Ririe-Woodbury: Of choreography and contracts

As artistic director plans her exit, the question becomes: Who controls the dances that she leaves behind?
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As Charlotte Boye-Christensen prepares to step down as artistic director of Ririe Woodbury Dance Company, the question arises: Who has ownership and control over the choreography she produced while an employee?

The parting is amicable, yet company managing director Jena Woodbury and Boye-Christensen are playing it close to the vest on the details of the exit contract.

Boye-Christensen wants control over which of her dance works continue to represent her in the company's repertoire. "I'm not interested in a legacy," she said. "I want to remain current and relevant. I know better than anyone which of my works stand the test of time, and it's important to me that those continue to be the ones I am associated with."

On behalf of the nonprofit company, Woodbury offered this: "This is not something we wish to discuss at this time."

History hasn't been kind to choreographers who don't protect their work legally well before creating it. The term "works for hire" springs up often in legal fights over copyright of dance works. One of the most famous legal battles was brought by Martha Graham's heir, Ron Protas, for the rights to her work. Although Graham left her work to Protas in her will, the courts ruled that Graham's company owns all but two of her dances, finding that she choreographed them as "works for hire."

In 2007, the daughter of another Graham veteran, Sophie Maslow, was in the United States Court of Manhattan fighting for control of her mother's work. Maslow died in 1996 at the age 95. Two other plaintiffs in this complicated three-pronged suit argue "that the dances' value depends on performances that maintain the original artistic standards."

Clearly when and where the work was imagined and created defines ownership, as is true with any intellectual property rights discussion. But artistic integrity is a little slipperier, and so legal experts say that contracts and legal issues should become part of the artistic process.

George Balanchine, the most recognized ballet choreographer of the 20th century, died in 1983. In 1987, the George Balanchine Trust was established to protect and preserve his work. To apply for a license to perform one of the approximately 75 currently active Balanchine ballets requires a written request detailing the size, structure and budget of the organization, and a detailed video recording of the company's work. In addition, the company must agree to hire a Balanchine-approved repetiteur to stage and rehearse the work. After those materials are submitted, the Trust helps select which ballet will be licensed.

Merce Cunningham, the most recognizable name in modern dance, announced a specific legacy plan for his work. He and the Cunningham Dance Foundation had developed a three-year plan, which included a farewell tour, career transitions for company dancers, musician and staff, and a digital "Dance Capsule" to present Cunningham's work to future generations. In addition, Cunningham set up a trust to preserve his artistic legacy. The plan was announced in June 2009, and Cunningham died in July.

Boye-Christensen said she began working as a choreographer at the age of 21 in her home country of Denmark, where she was part of a union with lawyers who checked over contracts as part of the artistic process. After having worked as a choreographer nationally and internationally, she isn't naive about contracts.

"I think I came in with a specific motivation and purpose," said of Boye-Christensen of her decade-long stint as artistic director of Ririe-Woodbury, "and it didn't include an exit."