The rebel is back. In the 1980s Karole Armitage was all spikes—spiky heels, spiky hair, spiky attitude. None of which went over too well with New York’s dance establishment. But then what did you expect from a School of American Ballet-trained Cunningham dancer who as a teenager hiked from her father’s research camp across the Rockies for ballet class in Utah, toe shoes in her backpack? At the very least an unconventional mind.
Since it didn’t look that she was going to make a way for herself in the downtown scene in the late eighties, Armitage headed back to Europe where she had danced Balanchine rep with the Geneva Ballet from 1972-1975. She choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet and, among others, ballet companies in Berlin, Monte Carlo, Lyon, Munich and St. Petersburg. She became Artistic Director for Florence Ballet; Associate Choreographer for the Ballet de Lorraine; and in 2004 she directed the dance component of the Venice Biennale. She also choreographed music videos for Madonna and Michael Jackson, two Merchant Ivory films and operas in Amsterdam, Paris and Naples. So why come home?
In a phone conversation from New York, Armitage, articulate and thoughtful, explains her decision. In part it was prompted by being tired of living out of suitcases; she wanted to put down some roots. More important, however, were professional concerns. “I want to work with the same group of dancers rather than change people all the time. If you are really trying to learn new things about yourself and technique and movement possibilities, you need a context that you can experiment in.”
The polyglot members of her current seven Armitage Gone! Dance company include dancers born and trained in Israel, Taiwan, Japan and the U.S., among them former Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet’s William Isaac. While receiving commissions from European companies is satisfying—and Armitage is currently negotiating new ones—she has also learned that “it’s very hard to really advance,” given the time restrictions and the pressures to produce a piece with new dancers. “You tend to repeat yourself.”
Armitage’s choice of choreographers for the Venice Biennale—Alonzo King, Peter Boal, Sarah Michelsen and John Jasperse among the Americans— speaks clearly to her preference for pure dance. She admits that the decision was prompted by a desire to create a counter weight to the preponderance of theatrical and conceptual values that dominate current European dance. “My heart lies in looking at the body like a pen, and the air is the ink and [you want to see] how can you write beautiful language. So I was interested in bringing companies that think of dance as a language, a poetic form that truly creates meaning through movement and not through people acting.”
Not that this most eclectic choreographer, who included hip hop moves into her work before most people had heard of the term, eschews conceptual values. After all she has probed Pinocchio, Casanova and Machiavelli for a trilogy on the art of lying. Her Schroedinger’s Cat is not a fairy tale but based on a concept from quantum mechanics.
Another Armitage passion is choreographing operas. She is, of course, not alone. Mark Morris, Trisha Brown and Doug Varone in recent years all have taken on this most theatrical of musical arts. She has done Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in Amsterdam, Pigmalion in Paris and Orfeo ed Euridice in Naples. “It’s a great relief to work on some one else’s ideas,” she explains. “I love investigating someone else’s emotional terrain. For the most part, these are masterpieces. So you get to plunge into this deliriously wonderful world of great music and great poetry, and you get to embroider that. And it’s very natural for someone who works with music because singers feel the physicality of the music in a similar way to that of dancers.” Unlike some choreographers who bring in their own dancers, Armitage likes to work with the members of the opera companies to get them to move within the music and to more fully embody their characters. To the Orfeo chorus, for instance, she suggested images of Etruscan statuary and Noh Theater.
Scheduled for her San Francisco Performances concert on Oct. 13 & 14 are two recent works, Time is the echo of an axe within a wood (2004/revised in 2006) and Ligeti Essays (2007). Both are set to scores by masters of 20th century music, fellow Hungarians Gyorgi Ligeti and Bela Bartok. Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is well known. For the Ligeti, Armitage created her own song cycle from three Ligeti had written, starting with the most recent one shortly before he died and going back to his earliest days. “They are wedding songs,” she explains, “but they are wedding songs that are full of doubt and questions rather than assuming that everything is perfect.”
Even a cursory glance (on video tape) at these two works makes clear that Armitage, despite the puffs of “world dance” that are integrated into her expanded vocabulary, has remained a ballet choreographer to her core. She appears to be one of exceptional imagination, refinement and intelligent musicality.
Armitage readily acknowledges her pedigree. “I do use ballet thinking about how you make precise shapes and flow, musical rhythm and metaphor,” she says. “[I think about] the way you unfold bodies to make shapes and the love of beauty and expressivity through the strict discipline of very clean geometry and musicality. That’s how I feel that things are moving and really emotional. Some of it also may not be emotional, just pure, joyous physical movement, interesting in itself.” This sounds like somebody in this country should offer this returned expatriate a full-sized ballet company. Would she accept? “I’d be delighted,” Armitage laughs, “if somebody asked me.”