Imitation vs originality. It’s a longstanding concern in the arts world.
An accepted truth in the literary world is that there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. A similar claim can be made about choreography—borrowing from other works is a widespread practice. Even George Balanchine did it, and boldly. As dance critic Arlene Croce wrote in The New Yorker (“Balanchine Said,” January 29, 2009), “He subscribed to the Hegelian view of history as a spiral: everything recurs, but in a different form. Not only dance movement but all art, even the most novel-seeming, is a version of something that has already been said or done. For this reason, he saw no harm in appropriating; he stole and was stolen from—that was the way of art.”
Well, then, one might think, if George Balanchine did it, where’s the harm?
There is no harm in the “stealing” Balanchine did. He didn’t engage in wholesale copying—he drew on other artworks in creating something original. Often, that’s not what happens. Instead we see copycatting, and there is indeed harm in that. Imitation on that scale isn’t flattery, as the cliché claims; it’s laziness. And when other people’s words and choreography are a keyboard click away, stealing is a breeze.
Today we see cookie-cutter dances that borrow too heavily from music videos, TV dance shows, and other popular entertainment. And at Dance Studio Life, we hear from studio owners who complain that former employees or teachers at other schools stole their competition or recital choreography. I don’t mean the poachers borrowed a step, or the idea behind a step, or a story or theme that they then morphed into something of their own creation. I mean they stole the dance in its entirety and presented it as theirs. Judging by these school owners’ outrage—and my own experience in having my writing plagiarized—it’s obvious they didn’t feel flattered. They felt violated.
Yet the quest for originality endures, as you’ll see in “Breaking the Mold” on page 112. It’s heartening that many of our readers value creating and seeing original work and that they recognize what a boon performing such works can be for their students. —Cheryl A. Ossola
DSL editor in chief Cheryl A. Ossola, a former associate editor at Dance Magazine, is a freelance writer for San Francisco Ballet and a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.
Tough Times: Choosing the Team
The lovefest that is recital is over and we meet in a dark corner of a café for the annual agony of choosing dancers for the team.
It’s more difficult than it seems. If it were only about technique it would be a snap. Perhaps we could pass out a test and set the cutoff at 77. Would parents be terribly upset if we put names in a hat? Would we?
Some decisions come easily. Poor attendance? Forget it. Bad attitude? No way. The wrestling match begins when everyone sees something different. The ballet teacher wants to nix the child who kills it with charisma in musical theater. One kid pumps in hip-hop but slumps in lyrical. That third-grader who blew the audition? But she was so good all year in class. The awkward one works, the talented one fusses. Putting two sisters together—perish the thought!
And there’s always the one who will quit if she doesn’t move up. She hasn’t said it, but we know. We need a leader on the lower level, the argument goes; she can be a role model. My boss and I shake our heads. While everything that’s been said has merit, we know how much a child’s heart can hurt.
I go to bat for the student with ADHD, although I’ll probably regret it. She’s a handful in class—always a question, always an extra flourish. “Making the choreography your own” might be a compliment on SYTYCD, but on our little team it could cause havoc. The smart move would be to keep her in rec classes for another year, but she wants it more than anyone, and that has to count for something.
Finally the list is done—next year’s team, for better or worse. Garçon! Wine, please! —Karen White
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.