The new year has started off with a bang, courtesy of the Australian singer-songwriter Sia and her latest music video, Elastic Heart. The video features a warring dance by actor-turned-performance artist Shia LaBeouf and the phenomenal dance sensation Maddie Ziegler, best known for her appearance on the competition reality series Dance Moms. In this video, the young dancer returns to play what seems to be the same character she played in the video of Sia’s Grammy-nominated hit song, Chandelier, complete with a flyaway platinum-blond wig (the recording artist wears a similar hairpiece) and flesh-toned leotard.
The Twitter-verse was aflutter at the pairing of the twelve-year-old Ziegler with the twenty-eight-year-old LaBoeuf. To some, the cage dance interpreted by the two, both dressed in skin-coloured leotards, suggested pedophilia and child molestation. One user wrote after seeing the clip: “The Elastic Heart video would be magic if her dancing partner wasn’t thirty years old [sic], looked like a child predator and was a good dancer!” Another person, equally disturbed by what they saw, shared on Facebook: “I understand that everyone thinks this is a piece of art, but I find it a little too sexual, because why is a full-grown man in a cage with a twelve-year-old and both wearing nude suits and making funny faces at each other.”
Some dismissed Sia’s Chandelier, which pushed the pop musician to the forefront of our mass-media confessional era, as kind of pedophiliac too. “Anything with a young girl in a white sex-shop wig will bring that to mind,” said Andrew Tay, cofounder of Montréal’s Wants&Needs Danse, in one recent Facebook post. In that video, Ziegler is interacting with walls, tables, couches and the floor. Getting dirty, and working with a distended belly and full splits, Ziegler inhabits that space totally. She is in her element.
Sia apologized immediately after the posts began to accumulate, saying she never intended to cause any upset with the new video. But she is standing by her artists (onscreen and off), which is admirable. The thirty-nine-year-old, known to be too shy to perform herself and who therefore masks her identity, stepped forward to address attacks on the music video, writing on Twitter, that she “anticipated some ‘pedophilia!!!’ cries for this video.” She apologized to anyone “triggered” by the video. She went on to clarify its meaning, briefly explaining that the characters are in fact playing the same person, or at least as I interpret it, two sides of her personality.
I spoke with Zacy Benner, a Montréal mother with a nine-year-old son, Theo, who is as keen about ballet and street dance as he is about diving and martial arts. She says her son hasn’t seen Elastic Heart, but she’s sure he would like it “because it has a lot of the theatricality of wrestling that he loves and it all has a strong narrative thrust.” She’d not heard Sia before, and was unaware of the controversy. She said that she “responded well to the dance but had to block out the music. I thought the dance video was much stronger than the song (which was repetitive and boring, although the texture of the singing was sonically compelling).” Further, in interpreting the video, she thought the relationship was “more playful than adversarial. … Actually quite a bit like our cats who, not being able to go outside, act out wild and fearful hunting scenes, but they never hurt each other.”
Perhaps, this mother is onto something, especially in the sections where Ziegler wraps her legs around LaBeouf, gripping him with a power and strength that is quite fierce, and unexpected. The same can be said of moments when she actively and convincingly hisses him away. There’s real despair and anger as well as need in this relationship, but it has nothing to do with sex. Ziegler said in an ET online interview that she and LaBeouf were portraying werewolves, “and pretty much Shia and I have been just living in the cage for a year and I’m the strong one and I’m trying to pretty much kill him,” which gives a slightly different spin on the piece. The video has obviously sensitized people to abuse and brought the issue to the forefront of discussion and that’s a good thing. It has clearly tapped into areas of discomfort and outrage, and let’s all praise efforts to give voice to sexual abuse of any kind, but this video has prompted a knee-jerk response, and should not be dismissed as inappropriate for these reasons alone.
The battle that’s presented appears to be one that comes from within, as Sia suggests. Take for example the movement itself: there is something in the rising, falling, hurting, letting go and reaching out that, for me, suggests something that’s much more raw, and human, more about power relationships that we negotiate in life than the perfunctory aspersions people are casting on this video. And the cage, in which the action plays out, is a place to return to, and what’s outside doesn’t seem to be terribly appealing.
On the other hand, LaBeouf seems to have made a career of late of grabbing headlines and acclaim for all the wrong reasons. While I can’t say that I know his work in any depth, I have read lots about his antics and erratic behaviour. Not surprisingly, LaBeouf fans and detractors have weighed in on this video, too. One tongue-in-cheek Facebook comment revealed, “Wow, I can’t believe he has broken into the contemporary dance world so soon after beginning such a promising durational performance art career. A true Renaissance man.” Likewise, I understood that he’s just recreating himself. I’ve got to confess that I wasn’t crazy about LaBeouf’s lumbering performance in Elastic Heart; he just wasn’t very agile. Also, I’d have to agree with Benner who weighed in, “If he stopped working out so much he could reduce his mass and get through the bars on the ground. … So it makes me think that if he stopped being so macho-masculine he would have a little more freedom … but then where would that lead?”
Finally, there’s been a kerfuffle in social media about the “contemporary dance” aspect of the piece. Here Tay weighed in, writing, “Personally I think the choreographer is the one who should apologize in this case for how painful this video is!!” Is Elastic Heart giving contemporary dance a bad name? Frankly, the movements created by choreographer Ryan Heffington (he’s also the guy who created the dance elements for Chandelier and Arcade Fire’s We Exist, with Andrew Garfield as a trans youth) aren’t any worse than some that I’ve seen in live performance by dance artists, both reputable and less so. With that said, the first part of Sia’s new video is more interesting, dance-wise, with Ziegler’s acrobatic moves and LaBoeuf’s “tiger in the forest” motions. The whole thing just peters out and is pretty anticlimactic. Whether you believe that there is creative expression here, or if you are outraged by the entire endeavour, it appears that Sia and her company of artists have set off a broad cultural discussion, moving her work beyond a pop-plastic niche.