The Future of Dance’s Past

Graham Center Wins a Round in Court and Wakes Up Choreographers

Jean Rigg, executive director of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, comments that Merce Cunningham has been notating his works "in his own shorthand" and copyrighting them "forever." Some choreographers express other, surprising attitudes. Eliot Feld confesses he doesn't copyright his ballets. "My sense is I have videotapes," he says. "That is sufficient without making copyrighting a preoccupation. I'm 59 and I know my mortality is palpable, but I don't dwell on it. I don't want [my works] notated. I actually think they only remain useful if they can change according to changing sensibilities and techniques. Having a definitive version is a curse and a blessing. It locks you into the past."

His thinking could be considered philosophical or just lackadaisical, but he's not alone. Choreographer Bill Young maintains that, since dance is frequently considered to be inseparable from the dancer, "the issue underneath copyright is the meat of the matter. After you're dead, you can't control a dance beyond what you [leave in] your will."

Postmodern patriarch David Gordon remarks, "[Copyright] continues to be a vague thing, because it's hard to believe it will ever matter. All articles about the dance world to the contrary, dance is the poor stepchild. You can't sell it. If you sell your dance, you have to sell the person who does it along with it. Having fought the battle, over the years, of attempting to have dance taken seriously as an art form and not having seen great success in that venture—quite the opposite—I just wonder what we're saving, what the battle is about."

Illustration by Heath Hinegardner

Phyllis Lamhut, who mentions she was trained very early to register her works with the Library of Congress and now refers to her company as "a democratic dictatorship," puts succinctly another surfacing concern. "Dancers today have more input. 'I made this phrase in one of her works.' So who owns it? That is the issue that is going to be the hot one."

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