Dancers Trending

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.

Show Comments ()
News
Gina Gibney's organization has grown invaluable to the NYC dance scene. Photo by Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney

New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.

Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Stagestep's Encore hardwood flooring for full-service broadcast production facility, dance center and venue, Starwest, in Burbank, CA.

What is the right flooring system for us?

So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.

Keep reading... Show less
Get the print edition!
Dancer Voices
Yuka Oba, Ednis Ariel Gomez Mallol and Connie Flachs in Swing by Olivier Wevers. Photo by Ryan Jackson, courtesy Flachs

"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."

My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
"Off Kilter" has real dancers playing dancers. Still courtesy CBC Arts

"It just...always looks better in my head."

While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.

We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Jay Sullivan Photography, courtesy Julie Granger

Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.

One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.

"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."

Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Carol Fox and Associates

José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.

Get the print edition!
Health & Body
Give your partner space to process their own emotions about the injury. Photo via Thinkstock

Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Chris­topher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.

"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
University of Texas at Austin students in When. Photo by Lawrence Peart, courtesy ACDA

What's on the minds of college students today?

I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.

Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:

Keep reading... Show less
News
Herman Cornejo and Tiler Peck at Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail

It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
Courtesy of barre + bag

Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.

Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).

barre + bag's Summer Collection

Keep reading... Show less
Get the print edition!
News
Henry Leutwyler

Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.

"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Chase Johnsey quietly made modern ballet history when he performed as part of the women's ensemble in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Elliot Franks, Courtesy In the Lights PR

Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?

But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways