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Karole Armitage, still crafty, minds her craft too

Her troupe, Armitage Gone! Dance, melds beauty and athleticism in two recent works in Long Beach.

March 23, 2009|Laura Bleiberg

Onetime rebel and exclamatory provocateur, choreographer Karole Armitage won immediate notice with dances that were visually and aurally assaulting 30 years ago.

She was a celebrity in addition: New York's hip, downtown ballerina, choreographing to punk music and running with superstar artists, such as longtime collaborator painter David Salle. She spent 15 years in Europe, and that sojourn undoubtedly seasoned her. But perhaps, just maybe, all the early hype overshadowed a classical craftsmanship that had simply won her less notice.

This is not to say that she didn't like a little notoriety, and such a thirst dies hard. So Armitage has put a too cutesy exclamation point front and center in her company's name: Armitage Gone! Dance. Formed in 2005, Armitage Gone! appeared Saturday at Cal State Long Beach's Carpenter Performing Arts Center, the first local sighting for Armitage since the 1987 Los Angeles Festival.

The program's two dances were both excellent, and the four men and three women of her troupe deserve much of the credit. Armitage has whittled the two key kinetic influences of her own dancing life, the neoclassicism of George Balanchine and the postmodernism of Merce Cunningham, into her own ballet style.

Her voice is an unabashedly female one, and hurrah for that. Armitage embraces liquid beauty and Olympian athleticism, playing with contrasting shades most effectively. She is unafraid of stillness. And she showed herself a master of crowd control, with dancers manipulated complexly but also symmetrically within the proscenium space.

In "Ligeti Essays" (2007), Armitage grouped songs by the late Romanian-born composer Gyorgy Ligeti into a series of stop-and-start "poems," duets and quartets especially. (The evening's music was taped.) The lyrics, by Hungarian poet Sandor Weores, were not available in translation, so it was unclear if the dancers' gestures and facial expressions illustrated the text.

It appeared, though, that Armitage focused on a forthright emotional connection with the music rather than anything literal, and there was much to appreciate from this reading.

A rectangular white mat bordered by fluorescent tubes (lighting design by Clifton Taylor) and a single ghostly tree placed upstage (set design by Salle) delineated the performance space. The dancers entered and exited in a methodical, slow gait, waited for music and then burst to life.

To a brisk, layered allegro, Leonides D. Arpon, Luke Manley and Bennyroyce Royon repeatedly lifted Masayo Yamaguchi high up and down, shifting her body from one side to the other.

The strikingly beautiful Kristina Michelle Bethel confronted us in a slow, accusatory solo, her hands framing the top and bottom of her face.

The statuesque William Isaac one minute whipped his leg from a back extension to the side and, in the next, gently enfolded Megumi Eda in a duet of shared longing.

Certain kinetic themes recurred from song to song. Dancers bowed forward, backs like table tops, their buttocks sticking out; Armitage returned repeatedly to a sideways lunge and an uplifted arabesque of exceeding loveliness. Arms never stopped flowing, and dancers greeted one another with a courtly upward motion. Dancers responded to rhythmic pounding of the percussion instruments with wide, flat-footed plies. There was fear and sadness, but humor too.

The mouthful title "Time Is the Echo of an Axe Within a Wood" is a pared down piece, an excerpt from an hourlong work of multiple musical compositions. In 2006, Armitage turned it into a concentrated, dreamlike vision to Bela Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

The proscenium space was outlined with side and back curtains of pearly beads that added atmosphere when disrupted.

We were presented with the dancers' backs as often as we saw their fronts. There was a visceral, childlike quality to Armitage's reading of the Bartok. Tinkling pizzicato inspired wiggling bodies and shuffling feet, while the composer's explosions of sound were met with enormous leaps and 180-degree kicked legs.

A solo for Eda, into which other dancers made cameo appearances, was a highlight. Isaac joined her toward the end, perhaps portraying a long-lost lover. Standing behind her, his light touch turned her into a marionette.

It ended silently and anticlimactically, with the seven wandering off stage as the lights dimmed, perhaps a leftover from the complete piece. Still, it was one small flaw in an otherwise penetrating evening.


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