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PRINT September 2008

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The filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas has been working at the intersections of art, music, performance, and contemporary dance for over thirty years. Recently celebrated for his biographical documentaries on past collaborators such as Merce Cunningham and Leigh Bowery, he has also created several films and videos featuring Michael Clark, including Hail the New Puritan (1985–86) and Because We Must (1989). He continues to act as lighting director for Clark’s dance productions. Here he discusses his work with dance, and with Clark in particular.

Charles Atlas, Hail the New Puritan, 1985–86, still from a color film in 16 mm transferred to video, 84 minutes 47 seconds. Still courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

I worked with Merce Cunningham from 1974 to 1983. I had done films before working with Merce—some great films. But my first actual video was with Merce. I was hired as an assistant stage manager and I was thrilled at the opportunity because I just loved him; all I really liked in dance at that time was Merce. I was just a kid and terrified of him at the beginning, and I was in awe of all these people—John Cage and Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. But he was great to work with—the best collaborator. There was total freedom and at the same time respect for each other’s work. I realized that I’d started at the top.

My time with Merce overlapped with the projects I did with Karole Armitage (for a time, one of his lead dancers), whom I began to work with in 1981. We met Michael [Clark] at about the same time—I don’t know when exactly it was. The chronology is very hard to fix; I doubt that Michael remembers it, either. He did two pieces with Karole and myself. He was part of the second cast of Drastic Classicism [1981] and then the first version of Paradise [1984]. Before that, I'd never seen him dance, but we just had a feeling that he was right. He was so beautiful.

When I was in London, my producer from WGBH, Susan Dowling, said that she had a little bit of money to make a film there and asked if I wanted to do something. I said I would do anything if it was with Michael Clark. I took a proposal to Channel 4—and no one in England knew who Michael was then—and I told them, “You have a world-class dancer here, and you really should do this.” It took about a year to get it all together. They gave me money for a 16-mm, hour-long arts documentary, which I didn’t want to do, so I made something a bit different. With an arts documentary, they want you to explain something, and I was totally not interested in that. To try to explain Michael’s work would have just been so boring. I wanted to show the context.

Charles Atlas, Hail the New Puritan, 1985–86, stills from a color film in 16 mm transferred to video, 84 minutes 47 seconds. Stills courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

I proposed a piece about Echo and Narcissus featuring Michael and the dancer Gaby Agis, and it eventually expanded into Hail the New Puritan. It was the early days of Channel 4—you could do practically anything, so I pushed the boundaries a bit. I made them watch the sex scene, which they called the “love scene.” The straight commissioning editor was like, “Oh, no, you can't put that in—you can’t!” I made him watch all this real sex. Also, the original scene in Leigh Bowery’s apartment was twice as long. I wish I still had that footage. By the time Michael and I made the video for Because We Must [1989], Channel 4 had begun to clamp down and there were many things that we couldn’t do. We wanted to have a naked rock band made of children do the last part, and they wouldn’t allow that. I’ve considered releasing those works, but now I can’t really, not without having a lot more money to buy the music rights.

We shot the bulk of Hail the New Puritan on a set; the burlesque dream sequence at the beginning is the same set as the studio in which Michael is shown living and dancing. At the time, Michael actually lived in a tower block with terrible elevators and a tiny room in Camden. Now everyone is in the East End, but at that time it was so far away from everything. For the nightclub scene, we rented a bar in way west London, near Hammersmith, and all our nighttime friends came in the middle of the day—well, not all of them came, but a lot of them did.

It was an easy way to construct a story: twenty-four hours in the life of a dancer—I mean, a fake twenty-four hours. No one lives like that. But the other motivation for making that film was that when I was there and hanging out, I thought, “This can’t last—he’s burning the candle at both ends. You can’t dance like this.” I wanted to capture that before it ended. And I did—before it got to be too much.

The concept came out of a combination of things. It was everything I’d learned from Merce applied to something a little closer to my sensibility. My idea was for a storylike film that references Hollywood musicals of the ’40s. The scene where everyone gets up and dances is completely out of that part in Good News [1947] where they all dance in the soda shop. The other model for the film was A Hard Day’s Night [1964]. I wanted to make a Hard Day’s Night where everyone was dancing, so the people in the club were dancing, the interviewer’s dancing. It was such a great scene at that time. People didn’t really do anything except get dressed up at night and have fun. There was nothing to gain, no success.

I asked all the actors to exaggerate who they actually were. It wasn’t like finding the truth, it was like doing something fun with the truth. I wanted to call the whole thing Not Michael Clark, but they wouldn’t let me. It was too close to the show Not the Nine O’Clock News, so I just picked the title from lyrics from the Fall. The film was made before Michael Clark was really a sensation in London. I made it up that he was a star, because at that time he wasn’t, but of course then he became one. By the time the film came out, the press had already made him into a sensation.

—As told to David Velasco