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Sinuous: Armitage Gone! Dance.

Faint Echoes

By French Clements

Armitage Gone! Dance

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Oct. 6

W hat a tremendous phrase, “drastic classicism.” Coined by choreographer Karole Armitage in 1981 to title a work, the term calls to mind maniacally Corinthian columns, parallel lines that never intersect, a Botticelli born of fountain-pen blasts—an aesthete’s daydream. Early on, Armitage steadily worked to fulfill her contradictory plans for dance, finding commonalities between her early training in Balanchine, of the swerving neoclassical pelvis, and her six years with Merce Cunningham, who scatters order to the winds.

Post-Cunningham, Armitage became the “it girl” of New York’s early-’80s downtown scene, pumped up on juicy talents. (An early attendee said that watching her, spread-eagled on pointe to Jimi Hendrix, was unforgettable: like watching a constellation give birth, and just as loud.) Down came requests for new dances, from American Ballet Theatre, Rudolf Nureyev, even Madonna. Finding frustration with the nature of her American success, she left for the fertile (better-funded) stages of Europe, where, from Venice to Monte Carlo to Berlin, she held cross-genre gigs, far-reaching enough to make even the most flamboyant identity thief hesitate. Briefly stateside in 2004, Armitage choreographed Time is the echo of an axe within a wood, and the reception convinced her to set up shop in America once more.

Watching the choreographer’s company, known as Armitage Gone! Dance, at MASS MoCA’s cavernous Hunter Center, it’s easy to wonder where her fury has stalked off to. Not that the dances on the program, including the above work and her newest, Ligeti Essays, aren’t the work of a mature artist. She’s well versed in the beauty of line, and plenty sensitive to a score. She has a special knack for casting, with dancers who could outleap a gazelle and outspin a top. Absent, however, is the sense that her recent sophisticated voice is more compelling than her early raw one.

On this dense program, the two pieces shared not only movement motifs but a somnolent, stationary gloom, leavened occasionally with bright, rangy passages of really hoofing it. I blame, in part, the music, to which Armitage seems overly tied. Both works were built on many little appetizers of glinting sound—beautiful, yes, but repeatedly getting her no farther, structurally, than where she started. When both music and movement start and stop in equal measure, surprises dwindle. I sat up straighter during sections set to fast-paced, major-key romps, where the bustling entrances foretold something less mechanical.

Mostly, the dynamic rarely moved beyond itself, and leggy prods abounded. Armitage’s contortions resemble the hyperextended European style so popular today, cribbed from William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian, although Armitage may have arrived at this movement vocabulary long ago, quite on her own. It seems limiting, regardless.

Ligeti Essays, set to three song cycles by the late Hungarian genius, opened promisingly. To pretty klonks and dongs, a quartet mooned around with gracious wit. We saw a few motifs unfold and go nowhere, such as an arm flung outward with the opposing hand brought in and down to expose a sharpened elbow. Sometimes that forearm rested on someone, sometimes not. In drawing my physio-poetic allusions, “Relationships come and go” was as far as these abstractions took me.

There did come an enervating, sinuous rhythm for flute and what sounded like a vibraphone, and to it, William Isaac and Mei-Hua Wang poured out the first real connection of the evening, with an intimacy all the more precious for its transience. Any hope of a dramatic arc dissolved, and the lulling tone returned. Twice, the group fled to the back of the stage, hands splayed, as if to knock down the wall. But they never actually touched anything, rendering the gesture flimsy. Bottom-heavy motivation worked through the work’s remainder. I sorely missed David Salle’s silver-lined tree, which I’d enjoyed in publicity shots. The work’s end quoted Cezanne’s The Dance, and came before I realized it.

When the dances were set to Hendrix, and Armitage was writhing on a giant box of chocolates, it must have been easier to pull off thin reasoning. Now, watching repertory scrubbed so clean, it’s hard not to wish for a colossal stain, ink or chocolate, to foul things up again.

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