The godmother of Belgian dance who “inspired” Beyoncé

Here’s one of life’s stranger connections – the link between Beyoncé and an intellectual choreographer who reads the books of the historian, Barbara Tuchman, for inspiration.

The choreographer is Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker who, with Rosas, her company of 26 dancers and musicians, will be in Sydney next week for the first time to take part in the Biennale of Sydney at Carriageworks.

De Keersmaeker, 52, is a Belgian who trained in both Brussels and New York and could be called the godmother of the Belgian contemporary dance movement that spawned such offspring as Jan Fabre, Alain Platel and later Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Although she’s an acclaimed figure in the dance world, she is hardly a household name outside it, but that changed just a little late last year with claims that her work had been ‘borrowed’ to use a kind word, by Beyoncé for the music video to promote her new single, Countdown.

In the video, Beyoncé and her dancers are seen in disused buildings. Beyoncé can be seen looking through a window with the dancers moving in the background on the right.

As The Guardian reported: “A remarkably similar effect and movements appear in De Keersmaeker’s first work with her company, Rosas Danst Rosas. Another sequence strongly resembles choreography from Achterland, a filmed version of which won the Dance Screen award in 1994.

“Beyoncé has not responded to the allegations, but her co-director, Adria Petty, has previously spoken about showing the singer footage of European contemporary dance for inspiration. She told MTV News: ‘I brought Beyoncé a number or references and we picked some out together. Most were German modern dance references, believe it or not.” Petty said the process was “evolving [and] spontaneous’”.

She was kind enough to add that De Keersmaeker’s work “blew my mind”, adding her regrets that the video editing was so rushed De Keersmaeker was not given a credit.

Petty hoped that the video “would put her work out there in front of a lot of people who wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise.”

The choreographer at first said “this is plagiarism. This is stealing”, but later added “I am glad that ‘Rosas Danst Rosas’ can perhaps reach a mass audience, which such a dance performance could never achieve, despite its popularity in the dance world since 1980s.”

But where does Tuchman come into the scene?

In 1978, the late American author published A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century in which she wrote of the terrible events, leading to much suffering and death, of the late middle ages, among them the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War and the Papal Schism (a split in the Catholic church when two men simultaneously claimed to be the true Pope.)

As the critic, Laura Capelle, wrote in The Financial Times last year, De Keersmaeker saw a mirror for this medieval melancholy in our own times.

The book and its linking of two different centuries was one aspect of De Keersmaeker’s preparation for the two works, En Atendant and Cesena, both of which will be performed in Sydney. They both premiered at the Avignon Festival, the first in 2010 and the second last year. Both were performed in the open air without artificial light.

During En Atendant, twilight merged into darkness while Cesena began in the dark and continued into sunrise. Both works are danced to the music Ars subtilior, a complex musical style from the end of the 14th century, (De Keersmaeker says this music evokes the history of the city of Avignon and the Papal Schism.)

Cesena is named after the so called Cesena bloodbath of 1377 during the War of the Eight Saints when the Cardinal of Geneva acting for Pope Gregory XI, directed the murder of up to 5000 civilians and was named “the butcher of Cesena”.

Of course we can be sure none of this will be obvious in the non-narrative works as De Keersmaeker explained:

“Some stories from Tuchman’s book inspired us with gestures and images, for instance, how plague arrived to Europe with a ship from India, the image of soldiers having black stigmata under their arms etc. None of these images is important to read, it is more the emotional load or physical tension”.

Intense? Certain to be. And the two works certainly won’t be fair game for Beyoncé’s next music video.

En Atendant: September 11, 12; Cesena, September, 14, 15.

Both at the Carriageworks, Redfern, Sydney at 8pm

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Cesena, photo © Anne Van Aarschot

En Atendant, photo © Anne Van Aerschot

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker © Herman Sorgeloos