"People's ideas of what ballet should look like are so ingrained," says choreographer Karole Armitage, "that changing it in any way seems to make you a traitor to a grand tradition."
Armitage burst forth from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1981 with an explosive, abrasive work entitled "Drastic Classicism," and became the punk princess of New York's downtown dance scene. Five years later, she was choreographing a ballet for Mikhail Baryshnikov and members of his American Ballet Theatre. At the same time, she was consolidating her own company, the Armitage Ballet, for which she selected only dancers with ballet backgrounds.
"Certain institutions seem to find what I do now more subversive than those earlier, wilder works," the 34-year-old choreographer said recently.
The local debut of the Armitage Ballet, Thursday at the Doolittle Theater, will give Los Angeles audiences a look at two recent examples of Armitage's approach to that tradition. The nine-member New York company will perform "The Elizabethan Phrasing of the Late Albert Ayler," an ambitious 1986 work, along with "Tarnished Angels," a 20-minute piece, set to music by jazz great Charles Mingus, that Armitage originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet last June.
She may have a reputation for shaking things up, but Armitage is no upstart who appeared out of left field. She came to choreography with a distinguished pedigree--well-schooled in the technique and repertory of both George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham.
She danced in many works by the former as a member of the Geneva Ballet (1973-74) prior to joining Cunningham's company for five years, becoming one of the most prominent interpreters of his complex choreography. "It took me at least two years to make that transition," she recalled. "I wasn't interested in ballet and needed to get it out of my system."
"Drastic Classicism," featuring loud music by Rhys Chatham and costumes by Charles Atlas that juxtaposed dancewear and punk-flavored street clothes, reflected Cunningham's influence while wedding it to a more raw, socially aware sensibility. For all its anger and nervous energy, it did not betray the "classicism" of its title. "It transcended its own wildness to become a vindication of formal values in dancing," wrote New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce.
Several subsequent pieces--including "Slaughter on MacDougal St.," a 1982 work made for the experimental wing of the Paris Opera Ballet, and "Paradise," seen in New York in 1983--continued in a related vein and also veered towards a more dramatic approach.
"Those earlier pieces were very exuberant and passionate," Armitage recalled. "They seemed appropriate to that cultural context, when punk was happening. It was a very natural, expressive way to make movement that wasn't just pure movement, because I knew that I didn't want to do that."
A return visit to the Paris Opera Ballet in 1984, to create a work for members of both the experimental group and the more traditional main troupe, rekindled her interest in ballet. "I rediscovered ballet, and decided that was what I wanted to do again. But I wanted to do it in my own way.
"Balanchine was dead; the big question was 'What is ballet going to become?' It has so rarely been part of the 20th Century; it has so often lagged behind its own time throughout its history. That seems to be the interesting cultural context to address now."
In addition to what she has absorbed from Balanchine and Cunningham, there are other influences Armitage would cite as important. She mentions "certain elements of black American culture--such as the way Smokey Robinson and the Miracles dance" as well as jazz music and movement. She sees her recent collaborations with artist and fiance, David Salle, as explorations of American cultural artifacts.
She chose two monologues by the Beat-era comedian Lord Buckley as accompaniment for sections of "The Elizabethan Phrasing of the Late Albert Ayler," setting her dancers moving to his slang rendition of Marc Antony's funeral oration from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." She was intrigued by the sound of "An American taking historical material and turning it, rhythmically and stylistically, into something else."
(She found a similar rhythmic force in a Mike Nichols-Elaine May comedy routine to which she set the central section of "The Mollino Room," her work for Ballet Theatre.)
The second half of "Elizabethan Phrasing" uses the music of Albert Ayler (a controversial tenor saxophonist and jazz innovator of the 1960s), which Armitage describes as "very beautiful music that is extremely abstract and also has a religious humility."
She was equally inspired by the 1963 Charles Mingus composition to which "Tarnished Angels" is set. "It's very sensuous and also very dark--exhilaration and total desperation are presented hand in hand," she commented.
The choreography of the work, which features costumes by French couturier Christian Lacroix, makes use of what Armitage identifies as "a way of moving that really is ballet but does not have any stops, that slides through things and is off balance. It may be my idea of a jazz ballet."
Both these works feature decor by Salle, one of the most talked-about contemporary painters. Salle and Armitage have developed a comfortable collaborative process, she revealed. Both artists work from their responses to the score. She describes his backdrops as "images that parallel the feeling of the music. In the finished pieces, the three layers work together and echo each other.
"The pieces are like paintings with movement as much as they are movement with backdrops. It should make an entire visual picture; the proscenium is like the frame."