Who is Hurt by the Blatant Plagiarism of Beyoncé's "Countdown"?

October 10, 2011

It’s kind of thrilling and kind of disheartening to recognize the choreography of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Beyoncé’s fabulous new music video “Countdown.”  Thrilling because right there, in a pop music video for all to see, is the work that postmodern dancers all over the world know as almost heroic in its risk-taking. Disheartening because no credit is given to one of our living legends.

When asked if she was “hurt” by it on the BBC news this morning, de Keersmaeker said No. She was a bit surprised, and she did call it plagiarism, but she wasn’t thrown entirely off balance. She expressed admiration for Beyoncé as an artist, and she admitted that a glimpse of her own work will now be seen by umpteen more people. (Here is de Keersmaeker’s initial statement about it.)

So who is hurt?

I was not particularly upset by this. I really like the video, and I appreciate how, every time you look at it you see more details. I love Beyoncé’s dancing and her chameleon looks. And I think de Keersmaeker’s exhausted schoolgirl thing gives “Countdown” a nicely rough-edged texture. (Here’s the film of Rosas danst Rosas that inspired big chunks of “Countdown”).

But I know dancers who absolutely love de Keersmaeker’s work who are very offended. One is Ori Lenkinski, who lives in Tel Aviv. Though she acknowledges that “Countdown” will make de Keersmaeker’s work more visible, she’s unsettled by it. She feels that we, the international postmodern we, are losing part of ourselves through Beyoncé’s appropriation of the cherished de Keersmaeker works.

The way Ori feels reminds me of the way I felt after seeing Sarah Michelson’s Devotion, which was partly an appropriation of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room earlier this year. I was offended because I love In the Upper Room. I knew that Michelson’s piece was an homage to Tharp, but I wondered why Tharp wasn’t thanked in the program notes. I felt troubled and hurt by this. It is possible to contact the person you’re “inspired by” and ask their permission. I don’t know why Michelson did not contact Tharp, just as I don’t know why Beyoncé’s team did not contact de Keersmaeker.

So maybe the people who are hurt are not the ripped-off artist so much as all the thousands of people who love their work and feel part of it.

What I don’t like thinking about is how Beyoncé’s co-director Adria Petty probably assumed that this strange work she discovered on YouTube was so obscure that no one would notice their lifting it for their video. I am also disappointed because I think of Beyoncé as an artist, and therefore someone who would appreciate the artwork of others.

Fantasy: Wouldn’t it be nice if Beyoncé donated a small fraction of the profits from “Countdown” to de Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, as a thank you for inspiring her?