When I heard that Karole Armitage had packaged her latest creations as “A Pandemic Notebook,” I was intrigued. What exactly does a punk ballerina/director/choreographer get up to during a long cultural shutdown? As is her wont, a lot. And though she did succumb to one straightforward pandemic trope, in “6’ Feet Apart” (the only clunker on the bill), she mostly took the big themes of the past few years—disease, Trump, nature, celebrity—and filtered them through her smart and eclectic lens. At New York Live Arts last week, her Notebook entries were presented as a series of short works alternating between live dancing and film. They incorporated elements from European cinema, Native American tradition, American runway shows, medieval anatomy studies, the Playboy Mansion, modern art, and the court of Louis XIV.
“Beautiful Monster,” from 2020, was the strong opener. To Michael Gordon’s music—falsetto wailing against nervy pulsing—Sierra French and Alonso Guzman both danced in heels and the same long gold dress and domed headpiece as the movie star from Luchino Visconti’s 1967 film La Strega Bruciata Viva (The Witch Burned Alive). They were conehead aliens, club kids, or Nerfertitis—creepily stepping around, covering their mouths with their hands, and tangoing. Christian Laverde-Koenig entered in an arty black peplum and trunks at one point, to a deeper voice in the score, and manipulated them. (The costumes were by Jeff Koons.) French became the witch of Visconti’s title, and after passing out in a chair and getting stripped of everything, including her false eyelashes, she arose and tottered around in her smeared and vulnerable state. (In the film, the starlet gets drunk and is stripped of her makeup, exposing her true face and flaws.) The others wrapped French in a leopard fur coat and sunglasses (classic movie star armor) and helped her on her way, her stardom apparently serving as a curse and a prison. Armitage’s framework posed cheeky questions for our current celebrity-obsessed, social media-saturated age. Are our own idols sacrificial lambs or necromancers? Would they sink or float? What is the price of fame?
The film Killer followed and showed off Armitage’s hardy music video roots. On a screen split into three, a group of five dancers in red leotards, Covid masks, and bunny ears hopped and pawed and squatted over a fisheye lens on the floor to the throbbing music of David Lang. Killer was part of Armitage’s Under the Dancer film series, in which the camera shoots up at the dancers from underneath. The crotch shots, skimpy garb, and rabbit accents had a Playboy grotto vibe, but Killer was more menacing than sexy. I thought of the horror films Us and Donnie Darko. The distortions of the dancers’ bodies as filmed from below were disorienting and cool—it took a beat to decode what was a high extension or just a tendu on the floor, or a big jété vs a simple step.
“Head to Heel,” was based on Jack Hartnell’s book Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages, andit consisted of French and Guzman exploring their bodies and senses from top to bottom. They wore corsets with intestines made from fabric on the front, by Eleen Halvorsen, and had some rubber organs fabricated by Dapper Cadaver taped to their torsos. In silence, they pointed and wriggled and worked down their bodies in a Vaudevillian way. It was light and goofy; like a more perverted take on a Sesame Street Mr. Noodles segment.
“Louis,” based on a Roberto Rossellini film, posited that Louis XIV’s fancy trappings were the means to his power grab, then likened that to the rise of Donald Trump. Laverde-Koenig was fabulous as the titular monarch, sauntering around and performing dog-piss attitude sides. He commanded his slave boy Guzman while French watched and helped in a maid’s bonnet. “Louis” had a similar look to Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, but it took things way further. The costumes were discarded Metropolitan Opera garb, the neon pink and green lighting was by Tsubasa Kamei, and Armitage cleverly spliced courtly music by John-Baptiste Lully and Thomas Adès with David T. Little’s rock violin track “Hellhound.” One shredding solo was the accompaniment to a hilarious, overzealous wig powdering scene. At the end, Louis sat upon a stripped Guzman like he was a human chair straight out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof Brüno. But though Louis was clearly a monster, Laverde-Koenig played him as more bored and impulsive than diabolical. The elaborate machinations of the servants, which enabled his every whim, were far more disturbing—a pertinent commentary on recent politics.
Then came the most hyped piece on the bill, “Time/Times,” an excerpt from a longer film starring Jock Soto—back onstage for the first time since his NYCB retirement in 2005—and Armitage herself, performing for the first time since 1989. It delivered on its promise. It was moving to see Soto walk placidly onstage and dance a slow solo in front of the Plaza Blanca, New Mexico landscape on the screen behind him. He parted his hands at his chest and threw his arms wide, a gesture which echoed his star turn in “Chiaroscuro” (a work created just for him by Lynne-Taylor Corbett) from decades earlier. His placement in front of the towering cliff faces was perfect, he was always a mountain of a man—not only in his size and the gentle slope of his shoulders, but in his implacable serenity and his function as the ultimate partner. Like the buttes behind him, his prominent forehead was as smooth and solid as it ever was (how is he so ageless?!). He was a rock for so many ballerinas, as he was here for Armitage, who kicked up and scraped at imaginary sand and leaned on him from time to time. She was his opposite in every way, willowy and waiflike and so much more ballerina than punk in this piece with all her demi-pointe échappés and bourrés. She did more dancing steps, but Soto’s large, articulate hands—conjurer hands—were a major presence as they parted the air and deftly supported her.
After this peak, the show fell apart somewhat—quite literally at one point, when the projector broke and the remaining films were unable to be shown. But I got to see them later, and though they were interesting, Armitage’s off-the-cuff appearance to apologize was more so. She came out with a mic to explain what we were missing and to give her core trio of dancers (all great) time to change their costumes and reset between the remaining live numbers. With her customary intelligence and humor, she pursued some fascinating tangents until she was given the ready cue. And I can attest that her descriptions of her past performance clips were far more vivid than the grainy footage.
The tech failed to inspire in the Covid-inspired “6’ Apart” as well. The program made it sound like all the dancers were going to be electronically rigged to trigger warnings when they got within 6 feet of each other. As it was, Guzman sat on a chair and policed French and Laverde-Koenig with a phone strapped to his head and sensors on his body which activated tin-can banging noises when he shimmied. This was in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, and they did Armitage wrong here. Guzman could have more effectively beat a drum when he eyeballed that the others were too close together.
But even this nadir was thought-provoking. How great would it have been if someone could have monitored the grocery stores with cacophonous alerts during peak Covid? It made me realize how so much of the stress of the pandemic was caused by relentless self-vigilance. Gone were the days of flânerie; outsourcing social distancing and spatial awareness would have been a godsend (though also dangerously Big Brother…). Maybe MIT can figure it out for real if we ever find ourselves in such hell again. (Wait, are we out of it? I’m still confused.) But I thought it was wonderfully ironic that these glitches happened during a live show. Technology, our savior from boredom and our path to connection during Covid—and which partly enabled Armitage to create during the pandemic—was as fickle and unreliable as ever.
Luckily, Armitage works in several mediums, and her joyous finale “Marc Jacobs,” was fairly low tech. This group romp was a mashup of fashion (by the designer of the title), Native American music (Jim Pepper’s Goin’ Down to Muskogee Town), drag, and playground moves like jumping rope. French kicked it off with a few double turns on pointe to the lyrics, “oh yeah, whee!” which felt so right. Spinning on your toes is fun, though it can be easy to forget that on the quest for perfect technique. And though Armitage has Cunningham and Balanchine pedigrees (she quoted the latter overtly twice: the crab backbend walks in “Beautiful Monster” were straight from “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” and the Phlegmatic creeps from “Four Temperaments” made it into “Louis”), she reminds me more of Andy Warhol than she does other dancemakers. She is less concerned with patenting a signature movement style than she is with conceptual and aesthetic fusions. She has a sharp eye and a keen wit, and she plays off other people’s best ideas in inventive ways. And all the while she never forgets her mission to entertain—and provoke. Judging from her Pandemic Notebook, she must have been a pretty great lockdown roommate.