Interview with Karole Armitage
Karole Armitage, a classically trained dancer who worked with iconoclasts Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, put her own twist in international dance in 1981 with “Drastic Classicism,” a work that countered ballet’s discipline and precision with the brash, anarchic energy of punk. Armitage has continued to impress with the range of her talents and influences, from ballet to capoeira to quantum mechanics and string theory. Her company, Armitage Gone! Dance will perform two very different works from its repertoire: the quiet, poetic “Ligeti Essays” (2005), with music by György Ligeti and a set by artist David Salle, and “Rave” (2001), an exuberantly colorful spectacle that has ballerinas in body paint exploring voguing and kung fu. We spoke to Armitage about science, rebellion, and how she became known as the “punk ballerina.”
Can you explain your company’s name, Armitage Gone! Dance?
I’ve had a career that oscillates between the U.S. and Europe, so I’m almost always physically gone—but also gone from the mainstream, gone from the predictable. The idea came from hipster beat language from the 50s; post-WWII, when counterculture really became part of American life, that was the first term for something really wonderful, great, exciting, interesting: she’s a real “gone” gal.
You seem to have a real affinity for the counterculture.
I’m a rebel at heart.
Your work has taken on punk, raves, hippies, and you’ve famously been dubbed the “Punk Ballerina.”
I was trained as a ballet dancer and worked with Balanchine, so I have really deep roots in classical technique and thinking. But when punk hit in the late 70s, I wanted to do something more of my time. Music was getting very corporate, very cold, and punk was a rebellion against everything being formulaic. With three chords you could make a big effect, and for someone who was very young, to see you didn’t need a lot of stuff, just some good ideas, was a very powerful influence. So I added that feeling of rawness and emotional intensity, things that were completely taboo in dance. Street influences were not part of the dialogue then.
You draw not just from the street, but from other forms of movement as well.
I should probably be more “branded” and stick to one set of things, but I have a big curiosity. For “Rave,” I was thinking about the universal grammar of the body, using kung fu, capoeira, catwalk, voguing, ballet, and modern dance, and about showing how the body has the same joints and muscular structure in every culture. There is a very natural link between them.
You’re known for finding inspiration in unexpected places, like the popular physics book The Elegant Universe, on which you based a piece. Do you go looking for it, or does it find you?
I guess I’m just living, and questions arise naturally. Science is something I’m very drawn to, partly because of its rebel spirit. It’s questioning authority, the status quo, all the time: how can we push the boundaries further? At the same time, it has humility: it has to look at how the world operates and reflect that, so it’s not about ego. That contradiction I think is wonderful.
You believe in five guiding principles to creating dance, one of which is “move like a blaze of consciousness.” Can you explain that?
It’s trying to represent the complexity of consciousness: emotion and observation, feeling and psychology, controlling things and not controlling things. It’s trying to infuse each dancer with a feeling of spontaneity and complexity; it should feel like the dancer is making up the movement as they go. It’s very apparent, I hope, in “Ligeti Essays.”
How were these two pieces selected?
The co-presenters—the ICA and CRASHarts—made the selection, and it’s a wonderful program, because it has such contrast. “Ligeti Essays” is psychological and poetic and in a way very pure: the costumes are simple, it’s almost like a dream. “Rave” is very exuberant and colorful and uses all the street influences.
“Rave” calls for casting 18 local dancers. How were they auditioned?
By coincidence, the Boston Conservatory asked me if I could make a ballet en pointe for their graduating class. I was too busy, but I said, how about you participate in “Rave,” where the students will be able to perform in a professional context with my dancers, and for your spring show you can do the whole thing with your own dancers. I went for a six-hour audition; because I need capoeira and monkey-form kung fu and voguing, I have to get know people pretty well to figure out what they can do.
You have a long history of collaborating with visual artists, including Jeff Koons and David Salle, who created the set for “Ligeti Essays.” Why is this important to you?
I think I got hooked partly because Jasper Johns was always around when I was working with Cunningham. Just seeing how he was thinking and going to his shows made me very aware of what a wonderful world the art world is. Artists work alone, and I think they can push ideas to the hilt. It’s harder in the performing arts, because we need a huge consensus: You need an audience of many, many people, and you have to get grants, which is committee work, so it’s much harder to push things as quickly.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with but haven’t yet?
There are so many. I’ve worked with Phillip Taaffe and Bryce Marden, both of whom have done extraordinary things for the stage; I wouldn’t mind doing more with either of them. But I’m not sure who I’d pick next, because I’m not sure what the next piece is. It’s very important that the artist have a natural entry into the world that you’re creating.
The 2013–14 performance season at the ICA is presented with support from The Robert E. Davoli and Eileen L. McDonagh Charitable Foundation and Ellen Poss.