A Personal and Natural History of Tracing


On October 26th I delivered a lecture called “A Personal and Natural History of Tracing” at Chicken and Wine, a monthly lecture series in which the only requirement is that the speaker not be an expert in the subject under discussion. What follows is the text of the speech.

Anne Theresa de Keersmaker one of the most prominent modern dance choreographers in the world. And yet, most of us would never have heard of de Keersmaker, if it weren’t for the fact that she recently accused singer Beyoncé Knowles of plagiarism.

Knowles, contended Keersmaker, had lifted parts of her routine in the video for the song “Countdown.”

Not that Beyoncé was denying it. The video director, Adria Petty, had already said that “I brought Beyoncé a number of references and we picked some out together. Most were German modern dance references, believe it or not.”

That’s right. Believe it or not.

The passages in the video that echo Keersmaker’s work are no more than twenty seconds in length,* but the resemblance is unmistakeable – even to a completely untrained eye. 

The movements, costumes and settings are reproduced from Keersmaker productions; Beyonce adds in some vocals and an early ’60s Vogue aesthetic. And she seems to fondle herself quite a bit more than the dancers in the source material.

Nor is that the only source that Beyonce takes from in the construction of the video. Beyoncé casts herself as modern-day Audrey Hepburn with a Supremes inflection, a sort of funkified “Funny Face” redux with a beatnik edge and a marching band rhythm section. It’s an all-out pastiche of early ‘60s style matched with a frantic, staccato choreography that runs counter to the cool modish surfaces elsewhere in the visuals.

The overall effect is of still images straining to escape their frame. You can see the layers draped on top of each other – and on top of it all, a bouncy, crisply produced, exceedingly heternormative pop song. Taken as a whole, de Keersmaker calling out Beyonce feels a bit like a diced onion calling out a bowl of stew. The plagiarised sections are, for lack of a better term, ingredients.

Some may condemn Knowles for her actions. But I have sympathy with her, because in 1979, I drew a picture of Scrooge McDuck.

I was only eight years old. I was what crime writers might call “a sensitive and withdrawn child.” I liked Star Wars, the Muppets, JRR Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. I liked yo-yos and Gobots.

And for reasons that I can’t figure out, I liked Scrooge McDuck.

Maybe it was his unapologetic love of being a plutocrat that allowed the sympathetic aspects of his character to shine through. Maybe it was those grey spats around his elderly duck ankles. Or his slightly wild tufts of feather hair. But it was his bill that I liked best.

There was something about that particular curve, like the hull of a dory, that appealed to my eight year old brain. I liked the way that curve seemed to defy perspective.

So I embarked on a project of drawing Scrooge McDuck. 

Of course, at eight years old and no drawing prodigy, so the results fell far short of what I wanted. Most children, I think, draw their crazy terrible works and get some satisfaction out of it. Not me. I wanted perfection. I wanted exactly what I imagined to come out on the page.

Imagine my delight, then, when I went through my parents’ stationery drawer and found sheets of onionskin paper.

Did you know, by the way, that tracing paper is made by taking good quality paper and dipping it in sulphuric acid for a few seconds? The acid converts some of the cellulose to amyloid, resulting in a product that appears flimsier but is actually stronger than the original. True story.

Onionskin paper, which is probably one of the best things on the planet, can be made from wood or rags. When interleaved with carbon paper, it’s known as manifold paper.

I’m not sure why my parents had a pad of onion skin paper. But what I realized is that I could use it to draw myself a perfect Scrooge McDuck.

And how. I slapped the onionskin down on the Saturday funnies section of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and I began to trace. Flippers, spats, whiskers and bill.

But it wasn’t just the fact that I could reproduce the shape – I loved being able to see the art underneath the paper, just slightly obscured. With the layer of thin paper over top, the cartoon suddenly gained new possibilities. It was shape and motion and colour and potential.

It was like those strange moments when you hear a familiar song through a closed door, maybe when you’re half-awake and still sorting out your dreams from your actual sensory input. In the brief seconds before you recognize the song, it seems like a thousand tunes all at once. It feels as if you’re creating the song as it plays, and the slightest act of will could be enough to change the melody.

That’s what it felt like when I placed the paper over the cartoon. And when I began to trace the outlines of Scrooge McDuck, the spell was not broken. If anything, it made those obscured shapes even more restless and alive.

I didn’t stop at Scrooge McDuck, of course. I began to trace out other figures – Chip and Dale, Hi and Lois, and so on. I even traced some kind of weasel with a moustache. I have no memory now of who that character was. Maybe one of Scrooge’s plutocrat buddies? Come over for a dip in his pool of money?

My crowning moment was showing it off to my parents. Up to that point, they were used to my eight year old style of drawing: a bit geometric, uninterested in facial expressions and overly obsessed with perspective, with a distinct kitschy taste for houses with smoking chimneys.

But when they saw my Scrooge McDuck, they became excited. They had the undeniable evidence that every parent, secretly or otherwise, so badly wants: that their child is a genius.

“You did this all by yourself?” my mother asked, with a kind of wild glint in her eyes (that might have been incipient tears).

“Yes,” I said. “I traced it very carefully.”

“You traced it?” she said, and I could see, behind the smiles, the slow realization that their child wasn’t a genius – just a clever and slightly obsessive kid.

The problem was that I was only showing them part of the picture – the part that I traced out. The rest of the picture, the half-glimpsed colours and outlines that gave it so much life, somehow more life than the original or the finished product, that vital, pupal, in-between state, was the real work. It was beyond my eight-year-old capacity to put that sensation into words.

In the days following Anne Theresa de Keersmaker’s comment about plagiarism, it turned out that the accusation didn’t have the litigious force that people initially thought it did. She was simply being frank about the situation, and apparently had little more to say about it than that. 

As so many artists have done and will continue to do, Beyonce Knowles took what she needed and left the rest. Whether she should have credited or compensated de Keersmaker is a matter for lawyers, critics and that disastrous breed of people for whom intellectual property debates are a useful source of moral outrage.

Maybe there’s a greater work of art in there: a blurry creature of movement and shape and form, a thing made out of de Keersmaker, out of Knowles, out of a layer of onionskin on which a few seconds of dance steps were traced out for a slick and forgettable piece of commercial art.

In the years that followed my original tracing triumph, I learned to draw a pretty good Scrooge McDuck on my own, a skill which is now lost to me (although if you ask, I will draw you an excellent Bill The Cat).

Meanwhile, Beyoncé followed up “Countdown” with the single”Love on Top”. The first two minutes are practically a shot-for-shot and step-for-step remake of the video for New Edition’s smash ‘80s hit “If It Isn’t Love.” I figure if it isn’t love, then it’s probably flattery.

Photo credit Stan Remple (because you know, it’s good to give credit when you’re using someone else’s work)

 *It’s actually a great deal more than twenty seconds - if you watch the second video, you can see that Beyoné makes extensive use of de Keersmaker’s choreography throughout the song. When I delivered the speech, I had thought that only a small section had been lifted from de Keersmaker’s work.