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”

  1. Julia says:

    I go back and forth about whether this is a form of pastiche or infringement. First of all, I love Beyonce's video, but I agree that compared to Keersmaker's choreography and setting it feels watered down, commercialized and stripped of the inherent emotion. The most enjoyable experience is watching the full length side by side mashup, (which I have now done 3 times in a row).

    But I can't help but feel that we often reverse engineer these issues for our purposes when looking at them from the other (that is the not for profit, artistic) side: I was on Dangermouse's side when he made The Grey Album, I was on Catch's side when they did the Kanye West album, I was on Andrew Dinwiddie's side when he remade a Jimmy Swaggert sermon, I am always on Neal Medlyn's side. And I'm not always sure how much of my enjoyment of their work comes from a place of "speaking truth to power" or more from our mutual appreciation of the original source material. Not that speaking truth to power is necessarily the point of these endeavors.

    Also, because of the vastness of sources available to us, I don't think that anyone would argue that connoisseurship has become an art all of it's own. In fact, finding the combination to use – 1970's punk Korean slasher movies mixed with speghetti (sp) westerns mixed with a Kalakati drama or something – is an ongoing hallmark of the experimental/ downtown performance world. And, I guess for that matter, Quentin Tarantino.

    Of course, the issue is compensation, but if that were taken out of the equation (which I know, is impossible) I would like to imagine that we would all be stealing and reworking everyone's work in a large and multi-tiered cultural conversation.

  2. Andrew says:


    'Countdown' and Neal Medlyn's "The Beyonce Experience Live!" are an obvious and fun pair of works around which to parse some of these issues.

    Beyond "Who's Getting Paid?" another way to frame the difference (or frame it as a difference) is, Market Economy vs. Gift Economy. When Neal Medlyn performed "The Beyonce Experience Live!," he was taking something out of the For-Profit / Market Economy (the original "The Beyonce Experience Live!" dvd) and turning it into a (ticket selling, but still) Non-Profit / Gift Economy experience. Beyonce Knowles (and/or one or several corporations) intended to make a profit from the DVD, but Neal Medlyn (and the venues that have produced the show) probably lost money on his (delightful!) production.

    If another artist were to reperform Neal's reperformance of Beyonce's (live concert) dvd, in a non-profit gift economy environment (I'm imagining … Miranda July, at the Walker) I think he might have to say, "well … touche!"

  3. Andrew says:

    2. Conversely, Beyonce Knowles (and assorted corporations) have used Anne Teresa de Keersmaker's non-profit / gift economy ideas for the for-profit / market economy purpose of selling the 'Countdown' mp3, video, concert tickets, t-shirts, etc. etc.

    That's why it feels to many of us in the performance world that Neal was "using" or "working with" or "reappropriating" Beyonce's creation, but Beyonce was "stealing" Anne Teresa's creation.

  4. Andrew says:

    3. Another perspective is of Credit. Neal's presentation of "The Beyonce Experience Live!" couldn't be more clearly or fundamentally credited. Beyonce is a one-named celebrity and only a space alien could be confused about the origin of Neal's material. But with the "Countdown" video, were it not for the all the hubub, not more than a few hundred people would have recognized the source of the choreography and imagery. I'd love to see what would happen if Beyonce had very directly quoted the video for 'Beat It' or recreated sequences from 'The Exorcist' or something. Would she be sued? Rightfully or Wrongfully? Everyone would know what she was quoting, but who – if anyone – would care? (confidential to Beyonce: I've got lots of good ideas along those lines. Call me!)

    I'm actually not ready to say Beyonce was wrong to use Anne Teresa's imagery in this way – I'm still thinking about it – but I do know that every one loves to get credit for their ideas and labor.

  5. Andrew says:

    4. A last point of differentiation:

    I feel that Beyonce's biting of Anne Teresa's (dance-focused) dance video images – even just of short segments – for her own (music-focused) dance video feels to me like LESS of a change to the original ideas than Neal's playing the entire Beyonce dvd audio while reperforming that audio live. There's somethign giant in the physical relocation of that material into the New Museum's theater, and onto/through Neal Medlyn and his fellow performers, that changes Beyonce's ideas drastically.

    [Confidential to Miranda July: That means that instead of performing your "Neal Medlyn's The Beyonce Experience Live!" at the Walker, you should maybe film your performance in your bedroom, package it as a dvd, and sell it (at a loss, of course) in the Walker's gift shop. I'm sure you're way ahead of me on this but, please, call me.)

  6. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Er…I think another much more basic point of difference is that Medlyn's work can easily be identified as satire or irony, which is protected category of speech and generally (though not exclusively) seen as permissible use. I'm actually deeply skeptical of the idea that profitability should be a decisive metric. That's actually a legally bad idea. One person's intellectual property claim is as valid as another's. You're aware that a failure to actively defend an intellectual property claim can ultimately be used as justification for not treating it as intellectual property? There's a reason Disney sues nurseries for hand-painted non-licensed versions of their characters. If they don't, it could be used against them by a more decidedly profit-oriented pirate.

  7. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    I meant "satire or PARODY" in that comment; irony is rather different.

  8. culturebot says:

    For me this whole conversation is ultimately about value and money, not about artistic license. From an artistic perspective I think anybody should be able to riff off of, improvise, be inspired by, mash-up, comment on, etc. ANYTHING. It has been said that "Good artists copy, Great artists steal". I don't know about that, per se, but there is a lot to be said about creative dialogue between artists across media, disciplines and time.

    What gets me riled up here is that in any other medium you have the possibility of copyright protection and the ability to profit from your intellectual property. If you were a software designer who developed some code, you would damn sure be pissed if someone ripped you off, especially without attribution or remuneration. Any writer – journalist or fiction or other – caught plagiarizing or quoting without attribution risks having their career and credibility destroyed. Even in music, for instance, Miles Davis is free to re-invent "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" on his album "Steaming With Miles Davis". But the album has the songwriting credit on it (Rodgers and Hammerstein) and I would imagine that R&H's publishing company gets royalties. Davis' re-imagining is uniquely his, but he doesn't claim ownership of the source material.

    Someone sent me an email that said:

    "I'm much more blase about this sort of thing (intellectual property that is). I think influence is a good thing and people should feel free to quote up a storm. And Beyonce did something that is, perhaps, a bit beyond a quote and goes into the realm of plagiarism. But I think there's too much IP bullshit floating around int he world anyway and we need less, rather than more, copyright protection.

    if I can't copyright my staging of a play (and I don't think I should be able to, btw) I hardly see how copyrighting a dance makes sense. "

    Which is basically flawed. With a play you can copyright the text itself and somebody has to PAY YOU to stage it. You may not be able to copyright the staging itself (though I think you should be able to) but you still get paid for your work!

    The idea that there should be less concern about intellectual property is the kind of fallacy that keeps artists poor, that lets artists get scammed out of the money they should rightfully earn when they create new content or contribute creative services to a project.

    People who are in the commercial creative industries get paid and they make their work "for hire" – so they don't own what they make, necessarily. In Hollywood actors and other creative talents demand a piece of the backend. They value their services and worth highly. Visual artists who sell their work – or in the case of Tino Sehgal, merely ideas themselves – get paid enormous sums of money for their creative product and frequently control the licensing and representation of their work in the future. The idea that a choreographer or a body-based, time-based live artist should
    not have similar control – and ongoing remuneration – for the re-purposing, commodification or appropriation of their work is just plain wrong.

    Beyonce makes commercial entertainment product, it exists in a marketplace and she is successful because it appeals to wide swath of consumers who enjoy that product and wish to acquire content associated with her brand. I'm not going to comment on her "artistry" – that's a different conversation.

    Artists in the non-profit environment who create work that is not predicated on commercial viable are like the "R&D" of mainstream culture – they are exploring ideas, forms, content and expressions that may not readily have commercial value in the moment, but may come to acquire commercial value over time. Even if it doesn't, it is often creating a significant dialogue in an art context that speaks to other thinkers – entrepreneurs, architects, designers, city planners, philosophers, statesmen, journalists, writers, politicians, diplomats – countless people who engage in sophisticated conversations about the nature of our society and whose work influences our lives in meaningful if sometimes less obvious ways.

    The work that artists make outside of a commercial context not only has influence there but – as evidenced by Beyonce and others – eventually does trickle into the mainstream in one form or another. If they are doing this work and often not being compensated well for it, they should at least be acknowledged for creating the content and aesthetic context that led to the commercial expression.

    In a weird way – and maybe this isn't the greatest analogy, but the principle is the same – it is like Led Zeppelin stealing from Willie Dixon and not giving credit or remuneration.

    I've got a lot more to say but I'm going on vacation. See you when I get back!

    (PS: I also got an email suggesting that it has been said that Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker has been accused of "borrowing" some of the movement vocabulary in the aforementioned works from Trisha Brown, which may be why she is taking the high road with Beyonce. Anybody have firsthand knowledge or opinions on that?)

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