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TMBT’s “Marley Was Dead, To Begin With” and the Dangers of Plagiarism

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Photos by Christina Massad

One of the most challenging hurdles for choreographers, especially newer choreographers, is to clearly distinguish the line between influence and plagiarism. While some makers are blessed with inherently unique and ingenious visions for mapping out and refining original content, others turn to research to provide them with creative stimulus.

Research is a cornerstone of creation for many choreographers, and often includes watching and rewatching inspirational works by choreographic heroes. It is, however, extraordinarily important to maintain the line between drawing inspiration and overt copying.

At its debut last year, many heralded Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s film Marley Was Dead To Begin as a great work deserving of the utmost praise. And with the announcement that the ballet would return this year, this time to the stage, this writer can’t hide a grimace. The discomfort stems nearly entirely from the undeniable likeness this “new” work bears to Crystal Pite’s Revisor.

In fact, to say that Marley Was Dead, To Begin With was heavily influenced by Revisor would be irresponsible. To say that Marley Was Dead, To Begin With is a knock-off would be far more accurate.

Pite is a titan of choreography, earning her accolades through meticulous and carefully curated work. Many of her works, including Revisor, can be easily viewed either in full or in clips online. Access to such resources is instrumental in the inspiration of burgeoning choreographers and makers, as well as industry individuals and patrons who can’t always attend a live performance. However, such convenient accessibility can also come with potential pitfalls.

When watching side by side, Marley Was Dead, To Begin bears more than just a resemblance to Revisor leaving it downright disgraceful to award Marley Was Dead, To Begin With with anything other than a branding of “unoriginal”. The similarities are uncanny, to the point where an average viewer is puzzled and a seasoned viewer is outraged.

Clear distinction between inspiration and plagiarism is a necessary one. Crystal Pite is known for marrying some of the most innovative concepts and creative movement phrases seen by the dance community at large. Her work is critically acclaimed, and - this writer would argue - timeless.

With Revisor, Pite took an ingenious step to couple theatre and dance beyond what the arts world previously recognized. Instead of theatre supplementing dance, or vica-versa, Revisor’s narration and dialogue is essential to the dancer’s movement and character development.

Notably, narration is not a particularly new concept to be used in choreographic works. This particular sound element appears in other Crystal Pite works, as well as a myriad of works by other choreographers. What was unique to Revisor, was how the dancers fully committed to their movement phrases, while simultaneously and skillfully lip synching to the narration. Thus, fully embodying their characters and effectively conveying the theme and storyline of the work.

Not ONLY did the movement in Marley Was Dead, To Begin With look eerily similar to Revisor, but the blocking, lighting, costuming, props and set design felt nearly identical. Dancers in both works painstakingly lip synched to their appropriate narration while simultaneously executing gestural and full bodied movement.

Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre is absolutely bursting at the seams with talent and has a slew of successful choreographic works in their arsenal, but Marley Was Dead, To Begin With, is certainly not one of them. The true talent of many of the dancers seemed to be largely ignored, with few moments illuminating their ability to embody depth and complex motifs. Even when taking the holiday classic lens of Marley Was Dead, To Begin With, the work left many viewers wanting. The sinister nature of the Dickens classic was not fully realized onstage, and the resolution seemed hurried and lackluster.

The plagiarism that plagues Marley Was Dead, To Begin With can not be excused. Should the dance community allow such blatant plagiarism to continue, and worse, award those who choose unoriginality, we will see a distinct decline in progress and creativity. Not only stripping prestige from pillars of the dance community, but also stifling creativity and starving new makers who might have had unique and clearly individual choreographic voices who see no space for originality. It is equally shocking that so many critics in the Atlanta dance community perhaps did not recognize the plagiarism - equally inexcusable. Critics must hold themselves to a high standard where they are following the dance world at large, and able to comment on the greater picture.

Editor Note: Terminus was contacted and ITP was given fully permission to post a review.

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