Who owns a dance? Answering that requires careful deliberation, although, on the face of it, the question is really a no brainer. The choreographer, naturally! — would be the expected answer. But, it’s important to remember that dance by its very nature is an ephemeral work of art and in reality, it’s gone the very moment it has taken birth. Moreover it is the dancer who embodies a dance, thus giving it form and shape. So, wouldn’t it be fair to say that the dancer can lay claim of ownership as well?
Unlike a painting or a film or a book that remains steadfast through the end of time, as an enduring testament to the creator’s genius or the lack of it, a dance essentially lives only for such time as the dancer gives it life. Of course, videography has changed that forever and today, a choreographic creation can be immortalised too. Documenting dance has not been a diligent practice the world over although the West perhaps has fared much better in that department with a wealth of librettos, rehearsal notes, programme notes, newspaper reviews and illustrations of ballets dating back to the 19th century that give us a peek into the dance world of the time.
In 1928, Rudolf Laban from Germany came up with a notation system that described and analysed movement and helped document dances. Subsequently, the Dance Notation Bureau was born in 1940 that used the Laban notation to preserve choreographic works including those of George Balanchine, Jose Limon, Bill T Jones, etc.
The tradition of the arts in India, on the contrary, is founded upon the idea of manodharma (loosely translated as self-improvisation), which pushes the boundary for individual expression. Even if a dancer performs the choreography of a celebrated master or guru, she may add to it her own interpretations or little embellishments. It’s not surprising then that there wasn’t felt ever a compelling need to preserve a piece of choreography as is. However, one must give the devil its due. Government supported Doordarshan Archives and IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) are perhaps the only resource centres that house recorded performances of the biggest stars from the constellation of Indian classical dancers since the 1980s. All this is to say that unless a thing of beauty and transience such as dance is not made tangible then, claims of ownership and authenticity become difficult.
In 2011, a major controversy broke out over Beyonce’s choreography in her video for the song, ‘Countdown.’ Beyonce had plagiarised from the famous Belgian choreographer, Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s avant-garde ballets, namely Rosas Danst Rosas and Achterland. It was bemoaned that the pop star did not even have the grace to acknowledge the source of her inspiration. Videos of dances are now freely being uploaded by dancers and choreographers on YouTube. This could be a double-edged sword. While internet presence vouchsafes a certain recognition and eventual fame, it also carries the threat of theft. Live audiences are thinning and there is a natural desire among artistes to mine newer audiences, to reach out to the delicious promise of a global kinship. The easy availability of material online makes it easy for anyone to copy and imitate an entire piece, its original creator unaware.
When we speak of a dance, it is not just the actual physical act of movement in whatever form or style, but the entire package that includes the intellectual and aesthetic framework of the piece, ideas expressed, costuming, set design, music and then of course, the actual sum and substance of dancing. Unabashed stealing of intellectual property is a problem as old as the ages and also one that cannot be proven easily with incontrovertible proof. “I am copied every season. The colour of my costumes, the props I use, it goes on but I do very bold work with feminist tones and most dancers don’t venture in that area. I don’t really worry all that much anymore,” says Anita Ratnam, “Often, a ‘mudra here or a group pattern’ maybe tweaked a little bit thus making it very challenging to prove plagiarism,” she adds.
It is a challenge because the building blocks of dance are simple steps and steps aren’t necessarily owned by anyone; they are the communal property of the practitioners. As a Kuchipudi dancer, the thotu manga step or the kartari naatu step is as much mine as the next person’s. So how can I fault someone who may use the same tools in the shed as I do? Unless entire choreographies have been lifted without any attempt at disguise, in which case it would be an open-and-shut case, as it were, the only way plagiarism can be proven in the case of dance, is if certain iconic postures, or signature poses motifs that are indelibly linked to the theme of the presentation have been lifted as is and used elsewhere.
According to Dr. Jayaprada Ramamurthy, senior flautist from Hyderabad who studied copyright law in India with respect to music and dance for a research fellowship, unlike music, which has an established system of notation for a composition making it possible for a musician to lay uncontested claim to an original piece of work, no such system exists for Indian dance. She suggests that senior dancers from various forms got together and created a unique system of notation for each style much like Laban that would then make it easier for choreographies to be preserved as it were and prevent intellectual shoplifting.
The other trouble is, how would one even know if one’s work has been lifted? For Keersmaeker, Beyonce is a well-known entertainer and her brazen use of the former’s work came to light in no time. In obscure cases, one would definitely not know and in such cases, ignorance perhaps is bliss. If theft has been found out is there legal recourse for the victims?
According to Kshema Nadgir, a legal consultant from Mumbai, there is hope yet for dancers and choreographers. The Supreme Court in Academy of General Education, Manipal and Anr V. Malini Mallya (2009) has clarified that a ballet dance forms part of dramatic work as defined in section 2(h) of the Indian Copyright Act of 1957. The act also provides protection to a dancer if recordings of her performance are reproduced without her consent. However, copyright law of choreographic work is still in a fledgeling state. There are choreographers, who are copyrighting their works by applying to the Copyright Office, which falls under the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. Copyright of original dance choreography lasts for 60 years, counted from the year following the death of the author. The copyright owner’s remedy lies before the civil court in the event of a copyright infringement. Infringement is a cognizable and a non-bailable offence, which carries a penalty of up to three years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 2 lakhs.
Legal recourse notwithstanding, as Ananda Shankar Jayant, Bharatnatyam dancer and choreographer from Hyderabad, points out that today’s generation — raised on conformity, with easy access to technology — copies others irresponsibly and sometimes naively, sacrificing ‘artistic integrity’ at the altar of instant recognition. Now, how far is one willing to go to manipulate the truth to suit one’s own purposes? After all, art is nothing if it’s not honest. Truth is beauty and beauty truth. If in the bid to stay ahead in the race, one relinquishes truth itself, wouldn’t art be shorn of its beauty?