The Choreography of Scent: Atelier de Geste Debuts at Elements
This coming August, Atelier de Geste, a New York based art and design studio, will début a line of three perfumes at Elements Showcase in New York. Atelier de Geste (Studio of Gesture) is run by Beau Rhee, who produces movement based performances, sculptures, clothing and fragrance. In 2012, Rhee created a performance called “The Ball of Living Matter,” in which each of the three acts is accompanied by a scent that serves to represent the thematic concerns within the act. The three perfumes, Blood Sweat Tears, The Good Earth, Wild is the Wind, will be presented to the public in August.
The Good Earth contains resins, natural essences prized for their mystical powers of communication with worlds beyond. The story begins with myrrh, one of the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the Three Kings. It opens alongside an earthy, green galbanum, that cedes, ever so slowly, into a powdery, resinous heart.
Wild Is the Wind, named after a Nina Simone song, is composed of notes associated with emotions. It’s the most “classic” of the three fragrances, opening with a bright burst of aldehydes that lead to a dark and woody rose lying in an abundant bed of musk. Smelling it, I think of early modern perfume masterpieces such as Chanel No. 5 that took the shy and innocent Victorian girl and made her into a powerful, modern woman. Though I often associate roses with romance, this is a lusty, seductive take on it.
Blood/Sweat/Tears is an olfactory portrait of addictive substances, containing tea, tobacco, fruit, and jasmine. It’s a honey and plum concoction that is modulated by smoke and a bit of spiciness. It broods darkly like an impending thunderstorm, and is the most habit-forming for me of all three fragrances.
Here is an interview I conducted with Beau Rhee about Atelier de Geste, the upcoming perfume launch, and her thoughts on scent, art, and life. Don’t forget to visit her stand on August 19-20 at Elements Showcase. All images are courtesy of Beau Rhee and Atelier de Geste.
I love the concepts behind your perfumes: addiction, wealth, and emotion. For me, they evoke the complexity of being human. How did you decide upon these three?
I developed these three scents throughout two years, when I was also working on a choreographic piece called The Ball of Living Matter, a series of duets in 3 acts. The idea was to have a piece explicating:
1 The routine, keeping on, having addicting or motivating or hypnotic forces to go on.
2 The idea of value and wealth, how we attribute value and why.
3 The emotions and feelings that drive our behavior, the real life force behind it all.
These three ideas seemed most important to an existential piece about living matters.
When I read that Coco Chanel had once débuted one of her scents with a Ballets Russes performance, I was blown away. I thought it would be amazing to use scents in this theatrical way, to amplify the feelings and the concepts of each act. So, I thought, I can take the themes of this choreographic piece, and try to translate them to scent. Scent is such a basic human experience; it is spatial and sensual just like dance. As I became more involved in the scent-making process, it was exciting because I realized that I was bringing in a very different kind of vantage point/concept to perfumery than the norm.
Many have compared the making and the experience of perfume to other arts, like music and painting. You are a dancer and bring the idea of choreography to perfume. How does this work?
Choreography is one of my favorite words. Choreo, corps, means body. Graphy, graph, writing. Writing the body. Intrinsically there is something so concrete about writing, yet something so spontaneous about the body. I would say that choreography is the writing of ephemeral movements fixed in space and time.
As a dancer and choreographer, one’s works of art are constantly disappearing. There are remnants – film documentation, photographs, movement scores, but the experience itself is fleeting. This is why I have always been very interested in movement notation (archiving the ephemeral), which seems to be the most poetic and also the most accurate way of understanding choreography. When I discovered that perfume had its own codified “notation” system, archival system, it spoke to me like second nature. I knew I wanted to explore this medium. The elegance of the relationship between the names of notes and inexplicable scent experiences was powerful.
There are very clear inborn relationships between the two arts: notions of time, duration, harmony, phrasing, texture, dischord, layering. I could think of staging different notes in time and space; creating surprise elements, harmonious combinations, or interesting tensions between notes. Oh, this note is sharp and short lived; this one is mellow and long; this one is upwards and jumpy; this one is pungent and strong – different notes danced in space for me. Scents are expressive in that emotional, temporal and aesthetic way that dance is. I think the ideas of phrasing and time (attack, sustenuto, decay) are very relevant for both media. I like surprises in time, like a good jazz improvisation, or a modulating Bach counterpoint. People have often told me that the Atelier de Geste scents change a lot in time, which I take as a complement.
I think scent has always been a big part of my physical, tactile and sensual experience of the world. It is probably the most potent of the 5 senses – linked directly to the limbic system, its psychological and emotional responses are direct and fascinating. Bauhaus color theorist/artist Johannes Itten once said: “Color is life, and light is their mother”; my variation of that is “Scent is life, and breath is their mother.”
What is your most powerful scent memory?
A very intense scent moment was during a recent trip I took to the South of France to work with the perfumery. The day I arrived at the Nice airport and checked into the small hotel, I wanted to go somewhere a bit more wild, further off the coast past Monaco. Nice is a bit like the Miami of France; I wanted to awaken my nose with a raw sea smell, better for the long days of smelling ahead.
I decided that I would take the opportunity to visit the house of one of my favorite designers, Eileen Gray, in Roquebrun Cap-Martin. She had built a house called E1027 (now a French Cultural Monument) with her lover Jean Badovici, and this house served as an inspiration for Le Corbusier, who later built his cabanon just meters from her house. After arriving at Roquebrun Cap Martin train station, I found a small trail that led down a steep hill to the ocean, winding in a lush green patch through which you could see the glistening water amidst the moving leaves.
Walking down to the ocean, I think that was first time in my life I ever cried from a scent. The potency of it was incredible; it was high spring, when the flowers were in full bloom on the trees, late enough into the season that the colorful-but-browned petals were scattered like enormous confetti all over the ground. Lush, large, succulent Mediterranean tropical blooms, the ripe and rusty scent of earth and soil, paired with biting citrusy pine-y green, coupled with the sharp salinity of the sea, the ancient smell of rocks.
It was a meeting of universes: sea, land, sky, in one intoxicating overwhelming moment. I had never felt the raw force and power of nature so directly and innately before. I had seen it, perhaps, in hikes and photographs, but having these scents enter into your system… I was humbled by it. It was romantic and surreal, a complete overtaking of the senses, of the being, of the spirit.
This moment was actually the inspiration for Wild is the Wind – those powerful moments that completely change your life in one fell swoop. Once touched like that, it is hard to go back, akin to falling in love. This moment highlights one amazing thing about scent; although much of perfumery these days is synthetic, fragrance still does have a very direct link with nature. Scent in general is a way to bring people closer to their own sensual experience, and also to the Earth’s natural processes.
In addition to perfume you are also designing leg wear. How do the two connect?
Both the scents and legwear heighten the wearer’s physical, sensual, and bodily awareness. The scents on a more invisible, psychological, olfactory level. The legwear on a more tactile, physical movement-based level. That is the mission of Atelier de Geste (Studio of Gesture): to introduce experiences, objects, events, and performances that heighten sensual or physical awareness. The mask logo relates this mission back to theater & dance: “The history of theater is the history of the transformation of the human form.” – Oskar Schlemmer
Legs: they are so strong and so sensual. In life, they are the pillar and mobilizer of our activity. In terms of style, they determine a look. Decades can be defined by the “look” of a leg – flared jeans, skinny jeans, baroque hosiery.
The idea started in a design class in Geneva (where I did my Masters at the University of Art & Design), when I was inspired that choreographers often had custom leggings made for their dancers. I wanted to make legwear that felt amazing and sensual, that empowered you to be active and powerful through comfort. Coupled with a few very simple, elegant designs inspired by Renaissance paintings, Atelier de Geste legwear is the result of almost a year of sample prototyping, and they are the perfect pair of tights: soft, supple, sensual armor that takes you smoothly from a bikeride, to rehearsal, to a meeting, to an opening, to dinner and drinks, and then…
Beau Rhee (1985) is an artist/choreographer and designer based in New York and Switzerland. She is the founding director of Atelier de Geste, a studio & brand that produces work at the boundaries of art, performance and design. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at X-Initiative, Exit Art, PS1/MoMA (NY), Musée d’art et d’histoire, Musée Ariana, St Valentin Espace d’arts, la Maison Blanche de le Corbusier, Kunsthaus Baselland (Switzerland). She has lectured as a guest artist at the Swiss Master Symposium of Art and the ICP/Bard MFA program.
MFA – Haute école d’art et de design Genève Switzerland
BA – Dance & Art History/Visual Art double major, Barnard College, Columbia University (cum laude, distinction)
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