on beyoncé (lady gaga & madonna) stealing choreography, plagiarism, and ownership/copyright issues and that lil' film called lemonade

so this is the third time that beyoncé has been accused of stealing choreography which reminds me of my lessons in comedia del arte & learning the rule of threes: that things that come in threes are more satisfying or more effective and likelier to be remembered, and possibly get a laugh. having three re-occurrences of the same thing creates a brief rhythm and is the smallest number needed to establish a pattern.  in comedy the rule of three can be used to establish and then break a rhythm or create a surprise from the expectation created by the two repeats leaving the third to create the punchline. 

being the third time that bey is under the gun for lifting moves, with the preceding two times including belated confessions where she's admitted that she was "inspired by” the particular artist she was accused of stealing from, but only after the fact, she has never admitted to plagiarism and why should she? because this is dance and that my friends is the punchline.

let us be thoughtful and let us consider… 

art begets art, we often hear the phrase “it's all been done before”, art is recycled, and recyclable and art is inspired by art. so...in the art of dance if someone takes a style and remounts that style, is it stealing?  if someone takes moves, and mixes them into a new sequence, is it plagiarism? does plagiarism only refer to writing? is a dance a form of writing? is dance a form that inherently breeds the art of "stealing"?

dances are not usually copyright protected, aside from the new wave of exercise workouts like ZUMBA®. dance is easily lifted and the field of dance has historically existed upon the master/mentor relationship, where dancers study with great choreographers to then go on and make dance based on that choreographer’s style. in fact, we count on that, as a badge in the field, “she danced for ailey, he danced for cunningham, they danced with twyla, she was with pina for 20 years” and so on.  so how do we even begin to say that something is plagiarized if the field functions on the passing of physical information based on the promise of referencing those who it was passed from and to? and how can we complain of stealing or plagiarism if the dance was never copyright protected or trademarked? writers, inventors, big corporations, all have trademarks, patents, wga #'s and copyright on their assets. yet dance does not.  and so you may wonder, can a dance be copyright protected? 

choreography can be copyright protected if it is an original piece that is then transferred to video or film, or if the piece is transferred as a precisely written notation of the choreography into text or spoken onto tape. choreography that has not been made into a fixed form is not eligible for copyright protection. a copyrighted dance can be used as fair use, "Fair use allows for limited personal and educational use, so that people may perform your dance in their own homes and in other arenas covered by limited personal and educational use. However, if you copyright your choreography, others cannot sell the dance or claim it as their own creation."

For more on how to copyright a dance:  http://info.legalzoom.com/copyright-choreography-23618.html

let's go further into the world of social dance, as my colleague d. sabela grimes calls it. hip hop is based off of watching and stealing, re-appropriating or re-styling moves, as is rhythm tap dance and several forms dating back to vaudeville, such as sand dance and some forms of eccentric dancing. traditional west african dances have steps that are learned by the village and then performed as solo in the cypher with embellishment, flourishes and augmentation that set each person apart and authentically translate as the dancer’s spirit, or interpreted expression of the step. in these forms do we complain of stealing? sometimes...

in the 80's my jazz teacher would teach us moves from all the popular music videos from the newly birthed MTV.  she would make dances using these moves that we would perform to copyright protected music by madonna, at my studio’s annual dance concert which people paid money to come watch. she, my studio and the theater could have faced several fines due to copyright infringement for not paying for the rights to the music that was being played in the ticketed show. but since it was a small town, nothing happened. this is the climate and attitude towards music and dance moves that i was indoctrinated into as a young dancer.

years later as i began studying at ucla, and started to learn about getting the rights for music for use on stage, in theater and film. now i am teaching my students at nyu about what can and cannot be used musically in their multi media dance work for stage due to copyright rules that theaters must adhere and for tracks in their dance films which the trolls on youtube will pull the sound off a video if it is rights protected. it is indeed a bit of a farce. but it is also a little r in a circle, ® that makes all the difference.

and it is big vs. small. 

i worked on a music video a few years back that was directed by a dear friend of mine.  it was a passion project, meaning most of us were working on the project for free or a very low fee. we created a beautiful video that we were all very proud of. the key guise of the video had the singer coming out of a large dresser and was inspired by a play the director had seen by charlie chaplain's grand daughter. the director was inspired by a scene that had multiple arms and legs coming out of a dresser drawer.  he adapted this concept for a music video that i choreographed. the choreography was nothing like the stage version, the only thing that was a match was that we used a dresser that had arms and legs coming out of it.  we were approached by chaplain's lawyer and given a cease and desist document that demanded we take the video down. this legal action was based on the director of the play’s claim that her “intellectual property” was being "stolen" by us.  we had no choice but to pull the video.  this beautiful piece of work that we put so much time, effort, passion and our own money into, would never be shared with the world. we were the little guys and could not afford to hire lawyers to fight this. so we subsided. we had no choice, we had no power, we had no money.  but i still wonder if what we did was hers to claim? we didn't remount the actual piece from her play. we just used the dresser, a prop, and had arms and legs coming out of it. we actually took the idea/concept further.  and yes it was a concept that came from her play. but where did it come from for her? did she see something that sparked the idea? is there someone else that could sue her? if we were to get into lawsuits every time someone sees something that inspires an artistic idea, would art be able to progress? do original ideas exist? these days anyone could claim that your idea was their idea.  and even for me, there's an image from a film that i based one of my short films off of. i am not going to mention that film's name here, because, well, you know...

another music video i worked on as assistant director in partnership with Cut Chemist, a friend from my college days, who's track My First Big Break  was graciously given to us by the artist to make a music video for.  little did we know, or did lucas know that the music company that repped him at the time had to approve this use, and when they found out about the video they pulled the track off of youtube and told lucas that the video was not allowed to use the song.  this led him to leave this lable and move on to a more supporting and collaborative label that he is still with today. based on the action he took and the quality of the piece, the video had a very successful run.

this all brings to mind lady gaga and madonna. i recall, as lady gaga made her rise, i would watch her music videos and think, damn, she's totally ripping off madonna right now. to be fair lady gaga and madonna have gone back and forth on "stealing" issues. 

most recently madonna was "pissed" at gaga for stealing her music, specifically in the song "born this way" whose similarity to "express yourself" is undeniable. 

and then there was that fucked up video that lady gaga did in 2010, telephone, that features beyoncé. this was the video that first sparked my questions of similarity between what gaga was doing and what madonna had already done.  

and madonna is no innocent herself. she's been accused of plagarism by fairuz, the lebanese singer who sued madonna for 2.5 m on the madonna album "erotica" that allegedy samples the "el yom ulliqa alla kashaba" by fairuz on the 1962 album "good friday eastern sacred songs".

On November 18, 2005, a Belgian judge seated in Mons ruled that the opening four-bar theme to Madonna's "Frozen" was plagiarized from the song "Ma vie fout le camp", composed by Salvatore Acquaviva of Mouscron. 

she was accused of stealing her vogue look from an homage of hollywood iconic images, accused of stealing the cone bra from betty page, accuse of stealing the haircut of jean seaberg for her gamine look in pappa don't preach. more examples can be found here in the ultimate madonna queen of plagarism list.

but let's get back to beyoncé

the first accusation of stealing choreography was for her "single ladies" video.  bob fosse was the choreographer which she later admitted to being"inspired" by. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-SlfHHd3qI

she was lucky in the first round.  bob fosse was dead and the family was not interested in taking any legal action. 

in 2011 beyoncé was accused for a second time of stealing choreography, but the language had changed, she was accused of “plagiarism”, for her video, "countdown" which lifted choreography from anna terese de keersmaker's pieces "rosas danst rosas" 1983 and "achterland" 1990. 

once again, bey issued a statement that admitted she was "inspired" by the performance "rosas danst rosas". 

as a response to the situation, anna terese de keersmaker, the choreographer made this statement:

"Like so many people, I was extremely surprised when I got a message through Facebook about the special appearance of my two choreographies – Rosas danst Rosas (1983) and Achterland (1990) in Beyoncé’s new videoclip Countdown. I was asked if I were now selling out Rosas into the commercial circuit…When I saw the actual video, I was struck by the resemblance of Beyoncé’s clip not only with the movements from Rosas danst Rosas, but also with the costumes, the set and even the shots from the film by Thierry De Mey. Obviously, Beyoncé, or the video clip director Adria Petty, plundered many bits of the integral scenes in the film, which the videoclip made by Studio Brussel by juxtaposing Beyoncé‘s video and the Rosas danst Rosas film gives a taste of. But this videoclip is far from showing all materials that Beyoncé took from Rosas in Countdown. There are many movements taken from Achterland, but it is less visible because of the difference in aesthetics. People asked me if I’m angry or honored. Neither, on the one hand, I am glad that Rosas danst Rosas can perhaps reach a mass audience which such a dance performance could never achieve, despite its popularity in the dance world since 1980s. And, Beyoncé is not the worst copycat, she sings and dances very well, and she has a good taste! On the other hand, there are protocols and consequences to such actions, and I can’t imagine she and her team are not aware of it. To conclude, this event didn’t make me angry, on the contrary, it made me think a few things. Like, why does it take popular culture thirty years to recognize an experimental work of dance? A few months ago, I saw on Youtube a clip where schoolgirls in Flanders are dancing Rosas danst Rosas to the music of Like a Virgin by Madonna. And that was touching to see. But with global pop culture it is different, does this mean that thirty years is the time that it takes to recycle non-mainstream experimental performance? And, what does it say about the work of Rosas danst Rosas? In the 1980s, this was seen as a statement of girl power, based on assuming a feminine stance on sexual expression. I was often asked then if it was feminist. Now that I see Beyoncé dancing it, I find it pleasant but I don’t see any edge to it. It’s seductive in an entertaining consumerist way. Beyond resemblance there is also one funny coincidence. Everyone told me, she is dancing and she is four months pregnant. In 1996, when De Mey‘s film was made, I was also pregnant with my second child. So, today, I can only wish her the same joy that my daughter brought me."
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
October 10th, 2011

a very humble response to a very clear lifting of material. 

most recently,  beyoncé is once again being accused of stealing choreography, this time her "formation tour" choreography is said to be stolen from fuerza bruta's de la guarda"  and "el descueve" El DescueveEl Descueveel show. the claim was made by dancer marilyn ortiz a professional dancer and trainer to madonna who performed in these shows. ortiz wrote on an instagram post that scorns bey for stealing from breakingsurface and from fuerza, and goes on to say it is ok to be inspired, "but at least make the effort to make it your own. #hideyoureightcount #hideyourwater #hideallfrombeyonce" Ortiz writes, “You stole from @breakingsurface you stole the stomping from #delaguarda @fuerzabrutanyc.” She continues to say it’s okay to be inspired, but urges Bey to “at least make the effort to make it your own.” The snarky hashtags that follow read “#hideyourideas #hideyoureightcount #hideyourwater #hideallfrombeyonce.” Ortiz writes, “You stole from @breakingsurface you stole the stomping from #delaguarda @fuerzabrutanyc.” She continues to say it’s okay to be inspired, but urges Bey to “at least make the effort to make it your own.” The snarky hashtags that follow read “#hideyourideas #hideyoureightcount #hideyourwater #hideallfrombeyonce.”  Ortiz writes, “You stole from @breakingsurface you stole the stomping from #delaguarda @fuerzabrutanyc.” She continues to say it’s okay to be inspired, but urges Bey to “at least make the effort to make it your own.” The snarky hashtags that follow read “#hideyourideas #hideyoureightcount #hideyourwater #hideallfrombeyonce.” Ororooooaosdiruor

in 2009 bey saw the show and was seen in the audience learning choreography while watching the performance. the show being an interactive experience, allows for people to dance along with the performance, and encourages the audience to photograph, film and share that material through social media. and beyoncé took full advantage of this, as now this "stolen" choreography and set design is incorporated into her formation tour. 

you see her quote below and video here on instagram

@marlynortiz “I’m sorry I don’t bash artist! But I respect fellow creative artist...and don’t like to use social media to promote some thing that can be perceived as negativity... BUT @beyonce you have the nerve to steal exact concepts n choreography from other real creative genius.. You stole from @breakingsurface you stole the stomping from #delaguarda @fuerzabrutanyc it’s ok to be inspired but at least make the effort to make it your own..
Also crazyhorseparis_official the saddle scene!! Let’s keep it real people!!! #hideyourideas #hideyoureightcount #hideyourwater #hideallfrombeyonce #respectartist #breakingsurface #fuerzabrutanyc #delaguarda @gwynethlarsen @wmulholland AND PROPS TO MY FRIENDS THAT DID THE AERIAL!! Thanks @craigsmithnyc for the edit! Loll

what's interesting to me is that beyoncé's main choreographer, frank gatson, is never attacked or criticized for plagiarism, even though he is the one doing the actual choreography.   

there are so many accusations of madonna, beyoncé and lady gaga stealing looks, songs and ideas, that the list is too long to share here.

this all makes me wonder, is this perhaps a symptom of fame, the symptom of a talented female performance artist paired with great entrepreneurial spirit?  or is this a symptom of a field that is uncomfortable with credit not being noted upfront when inspired by another artist? is this attack angled in the right direction? is it the artist themselves who is responsible when they tell their creative team that they are inspired by a certain artist's work? and further, who is doing the actual ripping off? the choreographer? the performer? or is it the performance itself, the filmed version of the dance that is the culprit?

where do we draw the line and is there a line to be drawn? when a show like fuerza brands itself in immersive interactive participatory style theater, is that a doorway to invite the audience to feel that the material is a shared experience that it is repurpose-able and perhaps now theirs to do with as they please? when i saw the show in 2015, i felt that way.  i took photos, videos, and posted them all over the internet. and the company supported that by liking the photos and tagging the show on instagram. if i can take an image from a show and put it out there, what’s the difference if i take some of the choreography? 

in the music world, people are influenced by other artists all the time. janis joplin had a long list of influences that included tina turner, odetta, aretha franklin, billie holiday, bessie smith, big mama thorton, leadbelly and she proudly stated that she was a huge fan of otis redding who she saw at the fillmore in 1966. seeing him transformed janis, she took on his movement style, and learned from him "how to push a song instead of just sliding over it", after she saw him she stated "i started singing rhythmically", and she started using his repetitive style of singing "baby baby baby" "gotta gotta gotta" as her own. without her influences, janis would have never become janis... 

we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.

i believe that bey was telling the truth about being inspired by these different artists. and isn’t it flattering to be referenced in the lineage of art. it is the sign of a true artist to look to their elders and their inspirations when creating new work. it is what we all do. 

but in our field the reference comes prior to the dance. and perhaps this is where beyoncé has failed. it is not until after the fact, after the accusations fly, that she names the artist and admits to being inspired by them. she could do a better job of acknowledging her inspirations. 

beyoncé, lady gaga and madonna all draw from and draw attention to other choreographers and artists by stealing, lifting, borrowing, or as beyoncé says "being inspired" by.  she renews attention and brings new audiences to older works. and that, is beneficial. in the end, as is said, all press is good press, even if it's bad.  perhaps this is the philosophy that beyoncé is banking on when she lifts choreography. that it is so good it is worth being shared in front of a very large audience who have most likely not been exposed yet to the material. and isn’t that a gift?

i would love for beyoncé to repurpose my viral video "are you for real?" in fact i invite her to.  

so go on girl, get it while you can...

her new visual album, lemonade is in one word, fierce. the film is filled with stunning visuals, deep poetry, solid music, costumes on fleek, tight choreography, rhythmic precision, female black power references from start to finish and beyoncé on fire moving though it all.

she is a champion. and she is a badass.

my favorite thing about lemonade is that there is not a single white person in it. with the current black lives matter movement and oscars too white dialogue it is without doubt a powerful and empowering choice. good job b. 

based on lemonade, i will say that beyoncé is a brilliant artist and quite a savy business woman to say the least. although i’ve been a fan from afar, admiring a music video here or there, i’ve never purchased any of her music until lemonade. the reason i did was because i wanted to see the film, referred to as a visual album, which as a customer you could only get if you bought the entire album.

and it worked.

her release of the mysterious album was fueled by social media. the film premiered on HBO april 23, 2016 and was a home theater delight to fans across the country who gathered in HBO houses and tweeted, instagramed and facebooked the shit out of it. 

the hot story that surrounded the visual album focused on beyoncé and jay z's relationship, which is the surface topic of the narrative. but just like octavia butler the first published black woman used the scope of sci-fi to talk about race and gender, i see beyoncé using her personal relationship to comment upon universal issues specifically that black women confront alongside broader issues that all women face. based on that, she is a true feminist and a brilliant artist. 


it's bey's third accusation, she's successfully established a pattern, that perhaps she's not going to break. artists like beyoncé, gaga and madonna don’t need to follow the rules as much as they need to break them in order to draw attention and allow a conversation to emerge around these topics so that the world can re-evaluate and perhaps shift our perspectives on the boundaries of old and the wild frontier set by the rise of the internet and effects of globalization.

and then there’s china. china doesn’t give a shit.