Choreographer Karole Armitage’s dancers can unleash a grand jeté or entrechat quatre with the best of them. But in her neon-colored “Rave,” which her company Armitage Gone! Dance will perform at the Institute of Contemporary Art this weekend, rigorous ballet phrases sidle into Brazilian and Chinese martial arts, hip-hop, modern dance, and the slinky moves and stark poses of voguing. And pointe shoes and ballet slippers are complemented by wacky headdresses and wigs, fur-trimmed dresses, and jagged loincloths. Oh, and all the dancers are brightly painted head to toe, resembling a rainbow of elegant, well-toned Smurfs.
Dubbed the “punk ballerina” in the 1980s for her edgy, genre-busting dances to rock music, Armitage, 59, delights in the offbeat and unexpected. She has been choreographing in the United States and abroad for more than 30 years, enriching the repertoire of companies ranging from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to the Bolshoi Ballet. Armitage also has choreographed for theater and opera (including MIT composer Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers”). On Broadway, her choreography for “Hair” earned her a Tony Award nomination. Even further afield, her credits include choreography for Cirque du Soleil, Michael Jackson, and Madonna’s “Vogue” video. And she’ll be the choreographer for a just-announced collaboration between Boston Ballet and the American Repertory Theater, a new interpretation of Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” to be performed at the Opera House in spring 2015.
Not bad for a Wisconsin girl trained as a classical ballerina. Armitage began her professional career in Switzerland with the Balanchine repertory company Ballet du Grande Théâtre de Genève. From 1975- 81, she danced in the company of legendary postmodernist Merce Cunningham before going on to establish her first ensemble, the Armitage Ballet.
Her current troupe, Armitage Gone! Dance, was founded in 2004. For Boston, the company is bringing two pieces that showcase distinctly different facets of Armitage’s choreography, “Rave” and the spare, eloquent “Ligeti Essays.” The program is a joint presentation of World Music/CRASHarts and the ICA.
“It was the choice of [director of programs] David Henry at the ICA and World Music,” Armitage says. “I think they like ‘Rave’ because it’s entertaining, celebratory, incredibly fun, not intellectual. It appeals to all ages and kinds of people. The ‘Ligeti’ is pure dance, great for dance aficionados.”
According to Armitage, “Rave,” created for France’s Ballet de Lorrine shortly after 9/11, was conceived as an affirmation of life. It examines celebrity culture and the disconnect between the haves and the have-nots. Designer Peter Speliopoulos came up with the idea of painting the dancers’ bodies and using costumes to evoke icons such as a Native American chief and Marilyn Monroe. “It’s kind of a carnival for the 21st century in the way the underclass takes on the role of the ruling class,” says Armitage. “It’s kind of a voguing ball, a happening.”
For that performance, Armitage’s seven dancers are complemented by 19 young dancers from the Boston Conservatory. Conservatory dance division director Cathy Young says the experience of working with Armitage and her dancers has been invaluable for the students. “It’s wonderful to see how Armitage works with the ballet vocabulary and morphs it and uses the language to make an individualized statement. I think that’s eye-opening for them.”
The 25-minute “Ligeti Essays” (2006) is on the other end of Armitage’s choreographic spectrum, imbued with a stark lyricism that ranges from the playful to the elegiac, with dancers costumed in sleek black. The work is set to and inspired by a suite of three song cycles by 20th-century composer György Ligeti. “The music is so sublime,” Armitage says. “He had such a penetrating insight into the human psyche, the dark side but also the humor and this languorous daydream quality. It became a vehicle for exploring human nature. The dancers are sort of like characters, and you see different chapters of their relationships, but it’s all done through pure dance. It’s one of my favorite pieces.”
Though she has stayed true to her sense of authenticity, Armitage says her work has changed over the decades, driven by an abiding curiosity about the world and her place in it. But despite the artistic evolution and scads of awards along the way, she admits she is still seen as more of a controversial figure than a mainstream master choreographer. And the persistent title of “punk ballerina”?
“I don’t really mind it,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in contradictions and bringing opposites together: the poetry and refinement of ballet mixed with the intellectual ideas of modern and the raw visceral energy of rock and punk. I’m questioning the status quo rather than participating in it, exploring what it means to be alive and to be human in our time.”