Choreographing CopyrightAuthor: Anthea Kraut

Reviewed by Heather Desaulniers

How can choreographers and dance artists protect their artistic pursuits? What is the best way to preserve creative intellectual property? These and other similar questions are hot topics in dance’s current climate, and rightly so. And there isn’t one right answer, or two or even three. Artistic copyright in the dance field is complicated to say the least, and as Anthea Kraut’s new book reveals, the past definitely has something to say about this of-the-moment subject matter.

Kraut’s Choreographing Copyright provides a thorough examination of copyright in dance composition – the process, the challenges and the present academic discourse. But the book is much more than a topic overview; it provides fascinating historical context and thought-provoking socio-political commentary through a collection of actual legal cases. While current perspectives always remain at play, Choreographing Copyright is really a sojourn of copyright in dance. This particular account dates back to the late 1890s and tells the story of, as the book’s subtitle says, Race, Gender and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. Kraut’s smart detailing and dissection of these struggles, losses, wins and lessons make this book a great contribution.

Before delving into the selected cases, Choreographing Copyright begins on a theoretical note. The preface and introduction (though much of the preface is actually repeated in the introductory chapter) provide necessary background and conceptual foundations, all given from Kraut’s balanced and measured perspective. Kraut examines both the protections and pitfalls of choreographic copyright and the importance of the 1976 Copyright Act. She outlines how authorship and credit in dancemaking cannot be separated from issues of race, gender, class and justice. She highlights the complexities of public domain, training lineage and archival variants all the while deciphering terms, language and some inherent inconsistencies that surround this issue. And by the end of the first forty pages, the reader is ready to experience Kraut’s application to real-life cases of choreographic copyright.

In the chapters that follow, Kraut presents a series of different case studies, each a distinct and compelling example of choreographic copyright. Ample contrast space is provided – the cases range in time from 1892-2011; they are brought by different people for different reasons; some have successful outcomes, others do not. And Kraut’s investigation into each case also has a nice mix of legality, biography and theory. Much of the information was brand new to me, with only the more recent cases being familiar. And this is what I found to be the biggest revelation – the story of choreographic copyright dates back much further than I had ever considered. My novice assumption was that this was more of a recent phenomenon. Not so. Kraut’s book illustrates that copyright in dance has been part of the artistic landscape for a long, long time.

Through each of the case examples, the reader glimpses the multi-faceted-ness of copyright in dance and how it is inherently linked to race and gender. To begin, Kraut goes back to 1892, with a suit brought by Loïe Fuller over her Serpentine Dance – a matter long-steeped (far beyond the single 1892 case) in questions of credit and cultural appropriation. Onto the 1920s and a two-part legal battle in which Johnny Hudgins successfully received British copyright for his performance routines. Multiple African American performers, choreographers and artists from the first half of the twentieth century are referenced in chapter three, where Kraut takes on the intersection of claim, credit, copyright and original physical vocabulary. Tap, jazz and social dance stand at the heart of this dialogue. Next, Kraut heads to the mid-twentieth century and looks at choreographic copyright within a larger body of work – the Broadway musical. This chapter shares the pioneering, long-fought battles of Hanya Holm, Agnes de Mille and Faith Dane. But it also takes an interesting detour into the complexity of single-choreographer authorship when collaboration and sharing often occurs between dancers and dancemakers.

Chapter five cites two different, yet landmark cases from the past thirty years. In both cases, the choreographer (George Balanchine and Martha Graham) was no longer living at the time the case was brought. Much has been written with respect to these two suits, and yet, Kraut’s treatment adds a new and unique perspective to the conversation. One of my favorite moments in the book comes in this fifth chapter, where Kraut makes a general, but brilliant connection between the intrinsic nature of copyright and the nature of dance itself. A present-day example (one from the last five years) of copyright in dance greets the reader in the outtro of the book, which Kraut titles, “Coda”. While it was intriguing to read about a circumstance where Beyoncé, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and YouTube converged, some of the arguments in the last chapter are a little thin, especially when compared to the preceding analyses. And so, not a particularly convincing portion of Choreographing Copyright, at least for this reader.

Choreographing Copyright is a well-written, well-researched (many of the pages are almost half foot notes), well-stated, well-argued dance tome. Even when the reader might not agree with the contentions made, there is absolutely no doubt to Kraut’s thoroughness, thoughtfulness and expertise. However, like many scholarly books, there is a question of audience. And audience, approachability and accessibility matter, especially when the information and themes at hand could have a broad appeal. But in style, composition, language and density of material, Choreographing Copyright seems tailored and limited toward an academic audience and those currently working within dance academia. And that’s the one place where Choreographing Copyright falls a little short.

Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance
Author: Anthea Kraut
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press USA
Publication date (USA): December 1, 2015
Publication date (UK): Mid-December 2015, but available for pre-ordering
ISBN-13: 978-0199360369
Cover price (USA): $99 hardback, $35 paperback and e-book
Cover price (UK): £64 hardback, £22.99 paperback and e-book
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