Art and Dance in New York

H is dancing partner reached up and placed the back of her hand on her forehead. "Is she mopping her
By Preston W. Brooks and Michael C.D. Okwu

His dancing partner reached up and placed the back of her hand on her forehead. "Is she mopping her brow?" he mused. "Or are the lights hurting her eyes?" Naive fool: the hand upraised and the posture of rehearsed fatigue were simply the latest dance-floor craze.

Look nonchalant, he thought, but his underarms were drenched. Paco Rabanne was gone. A series of bizarre movements which she then produced led him to believe that he was not meant to be in this nightclub. "I definitely must have been a mistake," he thought.

* * *

"We have a set policy for getting in," says Rudolf, who manages the New York club Danceteria. "If our bouncers make 10 or 15 mistakes a night, they'll go unnoticed."

The difficulty of getting into a popular nightclub in the Big Apple should not be underestimated. Scores of quietly eager people form rings around the entrances of New York's hottest spots. It is already 12 a.m., but many may have to wait an hour still before they can enter the club and launch into the night. Unlike Boston, nightlife here begins on the other side of midnight. In the meantime, the potential clientele waits until summoned by one or maybe two or three bouncers who arrogantly survey the crowd.

Coy, aloof, and eyes seemingly focused past the throng, these stylish figures determine, to some degree, New York's fad and fashion. They don't need muscle to regulate the flow behind them. One suddenly calls out: "You! The lady in the white jacket." The crowd parts to allow the woman and her fashionable attire to cruise sedately by.

A fresh face emerges from the recesses of hte crowd, jean jacket collars upturned. He removes his shades, tapping the bouncer on the shoulder. "But Sheba said it would be all set." The bouncer points at his guest list, shaking his head adamantly, and turns to the host of hopeful candidates. This is his Wall Street.

The politics of getting in are ever-changing. Of course, every would-be Don Johnson figures he knows the secret to success. Sometimes he's right; more often, he's not. The propects fall into two general categories: those who attempt to stand out with outrageous garb and Soho hair, and those who try to blend in with what they consider the "cool norm."

But the notion of that norm is not universal.

"We don't let in groups of eight men with gold chains around their necks," explains Claire O'Connor, one of the managers at Limelight.

Those who do get in will usually confront a scene designed to stir the imagination. From the shark tank at Area to Danceteria's "Wuthering Heights" elevator, the purpose of the physical accoutrements is to draw the clubgoer out of quotidien life and into a netherworld of unusual activity. The nightclub's ideal role is no longer to provide singles with potential partners or to satiate the hungry dancer with the charm of the bass. Though there is concern with sex and song here, these clubs, more than anything else, attempt to capture and define the sub-culture that is New York.

"We do it through art," says Marilyn Mury of Palladium.

The physical surroundings go beyond the merely functional. Several clubs have in fact taken on established artists such as Andy Warhol to give the clubs' interior a highly self-conscious artistic touch. Mury puts it succinctly: "Art becomes nightlife and nightlife becomes art."

Mury's view is in clear evidence at Palladium. New York's newest and biggest nightclub. Paintings and sculptures line the walls of the former theater, and entire rooms--such as the "psychedelic room" downstairs--become playgrounds for artistic interpretations.

And like the people who "live" here, the decor captures the eclectic avant-garde. From the spotlighted Michael Jacksonesque staircase leading to the dance floor to the oversized Roman balustrades, this place is a spectacie. The people and the decor are both intended to be new and shocking.

The designers of Palladium have highlighted the theatrical aspects of the interior by positioning the dance floor where the stage used to be. People-watching is further encouraged by the conversion of the ascending rows, which once held seats, into pillowed lounge areas.

Similar motifs are evident at Limelight, which retains much of its former design. Once a church, the club's terraced balconies and altar sacrilegiously showcase the dancing mob. The setting is ideal for the exhibitionist.

"Prince was here once," O'Connor recalls. "He came in with an entourage of, 40 bodyguards who hovered over him when he sat and drank by himself. He went on to the dance floor and shook around, alone, while these guys stood in a circle around him. Then he just left."

Just six blocks north, the style is different. At Danceteria the design does not highlight individuals but blends them in with the crowd. There are no balconies, no crow's nests for the surveyor. Rather, the surfaces are unelevated and there is a darkness here which effectively obscures any attempt at glitz. This is not to say that egomania cannot thrive at Danceteria; let us not forget Madonna was born here.

In like manner, while the decor reveals the talents of underground artists, it relegates them to secondary importance. Of course, this is only for the time being: "The underground is the birthplace of the overground," Rudolf asserts. "What I'm doing now will be mainstream tomorrow."

The merging of art with nightlife is simply the expression of the club owners' philosophies. And consciously or not, clubgoers are aware of the varying concepts that go into making a nightclub what it is. Each night they dress the part in appearance and in attitude. In a sense, clubgoers project their fantasies onto the unreal world the nightclub offers. It is a world which condones and often invites the extremes of the imagination. Snippets of conversation lend credence to this view:

"The best sex," one patron announced, "is with menopausic women and prepubescent boys."

Perhaps the best forum for flirting with such fantasies is TriBeCa's premier nightclub, Area. Every six weeks the club spends $60,000 and 300 man-hours revamping its interior to promote a new theme. Past themes have included "surburbia," "obelisks," and "passion," all of which entailed major structural changes, bizarre invitations, and display cases complete with live models acting out an aspect of the theme. On Halloween night a masked man attacked a hanging animal carcass with a chainsaw.

"What we are doing is not profound. It's very superficial, but at least we can cause you to think about things," contends Joe Dolce of Area.

But imaginations run high here.

Responding to a comment on her long hair, one slender brunette remarked, "Once I tied a strand to the leg of a live fly and used it as a leash. I had a pet for four hours."

A man in black tights enters the ladies' room. As he gazes into the large mirror, he dampens his hair and strokes it into place. A female attendant tosses him a towel and offers a splash of perfume to the girl preening next to him. Often Area's bathrooms are co-ed meeting grounds for casual sex or a quick snort.

What allows a club to survive beyond what many have labelled "the average lifespan of 1000 nights"? To a large extent, the answer is determined by the energy and stamina an owner can invest in his creation. For Rudolf the answer is simple: "I do nightlife with passion, for my own entertainment; when I get bored here, I change it." But he adds, "Some change the decor and have the illusion they're changing the club. You have to change the spirit."

Others see inherent limitations in the philosophy of change. Says Area's Dolce, "We will always change--but even change becomes static." Dolce insists that a nightclub "is a very ephemeral thing," adding defiantly: "Only a severe nut-case would want to enter a field of work like this."

At bottom, like anything else in this city, the determinant of success or failure, of whether a movement is "hot" or "dead," is its acceptance by the elite. In the world of nightclubs, that group is the "A-Crowd," those "50 or so people who go to all the dinner parties," says Rudolf.

In order to retain the "A-Crowd," Rudolf adheres to his "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable" (MAYA) concept, calculating apparently that the truly trendy will dig the most outrageous nightclub they can find, up to a certain point. "It makes you go just as far as you can go and still have a following," he says.

One wonders whether there are any real limitations, whether fantasy sometimes infringes a bit much on reality. Perhaps even the owners sometimes allow this distinction to blur. Says Rudolf: "At least two or three times a month someone will take his clothes off on a platform and maybe jerk off. But I'm not going to interrupt an act in the middle. It's art on stage. And that's untouchable."