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By Elizabeth Zimmer
Growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, Karole Armitage traveled great distances to take ballet. Her mother drove miles to get her to class with Tomi Worthan, who’d danced with the New York City Ballet. In the summer, when her biologist father headed for the Colorado wilderness to pursue his research, she hiked over a mountain pass to Aspen, where she studied at the school of Ballet West.
Trained at the School of American Ballet and the North Carolina School of the Arts, she had a dance career that veered from the neoclassicism of Balanchine at the Geneva Ballet to years in the postmodern cathedral of Merce Cunningham. Beginning to choreograph in 1978, she made headlines with her “haut punk” Drastic-Classicism in 1981, but later proved she could handle classics like Swan Lake, mounting them in the great opera houses of Europe. She’s worked in every imaginable environment, returning to New York’s Joyce Theater two years ago with her company Armitage Gone! Dance in the dance Esperanto of Time is the echo of an axe within a wood. That piece included snippets of extreme choreographic styles from yoga and bharata natyam to voguing.
Last winter, at the 200-seat Duke Theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan, her In this dream that dogs me took critics and audiences by storm. Sleek and streamlined, it featured her extraordinarily diverse company—dancers tall and short, black, white, and Asian—in a work that focused on the power, sensuality, and expressiveness of human bodies.
Urged on and supported by the visionary administrator Cora Cahan, who offered the Duke residency that produced In this dream, she’s finally come to rest in Manhattan. She recently created a three-part work on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater called Gamelan Gardens, which has Eastern-inflected music by Lou Harrison. (“The first movement is lyrical,” says Armitage. “The second is tense and electric, and the third more dreamy and curvaceous, almost like being underwater.”) Though based in an airy loft in Tribeca, she’s still a traveler. The day after we talked last fall, she flew to Berkeley, California, to work on a new musical, Passing Strange.
In January Passing Strange, produced by the Berkeley Rep, opened at The Public Theater. This month she moves her own troupe into The Joyce Theater from February 6 through 11, in a new work called Ligeti Essays. She’s also making a piece for Britain’s Ballet Rambert. But, she says, “The real focus, the thrust of my imagination, is creating this company.”
Armitage Gone! Dance, which she launched in 2005 after directing ballets and operas in practically every country in Europe, has seven members, all of them trained in ballet. They have, Armitage says, “the imagination, technique, and courage to push the parameters and go to the next degree. Most European dancers won’t lay their lives on the line the way a New York dancer will.” About her plan to develop her troupe in New York, she says, “I’ve spent 15 years figuring out the complicated ecology of a company. It’s still a gamble, but I think I have a chance of making it work.”
But why try it in Manhattan, where costs are astronomical, competition stiff, and funding spread so thin? “The history of dance in the 20th century—Balanchine, Cunningham—was essentially made in New York,” she says. “It’s an amazing heritage to be part of. Everyone aspires to that highest level. We know how far we have to go. A modern performer is made up of a wide range of influences, they’ve all done yoga, ballet, modern, street dance—they’re fluent and fluid in all these things. New York dancers embody what it is to be a dancer today.” The high level of diversity available here also appeals to her.
Seeking new members for the troupe, she recently auditioned 300 applicants. She wanted dancers “with their own personal identity, who move with great imagination. No robots.” Her ideal dancers, she says, “bring an internal life, a vision, an outlook. They have to be very musical; they listen. They’re smart, observant people, taking charge of themselves. They’ve all been professional ballet dancers who sought to bust out, to broaden their ideas about dance. ”
She hunts for performers whose backgrounds echo her own eclectic history in ballet and modern. “The two worlds are moving closer and closer together,” she says. She points out that schools like The Ailey School and CalArts are emphasizing this. “People who do only one or the other get left out.”
Theresa Ruth Howard, a striking dancer formerly with Dance Theatre of Harlem, has been with Armitage Gone! Dance for three years. The hardest part of doing the work, says Howard, “is the creation process, which can break down your body. The Karole dynamic is full steam ahead, 110 percent. She flings herself, and we look at each other and go, ‘What are we gonna do?’ That element of surprise or abandon is her thing, and we have to create our version of that. But after it’s set, I can go into that rapture zone, that Nirvana, where you just give yourself over. After you find the movement flow and understand it, the work is broad enough to accommodate your personal artistic choices.”
Also performing this season are the lithe Megumi Eda, who won a Bessie Award for her dancing with Armitage; the tiny dynamo Leonides D. Arpon, a Filipino brought up in Israel; and the tall and sturdy William Isaac, plus three new members. The ensemble ranges in age from 18 to 41.
Armitage stopped performing in 1989, though she still puts herself through a 90-minute warm-up and takes class every day, often at Steps on Broadway. “If you’re trying to find new ways of moving, you have to do the moving!” she says. “I experiment with my body, warm it up and try things. And it puts you in a good mood. If I can’t feel my body and use it, I don’t feel like I’m myself; the day feels wrong.”
She puts her complete trust in her dancers. “They’re my alter ego,” she says, “the vehicle for my thoughts.” She met Howard while working on a music video in the early ’80s. She saw Megumi Eda dance with the Rambert company in England five years ago. Eda left Rambert and England to dance with Armitage here. “We have a real history with each other.”
At 52, Armitage is still the same size she was during the early 1980s, when she was a glamorous partner to Merce Cunningham. “Stress keeps you thin, that’s for sure,” she says. “Pulling off all these productions every year is stressful.”
The evening-length work they’re preparing for The Joyce, Ligeti Essays, will be performed in socks, as many European dances are these days. Choreographed to music by the late Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, its first section brings together three song cycles composed to the poetry of fellow Hungarian Sandor Weores. The second part, to Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, uses his melodies to undergird Armitage’s renderings of the disconnections of modern life. The piece has scenery and lighting by painter David Salle, who has designed startlingly lovely sets for a number of her ballets.
“Fear and excitement propel me,” says the choreographer, looking pretty cool and relaxed. “It’s like making love to the composer, whoever he or she is. It’s a very exciting and demanding life, full of sensuality and discovery. When you’re working at this intense level, where everyone cares so much, it’s sometimes volatile, but it’s a great atmosphere.
She’s made, she estimates, more than 100 dances. Early in her career she worked with Rosella Hightower on a version of The Nutcracker for the Paris Opera Ballet, and since then she’s made about five dances a year, ranging from short, intimate pieces to full-length works for 50-member troupes. She’s also done film and TV commercials. But her heart, she says, “is in doing the new dance of our time, making beautiful, poetic movement onstage. I think dance is best seen live. People are lonely and isolated; in dance we come together and share things.”
One of the rare American women who has managed to build an international touring company, she notes that it’s harder for female artists to break into this category. “There’s a built-in prejudice,” she says. “Male choreographers are judged differently.” To protect herself, she says she’s being very careful about each step of putting the troupe together, creating the right foundation business-wise and artistically. Her gypsy tendencies will serve her well, enabling her to operate on a shoestring while offering great style and virtuosity to a demanding international audience. “You have to be willing to be poor, marginal, humble,” she says. “It’s not glamorous. You do it for the love of dance.”
Elizabeth Zimmer writes about dance and other subjects from her base in New York City.