Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker vs. Beyonce

I know we’re a little behind the curve on this one (there’s a post on p-club about the situation, and it was even written up on pitchfork.) but we were talking about this whole Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker vs. Beyonce scandal over the weekend and trying to figure out what the ramifications are.

If you don’t know the situation – the basics are that Beyonce made a video for the song “Countdown” in which she very liberally “borrowed” choreography from de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas. Here’s a short side-by-side video comparison on YouTube:

I’m still researching, but from what I understand the choreographer of the Beyonce video has acknowledged that she was influenced by de Keersmaeker’s work. Anne Teresa herself has chimed in – you can read her statement on her website here, and was remarkably generous in her comments, preferring to take the high road, more or less, saying:

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.

de Keersmaeker makes some important points about the gap between experimental work and pop culture, but personally I think she should take legal action. This is an egregious example of the devaluing and exploitation of contemporary performance by mainstream, commercial culture. Not unlike the AT&T ad that ripped off Christo, it is another case where corporate-funded entertainment and advertising entities create content with no fear about reprisals for the theft of intellectual property from artists. And it is theft.

There are several things at play here–first off there’s the difficult nature of copyrighting and protecting the work of time-based, body-based artists from appropriation. Music and text can be turned into recognizable commodities and object-based forms, they are easier to quantify and copyright. Time-based and body-based performances are, by their nature, ephemeral. But in this age of increased documentation through video, dance notation, etc. it should be easier to copyright performances, their design, execution and aesthetic sensibilities. As far as I know there are very few people working on issues of copyright protection and “fair use” when it comes to dance and performance. But this should be a growing field of exploration and concern. Artists – especially experimental artists – tend to position themselves in the context of larger philosophical, aesthetic and sociological conversations. In some ways performance is a time-based “site” or nexus for the intersection and juxtaposition of different ideas. It is an experiential mode of philosophical investigation, complete with dramaturgy, research and collateral conversations. To suggest that the work of choreographers and other time-based performance artists is not intellectual property as distinct as a book, article, recording or painting is simply wrong.

The Dance Heritage Foundation published an article on fair use of dance-related materials, you can download it here. There’s also an article on fair use at Dance/USA’s “From The Green Room” – you can read that here. And Michelle N. Burkhart wrote an article on the same site – Copyright Basics for Dance Works. She also wrote an article entitled “In a Post Graham World: Choreographing Dance Rights in the World of Media, Technology and Social Networking” which you can download here.

This situation also speaks to the general devaluation of the performing arts in our culture. The general public–and certainly most corporate advertising and entertainment content creators–look down on the arts. They don’t think it is difficult to make, they don’t consider it on par with movies or television, I imagine they think it is largely irrelevant and if someone is foolish enough to spend their time making high-concept art that only a few people go see, then it is not a big deal to steal it. Who will know anyway except for a few artsy-fartsy types?

Of course, I disagree–I think contemporary performance is exciting, dynamic and adventurous, it offers an alternative to the mindless, numbing, simplistic, commodified pablum that so frequently issues forth from the gaping maw of mass media. Don’t get me wrong – I watch TV and films and buy CDs and everything else. And a lot of the things I watch and listen to are well done, thoughtful and entertaining. But I appreciate that I can see live performance as a counterbalance to all the mediated and prepackaged narratives that proliferate in our society. And I appreciate that live performance–especially contemporary/experimental work–can engage with issues and ideas long before they percolate into the mainstream.

It is interesting that these days there are many creators of contemporary performance who readily and wholeheartedly embrace mass culture. Whether it is Neal Medlyn’s post-gender critique of Hannah Montana or Faye Driscoll riffing on talk shows in her recent work at DTW/NYLA or what have you, there is definitely a one-way dialogue here.  We, obviously, live in a mass media world and the ubiquity of stars, entertainment product, personalities and fashion trends makes it inevitable that artists working outside of the mainstream will reference those cultural touchstones. But what are we saying when we do that? Are we merely preaching to the converted when we critique it? Do we, in some way, de-legitimize ourselves by acknowledging how much more impact they have aesthetically and philosophically on the world at large than we do?

Some big questions that come to mind for me are:

  • How do we raise the value of live art in the cultural hierarchy?
  • How do we situate live art as intellectual property that can be owned, protected and licensed?
  • How do we engender a more meaningful two-way dialogue between mass and art culture?

Obviously this is just the beginning of a much longer conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Oh and here’s a longer video comparing the two works:

8 thoughts on “Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker vs. Beyonce”

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