Beyonce’s appropriation of moves and staging from Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in her new music video “Countdown,” released last month, has sparked an Internet uproar. Helpfully, there’s a split screen clip on YouTube that exhibits a few brief scenes from the R&B singer’s video alongside nearly identical moments from two of de Keersmaeker’s experimental works, “Achterland,” from 1994 and a 1997 film of a piece called “Rosas danst Rosas.”
But though the scoldings throughout the blogosphere are compelling — Beyonce has been bawled out for being a copycat and for lacking imagination and respect and so on — much of art history says that the recording artist and dancer has done nothing out of the ordinary.
Existing material has formed the core of countless artworks, including those now enshrined as masterstrokes. Andy Warhol cashed in on Campbell’s soup, Marcel Duchamp plunked a urinal on a pedestal and called it his own creation. His reasoning? He had devised “a new thought” for it.
If it seems a stretch to liken any aspect of Beyonce’s output with that of esteemed visual artists, there is a concept that links them all: appropriation, the art world’s term for using borrowed material to create new work. It’s a method that the field proudly stands behind, and in addition to Warhol and Duchamp, those who have practiced it include many prominent names in modern painting and sculpture.
In the music business, sampling has been around for decades. Beyonce’s husband, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, knows more than a little about this. Sampling is not without its own controversies over rights, credits and whether legal issues impede creativity. But contemporary musicians have gotten a long head start on dancers in feeling their way around these obstacles.
The younger and more insular dance world tends to be more secretive about its borrowings, though they are pervasive. In fact, de Keersmaeker, a longtime modern-dance force in Europe whose works have a nervous, edgy look, has also lifted steps: In her piece “D’un soir un jour,” she includes part of Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Afternoon of a Faun,” and acknowledges that in a description of the dance on her Web site.
Still, I can sympathize with de Keersmaeker’s initial sourness over seeing her postmodern work plucked out of context and dropped into a commercial video for a sexy love song.
“It’s a bit rude,” the choreographer told the radio station Studio Brussel. “What’s rude about it is that they don’t even bother about hiding it.”
Yet it’s not clear how “hiding” it, which presumably means “making it less like the original,” would be better. The openness of the copying (or tribute?) in Beyonce’s “Countdown” is striking, and that’s precisely how the word got out that it’s de Keersmaeker’s work, not bad publicity for an artist on the fringes. The scenes in question account for just a few seconds of the video’s 31
2 minutes of dizzying cuts from one cultural reference to another, but the gray T-shirts, raw warehouse set and even the cold, flat lighting are accurately — if playfully — reproduced from the Belgian clips.