There comes a time in every artist’s life when they have to face the challenge of justifying their inspiration. When we are art school kids we learn about this history of innovation and find out that the most successful idols are the ones who have a unique vision matched with a strong business sense when it comes to promoting their work (sans the auspicious enterprise of posthumous talent). It is our job to learn the rules and then bend or break them. Besides the outside-the-box repertoire of the avant garde, there is not a lot that has not already been done before.
The advent of copyright is something that is augmenting rapidly in the culture of art and the art of culture. The dissemination of intellectual property is a heated debate that has become the subject of many landmark lawsuits across the world. What one creates belongs to them and cannot be shared, in some new version of political claim. Somehow in this day and age if an idea is inspired by another one is considered theft.
Every choreographer today has to struggle with the rules of fair use when it comes to creating new works of art. It is commonplace for us to steal work that is honestly just a derivative of what we have learned or seen in the past. Since the beginning of dance, music has been the driving force behind the art form. Without the work of classical musicians, dance would have always been this droll, soundless visual effect without much merit behind it besides the traditional forms of folk dance.
I have turned to using a different platform to show my work after being hounded and censored by the popular YouTube website where it is more impossible than ever to watch something or post something that you do not have the legal rights to. How did this happen?
Art in all genres is an homage to something…a time, a place, a story, another piece of art. We would not have the great masters of the past if they were not permitted to use the musical scores of the composers that inspired the composition of movement and stories. While many choreographers are dead set on using original music for their work, modernity affords the artist a never ending source of inspiration to artists creating music today.
One of the most prolific and influential artists working in pop music is Beyonce. Her new music video for the song “Countdown” is a prime example of walking the tightrope between inspiration and blatant thievery. In the video she makes obvious references to Audrey Hepburn and other cultural icons, which is indicative of her work. Beyonce is no stranger to this Quentin Tarantino-esque style of regurgitation, having spent so much time and energy paying homage to Bob Fosse (the biggest influence of my work), Bettie Page, and legendary Josephine Baker.
I always experience an inordinate amount of pangs in my heart when I see Beyonce’s work. We have so much of the same taste and inspiration that it is hard not to pine away about the thought of being able to work with her. Sometimes it feels as though I am watching something that I wish I would have thought of or perhaps I already did, wallowing in the adage about great minds thinking alike.
I don’t know what I would be without the things I have learned and I worry that one day I will be altogether restricted in what I am allowed to create without suffering legal repercussions. It is against the law to use a piece of work of another artist in a matter of profit, this I know and lucky for me, my net gross has not ever been in existence when I have stretched the rules a little bit past their limit. I can’t help but wonder what is the point of the controversy and the legality of it all. It is a tradition for artist to use art to be inspired, no matter how closely it relates to the original work.
This past winter, one of my favorite photographers, David LaChapelle, sued Rihanna for using his signature S/M works as part of the storyboard for one of her music videos, an inspiration for the work in a varying visual interpretation. The irony of course is that LaChapelle is infamous for his use of exploiting and recreating popular works of art through skewed visual imagery, plus he worked with Rihanna just 3 years prior on a photo project for MTV. To me, this is baffling.
Lady Gaga was sued for her work “Judas” that bared similarity to a song from another band. And despite repeated accusations of trying to become the new Madonna, she uses the inspiration from Madonna’s most controversial works to produce the video for “Alejandro”. This I thought was a ballsy move on her part, but again, a comment on the value of inspiration.
Before laws were made to protect the artist from what the government considers theft, there was a free range on creativity. Many musicians (especially) struggled with the ownership of their original music and in some twisted fate of marketing hierarchy, the best man or woman could come out on top no matter if they created the original content or not.
Beyonce’s newest album, “4” was leaked on the internet prior to its release date. Beyonce, in a humbling statement on her Facebook page, thanked the fans for their zealous anticipation of her new music and then in true superstar fashion with the intelligence and power to navigate through this new technological world of music, teamed up with the corporate giant Target and sold exclusive content through their stores.
I did sneak a peek at her new album but was nonplussed by much of the work. It all just seemed so disjointed with the over produced tracks and the random guitar riffs thrown in hither and tither. I was not surprised by the success of “Who Run the World”, that song is rife with convolution but it has a great beat to dance to. In the video she references Fosse again with choreography reminiscent of his brainchild Cabaret the Musical. The choreography is transcendental in a way, bridging the gap between contemporary hip-hop and classic jazz dance idioms. There is nothing she can do wrong.
This new video for “Countdown” took my breath away in a different way altogether. After watching it several times (like I do with ALL of her videos) I became more and more entranced by the content and then I became wildly envious. She can get away with anything. I was most impressed with the notable amount of modern dance that was in the work and I read later that she was inspired by German modern dance. The idea made me a little sick. Then after more research I found this, a rant about the glaring similarity of her work as compared to the Belgian contemporary choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. This is what she does.
The song in itself is a poignant statement about the challenge of surviving a superstar, diamond encrusted relationship (yeah, I feel for you girl). The actual lyrics to the “countdown” in the song are great, but though it starts off as sentimental, it quickly turns into one of those hip-hop boasting tangents that seem a little less appreciative than what the song was meant to be. Perhaps the inspiration was a little too close to home.
I would be hard pressed to find a piece of mine that was completely original. In my satirical dance theater ballet “Man Bites Dog” that I showed last summer, I referenced one of the greatest moments in dance history. Based on Paul Taylor’s “Seven New Dances” that premiered in 1957, in one of the pieces I had two women come on stage and stand completely still (in their respective poses) for one full minute, staring at themselves in the mirror, and then they left the stage. It was an abrupt moment of commentary within the sporadic moods and pace of the entire show. I doubt that there was anyone in the audience that knew about the reference, though the original piece prompted one of the most historical reviews in The New York Times. The critic left a blank column in the newspaper with only a reference to the name of the performance.
I am always flattered by imitation. When I see my work being copied I admit that I get a little bit upset at first but then realize that ideas are meant to be shared and we cannot create without an arsenal. The artillery comes from life and the flora and fauna that it provides. With dance, movement is the same as colors on a palette to a painter, the same as notes on a staff to a musician, the same as words to a writer…I remember I was completely floored when I saw a recent performance that was choreographed by one of my dancers (that shall remain nameless) and there was an inordinate amount of a certain stylized technique that is something very specific to my work. It was like I had given birth to a baby and I was breathing new life into something beautiful. It hurt, of course, but I was proud to see the growth of another artist who found something special in what I had given them. We are all responsible for creating history and remembering the importance of it.