Meghan Moe Beitiks on Rosas danst rosas Live
So there are very few moments when your first thoughts within the first five minutes of a dance performance are Holy Shit. But that was me on Saturday at the MCA Chicago.
Holy Shit, because the first five minutes of Rosans danst rosas is four performers breathing and moving together with a level of synchronicity and precision that they are practically a single machine-organism. Holy Shit, because the simplest rolls and swipes develop a level of resilience and profundity. Holy Shit, and that shit isn’t on YouTube.
You may have caught our preview of the piece, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker‘s Rosas danst rosas, and the discussion of its copying by Beyonce for her music video “Countdown.” There’s a number of aspects to the live piece that aren’t omnipresent online, or in the music video clips. The opening is one. The set design, as well: a backdrop of reflective fabric above the piece’s famous wooden chairs. There’s also two long mirrors. They run along the edge of the stage on either side, reflecting pinspots in the first act that create a low, almost fog-like, glowing light along the floor. The effect is haunting and gorgeous.
In the black space of the theater the piece takes on different meaning than the film version of the same work, which was set in an abandoned building and spoke to a kind of desolation and loss. In the minimal context of the theater, the dance takes on more deliberation and defiance. The music compositions of Thierry De May and Peter Vermeersch are also, not surprisingly, more resonant and powerful in the theater space. The resonance of the claps and smacks of the music occupy real presence within the piece.
In reaction to the copying if her work around 2011, De Keersmaeker issued a statement:
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.
That difference is starkly apparent in the live performance of Rosas. Whereas in “Countdown,” one repeated gesture, a constant pulling-of-the-shirt-off-the-shoulder is absorbed by both the rote mechanics of choreography and the hypersexualization found in many music videos, in Rosas live that movement is tied to moments of human connection, stillness, eye contact. Repeatedly in the third movement of Rosas, dancers walk on either side of the stage and stare at us while pulling the collars of their shirts off their shoulders, then back on. I’m sorry, did you think that dance was for you? It wasn’t. It was for me— is the monologue I’ve created for the dancers in my head. The gesture is one of self-confidence and determination, it points to and defies female oversexualization, and it’s clear that in Beyonce’s hands that meaning is dissolved.
In the preview, I suggested that viewers of the piece live could determine for themselves if Beyonce’s theft signals a lack of appreciation for the craft of performance, or something else. I’m going to go out on a limb and say: the physical craft of the performance is actually very well executed in Beyonce’s pirated version. That doesn’t make it not-theft. The thing to mourn the loss of in the theft is this greater meaning of Rosas, this complexity and defiance, in service to commercial gain. The way in which it was copied by the pop star was not only disrespectful of the source (uncredited and later dismissed as ‘inspiration,’ a word used by the performer to justify the practice in other instances), it ignores the meanings inherent in the original work and imagery. I’m going to leave discussions of feminism in this instance to other sources. But this performance made me even more grateful for the Re:rosas project, as many of the copycat performances responding to De Keersmaeker’s release of the choreography appropriate as a kind of tribute, as a way to talk back to the piece’s influence, and include some lovely personalization of the movement.
Which, when we’re talking about responses of appropriation, and not theft, is what this work deserves. Because that is some powerful shit.