Charles Atlas presents: The Kitchen Follies
May 3 – 12, 2018
“You go for the obvious,” Charles Atlas told Performing Arts Journal in 1997, discussing his films that are populated with everything from Merce Cunningham’s choreography to Leigh Bowery’s drag. “You don’t want to be afraid to confront something head on,” he said. “My favorite painter is that way, Manet. His work is very flat. Confrontational yet absent.” Atlas may have been thinking of Manet’s painting Olympia (1863), deemed vulgar by critics in 1865 not for Olympia’s nudity—she reclines on her bed evoking classical nudes—but for her gaze toward the viewer, direct yet inscrutable. Atlas named this resonant flatness the “ambiguity of surface,” a flatness that has the power to outrage, seduce, mollify.
Charles Atlas’s The Kitchen Follies featured artists including Jodi Melnick, the Illustrious Blacks, and performance duo DANCENOISE, each presenting short acts in the form of a variety show. Cameras filmed each successive performance live, and Atlas, seated to the side of the stage behind a laptop and mixing equipment, manipulated the footage in real time, projecting the films on three screens above the stage. A screen flattens, but also multiplies the perspective, and thus deepens.
Variety shows were born, after all, in taverns (I usually see the Dauphine performing at the Rosemont, a gay bar in Williamsburg): baudy entertainments for eighteenth-century revellers who would have no patience for anything longer than a skit or a song. Frivolity is embraced, formality permitted to relax. In Atlas’ Follies, the artist Solo Termite—dressed and painted all in white bar his red tie and black gloves—repeated the phrase “Another song, another feeling” over and over. It’s the best description of the show itself; the mantra sounds, depending on the listener, either energizing or empty.
Atlas’s work has long been concerned with the collaging of disparate images, and with bringing together, on film, his friends, casting himself as host of the party. He started out as resident filmmaker for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1970s, where he pioneered a working relationship between choreography and the camera. Subsequently, he has received the occasional snubbing for his forays into drag or fetish aesthetics—“lower” art forms when compared to the avant garde. A Los Angeles Times critic, writing about Atlas’s film Hail the New Puritan in 1987, described it as “this kind of cheap hustle, this soft-core, cult-of-personality salesmanship passing as choreography.” I’m not convinced that Atlas would be wholly upset by the review. (Manet said of Olympia’s critics in a letter to Baudelaire: “They’re raining insults on me!”) “It wasn’t that they were such shocking elements,” Atlas later said, “but in the context of the dance world, some people felt it cheapened the dance experience.”
All this is to assume that the “dance experience” only belongs in concert halls, not in vaudeville theaters, nightclubs, high school eisteddfods. Then again, given how often dance is considered a physical and therefore lesser art form, its champions are wary of this cheapening. For better or worse the cheap hustle is and has always been an integral part of dance history. Atlas, like a map, omits no terrain.
In Friday’s performance, Jodi Melnick appeared twice. She opened the show emerging from darkness, flying toward the audience, throwing her arms above her head as if tossing confetti to ring in the occasion. She appeared again above herself, on screen, with Atlas distorting her colors, digitizing her into a moving embossed etching, a heat splotch, an undulating neon-yellow amoeba. Melnick moves like water. I don’t mean soft; water can break stone. Water rushes, pierces, yields, floods. Melnick floods. Melnick once told a dancer, during a workshop in Melbourne, not to “comment on the material.” She meant not to overlay personal or dramatic emphasis onto the otherwise-unblemished phrase of movement, which possessed its own drama. Her movement is a kind of surface, like water, that responds and reacts to forces, either disturbances from outside or tidal shifts from deep within. But the surface doesn’t enact anything upon itself: no comment.
Another feeling: dancers Laurie Berg and Bessie McDonough-Thayer twirling blow-up dolls as if they were batons. The cross-legged dummies spun around the dancers arms, hula-hooping, an elegant irreverence. Berg dropped her blow-up doll and collapsed to the floor in playful defeat while McDonough-Thayer kept on with the dance—enjoyable accidents.
Another song: The Illustrious Blacks singing “Black like Jesus” and other songs, dressed as NASA astronauts with rubber afro-helmets. Other of Atlas’s acts pushed against the expectations of a variety show. The Illustrious Blacks inhabit the format: catchy, hot, sharp.
Another feeling: A film that accompanies DANCENOISE’s act, brilliantly startling, showed a choreographed enactment of violence on dummies (more proxy-bodies) and was interrupted by a shooting and a death, also staged. The duo appeared topless, black swastikas taped to their chests. Their rallying cries (“Keep going until the criminals in the White House are gone!”) were delivered in direct address to the audience, sincerity rubbing up against the violent satire—the ambiguity of irony. These overt politics share something with Atlas’s love of things “confrontational yet absent.”
Atlas’s different filmic treatment of each act revealed his consideration for each artist. For Melnick, he enriched the kinesthetic sense without demanding the audience’s attention away from the live body. For Berg and McDonough-Thayer, he was mobile and multidimensional with the cameras roving, dancing with the dance. For Johanna Constantine’s club-kid bird-of-prey fantasy, he completed her transformation into otherworldly demon through a flickering, staticky rendering. Atlas readily cedes the floor to his guests; when an interviewer once asked Atlas how he chose his collaborators, Atlas replied, “Love.”
Stanley Love, the final act of the evening, performed with his twenty-plus ensemble to Prince and Beyoncé, in a series of short, erratic eisteddfod-like dances, each one jarringly cut off just when the beat had hooked you. Love embraces radical ordinariness; his dances are like the kind you make when you’re a teenager, choreographing to your favorite song in your garage, roping in friends and siblings to make up the numbers while you rush around and point out where everyone should stand. The Dauphine reminded us that we usually come to the Kitchen to see “serious dance,” and Love disarms with a dance so obvious it’s disorienting.
Above the theater in the gallery, two of Atlas’s new videoworks, The Years and 2003, both from 2018, saturated the larger gallery with optic siss. Lady Bunny dancing, Eileen Myles speaking, Marina Abramovic staring. In a smaller gallery, videos of Cunningham and Clark sat beside a video of Yvonne Rainer, teaching her seminal Trio A, made iconic on film, to Richard Move-alias-Martha Graham. Sacred dance histories revered through blasphemy; the artists themselves enacting their own irreligion.
Rainer, who interviewed Atlas earlier this year for Interview Magazine, said that Atlas’s films from the ’80s were “extreme in relation to what was going on in the art world, especially with minimalism, as well as with the classicism of Cunningham.” We’ve become accustomed to all this pictorial bombardment, as well as with constant interruption. It’s probably why so much contemporary dance now finds refuge in lengthy bouts of repetition and monotony. The fragmentary nature of “variety” elicits, amidst bursts of enthusiasm, a familiar exhaustion. But Atlas is not bombastic. His sensibility, amidst the overdose of content, is more delicate. The energy dissipates; the emptiness revives.