Dance Review: Stepping Way Way Out
Karole Armitage, once known as a “punk ballerina,” brings her dance troupe to the Berkshires.
By Debra Cash
Where has dancer Karole Armitage gone? Is “gone” a verb or adjective? Why has she put an exclamation mark smack in the middle of her new company’s name? The articulate choreographer with A-list artist friends, sweethearts and couturier collaborators seems to wave across the footlights to her American audiences. You want European swagger? the escapee from Lawrence , Kansas seems to ask. You want high-gloss, 21 st century abstract expressionism ? Here’s your ticket ! Personally, I’m outa here, so let me introduce you to my avatars!
For those who didn’t catch her troupe in her “punk ballerina” days, the early and mid-1980s, Karole Armitage was a dancer at the Geneva Ballet, where she danced Balanchine repertory. Then she spent five seasons (1976-1981) with Merce Cunningham. In their linearity and strict discipline, those contrasting styles were more similar than you might think.
Speaking on a panel at Cambridge, MA’s Green Street Studios in conjunction with her company’s recent performance at the Concord Academy, Armitage explained that when she went out on her own — her first works were notable for their sadism and extreme technique, not to mention the neon-colored fake fur pants — she rebelled against Cunningham’s model of dance and musical score “co-inhabiting the same performance space.” She wanted music, she wanted costumes, she wanted an integrated vision or at least one that wasn’t driven by chance. She wanted, in short, control. Today, as she explains it, her dance making and collaborative process is “a way to overhear myself thinking and talking about my life.”
From the looks of it, that inner life retains a fondness for cerebral problem-solving and for interactions based on overt and covert manipulation. Armitage, a biologist’s daughter, describes the opening quartet of her 2005 “In this dream that dogs me,” as being about the dancers partnering each other in ways that resemble the interlocking forces within a molecule. It looks that way, too.
Theresa Ruth Howard, a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem with a build like supermodel/beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, is the center of a knot of activity, her muscled legs unfolding at the center of the skirmish made by three men of vastly different sizes and temperaments: quicksilver Leonides D. Arpon, tender Brian Carey Chung and regal, aloof William Isaac. The lifts take the dancers’ athleticism, and their genders, for granted. As they boost each other under and over legs, shoulders, and behinds, the shapes seem nested rather than labored.
Annie Gosfield’s inventive score shifts its mood among piano chords, something like swipes on an electronic zither, snappy snare drums and lavish strings verging on syrup. Intermittently, a narrative is implied, as when tiny, pony-tailed Megumi Eda comes on and puts her hands over Arpon’s ears as if telling him what he can and can’t hear. Eda is in the midst of a tantrum, but every slap or foot to his chest activates an idiosyncratic reaction from her partner until it turns into a game they are aware of playing. Eventually Howard and Eda dance side by side. Their gestures are barely in synch, as if telling different stories using the same words. As their energy winds down, they seem to turn over in sleep and return to unfinished dreams.
Armitage deploys her dancers with a rare combination of messy feelings and pristine technique. This doesn’t always make sense, especially when she throws in shapes that evoke social dancing or classical ballet and so refer to other worlds and other etiquettes. But this combination may be the key to her otherwise inexplicable decision to title her dances with evocative lines by cranky (and some would charge racist and misogynist) poet Philip Larkin.
The title of “In this dream…” comes from the opening of Larkin’s 1946 “Tramerei”; Armitage’s most recent work, which will be seen in excerpts at Jacob’s Pillow later this month is called “Time is the echo of an axe within a wood.”
The poet and dance-maker could be inhabiting the same forest. In Larkin’s estranged lyrics, and Armitage’s dances, human relations are corralled and made bearable by sheer technique.
Armitage Gone! Dance performs at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass. August 3 through 6, 2006 with a free outdoor showing of excerpts from her work on August 3, 2006 and a public interview with the choreographer on August 5, 2006.