The dance world has recently lost three major figures: Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch and Michael Jackson. No one was worried about Jackson’s dance legacy because we’ve seen the videos; if not, the DVDs are readily available or we can simply watch them on YouTube.
We did worry about Cunningham and Bausch, monumentally influential artists with important bodies of work. There are some video recordings of their pieces, but few are available to buy. There are also various clips on YouTube – granted, these don’t amount to much, but they at least serve as tasters for people who haven’t seen the work or know little about it.
I’ll wager that Michael Gove, the shadow minister for children, schools and families and occasional Newsnight Review critic, is one of those people without enough dance knowledge. His recent suggestion that A-level dance is a soft option drew outraged responses. But you might wonder why he thought that in the first place: perhaps he simply didn’t know enough. And there might be good reasons for that.
One reason that dance struggles to establish itself as a discipline is the relative paucity of its archive: more than any other art form, it is constantly being lost to history. To build a body of knowledge, you need to gather bodies of evidence, reference material, records. There is an obvious way forward – record more dance on video and put more of it on the internet. It won’t just be of academic use; the greater availability and increased profile of dance material will surely benefit audiences and promoters too. This is good not just for individual works or choreographers or companies or colleges, but ultimately for dance itself.
That is the general argument behind a recent kerfuffle about dance videos on YouTube. One YouTube user known as “Ketinoa” created a channel with some 1,300 video clips of Russian ballet, including old and new performances by the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi, rehearsal footage and classroom training – a substantial archive in itself. But it was removed from YouTube following a complaint by the Balanchine Trust, which looks after the legacy of choreographer George Balanchine, because it contained a small number of excerpts of Balanchine ballets, thus violating copyright.
It’s easy to see this story in straightforward black-and-white, to hold up Ketinoa as a citizen hero thwarted by a group protecting its own interests. That argument is made easier because Ketinoa’s channel seemed well-labelled, informative and backed up by the genuine expertise of a fan: users were getting something valuable out of it.
But Ketinoa was in the minority. The truth is that much dance on the web doesn’t do the technology justice. I’ve trawled YouTube often enough and found dance clips that are mislabelled: wrong dancers, wrong piece, wrong company. Plenty of others don’t have essential information, such as year, company, title or choreographer. One video I came across had been recorded without sound, so the user had simply overlaid bits of music on top, which consequently bore no relation to the actual choreography (not that either the score or the piece were credited anyway).
As it happens, that particular clip was of the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, who have their own extensive online presence, which includes a fully searchable online archive containing a wealth of material: filmed records of performance, photographs, notes and much more. Even the the Balanchine Foundation, of which the Trust is a part, is currently developing its own online multimedia archive – although there’s not indication yet of when that will go live, or what it will contain. This is the future, not chasing copyright infringements. If dance organisations want to engage online, they need to lead – and they need to do it now.