Karole Armitage: Dancing In and Out of the Box

Karole Armitage presented this year's Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerKarole Armitage presented this year's Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
By Ivelisse Estrada

Back in New York City, the choreographer Karole Armitage goes into the studio, spends an hour warming up with yoga, spends two to four hours alone making combinations, collaborates with her dancers for eight hours, and finishes her day with three to four hours of administration and thinking about the artistic output of the day. The artistic director of the Armitage Gone! Dance company, she sometimes does this six days a week.

It’s a grueling schedule that Armitage has followed since she was 17 and dancing for George Balanchine.

Being a dancer is hard work.

Becoming the Punk Ballerina

Armitage fell in love with dance at a young age, when a dancer with the New York City ballet moved to her hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. She taught her students Balanchine ballets for their recitals. If it hadn’t been for that instructor, Armitage might have become a different kind of artist, or a writer. “I was born with this idea that I wanted to be an artist, because I wanted to understand what it means to be a human,” she says. “What it means to be alive.” Instead, she chose to write on the air with her body—and this is how she comes to know her place in the world.

Years later, she would join Balanchine’s company in Geneva, performing some of the very masterpieces she’d learned as a child. But after a couple of years, Armitage says, “I felt I was an impostor in a tutu.” High bun in tow, she made the taboo decision to move to New York to pursue modern dance with Merce Cunningham. “He was kind of startled, I think, because no one who did ballet would suddenly show up there,” she says. Soon he took Armitage into his company, and she cut her hair.

But Armitage’s transformation was not yet complete. In the late 1970s, she discovered punk and, she says, its “delirious joy of destruction.” Attracted to the rawness and direct emotionality of that culture, she created a punk-infused piece. “People just liked it, and one thing led to the next,” says Armitage.

The punk ballerina was born. “To this day, I love extreme contradiction: hyperlyricism and then raw, tense, and violent accents,” she says. “It’s never very interesting in the middle.”

Armitage in her office at Byerly Hall. Photo by Kevin GradyArmitage in her office at Byerly Hall. Photo by Kevin Grady

Of course, her style has continued to evolve. For the past 10 years or so, Armitage says, she’s been experimenting with a different form of movement: a nonlinear dance vocabulary inspired by fractal geometry. “You can hit your hip, and the force of that takes your body out of alignment, and you can imagine that that energy flow hits another dancer, and that pushes them into motion,” she explains. “These kinds of ideas just bring a very different quality of movement to the stage.” She wants her dancers to look as if they’re moving spontaneously—and she likes to see mental activity along with the physical. She feels this elevates the form: “It becomes almost less materialistic because it’s not: Taking a shape. Taking a shape. Taking a shape.”

Now dancers find her from around the world: Asia, Europe, South America. What they all bring is the refinement, virtuosity, and precision of ballet, coupled with a wildness, a funkiness. Says Armitage, “It takes a renegade spirit who wants to break down and try new things—it’s much more of a struggle to be making a new dance vocabulary than it is to do what is already familiar.”

Refocusing Her Artistic Vision

Remember that grueling artistic director schedule? Armitage is taking a bit of a break from it. This year, she’s the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, where she says her ideal typical day consists of a few hours in the studio for morning dance work, followed by afternoon studies in her Byerly Hall office (which is outfitted with a ballet barre in addition to the standard shelf, desk, and chair).

Not that she has many typical days.

Armitage admits to a big curiosity, which she’s brought this year to Radcliffe. Not content to collaborate solely within the arts—she has worked with artists such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, James Ivory, Madonna (whose iconic “Vogue” video she choreographed), and David Salle—Armitage also seeks out scientists, such as the theoretical physicist Brian Greene. “I love collaborating with scientists in particular because I think the rigor of the scientific process gives them a great deal of humility,” she says. This year, at multidisciplinary Radcliffe, Armitage has been talking about consciousness with fellows in many other disciplines.

At a luncheon before her lecture, Armitage discussed her craft with students, who can now be part of Harvard's newest concentration, Theater, Dance & Media. Photo by Kevin GradyAt a luncheon before her lecture, Armitage discussed her craft with students, who can now be part of Harvard's newest concentration, Theater, Dance & Media. Photo by Kevin Grady

Long fascinated by Plains Indians culture, Armitage is further exploring consciousness and is working with a team of Native Americans to develop an outdoor, immersive dance and theater experience on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. For this ambitious project, she’s been commuting often to Haskell Indian Nation University, in Lawrence. “It’s really all going to be about the people I meet who are interested in collaboration,” she says. “I’m trying to really get inside this other way of conceiving time and space.” The experiential aspect is key to the project’s success, and Armitage believes that working closely with Native American dancers will bring her the proper worldview to pursue the project. “There’s such an incredible feeling of renaissance and optimism in the Plains Indian culture right now, and there’s a great vitality,” she says. “So I’m very excited.”

When she’s not attending to her studies on consciousness and the ethnobotany and traditions of the Great Plains, she continues to choreograph. She has a complex commission from London’s Philharmonia Orchestra—to Stravinsky—and is also doing a new program for Boston Ballet, which will premiere on May 6. She’s already met with the Boston dancers for a few rehearsals, just to get to know them, but she’ll likely only have three weeks in the spring to bring the ballet from her brain to the stage.

Where Has Dance Gone?

Another mission for Armitage is to bring to the masses a level of comfort with her medium. She notes that concert dance—a meditative, philosophical, and intellectual endeavor—has all but disappeared from the media landscape. “There is no doubt that dance is in a terrible crisis in the US right now,” she says. Funding has dried up, and theaters and universities present fewer dance programs because they can’t find an audience. She notes that the only media outlet to regularly feature dance reviews is the New York Times. “When I was a kid and I was a professional dancer, the New Yorker had a dance review almost every week; now it’s twice a year,” says Armitage. “Dance has just disappeared from the media—and that, in our culture, makes it disappear.”

Not that she’s going to give up. She hopes that the rise of competition dance in the United States might breed enough familiarity with the form to boost concert dance. “Competition is something that Americans really understand,” she says. “Maybe it gets them familiar with dance, and therefore it’s a good thing because people wouldn’t otherwise know about it at all.”

In the meantime, Armitage plans to just ride it out, as she says she’s done all her life. “People like me, we’re going to persist, “ she says. “We’re going to continue to work and create—and it’s a political act because doing noncommercial work that is not part of the capitalistic system, fighting the powerful forces built into the system . . . I tell you, it’s a major commitment and not for the faint of heart.”

The ballerina is still punk.

See full VIDEO: Karole Armitage presented the 2015–2016 Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, “Naked Body Language—Dance Is Time and Gesture Is Meaningless.”


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