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Karole Armitage fuses the cerebral and the sensual

The force behind Armitage Gone! Dance brings the troupe to Long Beach's Carpenter Center.

March 15, 2009|Susan Reiter

NEW YORK — Karole Armitage is having an intensely busy first week of March, and the stress is showing.

She's a few days away from the opening of an ambitious retrospective -- revivals of several of the barrier-smashing dances that, a generation ago, put her on the map. It will be at the Kitchen, the venue where a number of them premiered. She's shuttling between that downtown space and the uptown world of Broadway, making final adjustments to her choreography for the much-anticipated new production of "Hair."

The week also will bring her latest honor from the government of France: On opening night at the Kitchen, the French Embassy's cultural counselor will confer upon Armitage the insignia of commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. And at some point, she may find time to celebrate her 55th birthday.

But the projects on Armitage's plate actually represent detours. Since returning to New York after a lengthy European sojourn and forming the troupe known as Armitage Gone! Dance in 2005, she has been creating a series of intriguingly cerebral yet coolly sensual new works in which she once again puts her own stamp on classical dance. It's two of those works -- both featuring scenic design by her longtime collaborator, the artist David Salle -- that her company will bring to the Carpenter Center in Long Beach this Saturday.

Armitage, who first came to the dance world's attention as a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1976 to 1981, was a high-profile, cutting-edge figure on the New York dance scene during the 1980s. "Drastic-Classicism," a fierce and at the same time playful work set to a painfully loud punk-rock score by Rhys Chatham (one of the works on the Kitchen program), toyed with and extended the possibilities of the classical vocabulary, making it relevant and exciting for a new audience. Her daring, high-tech dancing -- she cut an edgy, sly figure with her spiky blond hair, long legs and pointe shoes -- anchored a string of works that generated audience excitement and lots of glossy press coverage.

"I first wanted to be a choreographer because I wanted to communicate things about my generation. I was putting ballet and modern technique with rock 'n' roll energy and that kind of visceral experience," Armitage says as she sits in the Kitchen's office space while her dancers take company class. She has the same lean, tensile figure that she did in her dancing days (a daily 7:30 yoga class is part of her regimen), and her blond hair remains fashionably short if less spiky.

Although her recent focus has been on composers such as Bela Bartok and Gyorgy Ligeti (the two represented on Saturday's program) rather than rockers, her allegiance to music has been a constant. The Merce Cunningham aesthetic -- a composer would create a score that the choreographer and dancers never heard until just before a dance premiered -- held no fascination for her.

"I've always been interested in dancing to music, because for me it's a more satisfying experience," she says. "It's about communicating with someone else in that very entwined way -- with the music, with the lights, costumes. That seamless working together is what interests me."

"With Karole I really see and feel an incredibly sophisticated musicality -- which was already there in 'Drastic' in 1981. The way in which the steps work with the music is something that still amazes me and that I find very generative for my own process," says Salle, who has known the choreographer for 25 years and worked on projects with her since a 1986 commission from American Ballet Theatre. When the two recent dances coming to Long Beach -- "Time is the echo of an axe within a wood" and "Ligeti Essays" -- were performed two years ago in New York, Salle even provided a program note about her approach to music: "Armitage is very investigative in her musicality: She doesn't illustrate the music so much as excavate its deeper structures."

Despite her influence as a performer and the level of attention she received (she was tapped to choreograph music videos for Madonna and Michael Jackson), Armitage always struggled to get funding and touring engagements in this country when she was leading her own company in the '80s. Europe, however -- and France in particular -- was taken with her work from the beginning and offered continual opportunities. She had already been commissioned by festivals there before making her first choreographic splash in New York.

"I've never gotten any [government] funding here, and I never expected to," she observes with mild exasperation. Her funding sources are "all private -- it's mostly done by co-productions with Europeans -- and New York patrons, and the generosity of artists."

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Going overseas

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