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Buy, borrow, steal: A hidden homage in Beyoncé’s new video

This past weekend my Facebook went berserk. Hundreds of little red reminders. And why? Beyoncé released her newest video, a little guilty pleasure called Countdown. The video is an open homage to a whole lotta stuff, from Audrey Hepburn’s dance scene in Funny Face to the seminal Vogue photo shoots of the 1960’s to Twiggy’s distinctive makeup stylings. But thrown into the collage of-many-good-things-made-by-other-artists-a-long-time-ago is a one to one remake of Rosas Danst Rosas by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. This was the cause of the inter-unrest. It was a thirty plus-comment, capital letters debate about ghetto-ization of certain art forms, pop culture and what’s good for modern dance, in which I was one of a mass of confused and excited voices.

The comparison:

The overall feeling was that something had been stolen from us. Who is us? Us, I guess, is the modern dance community. Rosas Danst Rosas is a very important piece in the progression of contemporary dance. Choreographed in 1983, this work has been shown around the world many times over. Now in its 28th year, the piece continues to thrill audiences, as relevant today as it was in the early 80’s.

Now the question is, who cares? Isn’t it good for modern dance, a fringe art form now and forever, to gain this exposure? Beyoncé is a media giant, a queen, a cherished international performer. And regardless of our opinions about her personal style or music choices, shouldn’t we feel honored that someone who is otherwise unconnected to Belgian contemporary dance recognizes the beauty of Rosas Danst Rosas and is bringing it to the frontline?

I think, at least for me, the friction comes from a fear of being absorbed into the mass of mainstream culture. I don’t believe that Beyoncé is sitting in her pool of diamonds calculating how to sustain her stay as the princess of pop. No one wants to be mainstream. Maybe a few record executives shoot for the middle. Maybe some teenyboppers. But an artist like Beyoncé? She wants to be different, to bring something new and unexpected, to redefine her art form. She has won her spurs as a unique recording and performance artist. But there is a clear feeling that modern dance is not, nor will it ever achieve mainstreamhood while Beyoncé is comfortably killing it in the center of popular culture. This isn’t the first time Beyoncé has borrowed from other choreographers, pointed out my friend James Welbsy. Single Ladies was a screaming reference to Bob Fosse. Beyoncé likes to dance, a fact she has proven in many videos and the Move Your Body project head up by Michelle Obama. But this video plunges deep into contemporary dance and shakes something uncomfortable up.

The thing that keeps dance down is the thing we are most afraid to lose, its strangeness, its inaccessibility. If Beyoncé makes everyone realize that contemporary dance isn’t so bad, will it cease to be special? Will it become reality television or Justin Bieber? Almost every night, here in Tel Aviv, performances are danced for half-empty houses. Our biggest challenge is to find an audience and here, Beyoncé will give Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, without giving credit to her I might add, more exposure in one weekend than thirty years of a glorious career have won her. And isn’t that a little bit wrong?

It makes me think about Pina by Wim Wenders, which I finally saw last week. The film is a 3D homage to Pina Bausch, the recently deceased, prolific German choreographer. The film opened at the Berlin Film Festival last February. I happened to be in Berlin but couldn’t get tickets. Then, two weeks ago, it arrived in Israel. Again, I couldn’t get tickets. No connections helped me. It was full on sold out, every seat taken. When I did manage to get in, the crowd awed me. Who were all those people? Where did this audience come from and where were they the last time I was trying to promote a performance at Suzanne Dellal? If all these people love dance so much, why don’t they come to dance performances? And yet, somehow, this didn’t feel like a threat. I was pleased to see the full theater. Wim Wenders is a classy, skilled filmmaker. And after all, the movie is being shown at Lev, an art-film house. Why is this OK when Beyoncé using Rosas isn’t?

The film will, similar to Countdown, bring a larger audience to Pina Bausch’s work than many years of performances did. However, people going to see Pina know who it is about. And teenagers watching Beyoncé will have no idea and no way of finding out about Rosas. Is that what bothers us about it? Credit? I can’t imagine that Beyoncé would risk it and not get the rights to use Rosas’ material. But nowhere, in all of the interviews and information does anyone mention Rosas. That certainly is a problem. Even if she is knowingly, consciously winking at her viewers, begging them even to look up this reference, challenging us, it is in some way taking a piece of art out of its context and leaving it stranded there.

Is this hidden homage good for dance or bad for dance? Or I could think about it this way: is this video better for dance than all the crappy dance out there? At least it’s made well. It’s beautiful and aesthetic and serves some kind of a purpose. It may be making dance a little less special and locked away in a very shiny box somewhere. But it is also making pop a little richer, a bit less trashy and a lot more interesting to watch.

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    1. sh

      Has it occurred to you that de Keersmaeker et al might have drawn their inspiration from modern pop culture dance moves in the first place? Modern dance isn’t conceived in a vacuum. Modern pop culture and modern dance/music/art draw from each other and also from what’s going on out there on the street and in the big wide world. I think it’s called cross-fertilization.

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    2. Seeing Pina was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life (sorry Ori, i took those last two tickets 2 weeks ago!). And no, i really knew nothing, practically, about Pina Bausch, so I am indebted to this ingenious film for introducing me in the most astounding way to her work, of which i will now be enamored forever. The same thing can happen w Bayonce, i suppose – if enough people like you say the kind of thing you wrote here. thanks for this.

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    3. jjon

      Beyonce was not winking at anyone hoping someone will find the Belgian choreographer’s work, why is it so hard to believe that she just saw something she liked and decided to appropriate it? Beyonce makes clear in her interviews that she thinks of herself as an artist, she even goes as far as to tell stories on how she came up with songs she did not even write and then she accepts awards for this fraud. She has a history of intellectual property infringement yet she does it anyway and makes lots of money from it. I suppose it’s cheaper anyway to settle lawsuits rather than pay royalties and appear anything less than an artist. Smokes and mirrors, friends.

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    4. Alex

      I don’t think it’s the “mainstreaming” of fringe modern dance that is so troubling – the feeling of something haven been “taken from us” as you say – it’s more what Beyonce does to it that is so troubling to me. You can see it in the way the dancers flip their hair and tilt their heads and flick their bodies in the last few seconds of Beyonce’s video: the nod to sensuality and sexuality is completely different than in Rosas Danst Rosas. Beyonce makes a cheap, voluptuous version of a nuanced, intriguing and subtle masterpiece. Overall, the video is infused with an attitude towards sexuality that I find difficult to respect or admire – and in fact I find threatening – and the placing of that onto the Rosas piece is what most troubles me.

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    5. Ari

      Wow, really nice piece Ori. Also, so sorry to hear about the pineapples.

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    6. RE

      Here is the press comment from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker released yesterday about the same issue.
      Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker press declaration: Like so many people, I was extremely surprised when I got a message through Facebook about the special appearance of my two choreographies – Rosas danst Rosas (1983) and Achterland (1990) in Beyoncé’s new videoclip Countdown. I was asked if I were now selling out Rosas into the commercial circuit… When I saw the actual video, I was struck by the resemblance of Beyoncé’s clip not only with the movements from Rosas danst Rosas, but also with the costumes, the set and even the shots from the film by Thierry De Mey. Obviously, Beyoncé, or the video clip director Adria Petty, plundered many bits of the integral scenes in the film, which the videoclip made by Studio Brussel by juxtaposing Beyoncé‘s video and the Rosas danst Rosas film gives a taste of. But this videoclip is far from showing all materials that Beyoncé took from Rosas in Countdown. There are many movements taken from Achterland, but it is less visible because of the difference in aesthetics. People asked me if I’m angry or honored. Neither, on the one hand, I am glad that Rosas danst Rosas can perhaps reach a mass audience which such a dance performance could never achieve, despite its popurality in the dance world since 1980s. And, Beyoncé is not the worst copycat, she sings and dances very well, and she has a good taste! On the other hand, there are protocols and consequences to such actions, and I can’t imagine she and her team are not aware of it. To conclude, this event didn’t make me angry, on the contrary, it made me think a few things. Like, why does it take popular culture thirty years to recognize an experimental work of dance? A few months ago, I saw on Youtube a clip where schoolgirls in Flanders are dancing Rosas danst Rosas to the music of Like a Virgin by Madonna. And that was touching to see. But with global pop culture it is different, does this mean that thirty years is the time that it takes to recycle non-mainstream experimental performance? And, what does it say about the work of Rosas danst Rosas? In the 1980s, this was seen as a statement of girl power, based on assuming a feminine stance on sexual expression. I was often asked then if it was feminist. Now that I see Beyoncé dancing it, I find it pleasant but I don’t see any edge to it. It’s seductive in an entertaining consumerist way. Beyond resemblance there is also one funny coincidence. Everyone told me, she is dancing and she is four months pregnant. In 1996, when De Mey‘s film was made, I was also pregnant with my second child. So, today, I can only wish her the same joy that my daughter brought me. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker October 10th, 2011

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    7. Amazing, I was just about to post her response, which is very graceful. I guess that settles the question of whether or not Beyonce’s people got permission. I find it pretty shocking.

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    8. AYLA

      @972–seeing Pina Bauch at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back in the late 90’s was one of the best art-related experienced of my life, too. I feel so lucky for my years and experiences, there, now that I live in the middle of the desert ;). She was a force. Until this article, I had never heard of de Keersmaeke. (granted, I’ve kind of dropped out of that part of life for a while). What you show here is really impressive. I was very lucky to work for what I think is the largest international modern dance festival in the world for two years, and I saw a lot of prominent work, and from what little you show here, and in my humble opinion, her work holds up to any of them. I hope this whole, um, situation?–brings more attention to her work. Her response is very gracious and thoughtful. Thanks, too, for some art here on +972. Soon, I may not need another media source.

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    9. Thanks Ayla,
      Were you working for Impulstanz?

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    10. AYLA

      Thank YOU, Ori. American Dance Festival, which doesn’t sound so international, but as you probably know, it truly is. I think they bring a lot of the same usual suspects as Impulstanz (Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown, William Forsythe / Frankfurt Ballet, etc.). I don’t know a lot about Impulstanz because those years for me were 1991-2, (did I say late 90’s? that, for me, was theater and film), so I *think* Impulstanz was relatively new? ADF was, then, also bringing people from places where they weren’t permitted to do their own work (a woman from pakistan, people from China, etc.)–places where either women weren’t allowed to perform, and/or non-traditional dance was not permitted. Half of my job during the year was facilitating people’s visa’s and travel arrangements, which was not easy. At the festival, there were workshops for everyone to collaborate–people from every continent–as well as a performance series. Musicians, too. It was very exciting, and I was very young, and from Ohio ;), so it was amazing. They also paid for me to see any dance/performance art during the year in NYC, so. I o.d.’d on 90’s performance art, though… and later started a bit of a second life, so I haven’t seen much in a long time! What mailing list should I be on in Israel?

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    11. Michael S

      I should think it was the director and not Beyonce who thought of this and the other homages in the video.

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    12. Yes, absolutely. In an interview, Beyonce said that her choreographer and director brought her references, “mainly German choreographers”, which is annoying because it shows that she doesn’t know the littlest bit about Rosas.

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