Julia Rhoads samples steps and mashes moves.
Best-selling soft-core purveyor Harold Robbins sued Kathy Acker for it. Joseph Kosuth used it to think about Wittgenstein, while Shepard Fairey used it to launch a million Obama posters. Hank Shocklee built the Bomb Squad on it, and it’s how Kanye West poked fun at Lady Gaga. Now artistic appropriation is the basis of dance-theater powerhouse Lucky Plush’s new evening-length piece, Punk Yankees.
As the term suggests, appropriation borrows common images from advertising, the mass media and elsewhere, places them in new contexts and, thereby, aims to change the way we think about these images. To tell the truth, that description is itself borrowed from University of Chicago law professor William M. Landes, the result of some assiduous Google searching. Julia Rhoads, Lucky Plush’s artistic director and choreographer of Punk Yankees, also found a starting point on the Internet: specifically, Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” available on YouTube.
If you’ve seen the video, you no doubt remember the high-octane dance performed by the trio of Beyoncé, Ebony Williams and Ashley Everett. But you may not be aware that the video borrowed heavily from the choreography of Bob Fosse (the singer acknowledged that an old videotape of a Fosse number provided inspiration). “With Fosse, you have an iconic choreographer with a clear, stylistic voice,” Rhoads explains. “And the Beyoncé video was a new iconic moment.”
Rhoads and the company decided to make that iconic moment their own: The “Single Ladies” movements became the kernel of a dance that collaged several dozen other equally recognizable sources. Mashing up the exuberance of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade with the zombie gyrations of “Thriller,” concert-hall perennial Revelations by Alvin Ailey with wedding-reception fave Electric Slide, Lucky Plush created a fascinating amalgam, at once insistently familiar and undeniably new.
From that appropriative starting point, Punk Yankees accrued a welter of affiliated ideas: the lineage of choreographic moves, the memories stored in a dancer’s body. It also sparked a website: Stealthisdance.com urges visitors to steal, buy and share. Featuring style-blending YouTube clips, including the inspired “Cheer-toh,” in which dancer Adam Rose melds cheerleading with Butoh, along with a tongue-in-cheek boutique marketing dance steps and the reality-TV-inspired “So You Think You Can Choreograph,” the website has earned plaudits from superstar dancemaker William Forsythe.
Upcoming performances are also likely to turn some heads. During a recent run-through at the company’s Logan Square rehearsal space, a compact studio whose gleaming mirror reflected an unfinished brick wall, the piece rippled with physical force: the company leaped onto chairs or formed intricate kinetic machines. At other moments, a lyrical, almost elegiac intensity predominated, as Rhoads and dancers Lia Bonfilio and Kim Goldman sidled across the floor with delicate leg sweeps. Throughout, the heady theatrical piece proved immersive, never more so than when the iconic mash-up sequence threatened to engulf its viewer. “Didn’t think you’d get this close to ‘Thriller,’ did you?” asked a ghoul-stepping Rhoads.
Outside the studio, the Western Springs native steps as nimbly through the conceptual questions posed by her work. “Think about YouTube response videos as a culturally sanctioned site for appropriation,” she suggests, sounding like the Northwestern-trained historian she once expected to become and barely pausing for breath before going on to discuss the complexities of appropriating choreography: “There’s no perfect sample in a non-digital form. Especially when you’re moving from two dimensions to three.”
She notes that one audience member at an early workshop of the piece expressed disappointment at not seeing more of “Julia’s choreography,” and adds, “In fact I think sampling is much harder. Looking at screens and arguing about what’s going on: It’s fun, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. There’s so many ways it can fail; that’s where you can see the humanity in it.”
Punk Yankees puts it all together at the Dance Center Thursday 22, Friday 23 and October 29–31.