Sampling on the Dance Floor | By Marie Tollon

A previous post focused on the legacy of dance artist Ruth St Denis’ observed through the eyes and choreographic mind of LA-based choreographer Lionel Popkin, whose recent work, Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, questions the cultural appropriation of Eastern sensibilities in St Denis’ dances.

Amy O'Neal Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

Amy O’Neal
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

The practice of appropriation has an extensive history in the arts. The Museum of Modern Art defines it as the “intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and objects. It is a strategy that has been used by artists for millennia, but took on new significance in mid-20th-century America and Britain with the rise of consumerism and the proliferation of popular images through mass media outlets.” In the music industry, hip-hop has made appropriation, or sampling, a signature element of its genre. Bay Area native Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, talked about sampling in an interview with NPR:

“I call it a collage… It’s taking little pieces from here, adding it to little pieces from there — as many different disparate elements as you can find — and making something totally new out of it. Literally down to, not just the drums from one record, but the snare from one record, the kick from another record, the bass line or part of a bass line from another record, putting it all together.”

Drawing from her training in various dance forms, including ballet, modern dance and hip-hop, Seattle-based choreographer Amy O’Neal investigates cultural sampling by collaging different styles of dance in The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade, which will be featured at the Walking Distance Dance festival at the end of May. As O’Neal recalls in an article for Dance Magazine: “The majority of my training and life experience has been about culture clash, so naturally that is where my work often goes. In junior high, while living in Ankara, Turkey, my Turkish jazz teacher choreographed a piece to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I was inspired by this seemingly unnatural pairing.”

The line between appropriation and plagiarism continues to remain razor thin and at times blurred. It has led to many contentious debates and legal actions initiated by artists who claim not to be artistically and financially recognized when their work is sampled without their permission. If these debates mainly occur in the visual arts and music industry, they also intrude into the dance field. A recent example was pop singer Beyoncé’s accusation of plagiarism in her 2011 video ‘Countdown.’ In the video, the singer reproduced movements, costumes and set elements from Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s pieces Achterland (1990) and Rosas danst Rosas (1983).

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (center) in "Rosas danst Rosas" Photo by Tristram Kenton

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (center)
in “Rosas danst Rosas”
Photo by Tristram Kenton

The incident allowed De Keersmaeker to reflect on some larger issues: “Why does it take popular culture thirty years to recognize an 
experimental work of dance? Is [thirty years] the time that it takes to 
recycle non-mainstream experimental performance?
 And, what does it say about the work of Rosas danst Rosas? In the 1980s, this
 was seen as a statement of girl power, based on assuming a feminine stance on 
sexual expression. I was often asked then if it was feminist. Now that I see 
Beyoncé dancing it, I find it pleasant but I don’t see any edge to it. It’s
 seductive in an entertaining consumerist way.”

The questions raised by De Keersmaeker about plagiarism, popular versus non-mainstream art, and gender representations all find their way in O’Neal’s piece. From B-girl breaking on the dance floor to pole-dancer wearing high heel stilettos the heights of San Francisco’s Coit tower, O’Neal takes the viewers on a movement journey that investigates cultural representations of gender, the female body and sexuality.

If DJ Shadow evokes the possibility to recycle artistic material into something new, some criticize sampling as the inability for artists to create original work. O’Neal joins the conversation by addressing the relationship between appropriation and creativity. In The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade, which O’Neal describes as “a nonverbal lecture demonstration/dance experience,” names of past and current artists, as well as statements and questions pertaining to cultural sampling, move through three screens, behind the performer, adding a layer of text to the physical texture of her performance. At one point, the question “How do you set yourself apart when everything is a remix?” appears on the screen. With its superlative-filled title, O’Neal’s piece points to our sensational-hungry culture, forever in search of the next big thing, and debates both the reality and possibility of the new.


“The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade” will be showcased at the Walking Distance Dance Festival on Saturday, May 31, 2014, at 7:30pm at the ODC Campus

2 thoughts on “Sampling on the Dance Floor | By Marie Tollon

  1. Hah! And don’t forget Beyonce’s alleged plagiarism of Fosse’s ‘Mexican Breakfast’ choreography for her ‘Single Ladies’ video. =) I honestly don’t mind sampling so much in art and performance though. As a curator, I recognize that no one creates in a vacuum and if it’s well done, sampling can also engage the audience by challenging their preconceived notions or expectations.

    • Yes! Sampling can also be a great way to pay tribute, to preserve or to offer a new point of entry into an existing piece. And to quote O’Neal quoting French film director Jean-Luc Godard: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take things to.”

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