Reading list: Choreographing Copyright

Anthea Kraut, Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance: Fascinating study of the complexities of claiming rights in a world in which asserting property rights is a measure of one’s humanity—and in which white women have often succeeded in doing so before men or women of color, as part of their fight against the objectification of the sexualized (and raced) female body but also as a result of an ability to rely on the privileges of whiteness. For example, white female dancer/choreographers routinely argued that their inspirations and antecedents were not really artistic and didn’t diminish the originality of their new creations because of the foreign origins and primitiveness of those earlier dances. Copyright claims signified artistic merit, desexualization, possessive individuality—all things that women had to fight to get.

 

African-American male tap dancers also claimed rights, both formally and informally, in a context in which “stealing” steps was sometimes ok and sometimes not. (Some of Kraut’s accounts of physical fights between black dancers sound like the fights among stand-up comics recounted by Chris Sprigman & Dotan Oliar.) “Stealing” steps is fascinating not just because it was sometimes tolerated and sometimes resisted, but also because it “contest[s] the idea that live performance, because of its ephemerality, cannot be replicated.” As in other studies of creativity without law, many of the sources Kraut cites indicated that copying steps was okay as long as the thief improved upon them, or at least put his own stamp on them. Attribution and recognition for “trademark” moves were also important to at least some of the dancers, although whether this was a second-best solution when ownership was impossible isn’t clear.

The rise of choreographic copyright claims, Kraut argues, coincided with the decline of tap, which faltered for many reasons, one of which was the Golden Age of the Broadway musical, which swallowed up elements of what had been vaudeville. In fact, the “ballet style” popularized by Agnes de Mille incorporated elements of tap, but this wasn’t officially acknowledged. The public recognized white female choreographers like de Mille as innovators for using improvisation and other techniques; at the same time, their authorship continued the pattern in which African-Americans wouldn’t be recognized as authors. “Integration” of dance into theater occurred only under the control of the white auteur. Whiteness emerges as, among other things, the privilege to choose different aesthetics and have them deemed original by others in power.

De Mille stumped heavily for recognizing choreography as copyrightable, but only by encoding the same disparagement of the popular (that is, usually, dances made popular by African-Americans)—of course, choreographic copyright’s proponents said, social dances and ordinary dance routines couldn’t be protected. (Faith Dane’s unsuccessful lawsuit for rights in her contribution to the musical Gypsy stands out as a prequel to Garcia v. Google; the court denied the authorial nature of Dane’s contribution of a stripperesque act.)

The book ends by considering Beyonce’s appropriation of a white Belgian choreographer’s work, which Kraut considers to be reversing the “racialized logic of property that helped underwrite the development of choreographic copyright in the United States.” Beyonce treated her work as just another input available for the taking, not as high art off-limits to the popular. Then, a Vietnamese-American boy recreated Beyonce’s choreography in a video that Beyonce endorsed—even though, by hypothesis, it wasn’t exactly her choreography; where were the Belgian choreographer De Keersmaeker’s rights in this? Through Beyonce, De Keersmaeker’s work became memified, but without any reference back to her—in a reversal of the ordinary racial logics of dance.

 

Kraut argues that choreographic copyright can “never completely deliver on its promise of averting objectification” by separating the dancer from the dance and allowing only the latter to be owned. Because dance is embodied, the line between the dance-maker and the owned dance can never be completely policed. I can’t do justice to the detailed and engaging story in a short review, but anyone interested in IP should take a look.

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