"Punk Ballerina" Karole Armitage Discusses Dance and Art

Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerPhoto by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
The Harvard Crimson
October 19, 2015
By Menaka V. Narayanan

Choreographer and “punk ballerina” Karole Armitage discussed the meaning behind dance and its connection to other realms of life in a talk entitled “Naked Body Language” at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Monday afternoon.

Armitage’s talk, this year’s Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, focused on her unique perception of dance.

“I believe that dance, like all of the arts, is a philosophic practice,” Armitage said. “We start to see or feel or gain insight from this unfolding of pattern.”

Armitage’s talk drew on her diverse range of experiences in the dance world. She began her professional career in classical ballet but later went on to expand her repertoire, choreographing two Broadway musicals, including “Hair,” and music videos for Madonna and Michael Jackson. She also choreographed contemporary works that blended dance, music, art, and philosophical questions.

“People think [ballet] is an aesthetic like Giselle or Swan Lake,” Armitage said. “But for me, ballet is actually a science of motion, and a very brilliant science that...gives you the tools to use your body, control your body, and have freedom to do what you want.”

With the use of video excerpts, Armitage progressed through the history of dance, noting times when variances in choreographic style reflected changing societal norms.

“It is the job of a contemporary artist to try to reveal the meaning of our times today, and put forth ideas for people to confront or dispute,” Armitage said.

Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute, discussed the unique nature of dance as an art form in her remarks introducing Armitage.

“Whereas painters depict with line and pigment, and composers craft with sound, choreographers create with the human form,” Cohen said. “Just as learning a second language can light up new neural pathways in our brains, so encountering the language of dance can teach us new ways of discovering and communicating meaning that go beyond the verbal.”

ZZ Packer, a former Radcliffe fellow and the speaker at last year’s Phelps Annual Lecture, said Armitage’s presentation expanded her understanding of dance.

“For me, this was incredible because...I felt as though, even though I’m a writer, I don’t have the language for dance or the capacity to understand it very much,” Packer said. “She began by expressly talking about that and how there’s no particular code.”

The event culminated in a discussion between Armitage and Richard Colton, founder and director of Summer Stages Dance at The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

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