Professor Norah Zuniga-Shaw
Foundations of Dance Research
Balancing Racial, Gender, and Economic Hierarchies in Dance Copyright
Dance, in its essence, is an ephemeral object that simultaneously is in constant possession of its subject. In Choreographing Copyright, Anthea Kraut analyzes the efforts of dancers’ pursuit of intellectual property rights and their subjecthood. Kraut emphasizes on the historical, cultural, and political influences during the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century and attempts to gain choreographic copyright laws in the United States of America. The book brings forth examples of legal cases where dancers and choreographers, such as Loie Fuller and Johnny Hudgins, contended for their intellectual property rights and put them in contest with gender and racial power dynamics.
According to U.S. Circuit Judge who denied American dancer Loie Fuller copyright protection for her Serpentine Dance in 1892, if a dance did not qualify as a dramatic production, hence was not entitled to copyright law. Nonetheless, Loie Fuller’s attempt to obtain copyright for her “abstract” modern dance was a vital step to begin noticing choreographic works as copyrightable. Fuller, not only asserted her white privilege in this process, but more importantly, fought a gendered struggle to reposition white female body status who “were long considered objects rather than subjects of property” (47). On the contrary, the non-white female performers were even more so marginalized as “white female dancers (such as Ruth St. Denis’s Nautch dance) buttressed white supremacy and legitimized their artistic practice” (61). Similarly, African American dancers were grappling with the racialized norms that developed from the legacy of slavery. Johnny Hudgins reclaimed his blackface pantomimes and dances and said: “I am the owner of these blackface acts, not their equivalent” (124). As white women fought patriarchal and gendered politics, non-white dancers struggled with racial systems, both to accomplish subject ownership and intellectual property rights.
The last chapter describes the court appeal of the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker against borrowings of Beyonce’s Countdown music video from Rosas danst Rosas. As briefly explained above, much of the politics and rights of authorship in choreography has been laid in racialized norms. Beyonce’s use of Keersmaeker’s film setting and choreography reverses the racial practice that “has long authorized white artists to take from non-white and “high art” to borrow from “low”” (265). Beyonce, as one of the most successful and well known African American woman, “corporeally claims a privilege that has historically belonged to whites” (269) and challenges Keersmaeker’s white privilege in that Rosas danst Rosas renown stimulates off of Countdown’s music video and not Keersmaeker’s dance film. Furthermore, this chapter argues that economic status also plays an important role in determining ownership and copyrights, for example, the fact that Beyonce is a popular celebrity while Keersmaeker is an avant-garde artist, protects and supports Beyonce’s copyrights by the force of capitalist consumerism. In addition, the globalization and digitization of dance on social media platforms, such as YouTube where Beyonce’s and Keersmaeker’s videos are easily found, has created new concerns for choreography copyrights.
The last chapter succinctly summarizes some issues described in the entire book that are deeply rooted in the American history and culture, such as sexualization of female body, cultural appropriation, labor of black body, capitalist consumerism, and white supremacism, while still making it relevant to our contemporary and highly digitized American lifestyle. Thinking about such systematic issues of hierarchies while keeping in mind the dance’s ephemerality, copyright laws still has to progress in order to protect the choreographies of dance choreographers.
Kraut, Anthea. Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Print.