Ownership and Appropriation in Dance Creation:  A Process of Trial and Error and Collaborative Minds

Yoko Demelius

Yoko Demelius

PhD candidate, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Email: ydemelius@gmail.com

Introduction

The ideas of ‘authenticity,’ ‘appropriation’ and ‘ownership’ are highly elusive in a performing art production of ballet and contemporary theatrical dance.  A dancing career involves far more than a simple presentation of choreography to the audience.  Individuals in the dance world not only constantly contemplate such notions, but they are also highly affected by those ideas during the course of their careers.  The notions such as ‘authenticity’ ‘appropriation’ and ‘ownership’ in fact most directly concern individuals’ career choices and decisions, and issues that surround these notions are the most crucial elements in understanding professional dancers’ lives and motivational factors. 

How do individuals in the dance world come into contact with such notions?  First of all, the nature of dancers’ creative practice constantly questions the ‘ownership’ of the dance.  Even if there is a designated choreographer who initiates a choreographic creation, the choreographer more often than not finds inspirational sources in the quality of movement of individuals who perform the piece.  This is especially relevant to the process of creation.  Secondly, dance professionals’ careers often call for an understanding of the fine balance between the presented ‘ownership’ in performance on the one hand, and appropriations of a choreographer’s ‘authentic’ ideas on the other hand.  Just like a musical score, a created choreographic piece is individually interpreted by those who perform the piece.  Each individual’s subjective interpretations and experience of a dance piece influences his/her expressions and executions in the piece.  This particularly concerns performances on stage and in-studio rehearsals where dancers are expected to have a high degree of the ‘ownership’ of the dance.

Based on empirical data collected between 2002 and 2008 in a contemporary dance company in Canada, a neoclassical ballet company in Switzerland, and other dance projects in both countries, the following paragraphs will discuss examples of ballet dancers’ creation processes and demonstrate how creative practice allows individuals to experience a strong sense of agency with shared ownership and ‘authenticity.’  The fluidity of roles in a dancing career in which one is often involved in both performing and creating also reflects on the elusive notion of ‘ownership’ in the dance world.1

Dance ‘Material’ and the Concept of ‘Authenticity’

A process of dance creation involves multiple forces of appropriation.  It is a highly intensive process, which demands participants’ full attention of their mental faculties, emotional responses, and physical instincts.  Although there exist designated roles of choreographers and dancers, creative ideas are collaboratively thrown and bounced back in a dance creation process between those who choreograph and perform in the piece.  Since individuals’ artistic intentions and collaborations are the ultimate source of dance production, socio-cultural attributes such as nationality, ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds are virtually non-existent among members of the dance world.  Moreover, gender matters only in terms of the context of a choreographic frame, and very little gender politics is seen in the dance world.  Today, the choreographic trends also challenge the notion of gender, and many choreographic movements in modern dance are designed to be gender-neutral.  The core interests of dance professionals’ creative practice lie in constant negotiations between movements that derive from an accidental outcome or from individual dancers’ interpretations and a carefully planned framework that is introduced by a choreographer.  As many dance professionals express, the experiential as well as the experimental nature of a creation process is in fact the most stimulating motivational factor for dancers’ career choices.

There are numerous ways in which a choreographer creates a piece.  It is generally understood in the dance world that a choreographer expresses specific ‘moods, emotions, ideas, visions, feelings, a state of mind, and an atmosphere.’  Before ideas are made into a series of coherent movements, choreographers must first construct a rough frame, sketch or message.  This is a process of what dance professionals call ‘gathering material.’ 

Many choreographers employ music as a source of inspiration.  In the performing art of dance where dance and music are an inseparable unity, dancers collaboratively ‘work with’ music as opposed to the common idea of one dancing to the music.  Individuals’ sensitivities to music, which is referred to as ‘musicality,’ are considered one of the most important skill requirements in professional dance.  In addition to the technical proficiency that is required in the professional dance field, dancers are also trained to interpret the characteristics of a musical piece from an early age.  Dancers often refer this to ‘ear training,’ and it is a large part of their training regimen.  Since dance professionals perform and create a choreographic piece in relation to a musical piece, one’s aptitude to understand a musical piece’s structural patterns, articulations, texture, nuances, and expressive nature directly influences his/her capacity to perform and create.  Professionals occupy themselves with methods and magnitudes in which they demonstrate their understanding of music in a visibly clear form, and such concerns equally apply to both choreographers and dancers.  Consequently, interpretive process and collaboration with music in professional dance is highly intellectually and artistically demanding. 

After hours and hours of listening to a musical piece, choreographers draw characteristics of the music into a set of movements.  For some choreographers, the direct outcome of their interpretations of a musical piece is expressed in a form of choreography:

YD:                            
‘How do you choreograph?’

Choreographer:          
‘I listen to the music.  I listen to it over and over and movements will come into my head…usually.’ 

YD:                            
‘Does that make you move physically?’

Choreographer:          
‘No, usually not.  I listen to the music, and the movement will appear in my head…Sometimes I think I should stand and try out…to improvise myself.  So I get more movement in my choreographies.  But usually, I listen to the music, and movements come to my head; I see them (in my head).’ 


A process of finalising a choreographic piece actually happens in studio sessions with dancers; however, the above choreographer develops an overall frame with a musical piece.  A non-dancer’s perspective of ‘dance as a physical activity’ that is featured in my second question is also denied in the above choreographer’s comment.  As many dancers mention, as they develop to become professionals, their occupation with the intellectual aspect of dance increasingly outweighs the physical element of their practice.  Therefore, dancers’ motivations in a dancing career accordingly have a direct link to their intellectual practice.  The choreographer Doug Varone alternatively states:

…I use often when listening to a score: actively trying to pencil draw the lines of energy that I am hearing.  I enjoy a beautiful spontaneous response when I do this and I am always fascinated by the chaotic visual in front of me.  Invariably, within that chaos there is organisation and ideas that pop out and make themselves very visually apparent.  I follow those instincts when I am creating the dance’s structure (2009: 12). 

As stated above, an active involvement in ‘listening’ to the music is one of the common techniques in gathering dance material. 

Alternatively, other choreographers throw an idea or theme to a group of dancers, and dancers improvise movements.  Every dancer has a different physique, individual interpretations and personal expressions, which lead to his or her special ‘quality of movement.’  Although they may be in an elementary form, movements that are born in an improvisation session can inspire the choreographer, and provide him/her with a variety of ideas and ‘material’ to work with.  The choreographer’s talent, then, depends on how much interesting material s/he can identify in such a session, and transform it into a coherent series of movements, kinaesthetic phrases, and eventually into a conceptually complete production piece. 

An improvisation session is a pinnacle of creative practice in the professional dance world.  The very notions of ‘appropriation’ and ‘authenticity’ intertwine with each other: while the choreographer leads a session by encouraging dancers to explore their movements and ‘unknown’ sensations, the newly discovered sensations and movements are essentially ‘authentic’ to the participating dancers.  Here again, music is usually used as an important tool in an improvisation session.  This time, however, dancers’ musicality and musical responses are the inspirational sources for the choreographer who develops the frame of a choreographic piece.  Although the designated choreographer literally constructs a production piece, the dance essentially ‘belongs to the dancers’ as many choreographers express.  A choreographer commented on her work-philosophy and the ‘ownership’ of dance:

"It has to be pleasurable to perform.  They should enjoy what they do.  I have to make them happy.  I feel responsible for their growth and experience.  It requires a lot of open-mindedness to create…it is an interesting process to see what comes out of it…and it’s important for the dancers to take ownership of their dance.  I don’t like to use this term, but I would like to ‘empower’ them"
(in Demelius 2003: 111).

The style of creation and work-philosophy may differ from one choreographer to the next.  However, it is generally understood that dancers who perform a choreographic piece have the ‘ownership’ of the dance, since the experience and expressions of the dance are ‘authentic’ to those who perform the piece.  As mentioned earlier, each individual’s dancing experience and interpretation of a piece is unique.  In other words, each individual’s interpretation is ‘authentic’ and valid in dance production.  Then the next question will naturally be how dance professionals understand the notion of ‘ownership.’  The following section will elaborate on the notion of ‘ownership.’ 

Margins of Interpretations and ‘Ownership’

One of the most prominent characteristics of dance creation is that notions of ‘ownership’ and ‘authenticity’ are shared and reciprocal: they are neither confused with each other nor lost in creative practice.  The positions of ‘creators’ and ‘performers’ lie rather on the initiating roles in dance creation, instead of being based upon the divided ownership and the authenticity of creative ideas.  Therefore, despite the collaborative efforts between a choreographer and dancers, the status of the choreographer as the ‘creator’ of a piece is tacitly acknowledged among dancers, and this concept does not interfere with having the ‘ownership of the dance’ in dancers’ perspectives when performing.  A dancer communicated the experience of dancing with a clear presence of the creator in her mind:

I absolutely adore [her] work.  (By performing what she creates) I feel her energy so much…all over my body, my heart, my mind…I feel her energy force, where it wants to go, her driving force, and where it is going next, and after that…
(in Demelius 2003: 71).

The comment above indicates an intricate interaction and sharing between the notions of ‘appropriation’ and ‘authenticity.’  Since the interpretive aspect of creation is individual, dancers hold a strong sense of agency when performing.  The dance educator and choreographer Press asserts the importance of the exploratory and self-expressive nature of a dancing career (2000: 100), and indeed, many dancers seem to claim that the exploratory and self-expressive characteristics are one of the most rewarding aspects of the career for both creating and performing.  In the professional dance world, such interactions and collaborations are highly expected and encouraged.  A choreographer’s statement in the following highlights this point:

I don’t like to dance my own choreographies, because there is no exchange (of ideas) with anybody.  As a dancer, I like exchanges (of ideas) with the choreographer, and as a choreographer, […] with the dancers…You need to bounce your own ideas. 

Even when a choreographer may have a planned framework when creating, the aforementioned interactions and collaborations of ideas between the choreographer and dancers do not cease to exist.  The power of inspiration works both ways: dancers may be inspired by the choreographer, and vice versa.  This is the reason why a choreographer often creates a piece for specific individuals, when s/he recognises a distinctive quality of movement, musicality and interpretative skill in certain individuals.  Thus, a professional dance career requires more than an excellent set of technical skills: it also requires one’s abilities to interpret and express, which are often referred to as ‘artistic skills.’  It is an ultimate goal for a dancer to integrate the technical and artistic skills, which Khudaverdian refers to as the process of ‘becoming the dance’ (1998: 41).

Even in a creation process with a ready-set frame, it is very rare that a set of choreography is single-handedly ‘taught’ to dancers.  Instead, a choreographer guides dancers through a session by explaining general ideas, verbalising and showing ‘intended’ movements in front of a mirror.  The rest of the process often proceeds by trial-and-error, and dancers realise and define the choreographer’s visions.  Instead of simply mimicking a presented movement in the mirror reflection, it is repeatedly executed, experienced and rationalised by those who take part in the creation session.  The aforementioned significance of individuals’ musicality also plays an important role in the process.  An intended movement is performed over and over until it takes shape into a more complete and organic whole.  A small section of choreography, which only lasts a few minutes in a finalised piece, can often take hours of such intensive negotiations and creation in the studio.  The ideas such as ‘making the choreographer’s visions into a 3D format’ or ‘making an idea into ‘reality’’ are ubiquitous in dance professionals’ discourses.  In the following comment, the concept of shared ‘ownership’ and ‘authenticity’ is expressed in terms of the level of ‘contribution’ and responsibility when developing a dance piece:

I believe that the choreographer’s contribution is 50%, and the dancers’ contribution is 50%.  That makes it a complete 100%…If you look at a painting, and if you take out lines, shapes…then you only have some colours left.  It’s the same thing in choreography…it’s the dancers who define the work, and the choreographer puts only some of the work (the narrator’s emphases). 

This example clearly shows that dance production strongly relies on dance professionals’ collaborative efforts.  Importantly, the process of mutual inspirations often reflects on a healthy power distribution between those who perform and create.

The collaborative nature of dance creation is also experimental and experiential at the same time.  After a creation session, a choreographer comments on his work of the day in the studio:
There are no recipes.  There are just three of us there.  I’m more of a coordinator, but the material is there.  Basically it comes from music…You have to find a movement in the very moment.  It’s so beautiful to move in this moment.  Fast, fast, fast…then what is happening?  I don’t know, but there!…We have to line the floor, there is a jump, there is a lift…then how you reach this point depends on the work in the studio…I don’t go so much into ‘what is the next step?’ or ‘what next?’…
The above statement signifies how the moments of ‘experience’ are important to this choreographer.  Another choreographer makes a statement about how experimental and spontaneous a creation process can be:

I have a few ‘stations’ of ideas.  It’s not so much of a sequential process… I don’t like to analyse too much, because words and language are not enough.  I have ‘stations’ and I try to reach them.  Once I start to work, then I visualise them.  I want [the dancers] to look at each other…or I want them to ignore each other…touch each other…I have these ‘stations.’  It never goes as I imagine completely, because things don’t quite work out as you thought, but I’m quite open for adjustments.  If you think positive, you always see nice things. 

As indicated above, the process of trial-and-error, as well as collaborations between the creator and dancers are an important component of choreographic creation. 

The notion of ‘authenticity’ becomes even more contentious when a ‘completed’ artwork is interpreted by individual performers, since two dancers will never dance the same choreography in an identical way.  Strictly speaking, even the same dancer will not perform the same dance piece in an exactly identical way each time.  The ephemeral nature of performing art, therefore, often gives opportunities for expressing individuals’ agency, and at the same time it becomes a source of challenge for individuals in dance production.

Such a strong sense of agency in ‘margins of interpretations’ is expressed by a dancer through the idea of what she believes to be her responsibility as a dancer:  

…it’s also the dancers who should make the choreography organic for themselves.  It should be their work…You have to adopt it to your body, to your soul, to your…everything (the narrator’s emphasis). 

The above comment strongly highlights the concept of ‘ownership’ in dance.  Another dancer similarly states the purpose of a collaborative creation, which evokes the process of ‘appropriation’ by dancers:

The basic movements are from his ideas, but I took away some movements and I cleaned it, and I made it for my own….that’s the interesting part, no?  That’s the point.  You interpret what others want you to do…How can we learn if we don’t go further, to build something on what is already given?  Otherwise, it’s not ‘you’ on stage.  You have to make it for yourself.

As suggested in the above comment, the idea of ‘doing what you’re told to do’ for the sake of doing it is highly frowned upon in the professional dance world.  Dancers are expected to present their own interpretations and the ownership of the dance. 

Furthermore, the force of control hardly compromises individuals’ creativity in the dance world.  Mastering of the artistic convention in its artistic frame is an absolute requirement to pursue a dancing career, and only those with a solid disciplinary background are accepted as professionals among members.  In such an environment where one strives to have perfect control of their artistic executions, one’s increased control over his/her own instrument equates more freedom for one’s self-expression and creativity.  By working with an inspirational choreographer, many dancers benefit from learning a new plateau of their own artistic expressions, and in return, dancers stimulate the choreographer’s creativity.  Thus, it is a common belief in the dance world that a daily training regime is there for dancers to maintain and to gain ‘control’ over their artistic capacities.  A creative contribution is only possible due to one’s possession of the fundamental knowledge and convention of a domain (Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 47), and a creative act is a process of calculation, analysis and decision (Menger 2006: 44).  Many dancers claim that a fascination of dance creation is to explore and to build upon the existing artistic convention; otherwise it would simply become ‘uncontrolled passion’ (ibid.), which dance professionals tend to denigrate.  

As we have seen, a choreographic creation is fundamentally a product of a collaborative process, and the hierarchies of ‘authenticity’ and ‘ownership’ often become blurred in practice.  A dancing career often involves all three activities: performing, choreographing, and teaching (Louis 2005: 1), and the inter-exchangeability of individuals’ roles such as ‘creators’ and ‘performers’ also reflects dancers’ mutual respect and responsibilities.  Moreover, the ephemeral nature of performance never allows an exact replication of an artwork.  Dance professionals often observe the absence of a clear notion of a ‘finished and identical product’ as ‘the beauty of dance,’ and ‘the beauty of what [they] do.’  A once-’completed’ work may reappear in theatres after a few decades and it is often re-worked and re-adjusted to those who perform in the piece.  ‘It evolves with the time’—many choreographers agree with this point.  A choreographer of a dance piece often enjoys the evolving processes that happen between the two separate time periods.  It again emphasises the elusive nature of ‘authenticity’ and the acknowledged shared ‘ownership’ in dance production. 

Conclusion

From the above examples, it is easy to comprehend that working with inspiring choreographers is a critical motivational factor for dancers.  Consequently, dancers attempt to find and work with stimulating choreographers, who give them opportunities for both personal and artistic growth.  One would often hear remarks in the dance world such as ‘the reason why I stay with the company is [the choreographer]’ ‘I want to work with him/her, so I move to such-and-such city.’  Dancers move from a company to the next, from country to country, even to a different continent, in order to search for growth opportunities; and they do so often with considerable financial and social sacrifices just to satisfy their intellectual aspirations. 

The degrees of appropriation and margins of interpretation seem to vary according to an individual dancer and choreographer.  However, a dance piece in the creator’s mind and each dancer’s interpretation are equally ‘authentic.’  Dancers and choreographers negotiate margins of interpretation in a creation process, and such negotiations, thus, crystallises the creative practice of dance professionals.  Ways of creative contributions may differ between those who ‘perform’ and ‘create.’  However, the beauty of a collaborative dance creation lies in each individual’s unique ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment’ that emerge in the process.  By sharing the ‘ownership’ of the dance, individuals in the dance world reinforce a shared sense of community.

Footnotes

1. It is common that dancers are involved in dance projects both inside and outside of their company contractual engagements.  A dance company often gives opportunities for dancers to present their own creations, and dancers are also active in various outside projects for performing, choreographing and teaching.  Once their performing careers end, many dancers try to move on to full-time choreographing, teaching or directing positions.   

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. 1st ed. New York, HarperCollins Publishers. 

Demelius, Y. (2003) Steps of a Dance Production: The Working Lives of Professionals at a Dance Company. M.A. thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. 

Khudaverdian, C. (1998) The Dancing Body. M.A. thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

Louis, M. (2005) The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique: A Philosophy and Method of Modern Dance. New York, Routledge.

Menger, P. (2006) Profiles of the Unfinished: Rodin’s Work and the Varieties of Incompleteness. In: Becker, H.S., Faulkner, R.R. and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (eds.) Art from Start to Finish: Jazz, Painting, Writing, and Other Improvisations. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. pp. 31-68.

Press, C.M. (2002) The Dancing Self: Creativity, Modern Dance, Self Psychology and Transformative Education. Cresskill, NJ, Hampton Press, Inc.

Varone, D. (2009) Scribblings. In: Rambert Dance Company: Sadler’s Wells Programme 12-16 May 2009. London, Rambert Dance Company. p.12.