When Cassie Nordgren visits studios as a guest choreographer, she prides herself on bringing her high-energy, high-emotion brand of theater dance to the table. For her, the magic often lies in the intention behind the piece rather than its perceived difficulty. "Sometimes the piece is about telling a story, so you won't get those aerials or fouettés or whatever the new trick of the day is. That's not where I live as a choreographer," she says. "What you are going to get is that the students will have to rely on their storytelling skills to make the piece complete."
After returning to one particular studio to set a new piece, she was excited when the dancers wanted to perform one of her previous numbers for her, but quickly became upset when she saw how much her original work had been changed. In place of the intricate story she'd woven was a crescendo of tricks incorporated to make the piece more competition-friendly. "The piece used to have a beginning, middle and end, and instead of having an arc, it now just had one direction—and that was up," says Nordgren.
Luckily, she was able to use the situation to open a dialogue about best collaboration practices, and it became a valuable lesson for both choreographer and client. (She has since been back to that studio three times with great results.) But instances like these do raise important questions: When a studio hires a guest choreographer, who owns the resulting work and should the studio have carte blanche to make changes?
Studio owner Kim Delgrosso says the issue can be a gray area. After 29 years as co-owner of Orem, Utah–based Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, she's worked hard to define the transactional relationship between studio and guest choreographer. "When a studio pays for someone to come in and set a number, in our mind we assume ownership—at least in the competition world," says Delgrosso. "The choreographer retains the rights to it on a professional level."
Talia Favia choreographed Clouds for Delgrosso's Center Stage students. Photo courtesy of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio.
She goes on to clarify that her guest artists often use her students to workshop numbers they intend to use for other commercial projects or the concert stage—and she's 100 percent onboard with that approach. However, it's vital that the number remain exclusive to Center Stage for competition, and it is understood that Delgrosso and her team will maximize the life of a piece by repurposing it for different teams.
"We have everything filmed, and we save all of the choreography in our archives," she says. "We often recycle choreography down the road. This year, we recycled three junior numbers and set them on the minis, and we also passed several numbers down from our touring teams to our recreational teams. We really get the value out of our choreography, but it's also important for us to keep the integrity of the piece intact."
Castro Valley Performing Arts commissioned this work by Cassie Nordgren. Photo by Christopher Setter, courtesy of Castro Performing Arts.
This is a major point of focus for McDonald/Selznick Associates agent and director of education Shelli Margheritis when booking guest stints for her clients (who range from Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo to Tessandra Chavez to Brian Friedman). While Margheritis understands that dance teachers need discretion to make minor adjustments for staging and/or shifting rosters, she advises that any creative changes be routed through the choreographer to preserve goodwill and the piece's original essence.
"Having an open line of communication is essential," she says. "If there are creative adjustments, studios need to connect with the choreographer to verify their approval and whether they would still like to have their name attached. Choreographers want to be acknowledged for their work, but they also want the work to be presented in a way that is reflective of how they set it."
Nordgren agrees, acknowledging that her time at a studio is typically limited to a few days and that a piece may need more finessing beyond her in-person tenure. To that end, she does provide some possible modifications for choreography but seeks to stay involved in any further alterations. "There is a protocol that needs to be followed," she says. "Contact me and let's figure it out together, so that we can keep the intended direction of the piece."
To prevent any misunderstandings, Margheritis drafts a contract that lays out everything from payment terms to travel arrangements to exactly how and where the piece will be used—along with any expectations of exclusivity.
"The contract brings clarity for both the artist and the studio," she says. "The choreographer will always have the rights to claim their choreography; it's the reflection of who they are and what they've created. Studios are hiring them to set original work, which they can request exclusively, so it's important to have an agreement in writing that details the specifics."
Center Stage's Delgrosso doesn't typically use a contract, but she tends to hire from the same stable of guest choreographers each season, thus creating long-term relationships. "There have been times we've had to change choreography in a big way, and there have been times choreographers didn't want it changed at all, and we respect that completely," she says. "Many of my in-house staff are people who came through my studio and worked with these choreographers first as dancers and now directors. The trust level is very high."
Studios can do much to nurture the client-choreographer relationship by laying the groundwork for success before the choreographer ever sets foot in the studio. Nordgren encourages studio owners to send her advance footage so she can see what abilities she will be working with. Or, better yet, a studio can enlist the guest artist to work with dancers ahead of time, perhaps with an intensive or a master class.
"When I walk in to teach a routine for competition and have never met the students, I have no idea of their level," says Nordgren. "'Advanced' is different at every studio. But if I've already taught them for a day, or even three hours, I know what will fit well on their students and can be more prepared."
"What you're paying for is my time and thought process," she says. "But the intellectual property will always remain the choreographer's."