Bridge Over Troubled Water

We are lucky to be part of a group of people who can regularly attend ballet performances and who are exposed to a wide repertoire and various choreographers, but a huge percentage of dance fans around the globe are unable to do so, either because their location limits access to local or visiting ballet companies and/or because of cost. Add to that the fact that ballet on television is a rare event (for evidence one only needs to check the BBC4 programming for this autumn) and that DVDs are expensive and sometimes difficult to obtain outside North America and Europe. So how do these fans get their ballet fix?  In the past they would subscribe to magazines, buy illustrated books and hope to catch a live performance once in a while. Nowadays the web is their one stop shop.

Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. Photo: Anthony Crickmay / V&A Museum © Source: Vandaprints

Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. Photo: Anthony Crickmay / V&A Museum © Source: Vandaprints

Thanks to the web and its wealth of materials about companies, choreographers, evolution of technique, and legendary dancers from the past (footage of their performances are a constant source of learning and inspiration for today’s dancers)  breaking down geographical barriers and educating not only future dancers but also global dance audiences is becoming more practical and viable. In this context, tools like YouTube and other streaming video sharing websites are helping make ballet more democratic and accessible, despite their imperfections and drawbacks (for instance the delicate issue of copyright regulations).

In an ideal world, streaming video content would be broadcast directly from or with the blessing of the copyright owner but in reality the bulk of ballet videos on the internet has been uploaded by private collectors. Although there are several companies with a strong YouTube presence – see our Virtually There post -  if you are searching for ballet videos you will most likely fall upon filmed performances or broadcasts that might not even be part of official company archives (as is probably the case with rare footage of virtuoso dancers from the Soviet era) shared by individuals who in one way or another have obtained them.

Leaving aside the questions of intellectual property and copyright law for a moment, as well as the definition of “fair use”  – although we agree that  posting an entire ballet performance can hardly be categorised in such a way – it seems that commercial gain is not the driver for most of these YouTube users who share their content freely. Profit or not,  some will liken these actions to “stealing” since these  accounts are effectively broadcasting someone else’s work without permission or payment of royalties, both of which are impracticable for a private user. So in most cases the YouTube user will upload content anyway until the copyright owner, wishing to prevent its ballets to be copied (and staged by non authorized companies) or otherwise, objects and submits a claim to YouTube.

youtubeBut is it all bad news for the  copyright owner? On the flip side, YouTube provides an opportunity for free promotion of the arts. The BBC tolerates private users uploading their copyrighted material onto YouTube simply because they consider this generates more publicity and free marketing for them. The same logic could be applied to ballet and ballet companies. For instance, those who live far from the Royal Ballet or from any other major ballet company might be more likely to purchase a DVD or travel to see signature ballets such as MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet or Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardee if they can sample one or more extracts on YouTube first.

What could be done to conciliate both interests? Perhaps sharing video could in the future work like curatorships? As in the case of a private collector who will lend its Monet to be displayed by a museum where the public will have access to a rarely seen work, if one tweaked this concept (as here the “video owner” is not really the true owner and low quality image does not substitute real performance) and applied it to YouTube one could argue that the greater good is allowing art to be admired by everyone. Again, not everyone can afford a Monet or maybe have the opportunity of admiring it in person. But since it is an acknowledged masterpiece, shouldn’t it be fair for everyone to see it or on the least, have a taster/teaser?

Let us focus on a recent example. The YouTube Ketinoa channel contained over 1300 videos of Mariinsky & Bolshoi ballets, including extracts of rehearsals, Vaganova Academy examinations, class syllabus, new and vintage performances. Steering clear from the issue of who owns the copyright, this channel served as a film archive accessible to anyone wishing to further educate themselves or simply to enjoy great ballet extracts, with user comments largely praising its content. Last month this channel was suspended because it was found to contain a small subset of copyright protected videos featuring ballets by Balanchine. The claim was submitted on behalf of the Balanchine Trust, the body in charge of protecting the legacy of that choreographer. Assuming the channel owner received a notification asking for immediate removal of the offending videos, if he/she complied then the account could be re-activated, provided offending videos were not re-uploaded. But YouTube could also have pre-emptively suspended the account without notice to protect itself from any potential lawsuit, in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (US), which seems to have been the case with the Ketinoa channel, based on claims by ongoing campaigns to save it (see first link in this paragraph).

We think it is a shame that because of a small subset of videos a whole archive of Mariinsky/Bolshoi rare videos should vanish for good and it seems that petitioning is the only way for YouTube to re-establish the channel (minus offending videos of course). If you were a subscriber or a user of the Ketinoa channel and would like to see it restored you can write to copyright@youtube.com.

We acknowledge that ballet in YouTube is a delicate topic but we would like to invite discussion from all sides of the debate, so feel free to leave a comment here or weigh in via our Facebook & Twitter.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

9 Comments

  • [...] data through the internet. Just last year, a very popular YouTube ballet channel, Ketinoa, was suspended because of a Trust [...]

  • May 6, 2010

    Ballet Goes Web 2.0

    [...] While YouTube and such other video services as Vimeo and Yahoo!Video are the most direct way to experience the art away from the stage, they are also very problematic given the copyright issues they raise. Read our take on the YouTube & Ballet debate here. [...]

  • December 30, 2009

    Kool Thing « The Ballet Bag

    [...] Sanjoy Roy on How dance companies must embrace the internet The Guardian dance writer Sanjoy Roy picks up on the Ketinoa debate. [...]

  • September 27, 2009

    Julia Rhoads

    This is an interesting and important article, and I think dance artists in all genres need to consider the implications of putting work online, and also to have a better understanding of the relationship between dance and intellectual property.

    My company Lucky Plush Productions (contemporary dance theater) is amidst a project that explores this subject in depth. We created a project website http://www.StealThisDance.com (a play on Abbie Hoffman’s book Steal This Book) as a virtual stage for our ideas, and I would appreciate your thoughts.

    Although our website is quite playful in it’s varied explorations of a complex subject, I personally embrace the internet as a massive resource to educate and promote ourselves, and as a location to broaden our audiences.

    Stealing is never a good thing, but I think it might do us all some good to realize that we are being influenced by a multiplicity of ideas, images, and information all the time, and the individual ways that we synthesize it all into our personal art is what makes us distinct at the same time that it locates us all in a complex lineage. In many ways what is happening on the internet has always happened in art, but there has been a lack of scholarly writing about how it pertains to the dance field (outside of fairly extensive writing about cultural appropriation in dance).

    I welcome the conversation, and I think sampling and appropriation in the context of fair use (which may include commentary, education, transformation, proper citation, etc) can be a very powerful tool and prompt important exchanges.

    Thank you for the discussion!

    Julia Rhoads
    Artistic Director
    Lucky Plush Productions
    Lucky Plush Productions

  • September 27, 2009

    Frank

    “A student at my alma mater is teaching Serenade from labanotation score,…”

    When the Trust approves a production of a Balanchine work, it sends a balletmaster to supervise the staging personally. No need for tapes or CDs. When the Trust has not approved the use of Balanchine’s copyrighted work, the copyright infringers are not really in a position to complain. This may be a short-sighted approach to intellectual property, but it is the Trust’s approach.

  • September 15, 2009

    TaraDrive

    I agree with what you say. I, too, miss Ketinoa’s channel. While the Balanchine Trust got to Orwellian lengths to “protect” the works under its control, I think Ketinoa had his channel suspended because he started selling videos. That draws attention. I think many artistic directors might look the other way with pirated videos. But not if somebody is trying to profit by it. The Balanchine Trust makes channels take down videos. They DON’T suspend accounts. But the BT might have alerted their connections at the Mariinsky that videos were being sold. I hope he shuts down his video business and show YouTube that he is merely keeping them on YouTube.

  • September 4, 2009

    Linda

    We have no idea how the BT decides on how and when to film a performance, which will be distributed as a DVD. Certainly, one can only find full-length recordings of A Midsummer’s Night by PNB, Jewels by POB and the 2 DVDs of Choreography by Balanchine (with the first one having the music off sync!!), which contain extracts. There is also footage on the Dancing for Mr.B. All other DVDs have been discontinued (though one can still get the Bringing Balanchine Back from certain sellers). Prices start at 27 USD (Amazon.com) without shipping so if you happen to live elsewhere (say Latinamerica) there is even more to pay. As you both mention, this is quite sad not only because this is not affordable by everyone, but also since it restricts the number of people who can actually get to know the choreographer and his ballets.

    The other issue is that only certain companies are allowed to have a commercial release of a Balanchine ballet. The most recent case being the Jewels DVD. Of course we are thankful that at least this release exists, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if there were more Jewels DVDs by other companies, in the same way there are several Swan Lakes, etc? (Mariinsky’s Diamonds is completely different to the RB’s Diamonds, and so on).

    I guess it is more of a wait and see in this issue. Clearly some policies should be revised. We look forward to the day in which there are more options open to everyone to admire the gorgeous Balanchine ballets.

  • September 2, 2009

    youdancefunny

    Youtube is a great resource, and anyone who thinks otherwise is practically a dinosaur.

    What the whiners *cough Balanchine Trust cough* seem to forget is that NOTHING substitutes a live performance, especially not some tiny little YT video. But YT gives us a way to make ballet a part of our lives everyday.

    The BT in particular annoys me because as the other commenter said, a lot of Balanchine ballets are only available on VHS now. I was looking for Theme and Variations, which according to their website is only available on the Balanchine Celebration VHS, which is at least $45 on amazon for a USED copy. $70, for a brand new one. This is ridiculous, even for an out of print VHS, and none of that money goes to them anyway.

    A student at my alma mater is teaching Serenade from labanotation score, and I became interested in it, and although there is a $13 VHS that has it, newer DVD’s apparently only contain excerpts from live performances. The BT has no legitimate reason to complain if that is how they’re going to release material.

    Not only is it an insult to audiences, I think it’s a slap in the face to dancers as well, as if to say “if we don’t do this, people would rather stay at home and watch youtube than watch you” which is hardly the case. I highly doubt someone in New York would stay at home and watch youtube or even pop in a DVD of a ballet that NYCB was putting on that night. Patrons of the ballet know that in addition to seeing it live, seeing what different and new dancers bring to the same ballets is what keeps us going back.

    And some people can’t even afford DVD’s let alone ballet tickets at all, and I think depriving them of a way to watch is elitist. Although my public library doesn’t have the greatest selection, they do have some ballets which people can borrow at no cost, including Balanchine’s Nutcracker, and if the BT doesn’t have a problem with that, then why should they have a problem with YT? It doesn’t really make sense.

  • September 2, 2009

    Anna

    On a theoretical level, I understand why the Balanchine Trust, like most copyright holders, doesn’t like to see their videos on Youtube. Though on a practical level it’s disappointing for the work of great NYCB dancers (Farrell, McBride, Kistler, Tallchief, d’Amboise) under-represented or entirely absent from Youtube.

    What I really don’t understand is the paucity of recent Balanchine performances on DVD. (There are a number of performances from the 1970s and earlier that aren’t on DVD, but they were released on VHS.) Other than the POB Jewels DVD and the NYCB 50th Anniversary performance (which was aired on TV but I don’t think has been released on DVD), have there been any other releases of Balanchine performances in the past decade? All of the other NYCB TV broadcasts have been of Martins’s or other Diamond Project choreographers’ ballets. I remember hearing of at least one mixed bill performance (might have been RB) that was recorded for DVD, but the Trust wouldn’t allow the Balanchine Ballet (I think it was 4Ts) to be included. So what had been a triple bill was released as a double bill on DVD.

    Someone from the Trust needs to explain why they are so stingy (yes, stingy) about allowing Balanchine ballets to be broadcast. Do they not get that DVD (not to mention Youtube) is an extremely important channel for exposing more people to Balanchine, educating people about Balanchine technique, allowing spectators to see as many different ballets and interpretations as possible?

    Is the Trust’s goal to encourage people to see the ballets live? While that is an admirable goal, for Americans, unless one lives in New York, Seattle or San Francisco, several years can go by without the local troupe presenting any Balanchine.

    I live in a mid-sized city with a small but accomplished company that generally does one Balanchine each season. And yet I have so many 11,12 year old girls at the affiliated school — talented kids who have been dancing for 3 or 4 years — who have never seen any Balanchine! They may know vaguely who he is, and that they aren’t being taught Balanchine technique. But given that a lot of them watch ballet clips on Youtube or DVDs on what seems like permanent loop, the Balanchine Trust is loosing out on a huge opportunity to educate young dancers.

    Sorry to go off like this, Ballet Bag ladies, especially since it’s only tangentially related to your post. But this reluctance of the Balanchine Trust drives me up the wall, especially now I’m not living in NYC anymore.

    Kudos to you for another thoughtful post.