Atalee Judy strikes back at the 'Empire'

November 11, 2010

By Laura Molzahn

(photo by Eric Futran)
Atalee Judy in costume for "Course of Empire"
(photo by Eric Futran)
(photo by Eric Futran)
(photo by Eric Futran)
(photo by Eric Futran)

Atalee Judy didn’t like getting called “Attila” as a kid. But this powerfully built director-choreographer is something of a warrior. Ever since she started Breakbone DanceCo., in 1997, she’s taken physical, emotional, and political risks in what she calls “a performative humanistic theater” like Pina Bausch’s.

Breakbone board member and actress Carolyn Hoerdemann says, “Atalee’s use of text, live sound and songs, character, video, time, magical realism all adds to the deep theatricality of her work.”

A former mosher, Judy is best known for her bodyslam technique, which involves hurling oneself through the air into a death-defying roll. But her new piece—“Course of Empire,” opening tonight at the Viaduct and running through November 20—is something of a departure: no bodyslamming, no text, no overt anger. Instead, partly inspired by painter Thomas Cole’s pessimistic 1836 series of the same title, Judy looks at architecture through the lens of human psychology.

“At first,” she says. “I was thinking the Taj Mahal, the Vatican, these grand places. But I wasn’t thinking about all these emotional things. Women walking through a tunnel at night have a completely different experience than men walking through a tunnel at night. I wanted to work on the fear factor as much as the beautiful, inspiring factor. The fear of decay, the fear of an earthquake, or of the ceiling coming down on your head, or destruction in general—so war.”

Video for “Course of Empire,” by Judy’s partner and longtime collaborator Carl Wiedemann, is projected on three screens to “capture the peripheral vision of going through doorways and spaces,” Judy says. “I wanted to sync the images so that they all give you that vertigo kind of feeling, like you’re looking over a balcony or going through a hallway. You see that stuff that makes you a little dizzy or nauseous.”

Asked to name her favorite earlier pieces, Judy first mentions “Heroine—A Woman’s Tale,” a 2006 dance opera about female survivors of sexual abuse that was “important to do.” Then she talks about the 2007 “Visions of Light,” which she says was about “me coming to terms with my dad—who died of dementia, schizophrenia, bipolar—and blending it with the idea that Joan of Arc was schizophrenic.”

Judy has vivid memories of her father, whom she clearly loved. “I started noticing when I was about six, ‘Oh, Daddy’s saying funny things…’ Like he could walk on water. And he’d make these little stick figurines, and they’d be his disciples, and he’d name them. He was institutionalized 11 times, given electroshock therapy 13 times, and he escaped once that I know of, and they found him wandering naked in some woods. Obviously he was kinda wacked, poor guy.” He died when Judy was 12, and a few months later she ran away from home (in Texas) to New York City. She never went back, not to live.

Judy’s mother is an architect. “I grew up with her dragging me to odd places,” Judy says. “The one place that profoundly affected me was, in Rome, there’s this monastery inhabited by monks who’ve taken a vow of silence. It’s called the Church of Bones. The altar and the pews and all the walls are decorated with the bones of monks from past ages who’ve died. That was so cool.”

Her mother didn’t have “grandiose ideas” about architecture, Judy says. But in “Course of Empire” she herself is aiming for “a more masculine viewpoint, perceiving this empire path as men would. We’re definitely not portraying ourselves as women building a new empire. If it were up to women, we wouldn’t be building empires. We’d still be in mud huts. And living happily.”