She’s Really Gone!

Pointe shoes, electric guitars, muscle and fierce art collide on the MCA Stage this weekend.  Karole Armitage, dubbed the “punk ballerina” in 1984 by Vanity Fair Magazine brings her troupe to Chicago as a compliment to the museum’s exhibition This Will Have Been:  Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.  After taking a break from her company Armitage Ballet for 15 years while working in Europe, she came back to revive and rename the group Armitage Gone! Dance in 2005.  Why gone?  “One of the early pieces I did, almost my first piece was called Gone (A Real Gone Dance – 1982),” Armitage said.  “I feel like I’m gone from the mainstream, I’m gone from the predictable, I’m often just plain gone.  It’s also a hipster term from the 50’s, like ‘she’s a real gone gal’.  I liked the multiple meanings.  I just didn’t want to take myself so seriously.” This woman that doesn’t take herself seriously, it seems, has done it all.  She’s danced for George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, started her own company, lived in Europe for 15 years choreographing and directing companies, re-started her own company, worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolph Nureyev and Michael Jackson, choreographed Madonna’s Vogue video, received a Tony nomination for choreographing the Broadway revival of Hair and is currently choreographing the newest Cirque du Soleil tent show in Montreal.  “It’s funny.  In my career, I’ve worked with children, singers, dancers a now every kind of acrobat and very shortly I’ll be working with William Wegman on a dog ballet, so I’m adding animals to my list,” she said.  “I’ve covered the spectrum now.”

For the MCA appearance, the company’s first since 2008, AGD revives two of Armitage’s 80’s works –  Drastic-Classicism (1981) and The Watteau Duets (1985) – and her 2011 piece GAGA-Gaku.  The Rogue Ballerina talked with the Punk Ballerina over the phone one Sunday afternoon.  Here are some excerpts from our fascinating conversation.

You were born in Wisconsin and grew up in Kansas and Colorado.  How did you end up in Switzerland for your first job?

I started taking ballet when I was 4 years old in Kansas with a woman from New York City Ballet, so I was bitten by the magic of the art form.  At age 12 or 13, everyone was saying to be really serious, you have to go study full-time, you can’t just take class in Kansas.   So I went to the School of American Ballet in NY in the summer.  I started going to junior high and high school at the North Carolina School for the Arts.  That was the only school in the U.S. both academics and very serious artistic, performing arts training at the time.  Summers were in NY.  Balanchine fell in love with Suzanne Farrell and she got married to someone else, so he decided to move part-time to Switzerland to escape his lovelorn state and he took all of us from the graduating class with him to Switzerland.  That’s how I got there, by a kind of fluke. 

And then you went to dance with Merce.  What made you want to make that jump?

I always loved doing the leotard ballets by Balanchine ( “Agon”, “The Four Temperaments”) that were really more modern.  Psychologically, I was a modern woman. I never felt comfortable, at that age, putting on a tutu and being kind of European.  It didn’t make sense to me, so why not do something even more modern, more of my time.  I’d never seen Cunningham, I’d never studied modern dance.  I went and took a class and I just loved it.  It used all of the technique you have in ballet, plus new thinking about movement and music.  It was a very exciting place to confront ideas.

Had you always been interested in choreography?

I never really thought about becoming a choreographer or anything.  I just thought there was no one doing what I imagined dance to be.  There was this oozing gap and I just decided to try and people really liked it.  I thought I’d probably only do one piece.  It was just an experiment and it just kind of snowballed.  I was asked to another piece and another piece, then Paris Opera asked me…it all happened in an organic, unexpected way. 

What do you look for in a dancer?

I do love technique.  The more skill that way, the better because I think it gives you freedom.  You can just carve it and not even think about it.  I like virtuosity. I like being able to see the body go to the absolute with new dimensions of movement.  Technique is important for that freedom, but only if it is a real person living inside that body that has something to say.  I’m not interested in virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake.  I really look for personality and imagination.  People who are daring, who are willing to participate in a the creative process that the rules are unknown…it takes people who really have courage and are willing to go down these unknown paths.  It’s very hard to find dancers who combine all of those qualities.  Looking at the whole company, it’s like each person is a different spice and I’m always trying to make a beautiful meal.  I don’t want two people that are alike.  I want people who are different.

Everything I’ve been reading about Drastic-Classicism says it is an iconic work.  Why was it such a big deal in 1981?

There are electric guitars on stage. It used Cunningham technique in the model of Balanchine, so a new vocabulary was born.  In addition to that, it really had this raw, theatricality and wildness and jubilation of destruction.  That punk feeling.  It’s a very youthful piece.  It’s very free-spirited.  Sometimes the guitars are used as partners.  It really was punk, modern dance and ballet put together.  That was a very new idea. 

With the two revivals, did you change anything?

 There’s not a great video, so every step isn’t exactly as it used to be.  The dancers in my company weren’t even born yet!  That was about the spirit of counter-culture and the joy of being marginal.  There is no counter-culture now.  Their inner life is different.  I don’t know how to recreate literally that spirit and put it into people.  They’re different people, so it’s somewhat different.  That’s one of the extraordinary things about dance, it’s so of its moment. That’s a great part of its power.  It gets you in touch with now.  Being in the moment and feeling our time. We change – even though the notes are the same, it comes out different.  It’s as close as I knew how to do it.  The Watteau Duets is a little easier to revive.  It was me and one partner, so it’s quite the same.  It’s a relationship from attraction to romance to erotic complicity to neurosis.  It’s been fascinating to work with my dancers who technically they’re better than I was on pointe.  When they put on their pointe shoes and dance a duet, they take on this “I have to be perfect” ballet mentality.  To free them from that and get them to be completely comfortable with who they are and show who they are rather than trying to conform to an idea of what ballet looks like, which was a big process.  It’s fascinating to me that it wouldn’t be completely natural to them.

How did you get them to not think that way?

A lot of rehearsal and talking about it from lots of different points of view to help them find it for themselves.  It needs a sense of irony and freedom that takes a lot of work to get to be so comfortable and confident and secure in their sense of being a woman.  It’s a complicated thing to demand of them.  It took quite a bit of work to have them break free from the mold and become completely themselves. 

When Vanity Fair dubbed you the “punk ballerina”, what was your initial reaction?  Was your career helped by the exposure or did you not want to be labeled? 

I think I liked the label.  To me it really captured that I was interested in the most fine articulate balletic side of dance, but also the raw, visceral and unpredictable side that comes from rock-and-roll culture.  I thought it summed up the spirit of my work in a great way.  Honestly, I think it caused a lot of jealousy. I wasn’t in the ballet world, I wasn’t in the modern world and I think it was disturbing to the traditional dance world.  But, of course, that’s who I was and who I think I still am.  I don’t really fit into these categories.  It’s some other different kind of thing.  I’m still this odd-ball person.  Of course, the publicity was fantastic.  If only Vanity Fair was doing more dance.  Dance has become more marginalized in mainstream America.  It’s just not part of mass culture.  We need that exposure.  I wish there was more of it.

Armitage Gone! Dance at the MCA Stage, 220 E. Chicago Ave.  April 26 – 28 at 7:30 p.m.  Tickets are $35.  Call 312.397.4010 or visit


The Legacy Tour

MCDC dancers Rashaun Mitchell & Andrea Webber in "Antic Meet". Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

This weekend, Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) comes to Chicago.  The two shows, co-presented by the Dance Center at Columbia College and the Harris Theater, mark the second to last stop on the company’s two-year Legacy Tour performing works from Cunningham’s 70-year career.  Bonnie Brooks, former chair and current faculty member (on sabbatical) at Columbia College’s Dance Department, has been traveling with the company and will be documenting the company’s experience for the Legacy Plan.  Her background and extensive knowledge of his work make her the perfect person for the job.  I spoke with Brooks via phone last week about the tour, his legacy and the upcoming performances.

How did you get involved with the Legacy Tour?

I have a long history with Merce and the company.  I first met Merce in the 1980s when I was working with the National Endowment for the Arts.  I’ve kept up with the company in various ways over the years.  When I came to Chicago and we began to present them, that sort of furthered the relationship and I started writing and lecturing on Merce’s work and they started inviting me to go to different engagements with them and do pre-performance talks, interview Merce, help out with various things.  After Merce died (2009) and they determined they were going to go on the Legacy Tour, they realized part of what they needed to do was document it, document the whole story of the Legacy Plan. They felt that because of my history with the company, my friendship with Merce and something of the distance that I had because I wasn’t immediately employed by the company, that I would be a good choice to do that.  So they invited me to join.

Is this directly related to why you took a sabbatical?  Did you take time off so you could be on the tour?

No.  Actually, that was another piece of the story that was one of those marvelous coincidences in life.  I made the decision in 2008 when I renewed my contract to chair the dept at the Dance Center, that was going to be my final three years as chair.  At that time Merce was still living and there was no influence at all between my decision and what has happened.  Since then, the college decided to give me a year-long sabbatical when I stepped down and that very neatly coincided with when the company wanted me to start traveling with them on a regular basis. It’s one of those wonderful accidents.

What exactly are you doing on the tour? 

It varies from engagement to engagement.  Sometimes they ask me to pre or post-performance talks or introduce open rehearsals, things like that.  Sometimes I’m just there to observe what’s happening.  I’ve taken pictures.  It really depends on what the presenter has asked, what residency activities have been put together.  One of the things that has happened as a result of me traveling with them, which I think was an intention on their part, it has given me a chance to get the perspective of many, many people on the Legacy Tour, the Legacy Plan, the kind of radical decision the company has made to close its doors…that’s given me a lot to work with in terms of what I’ll be writing after the tour.

Were you instrumental in getting them here?

Yes.  When I was chair of the department,  I was very actively involved with the program.  We had negotiated that they would come two years ago.  We negotiated it before Merce died that they would come and do events at our theater, previous to that we’d always presented them at the Harris Theater…and then Merce died.  They began to book the Legacy Tour and I said we have to bring them back one more time.  We were going to have them in November, but decided to have them in the second part of the tour, which is wonderful because they’re very near the end of the almost 40-city, two-year tour.

Now that it’s so close the end of the tour, are people getting more emotional? 

Yes.  It’s becoming much more real to everyone now that we’re close to the end.  I think the place that hit us the most vividly was in London.  We were in London about a month ago and the final night, I think everybody in the entire theater – in the audience and on stage – was in tears.  We realized this was the last appearance in a city that historically has been very hospitable to Merce’s work.  The audience was on its feet shouting “thank you!” It just really hit us that we wouldn’t be back again, at least not as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  The thing that’s been so profound about this is realizing that this is the final generation of dancers that Merce trained and chose himself.  These are the people, in my opinion, that are finishing his long, artistic project.  There’s such a poignancy and a beauty to that and I think in London we realized, we’re beyond seeing the work, this is now really the goodbyes.

Since you’re so familiar with his work, can you tell me about the pieces that are going to be presented here in Chicago?

Friday night, we’re doing a repertory evening…a piece called “Squaregame”, “Quartet”, which has five people in it, and then “Antic Meet”, which is a piece from 1958 that Merce made.  “Squaregame” is a very playful piece.  There are beautiful sections, but it’s almost like you’re on a playground with mischievous children in terms of the fun that occurs and there are big duffel bags on the stage that they throw around and hide behind.  It’s really a delightful piece.  Then you go to a completely different end of the spectrum with “Quartet”, which is kind of dark and moody.  There’s a male part in it that Merce danced originally and two other males and two females.  You’re watching the interaction between this group of dancers and this individual character.  It’s very lyrical, but in a very dark way, but it’s beautiful.  It’s easy, because of the complexities of Merce’s work, its easy to lose the fact that there is enormous beauty in it. And this is one of his more beautiful pieces, in my opinion.  The last piece on the rep is “Antic Meet”, sort of a spoof.  In it’s eight different sections.  There’s a central character.  It’s an anomaly in Merce’s body of work in some ways because there is some acting involved.  There are references to Vaudeville, to every day life, to tap, to ballet…there are fairly clear references to his period with Martha Graham.  

The second evening is one of my very favorites of Merce’s piece.  It’s called Roaratorio.  It’s an  hour-long work that was originally envisioned by John Cage.  Cage created a soundscape that was an homage to James Joyce and his final works…Finnigan’s Wake.  One of the things Cage did was go to Ireland and sample sounds from places that were referenced in Finnigan’s Wake.  So this was a rare occasion where the sound information pre-dated everything else.  John had hoped Merce would eventually make some kind of dance using the score.  For several years, Merce didn’t think that was possible. He has built in a number of what appear to be Irish jigs.  There are a lot of relational information in it, couples and groups relating to one another.  He described one as a group or family traveling from one place to another, which is what they do if you watch the full arc of the piece.  I think it’s the best example of Merce’s sheer love for dancing.  It ‘s a joy to watch from start to finish.

In your mind, what is it or was it about Merce and his work that made him such an icon?

I think that Merce represents and, in fact, literally is the single most turning point in 20th century modern dance.  Merce took a lot of the existing conventions that were handed to him in both the modern and ballet world…and because of the combination of existing things that he did, he stayed in modern dance, he stayed in a concert dance format, he put together an ensemble of dancers, he trained them and he worked with them consistently for many decades…those are all sort of conventions.  In terms of the content of the work itself, he just broke so many rules.  He advanced narratives, he separated the dance from the music, he choreographed in silence, he and John (Cage) created this whole new approach  to put dance, music and visual information together in a performance context.  He just did so much that was inconoclastic.  He turned the use of space on its head.  He created an egalitarian circumstance for dancers instead of a hierarchy of some kind where there were special people and less special people and the back up people.  The list goes on and on.  The bottom line is that Merce set a whole new direction of what was possible.  It was through him and the gateway of his work that the whole postmodern movement came through.  If there hadn’t been a Merce, I don’t know what postmoderism in dance would’ve been.  He opened a whole new direction for dance.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company – The Legacy Tour

November 18 & 19, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

Tickets start at $25


Mayoral Proclamation #2

It’s seems our beloved Mayor Emanuel has been busy showing his love for dance.  On the heels of declaring this past Monday Bill Kurtis & Donna La Pietra Day for their contributions to the city’s arts and non-profit scene, he comes out with another proclamation making Friday, November 18, 2011 MERCE CUNNINGHAM DAY in Chicago!

This is to coincide with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company who will be in town November 18 and 19 performing at the Harris Theater (co-presented by the Dance Center at Columbia College) on the second to last stop on their Legacy Tour which kicked off two years ago.