In the summer of 2011 pop icon Beyoncé released her appropriately titled album 4 and with it a string of music videos. One particular video, Countdown, was subject to a great deal of much deserved, yet rather short-lived, controversy. (Disclaimer: In the spirit of Chelsey’s recent ‘Feelings Friday’ post about not being ashamed about enjoying pop culture, I should say that despite adopting a critical tone in this blog piece I 100% unashamedly love Beyoncé!). In Countdown Beyoncé directly quotes portions—including choreography, space, and costuming—from contemporary Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work Rosas Danst Rosas.
While appropriation—which involves taking up past forms of cultural production and using them to new ends—is a common technique in contemporary art, Beyoncé’s Countdown is a rather blatant rip off, made very clear by watching a split screen version of the two works on YouTube. Only after receiving an outpour of public criticism did the pop star and her co-director Adria Petty acknowledge the original sources of the choreography. Beyoncé stated: “Clearly, the ballet Rosas Danst Rosas was one of many references for my video Countdown…I’ve always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.” But in this case what marks Beyoncé from artists who liberally borrow from existing works is that the audience is generally expected to recognize the referent. When the music video was released Beyoncé made no direct reference to de Keersmaeker, instead choosing to exploit experimental choreography while knowing very well that few mainstream viewers would recognize the original source. While Beyoncé has arguably brought some much-deserved visibility to a brilliant contemporary choreographer she remains in a position of cultural power from which she can perform actions that go relatively unchecked. de Keersmaeker acknowledged this power imbalance in her personal response to the video controversy. The choreographer took the high road by saying that she was not angry or flattered by the episode but rather interested in why it takes popular culture so long to recognize experimental performance. (de Keersmaeker’s response has been removed from her website but you can read a good article on the Culturebot which includes most of the original statement).
While discussion about plagiarism and copyright in contemporary art is a good thing, I don’t want to ramble on about these debates here. Instead, I want to turn attention to what I find is most interesting about this particular incident; that is, how the meaning of movement is transferred and transformed from one context to another. The same movements that complicate constructions of femininity in Rosas Danst Rosas become overtly sexualized gestures that conform to a generic and consumerist ideal of the female body in Countdown. In Rosas Danst Rosas, de Keersmaeker incorporates quotidian gestures associated with femininity, such as crossing one’s legs or brushing back one’s hair, to foreground and parody naturalized assumptions about the gendered body, while in Countdown the viewer’s visual focus is directed towards the sexualized nature of Beyoncé’s body rather than the meaning of her movements. De Keersmaeker drew a similar conclusion in her publicized 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.”
I will stop myself now and save you all from reading a jargon-filled visual analysis to turn to my conclusion and an interesting recent twist in the Beyoncé vs. de Keersmaeker plot. On June 24, 2013 de Keersmaeker put a call out on her website for people to remake her now 30-year-old work. She produced a series of instructional videos that taught the public how to perform a shortened version of Rosas Danst Rosas. She even uploaded the original soundtrack. Although she explains the choreography in extensive detail she encourages complete creative independency. Her gesture is similar to artists in the 1960s associated with the Fluxus movement who made works that consisted entirely of instructions that other people could interpret and perform. In doing so, artists opened up the definitions of what art could be while questioning ideas around authenticity and authorship.
De Keersmaeker received 250 submissions before her October 1st deadline that were then included in a video installation on display at the anniversary performance of Rosas Danst Rosas. What emerged was a series of highly creative interpretations of de Keersmaeker’s choreography; everything from a group of young women dancing in a corn maze to a dream like sequence performed by a group of Filipino women. Individuals and groups from all over the world are continuing to remake the piece and upload their videos online. While de Keersmaeker makes no mention of Beyoncé’s video from a few years prior, I believe Re:Rosas! is a witty nod to the past controversy. By revealing her process of making and encouraging people to re-perform her work, de Keersmaeker is reclaiming authorship of her original choreography. In doing so, she acknowledges how the meaning of movement can dramatically change from one context to another. In the end I think de Keersmaeker’s artistic action is an intelligent and imaginative response to Beyoncé’s video. At the same time, removed from the Queen B controversy all together, the Re:Rosas! project is an interesting example of how one artist is sharing her work with the rest of the world and allowing amateurs and professionals alike to be apart of the piece in an embodied way.