Director's Notes: Dancing for the Punk Ballerina
This may come as a bit of a surprise: The woman who choreographed Madonna’s music video for “Vogue” says she doesn’t care about poses.
For choreographer Karole Armitage, single silhouettes are just points on a line. “I’m not interested in positions, I’m interested in the path between them,” explains Armitage, who is known as much for her eclectic movement style as for her collaborations with artists ranging from Jeff Koons to Jean-Paul Gaultier.
The onetime “punk ballerina” has spent the last seven years developing her own contemporary ballet company, Armitage Gone! Dance, in New York City. Her 10 highly distinctive dancers represent six nationalities and eight languages, and range from just over five feet to close to seven. But as diverse as they are, ballet is both their common vocabulary and point of departure.
Armitage is rigorous about technique; company members are required to take ballet class daily. They work 26 to 30 weeks a year, spending around 10 of those weeks on the road touring. Much of the rest of the time, the company is developing new work: Armitage says that as she has been creating a repertoire for the group, she has choreographed about four new pieces each year.
Armitage’s own path, meanwhile, has been as circuitous as the curvilinear movements she favors. She started her professional career dancing for George Balanchine at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland, and then joined Merce Cunningham’s company. She began to make a name for herself as a choreographer in the late 1970s in New York, then spent the next decade building the first iteration of Armitage Gone! Dance.
In the 1990s she left her company behind and decamped for Europe, first becoming director of MaggioDanza in Florence, then resident choreographer for France’s Ballet de Lorraine. She also maintained a successful career as a freelance choreographer, working throughout Europe and beyond.
After years as a rebel and a pioneer, she says Europe gave her “the chance to feel that working in dance was a serious adult activity.” A decade in, however, Armitage found herself longing once more to have a company of her own—on her own home turf. “There’s something particular about American dancers,” she says. “They are linguistically prolific—they speak many dance languages.
“Also, because it’s so hard to be a dancer here, people have an incredible ability to go for broke,” she adds. Unlike their European counterparts, for whom dance can be a comfortable career, dancers here need to struggle, she says: “They’re not bourgeois.”
Resurrecting Armitage Gone! also presented her with an opportunity to again develop a corps of dancers, and a physical vocabulary, that would let her build new work in a collaborative way. “It meant not having to start over every time I went to a new company,” she says, with palpable relief.
In a rehearsal for a new piece this past summer, the 10-member company seemed to function as a dynamic organism, with Armitage as much facilitator as director. Phrases would originate with one dancer and then ripple through the company. Armitage says she’ll often suggest a movement—say, a développé—and then let company members explore it in different planes, or at different times.
For this kind of communal development, Armitage says, all her dancers need to bring something to the creative process. “I look for unique individuals,” she says. “It’s important that they have something to say.”
And those strong individual streaks are just as important once a piece has moved beyond development into performance. “I almost never do unison; I cut a pattern to unfold,” Armitage says. “For example, if there is an arabesque, someone does it twisted or very low, or in penchée, or lying on the floor. My dancers have to be very strong in their own identities, so the layers are all strong.”
Ideally, she continues, a choreographed work would look as though the dancers are actually improvising. “You would feel them thinking, being, expressing,” she says. “It’s the opposite of just taking positions.”
At a Glance
Armitage Gone! Dance
Number of dancers: 10
Contract length: 26 to 30 weeks a year
Starting salary: $700/week, “and everyone gets a raise each year.”
Tour schedule: 10 weeks/year
Armitage seeks out dancers who are truly versatile. “That’s a hallmark of the company,” she says. “Everyone is equally schooled in ballet and modern and something else.”