Over the last few days I have continued to mull over the issues raised by the recent release of “Countdown.” Since my last post, the topic has spread like wild fire and is being mentioned on a wide variety of blogs and news sites. The coverage is often very accusatory and/or a very surface level coverage of events. I apologize in advance for the length of this post!
Introduction and Framing
In this post I would like to revisit the conversation and explore it from a more phenomenological, subjective point of view, out of which we might derive a more nuanced rubric and set of definitions for discussing instances of borrowing that span a spectrum of socially-acceptable behavior. Issues of legality and the rights and responsibilities of artists in the eyes of the law are beyond my area of expertise; I’m thinking here more about how it feels to watch a piece like this, and how our intuitions might help determine useful parameters which might at some point lead to legislation.
For insight on the current legal bounds of copyright law as it pertains to choreography, I refer you to an excellent analysis by my friend and colleague Merlyne Jean-Louis on the Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Blog of the New York State Bar Association. Please read “Dancing Around the Issue of Copyright of Choreographic Works,” which explores a hypothetical law suit that could be brought by Les Twins against the group D*Day, the analysis of which is highly applicable to our topic of conversation. [UPDATE: read her post on “Countdown” titled “If You Sue Me…You’re Out of Your Mind” also on EASLB.]
As I just said, and in contrast to the legal analysis offered above, I’m going to proceed in this post to discuss ‘feelings’ and ‘intuitions’–I realize that my reactions to those videos I am about to discuss may be highly idiosyncratic. However, for argument’s sake I will discuss my own experience of watching them, as it is the only experience I can attest to. I apologize for using simplistic language at times.
I will be focusing on four examples other than Countdown: “Dance of the Little Swans” from Swan Lake, Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock,” and two earlier Beyoncé videos–“Get Me Bodied” and Single Ladies.” Following that, I will try to extrapolate some of the variables in these instances of borrowing and quotation that might effect our intuitions and judgments about them.
The Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake.
This pas de quatre is defined by its interlinked arms, precision of the head, and intricate petit allegro footwork. It is quite possibly one of the most frequently referenced and oft-quoted sections of choreography, and appears in a wide range of dance compositions, often in a satirical manner. Here it is as performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1989:
Now, catch a “quotation” or “reference” to this pas de quatre in the ‘Flipper Ballet’ of “Lay All Your Love on Me” in Mamma Mia! Watch for it around 0:12-0:18
When I first saw Mamma Mia! I noticed this reference and I loved it–I thought-wow, that’s such a clever use of a classical piece; invert it so that it is four men, now clumsy water-creatures with flexed flippers in lieu of the four graceful swans with meticulously pointed toes. This quotation seems to work for the piece because it satirizes the form of ballet and yet admits the choreographer’s/choreography’s indebtedness to the form.
Yet it’s a direct quotation without any verbal or print citation of Marius Petipa– so why does it feel totally fine?
Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock”
One of the music videos that’s being brought into the conversation about “Countdown” on blog and YouTube comments is “Pretty Girl Rock.” In the video Hilson takes on the costume, persona, and movement qualities of important historical Black women performers. This seems to be a very different case from “Countdown” for several reasons, not least of which was transparency, as seen in the description of the video on Hilson’s Vevo channel:
“Follow Keri Hilson through the decades in the video for her single “Pretty Girl Rock,” directed by Joseph Kahn. Keri transforms herself into women who have paved the way for black female artists, including Josephine Baker, the first world-famous African-American entertainer; singer Dorothy Dandridge; disco queens Diana Ross and Donna Summers; dance music legend Janet Jackson; and R&B trio TLC.”
Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock”
In addition to the issue of transparency, there seems to be a difference between performing movement in the style of a person or even an era, and performing the movement of a person or another performance. I also have the intuition that the progression over time and the regularity of the changes between eras/personas has to do with understanding the authorial intent here as homage. It’s possible that one of the reasons the de Keersmaeker quotes in “Countdown” do not read as ‘homage’ (as some are saying), is that despite the presence of other references and inspirations, de Keersmaeker’s work makes up between 1/2 and 2/3 of the duration of “Countdown,” in one form or another.
Beyoncé: “Get Me Bodied” and “Single Ladies”
The comparison to “Single Ladies” is inevitable, but complex. For those who don’t know, the controversy surrounding “Single Ladies” regarded the use of choreography from at least two if not more dance numbers choreographed by Bob Fosse; “Mexican Breakfast” (Debut Ed Sullivan Show 1969) and “There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This” from the film version of Sweet Charity (1969). I calculate that about 65 seconds of the three minutes and nineteen seconds of “Single Ladies” is not just inspired but taken verbatim from these two pieces. [I will post a boiled-down paper I wrote on this issue at a later date].
Let’s back up a second. Even when I was only grappling with my feelings about “Single Ladies,” I was struck by the fact that the Bob Fosse references in Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied” never bothered me for an instant. Why is it different? Watch it, and “The Rich Man’s Frug”–also from Sweet Charity, below:
So, as you can see “Get Me Bodied” uses the setting, costuming, mood, and much of the choreography (especially the use of space/traveling through space) of Fosse’s piece. It is unmistakeably referencing/quoting/replicating “The Rich Man’s Frug.” If you have seen Fosse’s piece you would recognize the connection immediately. But, in fact, this seems to be the rhetorical power of the reference; what does a posh club look like in 2007? Where has “mod” taken us? What kind of popular and vernacular dances would a choreographer integrate now–just as Fosse did then–into a more abstract performance? How do men and women interact on the dance floor now, as opposed to 1969? And so on and so forth.
And, it works! Perhaps this should not enter the equation, but I’m going to put it in. The reference is entire, smooth, and evolved. Throughout the discourse on “Countdown” there have been cries that ‘artists always borrow’ ‘everything new is old’ and so on. These statements are true. But what needs to be remembered is that effective use of the old re-works the old. Effective, valid, useful art interrogates the old, adjusts it, juxtaposes it with the new or with future possibilities. It brings something additional to the conversation.
Which brings us to “Single Ladies.”
Unlike “Get Me Bodied” and “Countdown,” “Single Ladies” took the Fosse choreography out of context and out of order, and integrated it into a new product. By changing some of the dynamics of the original movement and by requiring interesting transitions between the moves inspired by J-Setting, choreographers Frank Gaston and Jaquel Knight brought new movement vocabulary to play into Fosse’s. By giving the whole piece the style and attitude of J-Setting, the choreographers nearly transformed the movement.
…nearly. On the one hand, while they did what I just suggested is important, they produced something new out of the old instead of just repeating it, in doing so they (and even more so Beyoncé) claimed the choreography as their own work. Even though the original movement is largely broken up, as I noted before about 1/3 of the time spent moving, the dancers are performing movement which previously had only been seen in Fosse choreography. That is to say–importantly–that they were not codified or common movements in the dance ether. So while taking the movement out of context enabled more creative work to take place perhaps, it also handily obscures the references. Which brings us to
Intention, Themes, and Variables
To wrap up, I’d like to highlight those points/variables which seem to have come out in my musings on the above examples. I have tried to reserve judgment throughout this post, but especially in this list I have tried to really pare it down to a checklist we might be able to use to gauge our feelings and eventually make legislation and agreements.
One last point before the list: some, especially Alva Noë in her blog on the controversy (read it here), assert that the intention to deceive must be present for a citationless borrowing to count as “plagiarism.” I understand her point and think it certainly must enter the conversation. However, discerning authorial intent has occupied an entire branch of study in the Academy, and, to put it simply, can rarely, in fact, be known. I can only assume that everything done for the purposes of marketing (which a music video is) is done with the end goal of promoting the artist, her image, and the opinion of her skills and creative ability. If this is the case, then the use of someone else’s work towards this end seems to be an act of deception. (More on this in the paper I mentioned earlier).
That aside, but with an eye on the difficulty of ascertaining artist’s intent, here is the list of questions or themes that we might be able to say are the ones we ask ourselves (possibly implicitly) when we have intuitions and feelings about a new work which uses old material. Perhaps in identifying them explicitly we can make more nuanced critiques of the use of “the old” in “the new,” how it makes us feel, how effective it is aesthetically, and, eventually, what the legality is.
- (De)contextualization: does the movement appear in the same setting and order?
- Length of quotation(s): what’s the proportion of old to new?
- Public’s familiarity of quotation: is it an obscure reference or an obvious one? How can we account for varied audiences and knowledges?
- Age of the original material: how long has it been around and is it therefore common knowledge?
- Is the reference made obvious/displayed, or is it hidden/obscured?
- Faithfulness in recreation: how well and how accurately is the quotation performed?
- Self-awareness/reflexivity/does the artist create something new with the borrowed material?
- Acknowledgement/Humility–>Logistical/Public relation element: are there visual credits on or under the video? Are any announcements made about influences, permissions, etc.? Have the relevant parties given permission and/or were they compensated?
Did I leave anything out? Do you have different feelings/reactions to my examples? Leave comments below and thanks for reading!