by Risa Gary Kaplowitz
A few weeks ago, I found myself watching a YouTube video of an “original” ballet choreographed this year. It had been posted by a small professional company on the West Coast. I don’t remember how I came upon it because the shock that hit me within the first few minutes obliterated any memory of that minor detail.
The ballet that I had found on YouTube was based on the same classic children’s story as the one on which I had based my original choreography for a DanceVision production that premiered in New Jersey six years ago. The California based company had used a contemporary vocabulary, while I had used a neo-classical one. Also, they had commissioned an original musical score, while I arranged classical pieces to create the music for my ballet.
Still, there were undeniable similarities between my treatment of the story and the version I found on YouTube. For example, I had focused on a minor character in the story, and so did the other company. The flow of my narrative differed from that of the book on which it was based, yet the other company seemingly used the same order of events as I did.
Most troubling was how similar the other company’s production looked to the one I designed for DanceVision. The YouTube video showed a digitally animated backdrop to support the storyline, a tool that was not widely used in ballet productions at the time. I used it in my production, well before the highly original animation tool helped garner acclaim for The Royal Ballet’s version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. DanceVision’s animator and I painstakingly organized my animated backdrop. I subsequently saw projections very similar to ours in the other company’s production, to which my reaction was one of jaw dropping recognition. One scene in particular appeared to have miraculously flown into their video.
Was it merely coincidence that enabled a company on the opposite coast to produce a ballet twin-like to mine?
I’m not so sure. Soon after the premiere of DanceVision’s production, I had created a ten-minute YouTube video to provide a cliff-notes version for promotion purposes. With nearly 2,700 views, it appeared to have worked. But after watching the other company’s video, I began to wonder how many of those views were attributable to the people responsible for the other production.
In other words, I think portions of my ballet were snatched.
Many have asked me if my ballet was copyrighted. The answer is yes, but it is probably too costly financially and emotionally to prove the infringement. I’d rather spend my time and energy making more original ballets.
Besides, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
But, wait a minute. What are the rules when it comes to deeming a ballet an original? Countless versions of ballets based on literary stories such as Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland abound. Since choreographers are often attracted to classic narrative works, we can expect to find similarities among their choreographic interpretations.
Yes and no. Despite similar themes, archetypes, and especially the stories, there are endless ways of putting it all together. A few weeks ago, I was alerted to another YouTube video, this time of a small Russian company’s ballet, The Snow Queen. It is based on the same Han Christian Anderson story as another ballet of the same name, which I had choreographed for DanceVision.
The Russian version premiered five days after ours was unveiled last December, and coincidentally, some of the Edvard Grieg music they chose for certain scenes was exactly the same as what I had chosen. While the similarity is striking, it is understandable. The Snow Queen ostensibly takes place in Denmark since that is where Anderson was born and lived, and it seems the Russian choreographer set out to do what I had set out to do—to invoke the flavor of Scandinavia. Who better to do that than Norwegian composer, Grieg? But, besides the choice of music, the Russian choreographer and I had hatched two very different ballets.
George Balanchine, who mainly choreographed non-narrative ballets, is quoted as saying, “God creates, I do not create. I assemble and I steal everywhere to do it – from what I see, from what the dancers can do, from what others do…” Balanchine may have stolen bits and pieces to make his ballets, but the end results were his alone. The steps, point of view, and order of events were undeniably original.
Choreographing an original work is like giving birth; the choreographer’s DNA is embedded in it and he or she will feel it to the core if distinct aspects of it show up elsewhere. And in this era of YouTube, choreographers beware! Either your work is at risk of being snatched or you are at risk of being caught stealing from others.
As I am getting ready to work on another narrative ballet—one based on a well-known story upon which formidable choreographers have already created their own works—I find myself pondering the definition of “original ballet”. I’m thinking that I like this one: An original ballet must provide a unique perspective even if it is based on a well-known story.
What is your definition?
Contributor Risa Gary Kaplowitz is a former principal dancer with Dayton Ballet and member of Houston Ballet and Manhattan Ballet. She has also performed with Pennsylvania Ballet and Metropolitan Opera Ballet and as a guest artist with many companies nationwide.
She was originally trained at Maryland Youth Ballet by Tensia Fonseca, Roy Gean, and Michelle Lees. She spent summers as a teen studying on scholarship at American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Houston Ballet. As a professional, her most influential teachers were Maggie Black, Marjorie Mussman, Stuart Sebastian, Lupe Serrano, Benjamin Harkarvy, and Ben Stevenson. She has performed the repertoire of many choreographers including Fredrick Ashton, George Balanchine, Ben Stevenson, Stuart Sebastian, Dermot Burke, Billy Wilson, and Marjorie Mussman.
After spending ten years in a successful business career while building a family, Risa returned to the dance world and founded Princeton Dance and Theater Studio (www.princetondance.com) and DanceVision, Inc. (www.dancevisionnj.org) with Susan Jaffe, former ABT principal ballerina. Risa is now PDT’s Director, and the Artistic Director of DanceVision Inc. Risa also founded D.A.N.C.E. (Dance As a Necessary Component of Education), an outreach program that brings dance to New Jersey schools.
Risa has choreographed more than twenty pieces, and her original full-length ballets, The Secret Garden and The Snow Queen, premiered with DanceVision Performance Company in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Additionally, she has choreographed for several New Jersey Symphony Orchestra family and school outreach concerts.
Risa is an ABT® Affiliate Teacher, who has successfully completed the ABT® Teacher Training Intensive in Primary through Level 7 and Partnering of the ABT® National Training Curriculum, and has successfully presented students for examinations.
She has lectured the ABT/NYU Master candidates on starting a dance studio. She is most grateful for her teachers who gave and (in the case of ABT® Curriculum) give her the exceptional tools necessary to have had a performance career and the opportunity to train others in authentically. She also feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to dance with and learn from many exceptional dancers.
Please note that any and all contributor posts on 4dancers are the opinion of the guest dance professional and are not researched or fact-checked by 4dancers.