Karole Armitage danced with Merce Cunningham’s company from 1976 to 1981. Before that, she danced Balanchine works in the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. She likes the members of her company, Armitage Gone! Dance, to fling their legs high and be precise with their feet. She first attracted attention as a choreographer with her forays into punk, after which she spent a lot of time choreographing in Europe, returning here in the 1990s with some less than terrific works. Then she hit her stride with fascinating ones like the 2004 Time Is the Echo of an Axe Within a Wood, set to music by Bela Bartok, and her 2008 Connoisseurs of Chaos, to a composition by Morton Feldman.

She’s also adventurous. InNadaswaram (2001), to music by Talvin Singh, she attempted a fusion of ballet, Bharata Natyam, and hip-hop. Her new Itutu represents an excursion into melding hyper-ballet, Afropop, and traditional African dance styles. In these multicultural days, her decision isn’t too surprising, but the result is baffling. The music is provided by Burkina Electric, with some of it masterminded by band member Lukas Ligeti (the son of Gyorgy Ligeti, to whose compositions Armitage has also choreographed). The ensemble’s singer-dancer Maï Lingani, guitarist Wende K. Blass, and dancers Vicky and Zoko Zoko are onstage, mingling with the 11 members of Armitage’s company; Ligeti and Pyrolator are in the opera house pit, managing percussion and electronics.

In an interview prior to the performance, Armitage mentioned that “itutu” means “cool” in Yoruba, and cites art historian Robert Farris Thompson’s discussion of cool as a quality considered desirable in many African dance forms. But in Thompson’s African Art in Motion, he links the projection of cool with the feelings of repose and peacefulness it induces in spectators. Coolness doesn’t mean lack of vitality; it has to do, in part, with composure (in this sense, Merce Cunningham is—was—cool; ditto Savion Glover). Here’s a fine comment that Thompson quotes: “It cools the town when you dance.”

“Events in honor of Merce  - Memorial” in the Park Avenue Armory.
Stephanie Berger
“Events in honor of Merce - Memorial” in the Park Avenue Armory.
Megumi Eda and Zoko Zoko in Karole Armitage’s "Itutu."
Courtesy Armitage Gone! Dance
Megumi Eda and Zoko Zoko in Karole Armitage’s "Itutu."

Details

Events in honor of Merce – Memorial
Park Avenue Armory
October 28, 2009

Armitage Gone! Dance/Burkina Electric
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
November 4 through 7

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Itutu, on the other hand, makes the town hot. It’s not messy, but it is loud and bright and heated. When Lingani starts to sing, her rich, powerful voice is so over-mic’d that it makes my stomach rustle. The set, by Philip Taaffe, is bright but controlled. Transparent backdrops with simple, red, orange, or white patterns become a complex, stylized jungle when they overlap, and Clifton Taylor’s lighting makes the surface behind them glow. Some of Peter Speliopolous’s costumes echo those designs in black and white, but for one sequence, the women performers inexplicably appear in eye-catchingly gaudy floral skirts.

In a sense, Armitage’s approach is pretty basic. The Burkina Electric dancers mostly hunker down, ripple their bodies, shimmy, and make their feet fly with wonderful vigor. The Armitage Gone! dancers either echo this style or do expansive balletic steps (countless times, they throw one curved arm up and one bent leg high behind them). But neither group explores the subtle aspect of either style. Sometimes a compromise occurs, and all the performers together tackle steps that have an African flavor but venture into more Western stylizations. I’ve never known Armitage to employ such a restricted, uncomplicated vocabulary. The choreography responds to the vivid, propulsive music’s polyrhythms with speed and pressure.

The choreographic patterns acknowledge tribal traditions: the circle forming around a soloist, the sideways stepping line. But the mingling of styles often boils down to personal “conversations” in movement, in which the performers often seem at cross purposes or make casual use of one another. In one early passage, the wonderful Megumi Eda supports herself by holding onto guitarist Blass; Leonides D. Arpon (a live wire) gets up from where he’s sitting with Lingani, watching the two, and takes Eda over for a few seconds. He and Lingani then sit back to back while Eda and Blass press their foreheads together. What exactly has been achieved—either in artistic structuring or interpersonal, cross-cultural relationships—is moot. Maybe it’s an enigmatic glimpse into an episode, but it has no more weight than does a sequence in which the performers stride forward and back like runway models, throwing us those sultry, buy-me-and-watch-what-happens look. So they look at Top Model in Burkino Faso. And? Once, a spotlight shows Zoko Zoko high up in a sudden “window” in the backdrop. This seems important, but what is it?

The dancers are a pleasure to watch: Those not yet mentioned are Kristina Bethel-Blunt, William Isaac, Luke Manley, Abbey Roesner, Bennyroyce Royon, Marlon Taylor-Wiles, Emily Wagner, Mei-Hua Wang, and Masayo Yamaguchi. Eda shines with Zoko Zoko in several variants of a pas de deux. The fabulous, long-limbed Bethel-Blunt and Arpon dance arrestingly, while others lie curled on the ground like slain (or sleeping) animals. Lingani is a mesmerizing presence, whether singing or moving vigorously. The opening audience’s wild applause was, in good part, for the power of the performers, for their stamina, their virtuosity, and their beauty. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, audiences these days like extremes: loud, bright, hyper-kinetic, fast. Hot is the new cool.

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