Is Appropriation the Same as Stealing and Why Is It Happening More Now?
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.
I don't understand why I've lost my motivation to dance at 20 years old. My parents have always encouraged me to have a life plan and ask continuously how my pre-professional training program is going. I feel crushed by their expectations. I'm actually relieved when I get injured and can't dance, even though I miss it.
—Confused, Nashville, TN
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With limited space for luggage on the tour bus, Justin Timberlake dancer Natalie Gilmore makes sure her beauty routine can pull double duty. "Most of the stuff I use day to day I also use onstage," she says, adding that the dancers do their own hair and makeup for every show. "They give us a lot of freedom to use what we want, and I really enjoy getting to play with new products and experiment with different looks." That same freedom she has with her look carries over into her performance. "There's a lot of freestyle in the show," Gilmore says. "We have certain places we need to be, but we're able to map out how we want things to flow—I have a lot of fun with it."
As a dancer going through a mental health challenge, loneliness can feel like your only companion. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Steven Loch has managed obsessive-compulsive disorder since middle school, and for nearly a decade felt too scared to speak up. "We feel like if we say something people will be horrified by some of the thoughts that we are having," he says.
But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental illness each year. Psychologists say that in competitive environments like the dance studio—where perfectionism can make you feel like you're never good enough, and an injury can suddenly strip you of your identity—this likelihood may increase.
Last summer I shared my own story of quitting dance due to untreated depression on the Dance Magazine website. It was met with an outpouring of support and camaraderie that I found both affirming and terrifying. A few weeks later, the magazine published an online survey to learn more about dancer attitudes around the need for mental health support. Readers submitted more than 1,000 comments, demonstrating that these struggles are very much a shared experience.
Considering the demands of a career in dance, it isn't surprising that many professionals find romance in the rehearsal studio. With taxing schedules, perfectionist tendencies and quirky habits, it can be challenging to find true love outside of the art form. We spoke with three non-dancer spouses to hear what it's like sharing their life with professionals from ballet to Broadway.
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
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The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!
But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.
Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.
Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we limit what dance can do for the world.
It's not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called "intellectual pursuits." How many dancers have been told they should pursue something "more serious"? How many college dance departments don't receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments?
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.