Armitage Gone! Dance.
By French Clements
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,
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.