Karole Armitage Makes Artists Want to Dance



Choreographer Karole Armitage has enlisted artists Aïda Ruilova, Will Cotton, William Wegman, Doug Fitch and Kalup Linzy to perform as the opening acts for the U.S. premiere of her ballet, Rave. The event, “Werk!: The Armitage Gone Variety Show,” will be held in New York, May 2–5 at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side.

Rave, which features 26 dancers from the Armitage Gone! Dance company and the Ailey School, was first performed in France in late 2001. At the time, critics interpreted the ballet’s bright colors and uplifting mood as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. “It was really about personal liberation, and critics saw that personal liberation as a way of feeling liberated after this terrible act of 9/11,” Armitage explained to A.i.A., describing the piece as a joyful, carnival-inspired celebration.

Armitage says the time is now to bring Rave to the States. “The dance world in particular has just been so hit by the economic downturn—people are only barely staying afloat,” she explains. “We need something exuberant, thrilling and life-affirming because we’re all struggling so hard.”

Rave displays Armitage’s signature blending of ballet with street-influenced dance and martial arts techniques. Nicknamed “the punk ballerina” for the way she incorporates elements of popular culture and street dance into her choreography, Armitage has long been interested in exploring the similarities between forms of dance that at first glance seem radically different. By seamlessly fusing the formality of ballet with such disparate techniques as voguing, kung fu and modern dance, as well as less familiar elements from wushu and capoeira (martial arts from China and Brazil, respectively), Armitage highlights what she dubs “the universal grammar of the body.”

Armitage first became involved with voguing, which features prominently in Rave, in the late ’70s when she was invited to judge competitive balls. “These poor, gay, usually Latino and black men are not able to participate in consumer culture,” she says. “They have no money and they’re outside the mainstream in every way, but voguing is a way of overcoming that feeling of being cast aside by competing in fabulous clothes, doing fabulous moves and appropriating celebrity and wealth.”

She sees the dancers in Rave as enacting a similar role reversal, “taking on roles of fame and power in a very playful, unselfconscious way.” Costumed as Marilyn Monroe or Marcello Mastroianni, among other celebrities (designed by Peter Speliopoulos of Donna Karan), each dancer is painted head-to-toe in one of eight hues. “There’s no more racial identity and everybody can be whoever they want to be,” explains Armitage.

“Werk!: The Armitage Gone Variety Show” marks the first time Armitage has asked artists to participate. Each will create and perform a 5–10 minute piece.

Most of the artists have worked independently on their performances, but Armitage collaborated closely with Wegman on a dance piece that will feature one of the artist’s famous Weimaraner dogs. Provided the animal cooperates, the dog will appear to tap, crump, vogue and possibly even can-can. Wegman is understandably worried about the logistics of a live performance with the dog, but Armitage is confident that even a misbehaving animal will work within the context of the performance.

Cotton is also working with dance, and will reprise Cockaigne, previously part of Performa 11, a two-part piece featuring burlesque star Miss Ruby Valentine in “Whipped Cream Dance,” and three traditionally trained ballerinas in “Cotton Candy Dance.” Both elements are inspired by Cotton’s work on the Katy Perry music video for “California Gurls” and the accompanying album art, and are performed to a backdrop of his painting.

The other pieces break from dance entirely. Fitch contributes A Moment of Concern, a darkly absurdist puppet show depicting his disembodied head in a miniature room that is gradually disassembled and finally explodes. Ruilova and Linzy are more tightlipped. Armitage shares that Linzy will incorporate video into his act, and the piece will continue his series of “soap opera” works, but that the artist has been otherwise “very very secretive.” About Ruilova, she is even less forthcoming: “I can’t reveal too much—let’s just say there are people on the stage.”