Meet the Choreographers Guild | L.A. Dance Chronicle

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If you have been on Instagram lately and follow any LA choreographers, you have likely seen many proud faces sporting brand new tee shirts that say “Founding Member” on the front and “Choreographers Guild 22” on the back. The Choreographers Guild is a nascent organization formed by a stellar group of both established and upcoming choreographers working in film, television, music video, and with artists on tour dedicated to establishing the same rights for dance creators as exist for other performing arts professionals. Although choreographers are represented on Broadway and for stage work through the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), we have not had representation in recorded media or on tour. The Choreographers Guild is actively working to change that. As many in the dance world and beyond are not yet familiar with the guild, this article will introduce the guild, its mission, and some key players to the reader.

Choreographers Guild Logo – Courtesy of the Guild

According to the Guild’s website:
Choreographers Guild is the collective voice of professional choreographers and choreography teams working in film, television, commercials, music videos, live concerts, and other media.

The guild has four major goals:
1.    Economic security for choreographers including compensation, health and retirement benefits, and residuals.
2.    Crediting and recognition for choreographers.
3.    Strengthening copyright and intellectual property rights for choreography.
4.    Education and exchange of information about professional choreography in our community, in our industries, and with the general public.

The Guild had its first major victory regarding recognition and credit just this past month. Choreographers can now list that title on IMDB. Before this change, choreographers were referred to as “additional crew.”  It was often very difficult to research who the choreographer on any given project was, and the choreographer, even for major dance films, was often left out of the credits. While the credit is still listed somewhere below catering and child wrangling in the list of contributors, including it as a category is a start.

Kathryn Burns - Photo by Nikki Dalanzo, courtesy of Burns

Kathryn Burns – Photo by Nikki Dalanzo, courtesy of Burns.

Two-time Emmy Award-winning Choreographer Kathryn Burns serves as the Interim President and is one of the founding leaders of the guild. As one of the most successful and prolific choreographers in television and film, she is acutely aware of the challenges facing choreographers in these mediums. Several years ago she was involved with the Choreographers Alliance, where they were working closely with SAG-AFTRA trying to get a contract together. During those negotiations, she met Steve Sidawi, a long-time labor organizer who now serves as the Guild’s interim Executive Director. After several meetings, both in person and virtual (anyone remember the Clubhouse App?) with hundreds of choreographers, the guild was officially launched in 2022.

The Guild’s leadership team is large, composed of the industry’s most celebrated and prolific choreographic talent, including legends like Vincent Paterson, Tricia Miranda, Jamal Sims, Ryan Heffington, Marguerite Derricks, and Kenny Ortega.

I was able to interview several active guild leaders over email. In addition to Ms. Burns and Mr. Sidawi, I questioned three guild vice presidents: Dana Wilson, Dominique Kelley, and Kyle Hanagami. While there was agreement on many goals, particularly that of a collective bargaining agreement, their different professional experiences and identities highlight the diverse set of issues that the Guild is tasked with addressing.

Dana Wilson - Photo courtesy of Choreographers Guild.

Dana Wilson – Photo courtesy of Choreographers Guild.

Kyle Hanagami is one of the hottest choreographers working today. He has won numerous awards and worked with artists such as BLACKPINK, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, and Justin Bieber, as well as partnered with globally recognized brands like Nike, Disney, Netflix, and Calvin Klein. He has built an online empire with over 4.5 million YouTube subscribers and more than 1 billion views. Additionally, he currently holds the title for YouTube’s most viewed choreography video of all time. Mean Girls the Musical is currently in theaters. When asked what he is most proud of, he highlighted the decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in his lawsuit against Fortnite’s appropriation of his choreography. The decision reversed a lower court ruling which found that the combination was not deserving of legal protection. The case is a huge step forward for choreographers to retain creative and financial ownership of their work.

I am really proud of the landmark ruling about choreography copyright from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s a huge step in the right direction. On a more personal achievement, I joined the DGA and was a second unit director on Mean Girls.

The ruling of the court is quite revolutionary, in that it laid out a series of elements for courts to consider when looking at choreography. While the decision is not an outright win for Mr. Hanagami, it allows his suit against Fortnite to proceed.

When asked the same question, Ms. Burns, Ms. Wilson, and Mr. Kelley all enthusiastically endorsed the creation of the Guild itself.

Making The Choreographers Guild official and welcoming Founding Members! (Burns)

Actually forming the Guild proper after all the hard work and years of getting the word out. (Kelley)

Our kickass membership launch event in March! (Wilson)

Mr. Sidawi touts the support that the Guild offered to the WGA and SAG during the recent strikes, thereby highlighting goals as well as achievements.

We’re proud to have supported the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes and negotiations, and choreographers share most of the same issues. Solidarity and mutual support with other industry guilds will be very important to achieving collective bargaining goals for choreographers.

Kyle Hanagami - Photo courtesy of the artist, Choreographers Guild.

Kyle Hanagami – Photo courtesy of the artist, Choreographers Guild.

In addition to creating solidarity with established unions, Mr. Sidawi is proud of the steps forward that the Guild has toward stability in the industry:

In 2023 we launched a membership system for the first time, which really demonstrates that choreographers are serious about making improvements.

One of the Guild’s four main goals is education. Ms. Wilson leads the conversation. She is an industry powerhouse who is equally at home in front of or behind the camera. In addition to her extensive work as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, she has a fantastic podcast, Words That Move Me, which discusses all things dance. When asked what the biggest issue facing the Guild is, she replied with the following:

Education, education, and education. It is a constant effort to keep our community informed and engaged with both our history and new information. We also have a long way to go when it comes to educating producers, studios, labels, and laypeople the world over about who we are and what we do.

Ms. Burns adds:

There is a massive lack of understanding of what choreographers do. We need to educate not only producers but also our creative peers on our deeply layered process which is singular to our members. The industry must recognize and compensate us for the immense value add that we bring to any production.

 

Dominique Kelley - Photo by Kristi Griffith, Choreographers Guild.

Dominique Kelley – Photo by Kristi Griffith, Choreographers Guild.

Choreographic and performing powerhouse Dominique Kelley made his Broadway debut at 13, choreographed his first show at 16, and works in every aspect of the industry. He has created movement for animated Disney films, coached numerous A-List Stars, and has worked on television shows including but not limited to Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and The American Music Awards. He has collaborated with recording artists Beyonce,’ Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Usher, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, P!nk, Camila Cabello, Gwen Stefani, Taylor Swift, FKA Twigs, Miley Cyrus, Frank Ocean, Nelly, Cee Lo Green, B.o.B, and Flo Rida. He is one of the main choreographers for multiple sports teams. His goal is “to bring movement and dance artistry to every facet of the entertainment industry.” He is currently in rehearsals for The Great Gatsby, which begins performances March 29th on Broadway. In addition to serving as a Guild Vice President, he is one of the DEIA organizers. He weighed in with his concerns that choreographers might not actually buy in, that financial contributions would suffer, and that members might struggle to stay focused and energized.

Many of these choreographers, as evidenced by Mr. Kelley above, work on both stage and in recorded media. I asked them to talk about the differences in representation, in negotiating power, and how The Choreographers Guild will work within the parameters already set out by the other unions.

The biggest contrast is between Broadway and live theater, where SDC already represents choreographers under an excellent contract, and the entirety of recorded media where there are no enforceable minimum rates, and no guaranteed benefits or residuals.

Our approach will vary somewhat depending on the medium, but as much as possible we hope to follow the example of other guilds that already have contracts. (Sidawi)

Ms. Wilson once again advocates for education:

Education is an issue precisely because; from person to person, and project to project (TV, Film, Commercials, Music Videos, Tours, etc.) there is no ONE definable way to get the job done. A choreographer’s job is not easily definable because it contains so many variables that change from project to project.

Dominique Kelley - Photo by Kristi Griffith, Choreographers Guild.

Dominique Kelley – Photo by Kristi Griffith, Choreographers Guild.

Mr. Kelley points out some of the issues regarding self-negotiation.

I negotiate completely differently with each medium. I make the most with recording artists and the least with music videos ironically. I own none of my work in all mediums which is the worst part.

Ms. Burns also addresses the issue of ownership and the advances that SDC has made.

SDC truly supports choreographers. They understand that contracts only license the choreographers’ creative IP and that the producers do not own the work outright, hence choreographers receive weekly royalties and future compensation. The language “work for hire” prevents this in the recorded mediums.

Since education is such an important aspect of the Guild’s mission, I asked what these leaders would like to pass on to younger dancers who may want to expand into choreography.

Making up 8 counts is the minority, not the majority, of a choreographer’s job. (Wilson)

Choreographers have been trying to figure out this fickle business all on their own up until this moment. It is vital that choreographers treat dancers with care & respect. Most choreographers and their teams are fiercely advocating for their talent behind the scenes, even at our own expense. (Burns)

I would say that “choreographer” can mean so many different things. Yes, coming up with dance steps is part of it but so often, choreographers are the last piece of the puzzle, having to mold themselves to fill any voids in a project/production. I’ve had to learn to do everything from wardrobe, CGI, editing, lighting, stage design, music editing and supervising, budget and so much more because I never know what I’m walking into. (Hanagami)

Finally, I asked what each person is looking forward to in 2024!

Choreographers getting closer to having a collective bargaining agreement! (Wilson)

Building partnerships with other unions and organizers. (Kelley)

Solidarity. We have a proposed contract for choreographers working in the television and film industries and I believe this is the year that it goes into practice. (Burns)

TikTok dances! Kidding! I am genuinely excited to be creative this year and I have a gut feeling that there are big things on the horizon. This year is going to be about making big moves in my own creative endeavors and at the same time, securing rights for future generations. (Hanagami)

For the first time, choreographers in recorded media have a sustainable organization. Our first elections are happening in March. We’re positioned to make real progress toward all of our goals. (Sidawi)

Mr. Hanagami sums everything up nicely.

We are in a historic time. Choreography is more powerful than you realize. It can make or break a superstar. You see it in the Super Bowl: both in end zones and halftime. It’s all over social media and video games, your favorite movies, and TV shows. I mean, even your mom has seen the “Wednesday Dance.”  It’s about time choreographers get the credit and compensation that they deserve. It’s a huge undertaking to rally everyone together but thankfully, choreographers create movements.

Disclaimer; I am a proud founding member of the guild.

To learn more about the Choreographers Guild, please visit their website.


Written by Nancy Dobbs Owen for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image:  Members of Choreographers Guild – (L-R) Dana Wilson, Dominique Kelly, Kathryn Burns, Kyle Hanagami – Collage by LA Dance Chronicle.





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