Court Dances

Factions prepare for Battle Over Rights to Martha Graham’s Works

Copyright issues have been complicated in the past when dance entered the discussion. Although legally all properties are under copyright as soon as they are created, the copyright owner cannot sue for infringement until a work is registered with the Library of Congress's copyright office. In 1952 Hanya Holm registered the Kiss Me, Kate dances. At that point a dance supposedly had to have a story line in order to be registered. Subsequently the Library of Congress recognized Labanotation (developed in the '20s), and other forms of notation, as well as videos, which made it much easier to protect dances. Graham, however, didn't want her dances notated—in part because she never considered her works finished. She wanted to be able to alter them according to her instinct and for specific dancers' bodies. More than one of her dancers will say she had little interest in the future; she was all about what was happening in the moment. She did, of course, allow dances to be filmed. In the last year or so, Protas has seen to it that the Trust began registering them. Quinn estimates that so far a couple of dozen are done, with more to come.

The question now becomes: What did Graham really own?
illustration: Limbert Fabian
The question now becomes: What did Graham really own?

Janet Eilber, the former Graham dancer who was for a time the Center's artistic director designate, brings up a facet of dance ownership that probably won't feature in court arguments and wouldn't receive much validation if it did. "Protas has certain aspects of the flame," she says, "certain tangible pieces of paper, but there are also the artists who have been Martha's creative collaborators. Ron can't make that claim." She's referring to the notion that the dances reside in the bones and muscles of Graham-trained dancers who performed and could still perform the works. But this aspect of ownership will never arise in court.

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