At the end of September, a video of a girl dancing, sword in hand, to electronic music, while an old woman and dog looked on, appeared on YouTube. There was no description, no context, no followup marketing campaign; it wasn't a music video; it wasn't a comedy sketch. No one could figure it out. Who were the kids? What was the point? Was it fake? Was it real? And what would that even mean?
The video was called "Jian Sword Dancing." It was made by a young photographer's assistant in Illinois, Kyle Frere, and it just paid off for him in a big way—so I called him yesterday to get some answers.
I wanted to talk to Kyle because of a music video for a song called "Original Don" by Major Lazer, a dancehall act/art collaboration between DJs Diplo and Switch and illustrator Ferry Gouw (which is below). The "Original Don" video is basically an extended version of "Jian Sword Dance" (with a small cameo by Diplo); when it debuted yesterday, it seemed as though the other shoe had dropped and our most cynical instincts had been confirmed: "Jian Sword Dancing" was a viral teaser for a full-length Major Lazer video.
As it turns out, that's not really true. "I just created those things for the hell of it," Frere said when we spoke yesterday. (He was referring to both "Jian Sword Dancing" and its predecessor, "Balisong Dancing," the only other video on his YouTube channel.) "The guy who does all the artwork for Major Lazer [Ferry Gouw] contacted me because he and Wes [Pentz, Diplo's real name] saw it, and wanted me to be a part of it."
Gouw and Pentz were among the millions of people who'd seen the original video (or, more likely, one of the ripped-and-re-uploaded copies)—whether or Reddit or Jason Kottke's blog—and been entranced by it. It's hard not be. "Jian Sword Dancing" is a hypnotically well-made little movie—wonderfully conceived, beautifully timed, framed and composed with the precision of a Dutch still life. It's about as perfect a piece of internet folk art as you can imagine.
Part of that has to do, of course, with the context, or lack thereof. Frere never took overt credit and declined to make a follow-up, both of which are usually inevitable with viral-video "fame," and the video's Napoleon Dynamite vibe—occupying that odd Midwestern space between earnestness and irony—give it a kind of bizarre "authenticity." The anonymous Euro-house; the tucked-in, could-be-hip-could-be-dorky clothes; the canine/elderly audience all let people convince themselves it was possible that the video participants weren't in on the joke.
They were, of course—"I was kinda making fun of YouTube, because people put up their webcam. 'Look at me swinging my knife,'" Frere says—and the anonymity was always part of the plan: "There's this mystique created," Frere told me. "People are like, 'What is this? I don't understand.' So it does create this viral thing."
And, as it turns out, the video is "authentic," in some sense, and not just because it wasn't created to sell music or sneakers or a new Comedy Central show. "The old lady is Carol, my great-aunt. We're actually roommates right now, so all the shit you see is her stuff," Frere explains. (The sword dancer is Frere's friend Erica, a photographer whom he works with.) "The video is riding a fine line between reality and... really bizarre."
If "Jian Sword Dancing" loses some of its impact with the Major Lazer video—and with Frere's unmasking as the auteur—that's OK: it's such a formally perfect piece of work that it doesn't need a mysterious backstory to be enjoyable. And in some ways, the real backstory is almost as good. Frere told us about coming up with the concept:
"I got a bottle opener butterfly for like $10 and I was practicing playing with it for like five days. And I was taking a shit one evening, and my shirt accidentally got tucked, and I saw myself in the full body mirror in the bathroom. I was wearing the white sneakers and I started doing a two-step. And I was just, like...I could do something with this."