Interview: Karole Armitage Q&A

Monday 14 May 2007

Karole Armitage

After 30 years of dance making, Karole Armitage has developed an impressive reputation in the US and Europe for her striking
juxtaposition of ballet and contemporary movement. Her work is rarely seen in
the UK, and Rambert is the only UK dance company for whom she has created work. Her second piece
for them – Gran Partita - premieres at Sadler’s Wells later this month .

Her career includes dancing with Balanchine’s Geneva Ballet and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; working as Director of The Ballet of Florence; choreographing Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ video; collaborating with artists David Salle and Jeff Koons; creating work for Paris Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre as well as her own company Armitage Gone! and being a core influence on the British punk dance icon, Michael Clark.

*You were taught Balanchine ballets from an early age. Would you say that experience
has been the basis of your dance language?*

Balanchine is always in my mind. Though the world has changed significantly since
he was active as a choreographer, his accomplishments are a constant reminder
of where the bar lies. His personality, invention and deeply felt emotion remain
an ideal for me, even though the language and strategies he used to create movement
now feel dated. His powerful metaphors that speak a universal language, are awesome.
I feel lucky to be able to see in my mind how he would treat subjects ranging
from longing to existential doubt.

When did your interest in dance first start?

My first teacher was a young Balanchine dancer who quit New York City Ballet when she married. She came to my hometown and taught Balanchine masterpieces
to us for our annual recital. I don’t remember life before dance.

Did you train in dance – and where?

After working with Tomi Wortham, the Balanchine teacher in my home town, I trained
in a very strict, traditional Russian technique followed by further Balanchine
studies at the School of American Ballet, Balanchine’s school in New York. I also attended North Carolina School of the Arts where I did both academics and ballet training in an intensive way similar to White Lodge at the Royal Ballet.

Can you remember the first dance company you saw?

I am not sure what the first company I saw was however I remember two things
distinctly. Patricia MacBride, a principle dancer of New York City Ballet was on television and they showed
her dancing in slow motion, That was the first time I realized that technique
was something that you could actually achieve mastery over as opposed to something
that was only to be aspired to. I didn’t realized anyone could really do all of
that in real life. Gelsey Kirkland came to my local dance company (which turned into the Kansas City Ballet) as a guest to replace a more established New York City Ballet star. She was
about 15. That was another eye-opener.

What was the inspiration for your company name – Armitage Gone! Dance?

The name Armitage Gone! Dance originally comes from the hipster language of the beat era. The beats used
the term ‘gone’ in the sense we use ‘hip’ or ‘bad’ or whatever slang is most au
courant for being courant – at the time it was used in the form of ‘she’s a real
gone gal’. I now say that it means that I’m ‘gone’ from the predictable or the
expected and I am literally gone from most locations and roots as I am so often
on the road. It is probably a kind of pioneer attitude which is still with me.
I grew up in the west of the U.S. and for half the year lived in a ghost town – a former silver mining town way up in the Colorado mountains where biologists
like my father now do research. The silver only lasted for one summer before everyone
abandoned it leaving behind cabins and outhouses, which sat under the snow for
about 50 years before being used once again.

Who or what are your main influences?

My influences change with time. I pay a lot of attention to art and music, both
contemporary and ancient. Living in Florence, Italy was a big influence. During
my tenure as director of the ballet company there, learned how to cook Tuscan
cuisine from the locals. Use a very few ingredients, but use select ones. I am
more and more interested in poetry, philosophy and the discipline of science –
both physics and geometry – as the basis for making movement.

What’s your favourite book? CD? Film?

Here is another place that I change my mind regularly. There are way too many
great and inspiring examples of books, CDs and films to select only one. So today’s
answers are:

Books: I am currently reading a lot of Sebald, Henry James and Harold Bloom on Shakespeare. CDs: Ligeti, Chavela Vargas, Gluck

Movies: Barry Lyndon, Colonial Blimp, A taste of Cherry.

*You’ve worked with a huge variety of artists and designers from Madonna, to
filmmakers Merchant and Ivory, to painter David Salle, to fashion designers Christian
Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier and composer, György Ligeti, and artist Jeff Koons.
Could you single one – or two – as the most satisfying/creative collaboration(s)?*

One of the great collaborators is James Ivory. He knows how to communicate a very clear understanding of his vision and his
imagination. Then he lets you get on with it so that you are free to be creative
and yet, are in tune with his vision. Madonna was the opposite. Her work was based on marketing and as such was very calculated.
David Salle is remarkable. He has an uncanny ability to understand the requirement of a
huge range of media from stage to film and even dance costumes – which have very
specific technical limitations. I don’t understand how he is so facile and intuitive
while also keenly analytical. He is able to imagine great design that fuses with
the music and concepts in a powerfully metaphoric way. But, as with any collaboration,
one must be willing to throw it all away and start over again.

*In the 1980’s and ’90’s we saw more of your work in Europe – there were commissions
for numerous companies including Paris Opera Ballet, and you were Director of
the Ballet of Florence, Italy from 1995-1998. Why did you return to the US?*

I returned to New York so that I could build something. Being a guest is wonderful
but has limitations. I learned an enormous amount by working in so many different
traditions and contexts. But after a number of years I felt the most compelling
thing I could do artistically would be to deepen my experience by working with
the same group of dancers over time.

*This is the second time you’ve worked recently with Rambert. What is it about
the company that has brought you back to work with them?*

Rambert is truly unique. The dancers have the technical refinement of ballet
on an equal level with the extended movement range of modern dance. This gives
them great mental and physical freedom. They are also have really creative ability
to grasp the intentions and structure of a choreographic thought so that we can
all collaborate together in a truly exciting way.

What is Gran Partita about?

Rambert’s director, Mark Baldwin asked me to choreograph something by Mozart. I consulted his music director, Paul Hoskins and we came up with Gran Partita. It was composed by Mozart for a special occasion such as a large garden party,
carnival or ball. I have choreographed four of the original seven movements, which
even in Mozart’s time, were combined in various ways to suit the occasion. I see
my role as a complicated balancing act between respect for the music and the casting
of a new perspective on it. I want to make the music dance – not by imitating
it – but by finding a visual equivalent that is a compliment rather than an illustration.
The sound is full of color and surprise, one thing reflecting another in a cascade
of invention. I created a ‘cubist’ strategy to determine the spatial geometry
of the stage. The costumes, set and lighting echo the reflections and shifting
perspectives. The movement is seen from several angles, levels and directions
at once. Rather than presenting a unison operation geared to a frontal perspective,
individuality is celebrated by sharing intentions. People move together in the
way that a flock of birds moves together. Dance today, like the dance of Mozart’s
time, is a map of social potential. I hope to show a post-quantum theory, democratic,
multi-dimensional side of Mozart.

*You’ve been working in dance for over three decades – do you think your focus
has changed, or do the same issues preoccupy you?*

The most fundamental root of my choreography is exactly the same. I have always
sought to extend the dance idiom – the dance vocabulary, the use of music, the
thinking about space and design – as a being a part of the classical tradition.
I love the metaphoric power of ballet and its virtuosity which gives a dancer
the ability to be as fluid and expressive as possible. I always remind people
that ballet is not a series of fixed steps. It is also a way of thinking which
can be used to create entirely new shapes. When you add that to the exciting ideas
from modern dance I find the potential for a very rich vocabulary that can really
reflect the world around us. I am much less interested in popular culture than
I was. Popular culture is now so mainstream and all pervasive that I find it more
suffocating than liberating. There are always interesting pockets and its energy
can be great, but in general I want my choreography to add a new flavor to culture
that is found in thinking that comes from other areas.

What is your usual starting point for a new work?

Every work has its own different starting point.

If your life’s work hadn’t become dance, what might it have been?

Since this is purely conjectural let’s see – naturalist, anthropologist, or film


See the world premiere of Gran Partita in Rambert’s season at Sadler’s Wells, 22 – 26 May

More details/online booking

More about Karole Armitage:

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