The Plagiarism Problem
Critics noticed remarkable similarities between Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas, pictured here, and sections of Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video. (©Herman Sorgeloos)
When the music video for Beyoncé’s hit song “Countdown” premiered last fall, fans were charmed, not alarmed, by its references to Audrey Hepburn’s zany dancing in Funny Face and its incorporation of popular dance styles from the ’60s and ’70s. But then a video mashup appeared comparing sections of “Countdown” to works by Belgian dancemaker Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and many cried foul: Some of the choreography, sets and costumes in Beyoncé’s video appeared to copy de Keersmaeker’s work exactly. When faced with accusations of plagiarism, Beyoncé defended herself by explaining that she’d used de Keersmaeker’s work as inspiration. But de Keersmaeker wasn’t impressed. Taking the choreography out of context “robbed it of its original power,” she said.
The “‘Countdown’ controversy” is the perfect example of the murky waters choreographers wade into when searching for ideas. The saying “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” may be true, but that doesn’t mean you can look at someone else’s creation, tweak it a little and call it your own. Then again, all new ideas come from somewhere—so where do we draw the line? When it comes to choreography, what’s the difference between being inspired and stealing?
While the universal technique of classical ballet makes for a slightly more accepted tradition of borrowing (who can say they own “piqué, glissade, jeté”?), modern and contemporary choreographers often speak a language all their own. “You can be
inspired by choreographers from Merce Cunningham to de Keersmaeker,” says Kitty Daniels, chair of Cornish College of the Arts’ dance department. “But to duplicate their movement phrases exactly is a violation of intellectual property rights.”
That said, intellectual property rights, especially when it comes to dance, are incredibly complicated. Without a clear legal definition of “dance plagiarism,” it’s difficult for choreographers who feel they’ve been ripped off to retaliate. Established artists can sometimes protect themselves by copyrighting their work (and stealing from copyrighted works, such as George Balanchine’s ballets, can land you in court). But amateurs—particularly on the competition circuit—can’t do much when they’re copied, and often end up feeling hurt and discouraged. Kelly Burke of Westchester Dance Academy has seen her pieces being videotaped by audience members planning to copy the routine, music and costumes. “Obviously that takes finding inspiration to an unacceptable level,” she says.
Even well-known artists sometimes find themselves helpless against plagiarism. Choreographer Mandy Moore recently saw her work replicated on a foreign version of “Dancing with the Stars”—without her prior knowledge or permission. “I was disappointed more than anything,” she says. “I felt sorry for the choreographer who wasn’t creative enough to take what they liked about my piece and allow it to help them move in their own way.”
Inspiration, Not Imitation
So how do you make the leap from admiring someone else’s work to making work that is your very own—inspired by what you’ve seen, but with your personal stamp? Kaylee Turner, a student at The Dance Zone in Henderson, NV, says that she and her teammates reference “movies, videos or a certain era to channel a character or get into a mind frame that everyone on the team can relate to.” Then they use their individual strengths to elaborate on the basic movements, making them unique. “For example, I’m a grounded dancer, so to put my own spin on a movement, I would probably use my plié,” she says. “Or if I’m working with dancers who have nice extension, I’ll add phrases that emphasize that stretch.”
Troy Ogilvie, a dancer with contemporary company Gallim Dance, points out that when it comes to inspiration vs. plagiarism, context matters—a lot. “Using elements is different than using a whole package,” she says. Taking a short phrase here or there from a piece or imitating its overall style is usually acceptable. But “when bigger sections of a work are severed from the original, the original creator is put in the awkward situation of past ownership of a now warped message,” Ogilvie says—and that’s when things get tricky.
Moore thinks that with the extraordinary amount of dance everyone sees online and on TV shows, it’s possible that choreographers don’t even realize they’re plagiarizing. “Sometimes the copying is subconscious—people regurgitate movement they’ve seen repeatedly and think it’s their own,” she says. Be mindful about the way you use your DVR queue or online videos while preparing choreo. It’s OK to watch an amazing dance over and over, but make sure its style isn’t drowning out your own voice.
Ultimately, context and intention are what make the difference between using someone else’s work to inspire your own creativity and merely recycling what’s already been done. Be honest with yourself as a choreographer. Use the fantastic tools that are out there, but as Burke says, “Let’s embrace and learn from others, not copy them.”
The groundwork for Erin Carpenter's company, Nude Barre, began when she was a teenager. At 16, she earned a spot in the residency program at The Kennedy Center in partnership with Dance Theatre of Harlem. "We were required to wear nude—as in, our actual skin tone—tights and shoes," she remembers. Carpenter brought her "sun tan" tights and a pair of pink ballet shoes with her, because that was all she could find. But she wasn't allowed in class because her dancewear didn't match her skin. "I was so embarrassed," she says. "I looked unprepared. I just didn't have the right nudes." Her teacher explained that the dancers dyed their tights and pancaked their shoes.
There are dancers and then there are DANCERS! Whitney Jensen, soloist at Norwegian National Ballet, is the latter. The former Boston Ballet principal can do it all. From contemporary to the classics this prima has the technical talent most bunheads dream about. Need proof? Look no further.
Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's dance inducing hit, "Despacito," is so catchy it should probably come with a disclaimer that warns people of an uncontrollable itch to tap your feet or bob your head. Some might even feel inclined to go all out and break it down. Niana Guerrero is a prime example of "Despacito's" uncanny ability to unleash the red dressed emoji dancer within. 💃🏽 💃🏽
Guys, we all knew this was coming—"World of Dance" was eventually going to eliminate someone. But man, is it brutal to watch these talented dancers give their all, only to be sent home. It's the name of the game, though, and after last night's episode, only two dancers per division remain. (At least Misty Copeland guest-judging was a silver lining!) Here's what went down last night:
They've impressed the judges, now it's time for the Top 100 dancers to enroll at The Academy—and to impress the All-Stars. Welcome to So You Think You Can Dance Academy!
The 100 dancers who made it through auditions in NYC or L.A. are now at The Academy, which is basically a beautiful building with floor-to-ceiling windows. The show opens with that Mandy Moore-choreographed Academy routine which, even after watching it 12 times and trying to learn all the choreography at home, is still delightful.
This Nationals season, Dance Spirit followed four talented dancers from The Dance Awards, NYCDA, Showstopper, and Starpower for an inside look at everything that goes into the biggest competitions of the year. First up: Isabella Torres from Mid-Atlantic Center for the Performing Arts in Baltimore, MD, who competed at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals for the first time this year. (All photos courtesy Shannon Torres.)
Merritt Moore is a ballerina who just so happens to be graduating from Oxford University with a PhD in quantum physics. Is she even human? The jury is still out on that - but the 29-year-old, who earned her undergrad degree from Harvard, has actually found dance to be a powerful tool that assists her in her studies.