Karole Armitage works according to a concise, five-part artistic statement of purpose: “Seek beauty. Show mutability. Move like a blaze of consciousness. Perfection is the devil. Express the eroticism of gravity.” Given 31 years of daring choices, she could add “Resist comfort.” The 55-year-old choreographer, sitting in a beam of sunlight in her Tribeca loft, laughs at her impulses to give it all up. “Sometimes I think, ‘I’m just not going to buy another leotard, because I may stop dance any day now! But I also enjoy it. I did a lot of experimentation that was ultimately a dead end, and I found maybe ten years ago what it is I’ve always been trying to do. It’s given me a new lease.”
From November 4 at BAM, her four-year-old company, Armitage Gone! Dance, performs Itutu, alongside composer Lukas Ligeti and his ebullient Afro-electro-pop band, Burkina Electric. It’s the latest in a canon combining classical and modern dance with popular culture, movement, and music, something few other choreographers have accomplished as thrillingly—and that has a lot to do with when she started. The Kansas-born, classically trained ballerina (she began at the Geneva Ballet under George Balanchine, then switched to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company) launched her choreography career in 1978, at the height of the punk-rock movement; her second piece, 1981’s Drastic-Classicism, was set to a howling score by Rhys Chatham. Its premiere at Dance Theater Workshop, at 11 p.m. on a Monday night (“I don’t think they really wanted it, to tell you the truth”), stunned the dance world. “Putting together modern and ballet was completely taboo. It wasn’t the cool downtown school, and it certainly wasn’t pure ballet,” says Armitage, who was famously dubbed the “Punk Ballerina” by Vanity Fair. “I was a black sheep here.”
But Europeans were knocked out, and Armitage was flooded with requests to mount the piece abroad. In the following decade, she balanced managing a company with working here and overseas, ultimately defecting to Europe for the greater funding and artistic freedom of their companies. For fifteen years she intermittently performed in New York, but was essentially more famous for choreographing Madonna’s iconic “Vogue” video and Blonde Ambition tour. American critics faulted her work’s inconsistency, and, as it turns out, so did she. “You become this weird floating entity,” she says of her peripatetic European life. “At a certain point, I went, ‘I can’t keep doing this—I’m not a person anymore.’”
Time is the echo of an axe within a wood, Armitage’s transfixing 2004 work, announced her return home. And unlike in 1981, it wasn’t a blast out of nowhere; young choreographers were starting to mount pieces at City Ballet that echoed her provocation, sense of glamour, sexuality, and cleanness of line. She now has a stable local company, and has branched out to Broadway, most notably with her electrifying, Tony-nominated choreography for Hair. “It’s gratifying to see that my work makes sense to people now—that I wasn’t off in my own perverse universe,” says Armitage. “There’s an amazing range of movement these days, it’s very fluid. But you have to make choices, decide what is essential—elimination is the key. Then you can do something exciting.”
Armitage may no longer feel like “an impostor in a tutu,” but the Punk Ballerina moniker still fits. “The idea that there’s something really raw and in-your-face, but also something beautiful and poetic, that still rings true,” she says. “To make things interesting, you need the tension of great contradiction.” And sometimes serendipity. Itutu started as a commission from the Prince of Lampedusa for a Dionysian-themed outdoor festival on his tiny island, which sits between Italy’s toe and the coast of Africa. Armitage wanted to capture “the extraordinary continuity of African influence in art,” and hooked up with Ligeti, whose band she’d been listening to (his father, composer György Ligeti, was a big influence on Armitage’s earlier work). Then, two days before her company was to leave for Italy, the festival was canceled.
The Prince would later transfer the piece to an indoor theater, but in the meantime BAM expressed interest, and Armitage had time to work out a central kink. “There was something missing,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be exotic. I wanted it to be pure, with a sense of inevitability. Then I suddenly thought of the artist Philip Taaffe to design the piece.” Armitage has historically worked with painter David Salle on her sets and costumes (the two lived together for seven years), but Salle was coincidentally unavailable. Taaffe’s work “has the graphic, dynamic vitality of African fabric, and yet it’s also very New York, the cool of the post-Pollock generation,” Armitage says. “It’s like Jasper Johns meets Africa.” Which seemed appropriate for a work she describes as “Agon with Africans—ballet with an African pulse.”
The piece had a different title in its first incarnation, but when Armitage discovered the meaning of the Yoruban word itutu, she switched to that. “It means ‘mystic coolness,’” she says. “And it’s also humorous—it means cool, and has the word tutu. It seemed too good to be true.”