Did Beyoncé step on a dancer’s toes?

Did Beyoncé step on a dancer’s toes?

Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross were some of the inspirations for Beyoncé’s music recent video Countdown. But two contemporary dance works by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker provided more than inspiration: according to the Belgian choreographer they were “plundered”

Immediately identifiable in the music video are movement sequences, costumes, camera angles and locations from De Keersmaeker’s 1997 dance film Rosas danst Rosas – created with director Thierry De Mey – and movement from her 1990 dance Achterland . A press statement from De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas states that Countdown “cannot be shown without prior approval of the authors (ie Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Thierry De Mey). Our lawyer has communicated this position to Sony [which represents Beyoncé].”

“If I used Beyoncé’s music in one of my films without securing the rights, of course the film would be blocked,” says De Mey, speaking from La Hulpe in Belgium. Sony BMG and other music corporations have rigorously protected their own copyright and actively pursued teenagers who share songs on peer-to-peer networks. In a 2005 case, Jennifer Pariser, the head of litigation for Sony BMG, claimed that even copying a legally purchased CD on to an iPod was “stealing”.

The controversy over Countdown is now a global news story, so what about all that free publicity? “I have ambigous feelings about that,” says De Mey. “I didn’t choose to have it. Yes, there is a spotlight on my work, but this is viral publicity caused by a major company, not myself or Rosas. It has caused quite a controversy, therefore I would question whether it was intentional or not.”

The issue has highlighted the tension between sampling and copyright, and the particular problems for choreographers in protecting their work from plagiarism.

“I don’t think complaints about people stealing dance moves and not crediting them are especially new,” says Prof Kathy Bowrey, a specialist in intellectual property and copyright at the University of New South Wales. “I also think popular culture has always had a parasitic relationship to more experimental art and also indigenous culture and performance.”

These days disputes can be spun into a David versus Goliath battle and played out via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. De Keersmaeker was made aware of Beyoncé’s video through postings on Facebook, and there are now numerous montages uploaded on YouTube showing her choreography and Beyoncé’s video side by side.

“The same digital technologies that have generated multinational hysteria over piracy in the last 20 years also help generate a much healthier public discussion about cultural ownership, property and propriety,” says Bowrey.

Much of the debate on the blogosphere focused on whether movement can be copyrighted or not. If so, then, for example, couldn’t Tiger Woods copyright his golf swing? According to the Copyright Primer for the Dance Community, copyright “requires a certain amount of intellectual labour”. While it could be argued that perfecting a golf swing requires intellectual labour, short movement phrases are not copyrightable, much the same as individual words or short verbal phrases are not.

The primer, published by the US-based Dance Heritage Coalition, also clarifies the fair use doctrine, “which allows the limited use of copyrighted works without permission from the owner, for ‘criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research’. In most cases where the use is commercial in nature, courts do not consider it to be “fair use”. Commercial exploitation has been always been a threat to artists.

In 1959, when the US Copyright Office was first drafting proposals to protect choreography, Agnes De Mille wrote “if new dance steps are invented for social or ballroom dancing, naturally people have every right to copy these and perform them for their own amusement, just as people can whistle tunes without any tax. But if an exhibition piece of ballroom steps is devised and this combination is copied and performed for money, I think some infringement of rights has taken place.”

“As academics we always point out to students that plagiarism is a problem of lack of appropriate attribution,” says Bowrey. “It is not borrowing that is the problem, but a lack of respect for other’s work. Artists will differ about their expectations, so you have to be careful, but at the same time good artists usually care about creativity and love interesting new work that may build on others’ efforts.”

Similarly, De Keersmaeker praised a YouTube clip of schoolgirls from Flanders dancing Rosas danst Rosas to the music of Like a Virgin by Madonna. (“That was touching to see,” she stated in her first press release on the Beyoncé incident.) When disputes arise, copyright law can be cumbersome, and in some jurisdictions, including Ireland, choreography is not included in legislation. Dance Ireland, the representative body for professional dance in Ireland, encourages its members to document their work as much as possible, according to chief executive Paul Johnson. “And not just record it on DVD,” he says. “But write it out as a score and date it.”

Apart from the odd bit of anecdotal bickering among choreographers, plagiarism isn’t a problem in Ireland, but he says “it would certainly be at issue with other European dance houses, particularly in countries with a more evolved dance culture. But even where creative plagiarism is rife, disputes are almost always settled amicably.”

In many ways the dance community is self-policing. Fitzgerald Stapleton, an Irish independent dance company, makes its dance scores freely available through the website Choreograph.net. “We wouldn’t be happy with a free-for-all, but as long as we are credited then we don’t mind people using our scores,” says Áine Stapleton. Publishing their scores helps protect their copyright, but it has also disseminated their work to a global audience: one of their scores, Starvin’ , is now on the dance curriculum at the University of Illinois.

But, although a dance score might contain a choreographer’s concept, the realisation of that concept takes place in the dance studio in collaboration with dancers. So could a dancer claim copyright over a movement sequence? “Choreographers are almost always explicit in how they generate material and will state that the choreography was ‘in collaboration’ with the dancers,” says Johnson. This honour system works well with the dance community, but as more publicity material and dance works become available online there is a growing fear of plagiarism from outside that community.

“I’ve received an incredible amount of solidarity from within the dance world,” says Thierry De Mey. “The overall feeling is if this can happen to an internationally established company like Rosas, then it could easily happen to anybody.”

Video evidence – A side by side comparison

YouTube has many uploads comparing Beyonce’s Countdown video and Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dances, but the Belgian choreographer has chosen two in particular to link from her company’s website, Rosas.be. They both slow down the action, magnifying the similarities, particularly with the dance film Rosas danst Rosas .

Costumes are identical, and Beyoncé even dons a long-haired wig to better imitate the swishing head moves of a Rosas dancer. Director Thierry De Mey chose Henry van de Velde’s architecturally important RITO School in Leuven as his location and Countdown is set in a similar space, with sequences filmed through internal windows, both front-on and angled shots. Even the original building’s tiled floor is reproduced with projected light. Choreography is also identical, both in the placement of dancers – whether sitting on chairs or a repeating shot of three moving in unison behind a stationary individual – and in the dance steps. A final close-up head shot of Beyoncé in front of a window is identical to one of de Keersmaeker, who makes a cameo appearance in Rosas danst Rosas.