This past weekend my Facebook went berserk. Hundreds of little red reminders. And why? Beyoncé released her newest video, a little guilty pleasure called Countdown. The video is an open homage to a whole lotta stuff, from Audrey Hepburn’s dance scene in Funny Face to the seminal Vogue photo shoots of the 1960’s to Twiggy’s distinctive makeup stylings. But thrown into the collage of-many-good-things-made-by-other-artists-a-long-time-ago is a one to one remake of Rosas Danst Rosas by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. This was the cause of the inter-unrest. It was a thirty plus-comment, capital letters debate about ghetto-ization of certain art forms, pop culture and what’s good for modern dance, in which I was one of a mass of confused and excited voices.
The overall feeling was that something had been stolen from us. Who is us? Us, I guess, is the modern dance community. Rosas Danst Rosas is a very important piece in the progression of contemporary dance. Choreographed in 1983, this work has been shown around the world many times over. Now in its 28th year, the piece continues to thrill audiences, as relevant today as it was in the early 80’s.
Now the question is, who cares? Isn’t it good for modern dance, a fringe art form now and forever, to gain this exposure? Beyoncé is a media giant, a queen, a cherished international performer. And regardless of our opinions about her personal style or music choices, shouldn’t we feel honored that someone who is otherwise unconnected to Belgian contemporary dance recognizes the beauty of Rosas Danst Rosas and is bringing it to the frontline?
I think, at least for me, the friction comes from a fear of being absorbed into the mass of mainstream culture. I don’t believe that Beyoncé is sitting in her pool of diamonds calculating how to sustain her stay as the princess of pop. No one wants to be mainstream. Maybe a few record executives shoot for the middle. Maybe some teenyboppers. But an artist like Beyoncé? She wants to be different, to bring something new and unexpected, to redefine her art form. She has won her spurs as a unique recording and performance artist. But there is a clear feeling that modern dance is not, nor will it ever achieve mainstreamhood while Beyoncé is comfortably killing it in the center of popular culture. This isn’t the first time Beyoncé has borrowed from other choreographers, pointed out my friend James Welbsy. Single Ladies was a screaming reference to Bob Fosse. Beyoncé likes to dance, a fact she has proven in many videos and the Move Your Body project head up by Michelle Obama. But this video plunges deep into contemporary dance and shakes something uncomfortable up.
The thing that keeps dance down is the thing we are most afraid to lose, its strangeness, its inaccessibility. If Beyoncé makes everyone realize that contemporary dance isn’t so bad, will it cease to be special? Will it become reality television or Justin Bieber? Almost every night, here in Tel Aviv, performances are danced for half-empty houses. Our biggest challenge is to find an audience and here, Beyoncé will give Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, without giving credit to her I might add, more exposure in one weekend than thirty years of a glorious career have won her. And isn’t that a little bit wrong?
It makes me think about Pina by Wim Wenders, which I finally saw last week. The film is a 3D homage to Pina Bausch, the recently deceased, prolific German choreographer. The film opened at the Berlin Film Festival last February. I happened to be in Berlin but couldn’t get tickets. Then, two weeks ago, it arrived in Israel. Again, I couldn’t get tickets. No connections helped me. It was full on sold out, every seat taken. When I did manage to get in, the crowd awed me. Who were all those people? Where did this audience come from and where were they the last time I was trying to promote a performance at Suzanne Dellal? If all these people love dance so much, why don’t they come to dance performances? And yet, somehow, this didn’t feel like a threat. I was pleased to see the full theater. Wim Wenders is a classy, skilled filmmaker. And after all, the movie is being shown at Lev, an art-film house. Why is this OK when Beyoncé using Rosas isn’t?
The film will, similar to Countdown, bring a larger audience to Pina Bausch’s work than many years of performances did. However, people going to see Pina know who it is about. And teenagers watching Beyoncé will have no idea and no way of finding out about Rosas. Is that what bothers us about it? Credit? I can’t imagine that Beyoncé would risk it and not get the rights to use Rosas’ material. But nowhere, in all of the interviews and information does anyone mention Rosas. That certainly is a problem. Even if she is knowingly, consciously winking at her viewers, begging them even to look up this reference, challenging us, it is in some way taking a piece of art out of its context and leaving it stranded there.
Is this hidden homage good for dance or bad for dance? Or I could think about it this way: is this video better for dance than all the crappy dance out there? At least it’s made well. It’s beautiful and aesthetic and serves some kind of a purpose. It may be making dance a little less special and locked away in a very shiny box somewhere. But it is also making pop a little richer, a bit less trashy and a lot more interesting to watch.