Karole Armitage
Karole Armitage. Photograph by Marco Mignani

Breaking Barriers: Karole Armitage

On a recent fall afternoon, the choreographer Karole Armitage was rehearsing her troupe at the Mana Contemporary cultural center in Jersey City, where she is an artist in residence. One wall of the studio is made of glass, so that everyone strolling through the galleries or stopping for a bite at the café can pause to watch Armitage and her dancers at work. It seems utterly natural for her art to be on display alongside John Chamberlain’s scrap-metal sculptures and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light installations—even though her medium has a pulse.

Dance, an artform that is integrative of so many others—such as music, design, fashion, fine art, etc.—is often ironically left out of such collectives. That Armitage would be chosen for the honor of inclusion is not very surprising. After all, she has been breaking barriers for decades, one of the rare women who has held multiple and varied leadership roles in the dance world: as artistic director (MaggioDanza di Firenze), resident choreographer (CCN–Ballet de Lorraine), and festival curator (Biennale of Contemporary Dance in Venice). In the ’80s she earned the rebellious epithet “the punk ballerina” for creating ballets to punk music and for choreographing videos for Madonna and Michael Jackson. She refuses to be pigeonholed; she has dabbled in the worlds of opera, film, biology, the circus, Broadway, and physics. She’s also no stranger to academia: she’s held fellowships at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Kansas. She currently directs and choreographs for her own eponymous company—Armitage Gone! Dance.

Megumi Eda, Cristian Laverde Koenig and Sierra French in “You Took a Part of Me” by Karole Armitage. Photograph by Julie Lemberger

When I arrived at the Mana studio a trio of dancers was entwining themselves in intricate pileups on the floor. With the help of a video, they were trying to remember the choreography to Armitage’s Noh-inspired work “You Took a Part of Me.” The piece premiered at the Japan Society last April, it will run at New York Live Arts from October 23-26. The dancers, clad in puffy vests and track pants, were clinically working through their confusion; but in performance these orgiastic clusters will be executed nearly nude and with erotic charge.

A puzzled face could be seen peeking through the heap of body parts from time to time.  A dancer watching from the sidelines was commenting that one clumping didn’t look the same as before. Armitage, a tall wisp of a woman with a platinum pixie, was calmly watching from the front, dressed just like her cast. “No, it’s not the same. It’s new. But I like it,” she said cheerfully. The threesome unwound and they moved on to a different section.

I sat down with Armitage on a rehearsal break for a chat about the particulars of “You Took a Part of Me,” as well as Balanchine versus Cunningham (Armitage, unusually, danced both styles), dancer mortality, and her experience as a woman in the dance world. These are excerpts from our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed—but Armitage really does speak in such full, poetic paragraphs!

FA: My first question is about what I was just seeing: do the dancers have counts? How are you working musically?

KA: Oh yeah, this music was a challenge. I mean, I love it. I adore this music. Reiko Yamada did it, she’s a young Japanese woman composer—she’s probably 30. I met her when I was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard and she was there also. She really understood the austerity and the pent-up intensity of emotion and somehow captured that feeling beautifully with really eerie sounds and also incredible rigor. I truly love the music, but it is very long sustained sound and it’s extremely difficult to dance to.

FA: So are they waiting for certain musical cues sometimes?

KA: A lot of it is just the weight of the body is a rhythm, just like you learn in that Cunningham way that you can find incredible precision by really understanding your own body weight. Yes, there are definitely many specific sound cues as well. Are we counting? I don’t think we ever counted this music. There is one section that we count that has a meter. 

FA: Your background fascinates me: Balanchine to Cunningham. They seem antithetical to me—music based and not.

KA: Yes it can be seen as very antithetical but it can also be seen as very similar.

FA: Really?!

KA: Yes, the similarity to me is in the fact that there’s a respect for the athleticism and extreme rigor of position and shape—and using the body pretty much to its fullest capacity. Balanchine’s a little more extreme, I think. But essentially with Cunningham you’re using it all. It is like a verb in a sentence; it is really dynamic in the same way that the propelling of the body comes from a rhythmic drive. Both of them have that in common. It’s not taking positions but the rhythm leads you somehow along your path of combinations.

FA: Do you specifically work from musical scores like Balanchine?

KA: Usually. Almost always. I loved dancing Cunningham though, and I love also choreographing to text which to me is a rhythm as well. But I really think the relationship of the body to music is a kind of making love. You’re kind of going for the same experience and feeling each other but you’re not literally replicating—it’s really bad choreography that replicates music—but when it’s the equivalent of a voice to a score, so it has an independent voice and yet it is completely responding to the other instrumentation, that to me is really interesting. And I feel like it delivers a satisfaction that is different from the other more intellectual experience. And I also think an artist’s job is to be of your time. Well, Cunningham did that starting in the 50s so I didn’t need to do it. It was already done.

FA: Right.

KA: I also think that one of the things that he and Balanchine contributed was the liberation of dance from other art forms—from narrative, from costume, and finally Cunningham with music. But then once that liberation was achieved and everyone saw dance could make meaning and be of interest all by itself, I felt like we had permission to put everything back together again.

Megumi Eda and Sierra French in “You Took a Part of Me” for Armitage Gone! Dance. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

FA: Is that why you turned to Noh—with its long tradition and masks and narrative?

KA: No, no, no. I just like it. Well I do like that it’s a long tradition I suppose . . . but I think it makes meaning in the deepest way because it is never telling anyone what to think or feel and yet it has a very powerful spiritual presence in what unfolds.

FA: I love that idea. Balanchine or Cunningham—which works more easily with the Noh? Do you pull from both of them or does one fit better?

KA: Okay so the true confession is, what I think I’m doing is ballet. Because the thinking that I use comes from my ballet background, it’s the refinement, the way the movement unfolds, the poetry, the interest in meaning. There are states of mind or emotion that can come through the pure movement experience. I like that, and I think it’s great for the audience to look at dancers and say “they are me” and then the audience invests their imagination onstage and recognizes things that relate to them. I’m really interested in that kind of communication, that it’s a meeting of imaginations. So in my mind I feel like I’m very much in the Balanchine tradition. All the things that I learned from Cunningham—the intellectual things, the liberation of certain aspects of what the body can do, the trust in the body’s rhythm without music being necessary—all of those kind of things inform it, but in this particular piece I wasn’t thinking about Cunningham, that’s for sure. And yet . . . he was deeply influenced by Japanese thought, so it’s in there somewhere (laughs).      

FA: In the press release for “You Took a Part of Me” you talk about how the Noh tradition is a deep, ritualized, very technical, performative process that hints at a deeper meaning, in the same way I imagine the sushi masters operate—that Japanese attention to craft and detail that becomes a passionate, loving thing in itself. Do you not think that ballet or other forms of dance work in the same way?

KA: Oh it’s the same. It’s exactly the same.

FA: What does the Noh tradition allow you to do then, that Western choreography doesn’t?

KA: Well this is definitely Western choreography and Western thought. There’s nothing Noh about it in a lot of ways. It doesn’t have chanting, it doesn’t have words, it doesn’t have those kinds of costumes, it doesn’t have movement that is just with an arm and a fan (laughing). It is not Noh, but for me at a deep level, I think the reason I love it so much is that it is about a mental voyage. It is about a conceptual thinking about your experience in life. In Noh—and what I tried to do here—you reckon with regrets, grudges, things that have gone awry, and you find a way to liberate your mind from those. So the Noh voyage, whatever the story might be, is always about how you achieve liberation and freedom and harmony once again. So that is the way this is like Noh, though I think everything I do is probably a mental voyage. But the specificity of thinking about that Buddhist idea of release and liberation from that which weighs upon us is specific to Noh and specific to this piece. But I think like I have Balanchine sort of hovering in my subconscious, I think Noh hovers there for everything because it just moves me, it’s as simple as that. I just love it.

FA: This piece is based very loosely on The Tale of Genji.

KA: Almost all Noh theater is.

FA: Right, so fascinating. In The Tale of Genji, the women are really just pawns in Genji’s world. He’s a serial philanderer and discards them at will and they’re left with sullied reputations or heartbreak. This piece is Lady Rokujo’s story, right? Sort of?

KA: Yes, loosely.

FA: Were you thinking of a feminist reclamation for her?

KA: Yes absolutely. And at the same time, I think all these conversations need to be complex because these things aren’t simple and because it’s still true that men have the power. It’s not as extreme, but it’s still how it operates. I think that’s true in this production as well, it’s the women who are left who have to contend.

Genji in the story, he loses a lot of his power—not power in terms of how the world sees him—but in his own vision of himself. He doesn’t fare really well, ultimately, which is interesting, I think. And he has always has been searching for this mother who died when he was young, so the psychology is really complex. But [in my piece] it is a woman’s point of view, and it is a modern woman’s point of view, but it is also reckoning with the fact that you do have to shed powerlessness through some kind of psychic healing because it is still also true that the men have the power.  

Megumi Eda and Cristian Laverde-Koenig in “You Took a Part of Me” for Armitage Gone! Dance. Photograph by Steven Pisano

FA: I love this idea of the movement vocabulary relating to Japanese calligraphy. I was just at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Morgan Library and he was using the staff endings from Mozart’s scores to make his monsters for “The Magic Flute” and it reminds me of that.

KA: You’re kidding. That’s so cool.

FA: It was so cool. It’s the same kind of intertextual, mixed media thing that you’re doing. Did you actually learn Japanese calligraphy?

KA: No, no, no, but this is something for probably over a decade I’ve been thinking about very studiously: essentially ballet—and Cunningham—have been based on Euclidean geometry. In ballet you’re always stretching that leg as long and as energetically as possible but on a straight line. So I got really interested in the idea of trying to make a curvilinear sinuous vocabulary that really is about—it’s not really fractal geometry—but it’s more like a geometry of nature, that is to say the shape of clouds or coastlines or . . . Japanese calligraphy—because it’s all curves. How can you make dynamic interesting shapes but so that everything is using the globe of movement and curving through it instead of penetrating it? And that’s a very different philosophy, and it goes very much to this whole subject of feminism. I tried Arabic also but it didn’t work (laughs).

FA: You have long collaborated with the sciences—with Brian Greene and Paul Ehrlich. This piece is in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, is that correct?

KA: It was supposed to be. I love scientists because they have tremendous humility in the face of the complexity of the universe and they see themselves as small and they’re not ego driven.

FA: The opposite of the classic ballet master type . . .

KA: Yes exactly and they’re super creative. Engineers at the Media Lab are doing fantastic design . . . but they don’t really know how long it will take for an idea to actually work (laughing). In other words, if it takes five years it takes five years. But let’s just say in dance we always have a deadline. We were developing fantastic things with two different designers but they just couldn’t get finalized in time. But the MIT Media Lab was an incubator; they did help us to fund the piece so that was great. And all of those things that you end up not using enrich and become part of the mental world of what you’re doing. But the literal specific things did not happen (laughter).

FA: That’s funny. That’s the beauty and the curse of dance, right? There’s a curtain up time and a curtain down time and it’s gonna happen.

KA: But it’s also every single day. I live so much by the clock; I’m looking at the clock going I have to get this much choreography done by this time. Every minute I’m haunted by time passing. It’s an expensive artform so we have to be super respectful of time.

FA: And it’s present, it doesn’t translate to screens, you’re in the moment.

KA: That’s right. It’s now.

FA Nothing is more humbling, dance is such a reminder of your mortality, I think.

KA: Oh I agree, especially when you go through quitting dance it’s like you die. It really is a confrontation with death, there’s no question. And dancers go through it very young. It’s hard.

FA: It is, it really is. Okay, when you were tying them up in the gordian knots, I was wondering if the Japanese bondage erotica, Kinbaku, figured in your process?

KA: Oh I’m so glad you thought of that. I thought of it completely independently from that. People you have deep relationships with, you do get knotted together, you become kind of part of each other’s life and mind and way of being and so I was thinking of it emotionally. But it does kind of also have an affinity with this craft of tying bodies into shapes with those beautiful ropes.

Megumi Eda in costume by Peter Speliopoulos for “You Took a Part of Me” for Armitage Gone! Dance. The Japanese character reads “Love.” Photograph by Julia Cervantes

FA: And Megumi’s [Megumi Eda, Armitage’s exquisite lead dancer] costume, with the strappy black cords . . .

KA: It does. We did it unconsciously is all I can say, the idea was how nude can you get without being nude. But it all makes sense with the thematic material. I think that’s the richness of how imaginations feed on imagery and situations and all these things get deeper as you explore them.

FA: You’re in the unusual position of being a female choreographer and director of several different companies and festivals. How have you navigated the dance world which is so male-dominated?

KA: Such a funny thing because I never thought about it until a few years ago. I think I very consciously didn’t want to focus on that. What’s disturbed me is I just see my peers who are men and how much support they have which is financial, and also just the prestige. It’s just unbelievably unfair. I’ve contributed to it in some ways because I have had a lot of years in Europe so I’m not here as a fixture in New York. I’ve always wanted freedom more than success, actually, because success for me is the artistic goal—it’s not social prestige.

FA: But that’s such a female approach: I’m going to keep my head down and do the work as hard as I can.

KA: That’s absolutely right. I regret in a way that I didn’t work harder on it. Friends of mine, and a lot of them male, say Karole you need publicists, it’s important to get your name out there. I just never wanted to spend the money on a publicist, I only spent the money on paying dancers well. That’s always been my priority, even childcare—which no one else does. But I do, because I believe in it. So ethically I’ve always followed my heart and maybe not always my best self-interest—undoubtedly not my best self-interest (laughing). But I’m still proud of having done that and I think, in terms of art, that I’ve achieved more because of it.

It’s also true—I think I have all these absurdly sentimental things—but it’s true that I really don’t want to impose myself on the world. I absolutely do want people to be interested in what we do. I really want an audience—there’s no question of that. So in that sense I really want to participate in the world but I’m not trying to ever say that I’m right or . . .

FA: You don’t want to conquer it.

KA: No I don’t want to conquer it, that’s it. I just want to participate.  

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