iPhone can steal from anyone else."
Creating a Paradigm Shift
Joshua Beamish, artistic director of Vancouver- and New York City–based Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY, recently worked on a 21st-century Giselle, looking at how that story would have played out in our world today.
"There are all these ways social media allows us to be deceptive about who we are," he says, explaining how Albrecht might have used a private profile to his advantage. The parallels between his current process and its product aren't lost on him. "I have to use social media in order to get the resources and to raise awareness of this piece, about how Giselle lives in the world of social media," he says with a chuckle.
Beamish finds this "new normal" enormously frustrating from a fundraising perspective. "Donors at a certain level used to be the only ones who were invited to rehearsals as a benefit; now rehearsal clips are just out there for anyone to watch. There are fewer low-cost incentives I can offer that feel exclusive and worth an investment."
Nevertheless, he says his core supporters still appreciate the difference between 30-second clips posted to Instagram and being able to watch as he collaborates with ensemble members in the studio. "That's seeing what's really behind the work. That's actual access to the actual process, versus a glimpse of process that, once it's shared online, just becomes another piece of product."
The Double-Edged Sword of Increased Access
Online video makes the dance world seem smaller in many ways. As video technology becomes ever more affordable and easier to use, the Princess Grace Foundation–USA, for example, says that both the number and overall quality of nominations for Princess Grace Awards has grown.
"But we've had to be more clear about asking to see continuous movement," program director Diana Kemppainen says. "When you edit out all of the transitions, our panel can't judge the artist fairly. It's in those transitional steps that you really see the quality of the dancer, which is why there's still no substitute for live performance."
Kemppainen acknowledges that video offers new levels of access: "We're a national organization which unfortunately doesn't have an extensive travel budget, so video is really wonderful in that it allows us to learn about what artists are doing around the country."
Other traditionally in-person processes have migrated online as well, from auditions to curation; dance critics have even reviewed artists they've never seen perform live.
Beamish supposes his entire career would've gone differently had YouTube been around at the turn of the millennium.
"I started my own company because I didn't know that there were people like William Forsythe or Ohad Naharin, whom I might've danced for," he says. "I didn't know there were European ballet companies that did contemporary dance, too, or places where you could get paid 13 months a year. Because there was so little access to what was happening around the world, I just chose a different path."
As an educator, Ozuzu appreciates how the bounty of accessible footage helps her and fellow faculty members "cut to the chase" in the classroom, even if at times it unsheathes a double-edged sword. "I spent a lot of time in the '90s screening grainy VHS tapes," she recalls, "in order to share images of, say, early butoh performances. Now, students walk in with so many more lenses and perspectives on the topic than I could possibly have curated for them—but that brings a lot of 'web garbage' into the room as well, from misleading comments below a video, or just a perspective that's been skewed. So it's win-and-lose. I think my generation sees more of the loss, while our students see more of the gain. Somehow, most of the time, we can meet in the middle."