Arts & Culture News

Does Beyoncé Step over the Line in Her "Inspired" Choreography?

First it was her Fosse-esque dance steps in the "Single Ladies" video. Now the digital effects and dancing for the video of Beyoncé Knowles' new single "Run the World (Girls)" have some critics and fans buzzing about similarities to other artists' work. With "Single Ladies" and its wrist-popping, hip-swiveling choreography, comparisons were made to the identifiable style of late musical theater choreographer Bob Fosse (Chicago, Sweet Charity, Damn Yankees). Yes, said Beyoncé, her dancing in that piece was "inspired by" and a "tribute to" Fosse. With "Run the World (Girls)," notably Beyoncé's performance of the song on the Billboard Awards a few weeks ago, the unusual matching of dance to a bold digital backdrop was recognized as an almost frame-by-frame copy of a 2010performance by Italian pop star Lorella Cuccarini. Cuccarini's performance, however, already borrowed heavily from Japanese artist Kagemu's "Black Sun" interactive performance in 2009.

The UK's Daily Mail did a good side-by-side comparison of the two pop performances. And again, Beyoncé 'fessed up to drawing on the Cuccarini video for "inspiration." But neither Cuccarini nor Beyoncé can be found crediting Kagemu.

Nobuyuki Hanabusa, graphic artist for Kagemu's "Black Sun," recently offered his thoughts on the subject in a statement (some of which is translated here) concerning the digital effects and concept of the performance.

That still leaves this question: In dance, is there such a thing as plagiarism? Can you copyright kick-kick-turn-turn-turn?For answers we turned to two dancer-choreographers: New Jersey-based Kate Swan, who grew up in Richardson and set the Jerome Robbins-style choreography for Lyric Stage's West Side Story in Irving three years ago; and former New York City Ballet dancer Kurt Froman, who now travels with Billy Elliot the Musical as resident ballet master, keeping the show's young dancers on their toes. (Billy Elliot opens a two-week run in the Lexus Broadway Series at the Winspear Opera House tomorrow.)

What do you think of the Beyoncé controversy? Theft or "inspiration"?

Kate Swan: I don't think that there's been anything new in dance for several decades. You can contort your body in a weird way and it can come out looking new, but steps are steps and limbs are limbs and heads are heads. The combination of them is always gonna kind of look like someone else's stuff. The specifics of the Beyoncé controversy, well, I haven't seen the Italian reference. I have seen the African step dancers who are in the video. Beyoncé saw them on YouTube and brought them in to work with her choreographers. Some of the steps on their YouTube video are in the piece with Beyoncé. When I watch Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)," I think of Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation." It's all referencing each other to some extent. Kurt Froman: There's nothing new in dance. I've seen my fair share of homage to a certain choreographer where it's a direct pulling of certain things. I can see certain ballets that are creatively influenced by another choreographer, but not overtly. It's how you make it your own. It's how it's filtered through you. There is a fine line. There's some work where you really see the love that the choreographer shows to whomever he's stealing from. But more often than not it can be a rip-off. With Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," I hope in the course of her reusing the Fosse stuff, it was introducing an audience to Fosse. But taking credit for all the movement without throwing a bone to whomever you're stealing from, that's bad taste. When you see choreographers who can do bastardized [George] Balanchine and it still works, changing certain phrases or certain steps, I have less respect for that because it's not a unique vision.

Are there choreographers who are touchy about being "borrowed from"?

Swan: There are. Michael Bennett [A Chorus Line] started the whole "this is mine, you must ask permission" movement. Then it retro-fitted back to Agnes de Mille. If you want her choreography for Oklahoma!, Carousel or Brigadoon, you go to the Rodgers and Hammerstein people and get permission. The A Chorus Line person is Baayork Lee. You want Bennett's choreography for that show, you have to hire her. I'm in the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, the union that handles the musical theater world, and we have started to work on copyright cases and started to defend directors and choreographers who get ripped off in regional theater. There was recently a case with the musical Urinetown. The original director, John Rando, and choreographer, John Carrafa, brought a complaint against a dinner theater in Akron, Ohio, for ripping off their work. The case was hot because someone who was in the Broadway production had then gone off and choreographed it exactly the same. It was a big, long, ugly, loud case that stirred up a lot of controversy and then was settled out of court. Something like "Single Ladies" that was supposedly Fosse, well, Fosse did sexy trios with lots of isolations all the time. Paying tribute to Fosse is great. But now there's another whole world where the choreographer doesn't know how to choreograph stories onstage and they'll rip off something they learned in class. I once saw an extended section of a dance from A Chorus Line in the middle of a production of West Side Story. I was stunned. That had to do with inexperience and cluelessness. It's a fascinating issue. If I quote someone in my choreography, I try to keep it to one gesture or a four-count.

Is there a new generation of Fosses, Michael Bennetts and Agnes de Milles whose dance styles are recognizable in Broadway musicals now?

Swan: I don't think there is anyone right now on Broadway with their own style in the way that Fosse had his own style and signature. I love some of the new stuff, though. Susan Stroman's stuff [in shows including The Producers] is ballet-based with MGM-style tap in it. My favorite show for new thinking in that way is In the Heights. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is taking hip-hop to a new level. He also adds a theatrical layer and gestural vocabulary that makes it right for musical theater. [In the Heights comes to the Winspear next April.] Froman: I wish I had the opportunity to see more Broadway shows. Someone can be an amazing choreographer but unless the dancing tells the story and the direction is right, it doesn't work. A choreographer has to see the big picture. What's important is having good dancing and having a good director to incorporate it into the show. We have that in our show. Billy Elliot's choreographer, Peter Darling, has used such a strong through-line from the script to the dance scenes. It's a continuation from the book right into the dancing. It's saying the same thing. It's beautiful.

Any last words on Beyoncé?

Froman: I think Beyoncé is sexy and hot and talented. She's fantastic for dance. She reminds me of Janet and Michael Jackson. People are seeing the videos and learning her routines. It's terrific. Swan: One of the fascinating things about dance and dancers that has always been true is that it's a living, breathing art form and you don't get to learn it unless someone has passed it onto you. It's great for dance in general that people are watching Beyoncé and getting out there and dancing.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner