Photo: Ted D’Ottavio
Article by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
Julie Atlas Muz has received much acclaim for her work as an actress, burlesque dancer, choreographer, performance artist, and professional mermaid. Muz has appeared in numerous films, documentaries, and television episodes, and consulted with Kate Winslet as Winslet prepared for her mermaid scene in John Turturro’s film, Romance and Cigarettes. As Julie La Sirena, she swam in Europe’s largest saltwater aquarium for the 2005 Valencia Biennale in Spain, and as head mermaid at New York City’s Coral Room nightclub for over two years. Muz has been the co-host of the burlesque game show, This or That!, for several years and was recently featured in the Cannes award-winning film, Tournee. She has reigned as Miss Coney Island (2005) and Miss Exotic World (2006), and has oft been awarded Artist-in-Residency status.
Q: As an introduction to your incredible career, would you please share a little bit about how you began in burlesque and the broader performing arts? I’ve read that you hold a degree in both dance and history. Some artists describe their vocation as inevitable; would you say that your creative drive propelled you onto your career path?
When I saw the musical CATS as a 7 year old, my life was changed forever. I fell in love with music, dancing, make up, costume, the whole she-bang! For the next decade I spent my free time dancing by myself in the family room, or running around the backyard with a walkman, dancing to the “Footloose” movie soundtrack. It was inevitable to become a performing artist. I also have always been very comfortable naked, so it’s kinda a no brainer.
When I moved to NYC I came to be involved in experimental dance and theater, but the total amount of rehearsals vs. stage time did not satisfy my desire to be onstage and then quickly fell into nightclub performing.
My first burlesque show was the “Red Vixen Cabaret” at KGB run by Selena Vixen now living in Australia. Tigger was there, eventually Dirty Martini and Scotty the Blue Bunny. We all quickly formed a showbiz family that grew to include everyone!
Q: The play element and humor, especially of the bawdy and irreverent variety, are evident in much of your work, regardless of the medium and genre. This element, in union with your undeniable charm, lightens the more strident commentary apparent in some of your works; conversely, the element of humor can also make a piece seem darker due to the incongruity of mirth with the situation presented. There is a curious tautness of these mixed emotions, pulling your audience towards various reactions at the same time and creating a delightful energy. How do your works generally evolve, from conception to completion?
Well generally I try to make myself laugh! I think it’s really important to be thinking as a performer and try to make something that is important to you and if you can do that while seriously trying to make yourself laugh then I believe the audience will laugh with you, or at least see the joy in your work! I want to make work that resonates with me and my feelings and try to be honest with myself so that I can show honestly an evident love of the audience.
Craft is super important. There are a million good ideas, but if they are not crafted properly, with a good beginning, middle, and end, a good punchline, a good rhythm, an appropriate costume, then…. Well, the dream won’t come through.
I try not to realize ideas but instead dreams. It’s an important distinction.
Q: Your work also courts the realm of the grotesque at times (in the sense of the fantastic, unnatural, and absurd), presenting a traditional form through a distorted lens. It pushes boundaries, blends styles, and pays homage to the original form of burlesque theatre, which focused largely on satire. What are some of the main influences for how you present your art?
YIKES! That’s a tough question! Uhm my influences are varied. Certainly I am very influenced by my contemporaries like Dirty. We always talk through stuff together and give each other notes. Other greats that I am influenced by are Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, Martha Graham, mostly artists who tell stories through physical humor! The Muppets of course! Pina Baucsh. You name it.
Q: I feel that those uninitiated to neo-burlesque find it difficult to believe that burlesque acts can have a social, and even political, content; that a performer can express their observations and commentary about society just as effectively by taking their clothes off as playing a guitar. What causes you to make the conscious choice to back up your pieces with a statement; or, is it, perhaps, subconscious and inherent in your work?
Well, to refer to a previous question, I tend to make work about things that move me and things I care about. I watch the news and try to keep my finger on the pulse of things happening around the world and sometimes when it can be translated into performance I do so. I don’t TRY to make something with a political message usually, except for the 9/11/11 show. That was a 3 hour cabaret spectacular, all political, on 9/11/11, and we raised over $2,500 for the Uniformed Firefighter’s Association Widow’s and Children’s fund. I opened that show with a speech from which I quoted Nina Simon and she said:
“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians- as far as I’m concerned it’s their choice. But I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my beauty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival I don’t’ think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this … We will mold and shape this country or it will not be molded or shaped at all. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times. That to me is the definition of an artist.”
Q: In Michelle Baldwin’s book, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind, Laura Herbert is quoted, saying that you do “high-concept pieces. When Julie does her rope act, that’s a hell of a statement.” I have not had the pleasure of seeing that act in person, but even on YouTube, it’s incredible, and moving. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of your song choice (and of the song in and of itself) is truly brilliant. Would you care to share your feelings about this piece, and how it came to be?
That act is on YouTube? OH NO!!! HAHAHAHAHHAHA Really? I have no idea what’s online of my work except my website! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH
Oh, for the rope act, I was obsessed with the song “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore. I was listening to it on a constant loop and then bought some rope at a hardware store and then it kinda came together. I never practiced it before going onstage. HAHAHAHAH, it evolved quite a bit in the years that I have been doing it. I’ve learned a lot from it! Again, it came from a dream more than an idea. Dreams! That’s the key.
And a lot of my early numbers first came from me being obsessed with a song! Still do really.
Q: I would also like to learn more about your artistic intent with your recent production of Rite of Spring, of which Dance Insider’s Faith Pilger stated, “The choreography (more honestly than any other “Rite of Spring” that I have ever seen) portrayed the truly uncivilized, nasty, bloody-loving side of sacrificial rites.” Reading over the section titles for Rite of Spring (such as The Augurs of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls, Ritual of Abduction, Mystic Circle of the Young Girls, and Ritual Action of the Ancestors) I am beginning to see the possibility of a connection between it and the Jon Benet Ramsey story. Won’t you please enlighten me as to what brought these seemingly disparate elements together for you in this production?
The history of the Rite of Spring is legendary. In 1913, it was premiered in Paris and literally caused a riot in the theater, the audience hated it so much. And thus the birth of modernism in ballet and music. Stravinsky and Nijinsky, a wild and crazy pair. So the plot of the Rite of Spring always has a virgin sacrifice. And as Penny Arcade says, Jon Benet Ramsey is the patron saint of performance art. And I consider her to be the virgin sacrifice of my generation. It only made sense to honor her by making her the central figure of the dance.
OK, from the legendary duo, Dancenoise, and fabulous NYC downtown artist, Tom Murrin, this is the way to make a show. Three easy steps
1- get the gig
2- make the poster
3- make the show
It’s a formula that works and I highly recommend it. It will help you get your dreams into reality if you are working towards an actual gig. Making the poster will help you define the aesthetic and then all you gotta do is throw the show together. Oh, and for nightclub stuff, don’t rehearse too much. It’s nice when it feels live. The audience knows.
“Through the power of dance I tell stories that are beautiful, political, and emotional, with a bold and theatrical irreverence. I use humor, positive sexuality, and glamour to address serious topics in a playful manner.
My performances range from short solos to full-length, large-scale extravaganzas, but the three things I strive for in every show are: developed content, an evident love of the audience and a strong physical and visual presence. I employ showmanship, original costumes, and every conceivable type of stagecraft to immerse the spectators in a thought-provoking, interactive and entertaining experience.
I consider myself a renegade performer whose work reaches across genres, venues, demographics and tax brackets to champion the notion that performance in any context can challenge beliefs and change behavior.”