Sometimes we are inexplicably driven through life and its seemingly disparate connections, like George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, punk rock and quantum physics. But Wisconsin-born and Kansas-raised choreographer Karole Armitage has enthusiastically embraced them all.
One of America’s most fascinating dance figures and finally part of the Pittsburgh Dance Council series at the Byham Theater this weekend, Karole is the daughter of a research biologist. But the long-limbed lovely was drawn to ballet and rigorously studied the Russian technique with an eye on the Balanchine prize.
Well, except for a little diversion with the iconic Leonide Massine in London, noted for his work in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and as chief choreographer in the classic ballet film The Red Shoes.
“He had the most beautiful brown eyes,” she recalls. “They were full of life and charm and charisma and the sense of possibility. He must have been in his eighties, but he gave a very technical Russian class, full of lightness. Some Russians say to push harder, higher, bigger. He did everything through charm and you learn how to dance in a different way.”
Karole eventually moved on to the Geneva Ballet, but after only a few years, she was itching to dance something more contemporary. A friend suggested that she try Merce Cunningham.
Making the jump from the often note-to-note musical aesthetic that Balanchine followed to Cunningham’s aversion to any musical connection wasn’t as hard as it seemed.
After the initial shock, she “saw that he used all of the articulation that you develop as a dancer, just all of that work was being used in a different way. What was thrilling was that it had all kinds of new ideas like weight, so I had to work very hard to get into the earth. Then you have all kinds of different movement in the torso that was very exciting.”
And it helped that contemporary luminaries like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage simply hung around the zen-like atmosphere of the studio. The young dancer eagerly absorbed it all and quickly began to dance featured roles.
But Karole also started to make her own movement. By 1981, she jolted the dance world with only her second piece, Drastic-Classicism. “I think it is the title of what my work is,” she says firmly. “It was a kind of manifesto of the way to combine the poetic, metaphoric, refined virtuosity of ballet with all the technical rigor, with something raw, funky, rock-influenced, democratic American. It’s putting the American and European together in many ways. Basically it is what I have continued to do.”
Drastic-Classicism had “fantastic” music with four electric guitars by Rhys Chatham. But then, composer had actually been Glen Gould’s piano tuner, so he was actually working in the classical tradition, thinking about how people hear sound.
“It was never punk,” Karole asserts. “It was using the energy and ideal of punk. With very simple means, you can make a very strong statement. We never thought of ourselves as punk, really.”
She got the moniker “Punk Ballerina” and she’s okay with that, even after all these years, noting that the name is appropriate because it does embody those contradictions.” But she would rather have an equally good term that could be used in today’s society. “I wish there was more of a counterculture now that it would mean more,” she ventures. “You know, things have gotten so corporate and the media is so controlling, it’s just much harder to have an alternative counter-culture. It’s co-opted so quickly that if someone does a new kind of music, it’s in the next Nike ad.”
Even back then before development of the 24-hour news cycle, the young Punk Ballerina who made such a splash was quickly offered so much work in Europe that she spent the next 15 years there — choreographing at Paris Opera Ballet, directing Maggiodanza in Florence, resident choreographer of Ballet de Lorraine in France, among other projects.
So why did she decide to return to America, to abandon a secure artistic life where she could hone her craft? “I came up against that wall — people have protected and comfortable lives,” Karole says. “New York dancers are willing to go on a more extreme level of self-involvement because of what it takes to survive — there is no structure, money, no support. You have to do it with unbelievable commitment; I would be able to push boundaries even further.”
“The other thing is that I’m an American and I wanted an American audience, people who understood the funky democratic nature of what I was doing. And I wanted a group of dancers that were my dancers, who I picked because I believed I could push a technical, philosophic aesthetic further.”
Armitage Gone! Dance was the very first title of the company and she reverted back to it. Karole calls it a “hipster” mentality, as in “she’s a real gone gal — gone from the mainstream, gone from the predictable and often just plain gone because we work in Europe so much.”
The balance had shifted, but not much. It seemed that she was coming full circle in a lot of ways. Maybe due to her biologist father, she was an avid researcher and came upon Brian Greene’s book, The Elegant Universe.
The two happened to meet at a party sponsored by an arts patron. She was there to present work, while the best-selling physicist/author was there because other artists had a scientific air to their work. The two started talking and hit it off.
Slowly the pair collaborated on a dance piece, called Three Theories, that would deal with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and String Theory.
Maybe Karole always had a strong connection between the right and left brain. “I do so much love structure because ballet has an enormous amount of structure,” she concedes. “I think the ballet that I love the most (and music) is that you perceive a sense of pattern and you see it unfold and mutate. But there’s a kind of wondrous, almost trance-like high that you get from seeing that pattern develop and mutate. Science does the same thing — they are looking for pattern in nature.”
Of course, they have great differences. “In science you really have to prove things and you kind of have a peer group that understands and judges what you said. Whereas in the arts, there is no one who can really say if it’s right or wrong. So there you’re kind of isolated that way and you have to go with your gut belief. Perhaps there is a consensus people who believe that it’s important or not. It just doesn’t have that built-in system of checks and balances and it can’t, it just can’t.”
Dance has traditionally been vertical and horizontal in the way the body is held. Karole had been interested in fractals, which are the geometry of clouds and seashores and mountains as they constantly evolve. So she actually uses Euclidian geometry to make movement that is sinuous and curvilinear, an art where science plays a part in creating the movement vocabulary in a very concrete way.
But would audiences respond to complex scientific theories? She responded by simplifying it enormously. But she always tries to make it as “exciting, articulate, accessible, I suppose in a way, so that they audience really has the real thing.”
She also edits “like crazy. The most interesting thing is that the piece is possibly the most popular piece I have ever done. I think part of that is because there is science in it and people are unbelievably fascinated by these ideas because they’re very philosophical as well as about science. You know, Einstein said the world is majestic and predictable. Quantum mechanics says it’s flimsy and chaotic and there’s nothing one can predict in any way. They’re exactly opposite points of view about how the universe operates. Then strings theory says you need both — order emerges from disorder. To me, they’re just fascinating.”
For the non-scientifically-inclined, the dance is also very sensual, “a hallmark of mine. You feel the dancers moving, you feel them as personalities.”
It took about five years to distill some enormously complex information down to some very simple principles. She continued to read and study and think and question how to transfer the science to the stage. “It was good that I took that long because it was only when I made it incredibly simple that I realized I should do one scientific principle for each theory and that was the best possible way of doing it,” she says. “Continue to fight until it’s right is the lesson. People thought I was crazy — no one’s going to want to see anything about physics. So sticking to your guns is another lesson.”
Of course, Karole learned a lot about physics, which she adores. “It’s just incredibly fun to learn about these things,” she says. “Just on a purely personal level, I enjoyed that.”
And why not ? It’s in her DNA — obviously it had to come out like this at some point.