Almost 30 years ago, Karole Armitage burst onto the dance scene with a brash new choreographic style that combined classical ballet technique with a punk-rock sensibility. In 1986, Vanity Fair fittingly dubbed her the “punk ballerina,” and the moniker stuck. Throughout her long and eclectic career, Armitage has commissioned work for companies and performers ranging from the Paris Opéra Ballet to Madonna. She recently branched out to Broadway, choreographing 2008’s Passing Strange and last year’s hit revival of Hair, for which she earned a Tony nomination.
But today, Armitage creates primarily for her New York–based company, Armitage Gone! Dance, which she founded in 2005. For her latest piece, Three Theories, Armitage found inspiration in Columbia University physicist Brian Greene’s best-selling book, The Elegant Universe. (In 2008, her company debuted a work titled The Elegant Universe at the inaugural World Science Festival—an event co-founded by Greene.) Three Theories will premiere in New York City, June 3–6, as part of the third annual World Science Festival.
Dance Teacher: How did the idea for Three Theories come about?
Karole Armitage: My father is a scientist and I’ve always loved science, so I was already drawn toward it as a system for understanding the world. I read Brian’s book and, by coincidence, met him at a dinner. He gave a speech about what relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory are, and the way he clearly articulated these ideas was inspiring. I read his book over and over, and finally digested it so deeply that I decided I could do something quite simple with these three theories.
DT: How did you develop a movement vocabulary for this piece?
KA: I found one basic physical image for each section. In relativity it’s warping and twisting. Einstein said that gravity is the warping and twisting of space-time fabric. Quantum mechanics is all about off-balance, precarious volatility, so that’s just wild and exciting—like hard rock. And string theory is based on the idea of these folded-up complex geometries. For example, a group of dancers surrounds one person who represents a string, and the shape of the group determines the vibration of the string—the cluster influences the individual.
DT: Was the creative process different than, say, choreographing a Broadway musical?
KA: In dance it’s more poetic and you’re illustrating internal states of mind or emotional states, and in a musical you’re helping to create the environment that tells the story. In Passing Strange it was about making the riot in Berlin feel really wild, with the actors pounding their hands and throwing themselves on the ground. There weren’t any dance steps. And with Hair I just let them improvise on images. I wanted it to look like an organic group of people who were spontaneously expressing themselves.
DT: You recently said that you’re less interested in pop culture now than in the past. Where do you currently turn for ideas and inspiration?
KA: There’s an energy in pop culture that’s really interesting, but I think art should be something different. These days my inspiration comes from finding new geometries for how dancers can move. I always seem to be drawn to this experience of dreaminess and sensuality. That punk thing is still in there. But I’m really just exploring what the body can do.
DT: Do you think the “punk ballerina” label is still relevant?
KA: It’s relevant in a sense—certainly not socially, since punk just doesn’t exist anymore—but in an attitude of something raw and direct and a certain independence of spirit. Punk ballerina—it’s not a bad label. DT
Michelle Vellucci writes about the arts in New York City. She holds a master’s in dance and education.
Photo of Karole Armitage's The Tarnished Angels (1987) courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives.