Karole Armitage explains the name of her current company, Armitage Gone! Dance, as “gone from the mainstream,” gone in the sense of the 1950s expression “real gone” meaning “real cool.” But the two pieces she presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art Friday, under the auspices of World Music/CRASHarts and the ICA, made me wonder whether it’s her moment that isn’t gone.
A kind of mash-up of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham (she started out dancing Balanchine in the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève and then joined Cunningham’s company), Armitage had, by the 1980s, been famously dubbed the “punk ballerina.” She’s choreographed for Michael Jackson and Madonna. She’s used Brian Greene’s popular physics book “The Elegant Universe” as inspiration; she’s made a dance for one of William Wegman’s Weimaraners; her “GAGA-gaku” introduces a Lady Gaga element into Balanchine’s “Bugaku.” Her choreography for the 2009 Broadway revival of “Hair” earned her a Tony nomination; she also choreographed the American Repertory Theater’s production last season of David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette.”
I wish more of that kaleidoscopic vitality had been in evidence at the ICA. The original backdrop for “Ligeti Essays” (2005) — David Salle’s large, bare, silvery tree, as lit, via neon tubes, by Clifton Taylor — is missing here, and the piece seems frozen in time, as do the performers. To 14 songs by György Ligeti (10 of them setting poems by Ligeti’s fellow Hungarian Sándor Weöres), the dancers appear to be ice-skating. Their movements, now acrobatic, now balletic, are well matched to the mood of each song, but there’s no storyline, and it all looks tame and familiar in the context of Ligeti’s galvanizing music.
Abbey Roesner and Ahmaud Culver bring a wistful give-and-take to their duet to “Gyümölcsfürt,” a song about a cluster of fruit swaying in the wind. And in the quartet to “Kalmár jött nagy madarakkal” (“A merchant has come with giant birds”), Masayo Yamaguchi holds her own against the three men, though her manipulation by them brings Balanchine’s “Rubies” to mind. Toward the end, Cristian Laverde König dances to the same wedding song that Christopher Wheeldon uses in his 2001 “Polyphonia.” It’s a good solo, but Armitage doesn’t touch the words of the song (“Quickly come here pretty”) the way Wheeldon does.
“Rave” was created in 2001, in the wake of 9/11. It calls for 26 performers; here the seven from Armitage Gone! are complemented by 19 Boston Conservatory students chosen by Armitage after a six-hour audition. To high-energy music by David Shea, the piece draws on, in the choreographer’s words, “kung fu, capoeira, catwalk, voguing, ballet, and modern dance.” The performers, body-painted from head to toe in a rainbow of colors, in outfits that include fur chaps and lots of fish netting, suggest an updated Village People with all genders, ethnicities, and sexual preferences represented.
Armitage delivers on her promised dance vocabulary (she cites “the universal grammar of the body”), though with a lot of walking and posing and lines of dancers each gyrating to the beat of a different drummer. The students also deliver; you can hardly tell them from the professionals. And it’s hard not to be caught up in the piece, particularly at the end, when the ensemble morphs into a single 26-celled organism. But “Rave” is satisfied to be a primer in how the body moves; it shows no interest in explaining why.