Dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins was undeniably one of the most important figures in American dance—and he would have been 100 years old this year. In honor of Robbins' centenary, here are a few things you should know about the legend.
Last month, we asked why there wasn't a Best Choreography category at the Oscars—and discovered that many of you agreed with us: Choreographers should definitely be acknowledged for their work on the super-dancy movies we can't get enough of.
Now, we're taking matters into our own (jazz) hands.
We've decided to create a Dance Spirit award for the best cinematic choreography of 2017. With your input, we've narrowed the field to four choreographers whose moves lit up some of the best movies of the year. Check out our nominations for best choreography below—and vote for the choreographer you think deserves the honor. We'll announce the winner on Friday, March 2.
Molly Long is the rare prodigy who grew up to be even more brilliant. At the ripe old age of 16, Long (now 25) took charge of the minis at her home studio, Dance Precisions, in Southern California, leading the team to big wins at Nationals. It wasn't long before she was traveling the country to choreograph and teach. Long's infectiously musical, explosive yet clean style has been seen on "Dance Moms," "America's Got Talent," "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition," "Raising Asia," and at New York Fashion Week. Since 2015, Long's been touring with Revel Dance Convention and growing her Orange County–based company Project 21. Read on to find out where Long finds inspiration for her many winning numbers. —Helen Rolfe
(Photo by Don Lee, courtesy The Banff Centre)
Since breaking into the choreography big leagues in 2005—when Mikhail Baryshnikov invited her to be the first artist in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC—this former National Ballet of Canada and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal dancer has been pushing dancers from around the world to new and exciting heights.
“When choreographing for Bayerisches Staatsballett [the Bavarian State Ballet] in Munich, I worked with an electronic and orchestral score by Mason Bates. The sound is full and energetic; it was really the starting point. Music is key to my work most of the time—it feeds my every cell.”
“When I’m working with my own group, Aszure Barton & Artists, we typically start with nothing—no music, no driving concept. We just get in the studio and see where it takes us. I like to take my time.”
Aszure Barton & Artists in Awáa, with a score by Curtis Macdonald and Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin" (photo by Don Lee, courtesy The Banff Centre)
“My company often works with composer Curtis Macdonald. We first met at The Banff Centre, where my company spends quite a bit of time each year. It’s an incredible space that facilitates music, dance and film—a melting pot of cool people.”
“A theater technician in Chicago told me about Mason Bates’ music, and when I started listening, I was hooked. I used his score The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra & Electronica for Houston Ballet when I made Angular Momentum. I love working with composers who can communicate with me directly because I can learn about their intention and where their scores come from.”
Barton watching Andrew Murdock, a dancer with Aszure Barton & Artists (photo by Tobin del Cuore, courtesy AB&D)
“Dancers are absolutely the key element to my work. I spend a lot of time sitting in the room in awe of them and their focus. It’s never just me coming in and setting choreography. There’s a lot of back and forth in a physical, nonverbal conversation.”
“I had never worked with Ailey before, so when I first started to create LIFT, I was interested in getting to know the dancers. I knew they each had incredible physicality, but
I was blown away by how they engaged as a group. Instead of being a bunch of soloists, I saw they worked well together as an ensemble. I was fueled by their energy as a group—hence the large piece with 19 people.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in LIFT (photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT)
“My family feeds my soul—they’re incredible people that ground me. My mom’s a warrior, incredibly strong, and my father is completely free-spirited and uninhibited. I know I have both sides in me, and I strive to work towards their strength and freedom.”
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.”