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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).
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!
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
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.
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!'
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."
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
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
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.
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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