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Flash Restaurant Review, 3-25: Smorgasbord at The Kitchen
Dining with Atlas, Klucevsek & Company

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright The Dance Insider 2000

Don't know if it was that cockroach or the fact that its performance started late and therefore I was up late and up early the next morning writing yesterday's Flash, but at about 1 p.m. Friday afternoon I experienced what we in the Flash trade subtly refer to as a "Flash Crash." ("Cockroach" refers to Flash Review 3-24, Alienation.) "Make it go away" was all I could mutter when the webmistress reminded me another Flash was expected this morning, so to take a break from dance, I decided to take a busman's holiday and review the noted Chelsea experimental fusion restaurant known as The Kitchen. On the menu last night: As hors d'oeuvres, The Kitchen's occasional blue plate special known as "TV Dinner," this weekend featuring the performance videos of Charles Atlas and vegetarian food from another local restaurant. The main course: A sort of waterzooie or stone soup with accordionist Guy Klucevsek as the stone, and Victoria Marks, Claire Porter, David Dorfman, Dan Froot, Mary Ellen Childs, Dan Hurlin and others as the spice.

Here in Manhattan, unlike my hometown San Francisco, when we look for a restaurant the first thing we look for is ambience. The Kitchen has that, in spades. The two main performance spaces are huge, cavernous black boxes, and the lighting for every show I've seen there glimmers, inevitably introducing an extra set of actors at every performance: The shadows against the back black wall.

For the hors d'oeuvre in the second floor theater, the back black wall featured the main attraction, a giant screen on which ran, for about two hours, a retrospective of Atlas's video career. I'd had a tasting of Atlas's work a couple of weeks back at Martha at Mother (See Flash Review 2, 3-2, Merce Dancing), mainly a montage of film or video in some way related to the name Martha. But beyond that, I'd been aware that Atlas had been a long-time, omnipresent fixture in dance film circles, but I'd never actually seen his work. Discovering it last night was that kind of joy that comes from discovering something that is new to you, but has been around for a while, so that you know there's already a rich back catalogue for you to explore. (I.e., if you discover Jane Austin, you wouldn't have to just wait for the next novel, as there's already a lengthy back-catalogue to sink into as you sink into your arm chair.)

There was some of the Martha montage last night. In this one, I recognized Martha Stewart scenes, as well as scenes from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," the film based on the Edward Albee play, in which a mid-career Elizabeth Taylor plays the Martha. Then there was Atlas's Bill Irwin collaboration, in which the former Pickle Family Circus (food again!) clown is trapped in a television and can't get out, meaning he pops up in just about every program that's on the tube. Think channel surfing, only you're inside the channels. Irwin pops out of screen and into Sesame Street, where Bert and Ernie have been watching the t.v. he's on; then opens the door and interrupts a Soap Opera tryst featuring what looks like a young William H. Macey; then shows up as part of a crowd in a news report on a man threatening to jump from a building; then gets kicked around a while scrambling about among what looks like a drag chorus line dancing to the Ohio Players' "Fire." You get the picture.

While we ate the real food--at real tables strewn over the floor--Atlas and the ubiquitous Lucy Sexton offered a running commentary on the videos.

Next up was a sampling of Atlas's "Portraits," including one of Merce circa 1976, shot in a tiny PBS studio where, Atlas recalled, the ceiling was so low Merce couldn't really jump or he'd knock the lights out. The floor was concrete, too, but you wouldn't have known it; Merce, who would have been about 56 then, was resilient as a 20-year-old, bouncing and weaving those limbs, those limbs. Various backgrounds--cartoonish red or blue, an ocean running by or maybe it was Merce running in the foreground of the ocean--gave it that seventies experimental video look. This is obviously an intimate collaboration of artists who relate like a cousin and a close uncle (again, see Flash Review 2, 3-2, Merce Dancing).

Where things got intriguing was in excerpts from a couple of pieces commissioned by straight-forward documentary commissioners (t.v. in France and Britain, for instance) but which Atlas tweaked, testing to see how much he could push that particular envelope. They wouldn't let him call his video on the punk Brit choreographer/fashion plate Michael Clarke "Not Michael Clarke," he told us, but he pickled the mix by presenting what, on its face, might have seemed a straightforward interview: A chain-smoking Diane Sawyer-type, sitting close to Clarke on a sofa, asks the typical inane reporter questions. Clarke, wearing a black t-shirt with white writing that begs, 'Beat Me, Whip Me, Bite Me, Fuck Me' answers more or less straightforwardly, but there seems to be an interaction going on beneath the surface. The videographer hints at this by messing with the perspectives: close-ups of Clarke's face and lips, the cigarette, and other angles.

But Atlas really hits his stride in this tweak-the-form mode with a documentary on downtown scene auteur (sp.? Usage?!?!) John Zorn, circa 1989. The talking heads that break down Zorn's work are really talking, disembodied heads--one even twirling--while in the background we see street scenes of Manhattan that era, as well as hear the--hmmm--sort of punk-Klezmer, to give you one example, Zorn sounds. Suddenly Atlas and Zorn go noir on us, as the word "Spillane" slashes the screen vertically like a just-sharpened stiletto, and we see a record store window stacked with a Zorn album of that name. I had no idea! Apparently Zorn made a whole album riffing on the private dick (as in detective) writer and the images he evokes for Zorn. Spillane, explains the composer (sitting squat-legged in his apartment, surrounded by shelves of records, rifling through the relevant index cards, and bedecked in sweats, shades, and a Butthole Surfers [as in the SanFran punk neo western swing band...not sure about the western swing part] t-shirt), is a stand-in for New York, the real subject of this recording. I know what I'm shopping for today!

The sleeper video is something called "More Men," in which an unknown actor named Lon Chaney III, taped in what looks like the '80s, thinks he's making a video resume, but we know it ended up as something else entirely, as Atlas juxtaposes the footage with much more famous footage of Chaney I as a silent era "Phantom of the Opera."

It becomes obvious to me that what Atlas is doing here--over the course of his career, so far--is, in each case, creating anew a form or format that matches the subject. Out of context--seeing only one, for instance--it might seem like he's making his subjects conform to his own weird perspective and style, but in fact, it's the opposite. Almost as if Atlas starts from scratch each time, learning the best way to film-make the subject at hand.

....After the hyper-chocolate chocolate cake here (not a metaphor, by the way, a meal really was served up at the TV dinner, and we not talking Swanson's), and my third dose of caffeine for the day, one might have thought it doubtful I could sit through an accordion concert. I wouldn't fall asleep, that was assured; but would I suddenly stand up in my seat and shout, "I wanna see some action" or something similarly disruptive? Stay tuned:

I knew right away that Klucevsek's interests go WAY beyond "Lady of Spain." Ya, he's sitting there with his accordion, but above him and to his left is a screen shaped like a giant comic book thought balloon; the conceit, of course, is that what we see is what he's fantasizing. What we see is a video by Victoria Marks, featuring Dorfman, Froot, and others. Actually, first we see various angles on Klucevsek; clothed, bare-chested, x-ray chested, bare heart, and then a little room that seems to be his brain, in which another tiny Klucevsek sits. Then it's a dressing room and a bevy of casting agents--Froot et. al--bursts in with contracts and endorsements to sign. He's about to do just that, when this scene dissolves into a close-up of an accordion, which pans out to a film Klucevsek playing the instrument, and finally doffing his hat to the live Klucevsek.

Next, we're on a park bench with what look to be Sid Caesar and Imogen Coca--him bereted and playing an accordion, she elfin in polka dot dress and tights. In fact, it's Klucevsek and Porter. He plays, she social dances; he eventually lays down his accordion, a tape of such plays, and they dance together, slow couple-dancing. The lights dim to a circle on them, entwined, then go out. As we clap, we hear Dorfman and Froot, barreling down the aisle. 'Thank you, thank you!'

Dorfman, in case you haven't noticed, is to this generation of young dancers what Merce is to a previous one. (See Flash Review 3-16, Return to Innocence II.) In terms of his group work, I don't quite get what the big deal is. However, I love the ongoing road picture that is Dorfman and Froot. They dance, they act, they play, they riff in music and words and movement, they box, they harangue each other on bull-horns, they therapize each other on walky-talky phones over a long table, and they never disappoint. Their guest shot with Klucevsek was no exception.

"We're on the road again!" announces Froot after they've toppled onto the stage, in travelling sidemen-on-the-road coats and hats. They've just come from a gig in the East Village, one of them announces, and have been playing everywhere on their quest to get uptown, including even the median on Houston Street or, as Froot dubs it, "MoHo."

They've arrived at The Kitchen, they announce, looking for an accordionist for their band. They put Klucevsek through his dance paces, and in an ingenious sleight-of-hand way: The lights go out before they comment, Wide World of Sports mode, on his feats. "Triple multiple-barrel jump! Yellow dimple flyover!" Oh, and they tell him (or he volunteers?) to do all this in the nude. "A triple mellow shake, Dave, in the nude--that's practically a vasectomy!"

Not that Klucevsek needs tricks to impress us with his physicality. When the lights come up, the trio riffs--Klucevsek dances, Dorfman plays accordion and sax, Froot plays clarinet (or is it English sax? Not sure)--and it's utter cacophonic harmony, with shadows created by Tyler Micoleau's lighting joining in. This is not just the usual musician doing some rote faux-dance moves thing. Klucevsek, Dorfmanesque in his appearance and size, moves musically! He varies the pace! He dances behind Dorfman, playing the latter's accordion! He collapses under the accordion. He acts. "Guy don't go!" they implore him in unison. "Take your schtick to the sticks!" he curses them. Then Dorfman lets loose and dances--really dances--shuffling, breaking, flooring himself, scat-dancing--"Faster, Faster" he shouts to his fellow cats.

As musicians, well, Froot is the more impressive of the dancers. Did I say dancers? As a multi-genre artist, Froot presents a unique marketing challenge. Sometimes perceived as too actorly for dance, too dancerly for theater, it's probably a challenge booking him. The problem isn't that he's a "jack of all trades, master of none"--for he's genuinely engaging whatever the mix. It's more that he falls into the category of what's, sadly for us in the audience, become an obsolete category to many presenters: entertainer.

If anything, this Klucevsek-Dorfman-Froot segment was a throwback, your basic burlesque. Who cares what you call it? It's thrilling, to all the senses, the funny bone and the cerebrum, to the max.

Now then: A question did hover over this evening. Is Klucevsek's engagement of all these multi-media artists just a trick, a gimmick, to get around a basic fact: to many of us, the accordion is a boring pseudo-art practiced by weekend musicians? Klucevsek plays with this stereotype. In the film at the beginning, there's a scene that flashes between him performing and his audience falling asleep. He tries everything--even a nuclear explosion--to wake them and get the attention he can't keep simply by playing his instrument, to no avail.

Is that what this evening is about--an attempt to make a pedestrian endeavor interesting? That question is answered firmly after the intermission, when Klucevsek, alone, performs a composition by Mary Ellen Childs. Melancholy, Piazzolla-esque in its composition and execution. Complex. Virtuosically written and performed. High concert music, leaving no doubt that while this collaborative enterprise is engaging, Klucevsek is worth a second view and listen, even if it's just him alone.

Collaboration-wise, the only segment where this evening falls short is the concluding collaboration with puppeteer Dan Hurlin. And here, it isn't Klucevsek who fails to deliver, but Hurlin. The elaborate puppet theater and personnel Hurlin designed are the worse example of where someone throws in everything but the kitchen sink, but the whole is not interesting. It's didactic, yes--Hurlin's concept, and it was written by him, is a sort of mock art history lecture that is biting without being satiric. No, not just biting, but a regurgitation--of superficial and misinformed visual art knowledge, a type of "making-fun" of our visual art heroes that was old long before I was born. The segment also includes the one sour--disturbing and not in an acceptable way--note from Klucevsek. What has heretofore been a dignified, high-minded evening takes a tacky turn when Klucevsek appears done-up as a blind man. He isn't. To my mind, this is one riff that is neither funny nor touching--and indeed, a bit cruel.

A cruel "mint" to swallow, too--the after-burning desert that mars an otherwise delightful smorgasbord of an evening.

TV Dinner, curated by Christina Yang and featuring Charles Atlas, repeats tonight, at 6 p.m. Klucevsek & friends reprise tonight and again next Wednesday through Saturday, at 8. Go dere!

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