I’m here to write about Elastic Heart, and the uproar around the original music video release. But before I begin that train of thought, I’ll briefly address the fight that broke out regarding an article titled “Why Maddie Ziegler Matters to the Dance World.” This article incited a lot of anger and lashing out, as well as several response articles, like this one titled “Why Maddie Ziegler Isn’t Saving Anything.” If you haven’t skimmed these pieces, go ahead. Mine will wait.
My premise is this: everyone is entitled to her own critique of the dance world. There should, in fact, be more critique. The first author, who believes Ziegler is saving dance, sees a dance world devoid of inspiration and connection. Her dance world is one that wishes it was something else and tries so hard to be innovative and introspective that it is alienating. Before you lash out, think it over. The critique, while classist and ballet-centric, is valid. The author is responding to dance that manages to escape the no-funding death hole most of us artists live in, and she’s writing from the viewpoint of her personal preferences. She’s not digging below the surface of famous and popular dance to find the gems dance scholars discover every day. Those of you who have read some of my other posts won’t be surprised to hear that I think much of the dance that makes it into the zeitgeist is overwhelmingly trite, self-important and worthless. (Example: this video circulating to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” This is the absence of art, the very epitome of self-indulgence. Great, dance ballet in a barn in cool lighting. Yes, you’re pretty and talented. But you’re not saying anything worth hearing.)
Yet I still don’t think the dance world needs saving.
The dance world needs VISIBILITY. It needs ACCESS. It needs FUNDING. It needs THOUGHTFUL CRITICISM and better responses to criticism on the part of dance artists. There have been, and are now, brilliant artists trying desperately to communicate and entertain, and our culture won’t listen. This is one way the first author’s thinking is errant; just because you don’t know about the artist doesn’t mean she’s not there. It’s also problematic to write so clearly from your personal bias without stating you know it’s your bias. The second author calls her out for these two things, which is appreciated, but she also comes off as defensive and as such is easily disregarded. Let’s write some pieces that demonstrably counter the first writer’s views, not just attack her and call her an uneducated beginner. That makes us vindictive and small. Let’s do what we do and EDUCATE. Write pieces about the local acts you see that are incredible, that light a fire in you, that seize dance and carry it higher than you’ve seen it fly before. Those of you with well-read platforms, this is your mission. CREATE ACCESS. Open the gate and let artists through.
And what of Ziegler? She matters because Sia matters. Sia and Ryan Heffington are the artists. Sia has the money, the access, and the vision, and she, in conjunction with choreographer Heffington, is exposing people to incredible art. Ziegler is the vessel, and it is a mistake to, at present, call her an artist. With time and training she may become a truly brilliant artist in her own right, but my prediction is she’ll end up staying in her current role as a muse.
Now let’s talk about how to read and understand art. When Sia’s Elastic Heart video hit the internet, I watched it. Then I watched it again. My reaction to the work is deep and overwhelmingly positive, filtered through my extensive training as a modern dance artist and scholar. I’m here to make a case for a reading of this dance as an internal struggle with the demons of one’s nature, and to debunk the notion that this has anything to do with pedophilia, accidentally or otherwise.
The video opens in silence on two individuals in a large cage. On one side stands Ziegler’s character from the Chandelier video, and on the other is Shia LaBeouf, debuting a new character. Both are clad in minimal nude costumes which serve to intensify the animal-like quality of being stuck in the cage. The movement of the video is minimalist, which is why it hasn’t taken over our popular culture the way Chandelier did, and also why I like Elastic Heart more. Facial closeups and the repeated circling of the cage heighten the feeling of being trapped. Over the first third of the video, the dancers approach each other only to dart away, nervous and scared, to their own sides of the cage. Spastic gestures repeat at the heart center, the throat, and at the side of the face. In the man’s eyes there is a deep sorrow. First contact is initiated by the girl. She grabs the man’s arm and sends him swinging through space. This begins a sequence of attack-withdraw-attack-calm-attack-withdraw-attack that grows in intensity as both parties try to draw blood.
And then she leaves the cage.
This is the game-changer. The man cannot follow; he cannot fit through the bars. His response is a complete breakdown. She taunts him from outside the cage at first, but slips back in, having seen him in a new and sympathetic light. She comes to him and flips over his back, reprising a walkover from Chandelier. He carries her and she swings up and around to come into his arms. As he walks, she gently hits her fist to his forehead four times. Each time she does, his expression changes: first puffy cheeks, then tongue out, followed by angry roar, and finally a scowl. She presses his eyebrows up to relieve the scowl as he puts her down. This sequence is done with a light touch and a lot of love, the man’s eyes still deeply sad.
She leads him to the side of the cage and walks through. He still can’t follow. She pulls with all her might, his face pressing uncomfortably against the bars. The song ends and still she struggles, climbing to stand on his thighs, exhausting herself from pulling. She tries to free him, to free this version of herself that is locked somewhere deep in the recesses of her mind, an indelible mark of suffering she can’t change. His sad eyes say he wants her to stay and yet he knows she must go. She is the better part of him, perhaps his little girl, something good he made from the wreckage of his own existence. Perhaps the girl is the better, healthier Sia, the one that can escape the cage of neurosis caused by her self-avowedly turbulent relationship with her family, and the man is the sick Sia, the one who must be kept locked away for the greater good. The girl’s face says she knows this and can’t bear to admit it, as she opens her mouth in a silent yell, struggling against the inevitable. He grows defeated and goes limp; she cries and rails against the bars.
Elastic Heart displays how fragile and resilient we are all at the same time. It is possible to deeply damage our minds, our bodies, and our psyches through affronts great or small, accidental or purposeful. We can, and often do, lock our traumas away in a cage. Perhaps we visit them when we need to remember what has made us who we are. This work is a testament to human perseverance, and to the fact that we should never stop trying to save the lost pieces of ourselves.
Sia is remarkable because twice now, she chose not to take the easy way out. She’s breaking artistic ground, challenging our preconceived notions of relationships, and working through some internal strife. The fact that both Chandelier and Elastic Heart have elicited similar reactionary whistle-blowing around the image of a young girl in a nude costume – first she’s sexually inappropriate and then encouraging pedophilia – only reinforces the discrepancy between the quality of the art and the simplicity of the viewers. Those responses obviate the need to engage with the work on a thoughtful level, making artists too scared to present challenging work. The result: simple, comfortable art, and the image of a dance world that needs saving. If we want a culture that values and inspires thoughtful art, we need to rise above our laziness and pearl-clutching panic and respond to Sia’s challenge positively.