Halfway through The Last Lap, Karole Armitage's new work for White Oak Dance Project, a rough flourish evokes her wilder past. Ruthlyn Salomons does a pretty little arabesque; Susan Shields grabs Salomons's ankle and wrist and gives her a good shake.
Rattling the old guard is Armitage's trademark. When she began making dances in the '70s, she set ballet to punk rock. Later, inspired by a new generation of club kids, she coupled classical steps with breakdancing and hip-hop. Her iconoclastic fury lets up a bit in The Last Lap, which headlines the second week of White Oak's run at the New Victory Theater, opening Tuesday. The 15-minute piece, for five women plus Mikhail Baryshnikov, is a bittersweet poem punctuated by clenched fists and jutting hips. Yet even in Salomons's fractured arabesque, rays of tenderness shine through.
"I was interested in contradictory forces," Armitage says. "Will and destiny, vulnerability and strength, lyricism and turbulence." These polarities are metaphors for two people trying to connect in a cruel world, a narrative she says is partly autobiographical. "They have ideas about what the future can be, but destiny plays a trick. It's about coming to terms with change, and having things wrenched away from what you want them to be."
Just back from Florence, where she ran a ballet troupe for three years, she wasn't used to making small dances or dealing with Manhattan's nervous energy. "I had to question every assumption, which was horribly painful. What is dance in New York? Who am I in dance? What is ballet? What is modern? I couldn't take any thing for granted, which was paralyzing but also stimulating."
The Shostakovich score, with its overlapping fugues, posed another hurdle, as did Baryshnikov's celebrity. But Misha's soulfulness and psychologizing proved invaluable. He dances a variation and a duet with Emily Coates that marks a turning point. "Something al most cataclysmic happens," Armitage says, "and you're no longer the innocent you were."