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Think Punk, Think Again: Karole Armitage Celebrates 30 Years in New York

Karole Armitage, whom Vanity Fair famously dubbed “the punk ballerina” in 1986, is now in the thirty-sixth year of her plethoric career, still conscientiously smashing together the aesthetics of political and social rebellion with the techniques of classical ballet. Her life in dance has taken her around the world on performance tours and as a member and director of companies in the U.S. and Europe; seen her collaborate with artists as diverse as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and David Salle; and solidified a place for her in America’s small but formidable canon of modern dance innovators.

Armitage brought the company she formed in 2005, Armitage Gone! Dance, to The Kitchen this March to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of her first New York season by reviving three major dances from her past and presenting the world premiere of a new piece in a show collectively titled “Think Punk!” On the night I attended, the program began with Wild Thing, a 1981 duet depicting a couple’s push-pull courtship against Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Chip Taylor’s famous tune. The pair, Leonides D. Arpon and Dana Marie Ingraham, previewed what the rest of the night would be like, in terms of the dancers themselves: noticeably wiry, they moved like over-tightened springs, brittle and hasty with bubbling-over energy, their limbs snapping fore and aft, bodies sometimes trembling while attempting to keep control.

Mashup, Left to right – Luke Manley, Kristina Michelle Bethel, William Isaac (in air), Masayo Yamaguchi, Leonides D. Arpon.
Mashup, Left to right – Luke Manley, Kristina Michelle Bethel, William Isaac (in air), Masayo Yamaguchi, Leonides D. Arpon.

In the next piece, the same year’s Drastic Classicism, the entire company of eleven moved on and off the nearly-naked stage (shared by an assortment of rock musicians providing cacophonous, atonal accompaniment) in a something of a Fame-goes-to-CBGB spectacle. When the work premiered at Dance Theater Workshop, it was considered radical enough for a late-night time slot outside the regular season. Though it is not hard to imagine this being the case almost 30 years ago—the dancers, wrapped in ripped spandex and punky fringe threw themselves and each other around violently, erotically, but always balletically—Armitage and others have broken so much ground since then that now, by about halfway through Drastic, the “this is crazy!” effect has eroded and the dance just grinds on, the performers bound to keep pushing long after their point has been made.

1985’s The Watteau Duets, danced by Giorgia Bovo and Matthew Prescott, was a brilliant multi-chapter love affair based on an 18th century painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau which depicts love as a kind of “war dance.” Bovo and Prescott flirted, challenged, played, connected, and collided (Bovo often in stiletto heels) to a jagged synthesizer-drum-gong soundtrack played by the deadpan duo TALIBAM!

The closer, an excerpt from the new work Mashup, was another ensemble piece but showed Armitage’s growth since Drastic. It was less chaotic, smoother and cleaner, with all of the dancers in uniform red satin, their leaps looking joyous instead of escapist, their interactions more cooperative than combative.

It is difficult to critique the work of an artist as prolific as Karole Armitage after seeing it only once, especially when the bulk of it was made up of revivals of dances intimately connected with their times, and those times have now passed. But from this perspective, it is still evident—though some of the material now appears dated, and the dancing itself (minus the accoutrement of costumes, music, and sets) is high caliber but not groundbreaking—that after more than thirty years, she has maintained her ability to manifest her vision in action, and that she is still learning, practicing, and willing to take risks. What more can we ask of artists?


April Greene

April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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