Borrowing or Stealing?

Having just started reading “Arts Beat” on a regular basis, tonight I found an article titled “Beyonce Accused of Plagiarism Over Video.” Immediately, I thought, “They finally called her out for using Fosse’s choreography in ‘Single Ladies.’”  As I began to read the article, I found that there was no mention of Fosse’s movement at all.  Instead, author James C. Mckinley Fr. was referencing “Countdown,” a new video which directly “borrows” movement from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s work from the 1980′s.  Having a familiarity with De Keersmaeker’s work (she is a famous post-modern choreographer who runs P.A.R.T.S. in Belgium), I was surprised that a pop idol like Beyonce would be influenced by her non-commercial/conformist art.  Nonetheless, I found myself asking questions about the process of “borrowing” in art making.

The obvious question here, for me at least, is what can be identified as plagiarism of movement?  The concept of “borrowing” is a major compositional tool taught in dance-making.  When does something borrowed cross the line to engender a drastic change in terminology, especially in movement?  Wouldn’t that mean every plie and pirouette is stolen from Louis XIV?  I think this is something artists struggle with constantly, especially in dance.  In this case however,  this is not just an issue of movement replication but also of cinematographic copying.  The Anne Teresa De Keermaeker work is “Dance for Camera,” which is an art unto itself.  The shots in Beyonce’s video, which are compared to the Belgian choreography in a youtube clip at the top of the article, are starkly similar.

The inspiration of the Belgian choreography could have, in my mind, been abstracted rather than directly replicated.  Many artists understand how to reference work without “stealing” it. On the other hand, many artists have gotten away with “stealing” without penalization or even notice.  I think it’s safe to assume that most Americans are unaware of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s work.  Until she was forced, Beyonce did not acknowledge her international inspiration.  This act may be understood as flattery by some artists, but in no way does that excuse disrespect.  I remember similar to points made by Felicie Hardison Londre in relationship to dramaturgical plagiarism.  If credit were paid to the origin and originator of the crafting, this probably wouldn’t have become such a problem.

Inevitably, the integrity of the commercial spin does not hold weight.  The reality is that the original artwork has a completely contrasting dramaturgical history.  Anne Teresa, talking about her work the ’80′s that nfluenced “Countdown,” states:

“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.”

Having watched Beyonce’s music video, I can see what isn’t working.  In Keersmaeker’s work, angsty, post-modern dancers drive a percussively uncomfortable dance juxtaposing freedom with restraint.  In Beyonce’s interpretation, she the movements are sewn into a well-manicured fabric of mainstream femininity (highlighting “bootylicious” dancing).  The work, therefore, loses its raw sensuality in exchange for a hypersexual, overly polished exacerbation of mainstream media and culture.  The moments in history are completely different, as are the artists who are making the works.  This could provide evidence to support Beyonce’s innocence.  The moments in Beyonce’s piece she “stole” appear amongst other non-related moments and must viewed differently by her audiences.  Regardless if it is or is not plagiarism, Beyonce’s video is unsuccessful in its artistic attempts.  Still, this is an opinion I may not share with others, nor may it be of concern to them, but after all, we only learn by sharing.

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