The Ins and Outs of Finding, Securing and Programming Music in the Dance World


Editor’s note: This article is part of the 2018 Dance/USA program, Music and The Choreographer, funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. To find resources on music and choreography, including webinars from this program, visit the Dance/USA website here.  

By Lisa Traiger

Music, it was once famously said of Balanchine’s ballets, is the floor on which the dancers dance. Whether you’re creating a new ballet, a modern work, culturally specific choreography, music can make or break a piece. Choreographers and dancers know instinctively that musical choices inform and shape artistic works in essential ways. Finding the perfect musical accompaniment or the right collaborator for a commissioned score can be challenging, or even overwhelming, as can attaining appropriate licenses and permissions to use the music in a public performance. Corey Field, an intellectual property and entertainment lawyer in Hollywood, Calif., helps artist navigate the sometimes arcane field of obtaining music rights and permissions. He advises artists that any music that will be performed publicly on stage, on video, or in some other medium as part of a choreographic project must be cleared by the copyright holder(s) of the music along with anyone else who may have a legal stake in the work.

Obtaining those rights, clearances and permissions to use a song, musical score, or even a particular arrangement of a classical work that might be in the public domain can be an arduous task, added Field in a recent Dance/USA webinar “Navigating Music Rights for Dance 101.” Choreographic artists, dance company directors and managers understand that finding music, gaining permission and paying for musical rights and commissions is a long and often complex process. It takes knowledge, expertise, persistence, and sometimes luck and good connections.

Paul Vasterling, artistic and executive director of the Nashville Ballet, knows his music. He has created numerous original works for his own company using both commissioned scores made specifically for the work and scores that he discovered that simply captured his creative imagination. He’s comfortable dealing with composers, musicians and music company representatives because before he fell for ballet in his last year of high school, he had planned to become a music educator or therapist. Both Vasterling’s intimate musical knowledge and the fact that the company is based in Nashville have informed his musical choices, for his own works and for other choreographers he commissions.

“This is Music City,” he said. “What a great hook for a company that is about dancing. A lot of the time dancing emanates from music. It just makes a lot of sense for us to use the local inspiration, the indigenous inspiration for us to make dances to.”

Connecting with the local music scene allows him to collaborate with top locally based musical artists, fulfilling a goal of connecting to the artistic and cultural life of the city. He often forges relationships with local composers – and Nashville has many spanning numerous musical genres. He advises other choreographers on the hunt for new music to become familiar with their own local music scenes by seeking out a nearby music school or conservatory, attending concerts by artists in the region and reaching out. He points to “Superstition,” a recent Nashville Ballet world premiere with choreography by Jennifer Archibald. The score is by Nashville composer Cristina Spinei, a Juilliard grad, who relocated to Music City. “I met her through some friends and listened to her work and here we are,” he said about how he made the match: introducing Archibald to Spinei’s music. Then the two allowed the work grew from there.

Working with a living composer can often form a fruitful even longer-term collaboration, but it does require some business acumen. Once a match is made, negotiations ensue, either with the composer or via his or her agent. Commissioning a score is not much different from commissioning choreography, Vasterling said, and rates depend on the artist’s level of experience. He said, “We try to be really fair with composers and we have a pretty decent reputation about getting composers paid and always make sure that they get a royalty when we do a piece again, if we license it again.”

Obtaining permissions isn’t always as easy though. Field advises dancemakers who are using already-existing music, whether it’s a popular, folk or classical piece, to not get overly excited until rights have been cleared. “It’s okay to fall in love with a piece of music, but start dating before you get married,” Field said. “And investigate it before you commit. There is a chance [you] can’t afford it or can’t get the rights.”

Vasterling advises fellow choreographers and company managers to always ask. Sometimes the answer may surprise you. He described a serendipitous meeting with Rhiannon Giddens, a recent MacArthur Fellow and Grammy Award-winning folk singer. He was set on using her work for “Lucy Negro, Redux,” premiering in 2018, but assumed she would say no to a large composition project. Instead he decided to ask if she would just write one or two songs. During a stop in Nashville, they met briefly and Vasterling described the project, to which she replied she would like to compose for the entire piece.

Securing Rights

Many choreographers have a hard time finding the music publisher or copyright owner of a chosen piece of music. A few large music publishers maintain catalogues that provide information on who holds copyrights to musical works, explained Erik Wendell, director of rentals and grand rights at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. He recommends Worldcat.org, an online database of recorded and sheet music that contains 2 billion items. He elaborates, noting that the copyright owner is or can be different from the person or entity that owns the recording. “For a song recorded by Lady Gaga,” he explained, “we need to know who owns the recording and who owns the songwriting.” They can be different and both parties must be contacted to attain appropriate permissions or clearances and pay any fees for usage. He described the database WorldCat as a powerful research tool used by music librarians to find works for their upcoming programming, not only for concert works but for any real musical work. “I highly recommend it for everyone, especially if you’restarting at square one trying to find who the copyright owner of a particular work is,” Wendell said.

While many concert dance companies and individual choreographers feature predominately Western music sources and must obtain rights, permissions, licenses, etc., other artists use live music, often improvised or created on the spot. This is the case with Ragamala Dance Company, and its co-artistic director and co-choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy. The Minneapolis-based bharata natyam dance troupe prefers live music, performed by master musicians of the Carnatic style, traditional in Southern India. Ragamala has been creating and performing works for more than 25 years. While in its early years Ramaswamy had to resort to taped music due to the expense of flying highly skilled musicians from India or other parts of the world, she prefers a live score, played by experienced musicians and singers on traditional instruments.

Written in Water, which is touring nationally, including a recent weekend stop at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., requires live music played on stage, something that bharata natyam aficionados believe is a necessity for the classical south Indian dance form. Carnatic classical music has more than 10,000 ragas, melodic modes, Ramaswamy explained. “An amazing musician may know 30 or 40 ragas, most people may only sing 20 in a lifetime,” she said. That means thousands and thousands of options for musical variations exist, even in this most traditional and codified of dance and music forms.

The one thing Ramaswamy doesn’t worry about is obtaining rights and permissions for these musical melodies. Instead she focuses on hiring the right combination of highly talented master musicians. Those costs can be high, including flights from India, housing and per diems for rehearsals and touring. An onstage orchestra of four or five includes a drummer, a singer, a violinist, and a percussionist who plays specially pitched bells. For Written in Water, she sought out Iraqi-American composer and musician Amir ElSaffar, a renowned jazz trumpeter, who also plays the traditional santur or Persian dulcimer and sings maqam, ancient Arabic melodic music. He joined Ragamala and its Indian instrumentalists, merging ancient Arabic sounds with Indian rhythms and voices and contemporary jazz stylings on the trumpet.

Ramaswamy paid each musician for their performances and rehearsal time and ElSaffar was also compensated for his composition and his residency time with the company. She noted that Carnatic singers and instrumentalists are in high demand these days, both in India and abroad, due to the boom in Indian dance studios and their required solo graduation performances. Parents, she said, pay dearly for top musicians who accompany their daughters in these showcases, which are akin to a bat mitzvah or quinceañera. During the season, Ramaswamy said, traveling musicians can earn $5,000 - $10,000 in a weekend at these one-time performances for young women, making it harder for professional companies to find high-quality orchestras. For Written in Water, the violinist lives in New York; the drummer, in California; and singer Prema Ramamurthy, in India. Ramaswamy harnessed technology during residency rehearsals at Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) in Florida. Sometimes she could bring together most of her musicians, but it was cost- and time-prohibitive for Ramamurthy to travel from India. Instead, Ramaswamy said: “We did everything on Facetime. She would sing it, record it and send it to us,” only flying to the United States for the live performances. This kept costs down; even so, the live music and the commissioned score amounted to approximately 30 percent of the work’s entire budget, Ramaswamy shared. 

“Somehow we have managed,” she said. “We are a small budget company whose touring and performing makes more in earned income and is slightly higher than donated income. We work 24 hours a day to make this happen. But when people really see the piece the way it should be, I think it’s worth it.” Nashville Ballet’s Vasterling noted, “Like everything, when you’re putting a season together, you have to balance all of your costs. So, if you’re going to spend a lot of money on a commission, then you have to balance that somewhere else.”

Partnering Music and Dance

Twin Cities choreographer Taja Will thrives by working in a collaborative environment with musicians, composers and dancers contributing to the accompaniment, depending on the piece. “I value sonic and kinetic partnerships,” she said in the Dance/USA webinar, tracing that interest to her undergrad years as an opera performance major. Finding new and interesting music takes time, sometimes years Will admitted. “It is listening a lot, keeping your ears open in the world as a conceptual artist. [My] work has a lot of different stories, episodes and messages. I really need something tailored to each work.” Will often uses her own voice, electronically looping it live on stage, and she asks her performers, too, to contribute to the aural universe of her pieces. “I want to work in collaboration [with musicians and composers],” she said, “so a lot of my connections with these collaborators who are making sound with me is really getting to know each other and finding creative ways to each other.”

For choreographers seeking sources for music, Dance/USA’s webinar “Finding Music for Choreography” provides multiple sources including online publishing houses like Innova Recordings, Naxos Music Library, organizations including American Composers Forum, and a number of worldwide databases with listening preview options offering classical, contemporary and world music selections. Many artists use Pandora, Spotify and other collections and find that options for narrowing and expanding fields of similar music can prove useful.

Chicago independent choreographer Stephanie Martinez said she spends many, many hours on music research, including listening on Spotify, iTunes, AllMusic and consulting friends and colleagues. “I’m not going lie, I spend so, so much time on music. Any choreographer spends a lot of time finding music,” she said, describing her system for keeping notes and organizing her musical finds. Sometimes she’ll go back to a score she loves much later, if it isn’t right for a current project because she usually does about six choreographic commissions a year. Martinez typically needs to get her musical choices into the commissioning company nine months or more in advance of her choreographic residency because it is the company’s responsibility to arrange for rights, clearances, licenses and other permissions. And sometimes she may hear back that either rights weren’t granted or that the piece is too expensive for the company’s budget. In that case, she must find something new.


“That happened to me,” she recalled when rights to a piece of music cost too much. “I was sweating bullets because I had a very clear musical idea. Then I thought, ‘You know this is an opportunity to reach out and utilize my network and community.’” She sought advice from colleagues and friends in Chicago who connected her with Darryl Hoffman, a young composer of about 20 at the time. “He wrote some incredible stuff: We would get together, listen, talk … and we were composing this music,” she said. The final dance piece, “In Close Proximity,” premiered on the Kansas City Ballet in 2016 and Hoffman has since been invited to compose scores for other dancemakers.

Martinez said, “There’s always somebody that’s wonderful who can make me something. The beautiful mistakes happen. I get this piece of original music and I’ve built a relationship with a composer.”

Finding the right music for choreography can be a time-consuming and complex process. Both Martinez and lawyer Field described it as entering a rabbit hole. And it’s far more complex than simply selecting a few favorite tracks on iTunes. Permissions, licenses, grand rights, contracts and payments to composers, and fair use are an essential part of the process and companies and choreographers must be aware of legal ramifications if usage rights are granted. As Eric Wendell, from music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, noted, “First and foremost, do diligence and at least ask the publisher … the very last thing you want is someone deciding for you whether or not what you thought was fair use is fair.”

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications including Dance, Dance Teacher, Washington Jewish Week and DCDanceWatcher.

Photo credits
Image 1: Ragamala Dance Company, Written in Water. Photo credit: Three Phase Multimedia
Image 2: Paul Vasterling’s The Ben Folds Project: Concerto; music by Ben Folds. Photo credit: Heather Thorne
Image 3: Rhiannon Giddens, Francesco Turrisi and Paul Vasterling. Photo credit: Heather Thorne
Image 4: Written in Water, Ranee Ramaswamy (foreground) Rajna Swaminathan, Kasi Aysola, Preethy Mahesh, Anjna Swaminathan (background). Photo credit: Valley Performing Arts Center
Image 5: Dos Lados by Stephanie Martinez for created for the Kansas City Dance festival and Moving Arts Cincinnati. Composers: Francisco Tarrega & Joaquin Rodrigo, La Lupe, Ezio Bosso. Photo credti: Hiromi Platt

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