When I first saw Beyoncé's video for "Countdown", I was blown away. It was fresh and unusual, dynamic and sexy.
Then I came across the mash-up of the last minute of "Countdown" with clips from contemporary Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's famous ballets, Rosas danst Rosas and Achterland. The similarities to the former are undeniable, from Bey's hairstyle and the way she adjusts her shirt, to the patterned tile floor and the panes of the window in the shot's foreground. The dance moves are identical, albeit infused with a bit more of Beyoncé's trademark sass.
There is even similarity in the subtle: You can catch a glimpse of Beyoncé's four-month baby bump in the music video at :36, and De Keersmaeker was pregnant with her second child when Rosas danst Rosas was filmed in 1996.
Does this count as plagiarism? Or is it just homage?
Nancy Wozny, contributing editor to Dance Magazine and a regular CultureMap columnist, has a strong opinion on the matter: "It's outright plagiarism. This just demonstrates how much the arts are marginalized by popular culture. . . When pop culture and high art meet, there's a huge disconnect."
"I think it is interesting that her choreographer is looking into the ranks of European contemporary dance," Wozny says. "It's not great that Beyoncé did this, but the end result is that more people will be looking at Anne's work. . . I never thought the two would be in the same sentence. But I'm glad they are."
Wozny's dance credentials are heavy hitting. She was a 2005 NEA Fellow at the Institute for Dance Criticism and a scholar in residence at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 2010 and 2011. She's known as Dancehunter within the close-knit dance world.
It seems that De Keersmaeker was thinking along the same lines as Wozny when she issued the following statement on the website for her dance company, Rosas:
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 [popularity] 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."
Beyoncé claimed in a statement that the ballet "was one of many references for [her] video... It was one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life." She also cited Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross as figures to which the music video pays tribute.
Though the leaning on De Keersmaeker's choreography, and the costumes, and the cinematography of Thierry De Mey's film (find parts one, two and three here) may have been lost on the average viewer, such was not the case for those knowledgeable in the world of dance.
"Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is a seminal living choreographer," Wozny says. "This is not some obscure artist."
We love our hometown honey, but could Beyoncé have been a bit more original in her "adaptation" of the ballet, or a bit more forthright with her use of borrowed materials?
Or perhaps even used a contemporary choreographer, or snagged one of De Keersmaker's students, to pay proper homage?