Beyoncé’s latest music video “Countdown” dominates profusely on almost every level. Numerous close-ups of her chic-but-sassy facial expressions (Queen Blink, anybody?), fierce shimmies, pop art-style editing, killer wardrobe, Audrey Hepburn bangs and the product as a whole proves itself impressive and as punchy as it gets, but the video flounders in one, big way — one much bigger than her belly — and ladies and gentlemen, the name of the game is plagiarism.
As an aficionado of both Beyoncé Knowles and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, I find it difficult to not linger in what could have been. How exciting it is to imagine a blissful matrimony of pop culture and modern dance with two females of knockout talent, bringing together two far away worlds, yet the situation is more like theft than marriage.
The line between referencing the work of others and stealing has been walked frequently in the past and, as long as art exists, will continue to be tiptoed forever. But the reality of “Countdown” is that portions of the movement and scene structure are direct quotes from the work that De Keersmaeker choreographed for her own modern dance company, Rosas. The most exact imitation was taken from the window scene of a female trio and soloist in “Rosas danst Rosas,” which had been made into a dance film by Thierry De Mey in 1983. Beyoncé and video director Adria Petty also maneuvered in brief excerpts from De Keersmaeker’s “Achterland.”
I realize there are people who think it’s kosher that Beyoncé didn’t ask for permission and give proper acknowledgement because of the viewpoint that art can’t be copied; nothing can be owned nor can it be completely original. I agree with the idea at large, and I’m sure De Keersmaeker was inspired by something — there’s no blank slate for creation — but the viewpoint is flawed when applied to the circumstance in conversation.
It’s been mentioned that Beyoncé has relied a little too heavily on other people’s works in past music videos. For example, Bob Fosse’s steps from “Mexican Breakfast” make a solid appearance in “Single Ladies,” but this time around, the sampling is astonishingly more straightforward and not specifically acknowledged.
There are instances in the art world when it’s acceptable to borrow movement — the moonwalk being an example of this. It can be used, and no one needs to ask permission because the step is iconic, and the universe is aware of the man who created it. As raw and gorgeous as De Keersmaeker’s moves are, she is not Michael Jackson, and not yet timeless — she is a working artist who deserves recognition for her material.
“What’s rude about it is that they don’t even bother about hiding it,” said De Keersmaeker, in a statement on a Belgian blog. “They seem to think they could do it because it’s a famous work … Am I honored? Look, I’ve seen local school kids doing this. That’s a lot more beautiful.”
Although Beyonce’s sexy flair added to De Keersmaker’s excerpts worked into the appeal of “Countdown,” there was no homage paid in return. In grade school and in grad school, if a reference is not footnoted, you fail. Well, De Keersmaeker was not only not credited for her original work but was as surprised as you and I to see her own choreography when watching the video for the first time. I am curious about the consequences — what’s the equivalent of an F for Queen B? My guess is a loss of respect from some of her fans and a lawsuit that won’t make a dent in her treasure chest won’t begin to touch her platinum career.