Songwriter and singer Sia apologized last night on Twitter to “those who felt triggered” by her new “Elastic Heart” video, which features “Chandelier” star Maddie Ziegler in a dance-fight cage match against actor and performance artist Shia LaBeouf.
If only they had thought to run an “IT’S A METAPHOR” banner across the bottom of the screen. Would that have been a big enough of a clue?
I anticipated some 'pedophelia!!!' Cries for this video. All I can say is Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play
— sia (@Sia) January 8, 2015
These two warring 'sia' self states. — sia (@Sia) January 8, 2015
People might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that something prurient was afoot if they read Entertainment Tonight’s write-up of the video’s release, which played up that angle, calling LaBeouf “nearly naked” while reiterating Ziegler’s “preteen” age. US Weekly wrote that LaBeouf wore “a dirty pair of nude-colored underwear,” making it sound like he lurches around in baggy Hanes instead of a dance costume. Framing the video, which features the work of “Chandelier” co-director David Askill and choreographer Ryan Heffington, in this way makes it sound like something sordid and lecherous, which it isn’t. The video’s biggest challenge is a mass audience’s lack of context for a solidly executed and emotionally affecting performance that owes its artistic debt to classical dance, not images of child abuse.
Dancer Maddie Ziegler, who won the Internet last year portraying another version of the inner “Sia self” in “Chandelier,” is twelve years old. The culture at large might be more comfortable seeing girls her age performing sassy-innocent moves like Sophia Grace, 11, in her breezy “Best Friends” video, but as fans of Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” know, Ziegler is an experienced performer with a sophisticated understanding of dance. “Elastic Heart” is highly performative, but not sexy, or even sexually threatening. Both characters are feral in a different way as they engage in their metaphorical battle, and they also display moments of humor and grace.
Yes, Ziegler is wearing a leotard and LaBeouf is wearing form-fitting shorts. Yes, they touch each other. LaBeouf picks Ziegler up and carries her. Dance is a full-contact sport, and ballet plays off the interaction between male and female dancers. The discrepancies in size and age are important to the narrative. It wouldn’t work to pair Ziegler with a pre-teen boy for this dance, because the imagery of the duet works in contrasts—LaBeouf’s muscular, bearded ferocity plays off Ziegler’s agile playfulness, and is even played for laughs when he makes ridiculous faces at her up close.
Classical dance isn’t all tutu fantasy and “The Nutcracker.” I’m far from a dance expert, but for me, “Elastic Heart” evoked the intimate athleticism of the pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” but replaces the adult sensuality with an abrupt, stylized violence, evoking the wild energy of the finale to Nijinski's "The Rite of Spring." The juxtaposition of humor, anger and despair is evident through their movement, which the costumes showcase rather than obscure. Just because we're so used to seeing young women's sexuality exploited in pop entertainment doesn't make every entry in the field automatically suspect, and the fact that we so seldom spot these kinds of influences in pop videos means we should celebrate their rare appearances, not discourage artists from taking chances on challenging material.