There are creative people, and then there's Beau Rhee. The New York-based performer makes a living out of seeing connections between objects and ideas that most of us probably don't notice. She expresses herself through modern dance, scent, fabric, color, and texture, and talking to Rhee about her art is to know that her brain is a fascinating place.
Her studio, Atelier de Geste, has performed around the world. (Don't miss her NYC performance in June! Tickets here.) Her color-blocked tights were featured in a Pharrell Williams video. And her perfumes have been catching eyes and noses for their polished, nuanced constructions. Elle magazine and British Vogue have both featured the perfumes, and her Blood Sweat Tears was a finalist in the first annual Art + Olfaction Awards.
We're featuring Blood Sweat Tears in our Inspiration is Everywhere collection, and we spoke with Rhee about that scent and the many parts of her creative endeavors.
Olfactif: What does it smell like where you are right now?
Beau Rhee: Dried swimsuit, radiator, Super Aqua morning moisturizer, black tea, lily of the valley, and opoponax
O: Tell us about where you grew up.
BR: I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My father had a background in academic biology so I would always see him in the lab. That was where Dad worked, and I would go after school sometimes.
I had an early dance background. I moved a lot. One story that’s funny is that I would always be twirling around on the streets. I had so much excess energy.
O: What smells did you experience often?
BR: I grew up in a Korean-American household, so a lot of spicy foods and lots of vegetables. The smell of coffee in the morning was always a big thing. Around the time I was a teen, I started getting interested in fragrance, collecting it with my little allowance. Seeing my father at the lab a lot probably also had something to do it. I was just interested in elixirs and alchemy. It always seemed very magical and alive. He was always working with stuff that was alive—fish, mice, or even just DNA in a petri dish. It was all very interesting.
O: Did you always want to be an artist?
BR: I pursued dance and jazz piano pretty seriously, and I figured that I would end up in the arts somehow. I applied early to Barnard, the women’s college at Columbia, and that’s how my whole segue to New York happened.
O: Tell us the origins of Atelier de Geste—The Gesture Studio.
BR: The studio is a culmination of experiences beginning from undergraduate, where I studied dance and art history, through professional work life and graduate school. I was constantly seeing the connections between the performing arts and the visual arts and different places in history when they intersected. Ballets Russes is an example, or even in America we have Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi. It became very important to me in college to study dance in terms of bodies and health as well, because I was going through a very personal time with my mom and her health. Dance and movement became something existentially important—understanding how the body is such a sacred and mysterious and amazing thing.
After that I did an apprenticeship with a dance company called Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and to support that, I was working part-time in a gallery and a fashion show room. I guess I was living out the different things that I had studied academically.
O: How did scent become a part of it?
BR: The scent-dance connection goes back to dance classes in college where I would use different oils or perfumes to remember different movements in different classes. Because scent and memory are so intertwined, it was very effective, actually.
O: What’s an example?
BR: If we had to rehearse a piece with a choreographer, and I had to take a Martha Graham technique the day before on top of some ballet class, I would always try to use some different scent for each school of movement, just to keep it all kind of in my head. So lavender or Chanel Chance or some Hermès sample I got from Sephora.
In Switzerland when I was doing my MFA, I was interested in movement notation and scent notation, and how those two things are related. I looked at how choreographers depict movement on paper, and then how perfumers depict perfume, because they're both so ephemeral. The research project led to a production project, which led to sampling different formulas, which led to the first perfume formula. That was Blood Sweat Tears.
In graduate school, Atelier de Geste wasn’t really a brand, but I was already working under the name and developing the concept. The name is important. I liked working under something that was bigger than my own name. It also embodied for me the practice of developing movement ideas (gesture) into an object (atelier) that is unique and special. It means “The Gesture Studio,” because everything goes back to the movement story. And the word “atelier” in French does have this old connotation of craft and fashion. I like the collaborative gist of it as well. In Geneva, the perfume formulas were in these sample bottles and they weren’t products, really. The tights were also prototypes, and the silk movement pieces just mock-ups. Nothing was professionally produced at that point, but once I got back to New York, I got a lot of support to develop it into a brand.
O: What’s coming up for you next?
BR: In June, we’ll be doing a big performance All Blues and I’m working on a new scent to be debuted at the performance. All these different elements of movement and scent will be materialized together, whereas right now there are a lot of elements that are linked up but they haven’t really all been in the same room yet. So it’s an exciting time.
O: You’ve had some wonderful reactions to your work in the press. Blood Sweat Tears was a finalist in the Art + Olfaction Awards. Your tights were featured in a Pharrell Williams video. Why do you think your work has clicked with people so much?
BR: I think the reason we’ve had such an amazing reaction in the press and everything is that all of the unique inspirations seep out of the scents and the product and the storytelling, and I think people are excited by that. The art and movement inspiration are really at the heart of the products. And this year, with the performance in June, it won’t just be a story. It’ll be a real experience. I’m excited about that. I hope that it further emphasizes scent as a physical experience for both the audience and the performers—and an art form in its own right.
O: Where and when is the performance?
BR: It will be at Baryshnikov Art Center on June 11 and 12. I’ve been rehearsing with dancers since last summer, and we’ll have original sets and costumes, and I think it’ll be a really exciting assemblage of all the different media that inspire each object that comes out of the studio.
O: Let’s talk about Blood Sweat Tears. What’s the idea behind that perfume?
BR: The idea of a circle was very important. Repetitive moment. Because I think if you're a dancer or any kind of athlete, even someone who practices yoga, the idea of warming up is something that we all are very familiar with. So we start with the idea of a warm-up. Something consistent and repetitive and comforting, but not always easy.
So I started there, and then I compiled a list of notes that had to do with addiction, ritual, or familiarity. That led to a lot of the key notes: tobacco, jasmine, sandalwood. One interesting challenge was that I wanted it to smell salty, slightly reminiscent of sweat or something kind of acidic.
The name came at the very end. I was also interested in the narrative of the perfume. For example, there’s a satisfying feeling after you’ve accomplished something—the sweetness of it. So it’s probably the sweetest of the three first scents. There’s a hint of fig and jasmine, and the sandalwood is a very sweet wood to contradict the bitter saltiness.
O: We love what you did with your first three scents. There’s obviously a lot of care and intention that went into creating them, and they feel very special.
BR: Thanks! They’re made in pretty small batches in a historic perfumery in Grasse with extremely high-quality essences. There’s no yuckies in it—no parabens, no sulfates, no phthalates, all that stuff. And the perfumes themselves are limited edition, each marked with their number and batch.
O: That makes them all the more special. Thanks, Beau, for letting us feature one.
BR: Thank you!