Open source ballet

by Rob Tiller

A good conversation over a fine dinner is one of life’s true pleasures. Sally and I went out with our ballerina, Lola Cooper, for dinner at Solas last night and had a great time. By virtue of our donations to Carolina Ballet, we’ve become the sponsors of Lola’s pointe shoes, an essential tool for classical dance. We’ve talked with her several times, but hadn’t had a chance to break bread together before. Happily, Solas has a special menu for vegetarians, which they will produce if you ask.

Lola, it turns out, in addition to being a rising star, is a lively and interesting young woman. Ballet dancers are almost by definition highly focused individuals. The form demands a lot from its embodiers: years of rigorous training, physical stress, competitive pressure, performance anxieties, and unremitting discipline. In exchange, dancers get a shot at transcendence. It’s hard to be a great dancer and a scholar, for example. Not impossible, certainly, as I’ve been reminded recently in reading Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet by Jennifer Homans, a former dancer. But challenging.

Anyway, Lola’s pursuing a bachelor’s at N.C. State and keeping her intellectual side engaged. We talked about travelling in South America, organic food, painting, yoga, and families. All interesting and fun. And dance, of course. She told us about some of her personal challenges with a grueling rehearsal and performance schedule. I told her the short version of my idea for open source ballet.

The idea is to adapt some of the concepts of open source software to dance. Open source software developers hold that the best way to make great software is to freely share code and ideas in a collaborative way. They use internet tools to leap over barriers of geography. Instead of holding onto the copyright in their work, they use open source licenses to encourage use of the code by others. As this methodology has spread through the tech world in the last three decades, it has resulted in an astonishing amount of creativity and innovation in software development.

How does this apply to dance? Dance is in part a collaborative art that draws on the creativity of others. Choreography uses a vocabulary of movement that has been developed by prior generations and that continues to be enriched by artists today. Although the sharing of movement ideas is not always acknowledged, it is a fundamental part of how ballet is made. Of course, each real artist makes work that is also in important ways original. But it is hard to conceive of a new ballet that owes nothing to ballets that came before.

So there’s an aspect of ballet that is already collaborative. In general, though, there’s a concern in ballet with trying to protect the intellectual property rights associated with a new dance work by limiting recording and forbidding copying of recordings. The background assumption is that the creative work could be stolen to the detriment of the owner. But is that likely? It might well be that videos of a ballet would proliferate, but this would only be bad if it hurt the market for recordings (which is negligible), or the market for live performance of the work. In fact, it would probably expand the audience for the work and enhance the reputation of the choreographer and performers.

This open source approach flies into the face of conventional intellectual property ideas. Those ideas are so familiar that they seem natural, and it seems unnatural to give up certain intellectual property rights and encourage free use. But open source has worked for software, and it’s being adopted in science, education, and the arts.

The ballet application could be tried as an experiment on a limited basis, even with a single DVD of a single performance. A license that allowed free copying and a marketing campaign that encouraged such activity could put the work into the hands of new potential dance fans and supporters. It could help ticket sales and budget challenges. And it would let the artists do more of what they’re good at: transcendence, and sharing transcendence.