Let’s face it. Choreographers are thieves. Like magpies, they see the glint of bright bits and grab them to bedeck their nests—er, dances. Someone’s jewel (step, gesture, cultural trait) ends up woven into someone else’s work.
In 1979, when Karole Armitage founded her own company, she developed an eye-catching hybrid of a style. Having performed in George Balanchine’s ballets and danced with Merce Cunningham’s company, she took the leggy, angular clarity of Balanchine’s neo-classical works and yanked it further off balance; heated up Cunningham cool; and freed dancers’ spines and arms to ripple. That sensual, sometimes preening quality at its best is on view in Armitage Gone! Dance’s Joyce season in Ligeti Essays (2005), a string of brief episodes on a white-floored stage that’s bounded by neon tubes and dominated by a bare-limbed silver tree (by David Salle and lighting designer Clifton Taylor). Stretching and tangling their limbs to three spare, haunting songs by György Ligeti, the splendid dancers could be celebrants at an enigmatic, occasionally tender, post-apocalyptic rite.
With her 1981 Drastic Classicism (also on Program A at the Joyce), Armitage embraced punk—perhaps, in part, as a way of smartly deconstructing her own style. In the edited 2009 version shown at the Joyce, the dancers saunter instead of walk, ooze their way into dancing as if exhausted from too much partying, and mess with the drummer and four guitarists who manage the tremendous din of Rhys Chatham’s music. Once galvanized, they fling their legs wantonly, let gestures melt and blur, and stare hotly at the audience. These performers (all splendid) may not even have been born when the piece premiered. They perform the retro bash with a glee that says, “Being bad is such a turn-on!” It’s kind of endearing.
Armitage’s job description comes much closer to that of the magpie in works that borrow from other cultures. Nadaswaram (2001) attempted a fusion of her pomo-ballet style with elements of India’s classic Bharata Natyam and hip-hop. In Itutu (2009), she collaborated with the musicians and dancers of Burkina Electric to meld her choreography with Afropop and traditional African steps. What began as commendable artistic adventurousness emerged as a vivid, but disconcertingly superficial appropriation of non-Western traditions.
Her GAGA-Gaku, a world premiere, falls into this category—“Gaga,” as in being crazy or being wild about something; “Gagaku,” as in the Japanese music that accompanies Bugaku court dances, which composer Lois V Vierk channels in her ferocious Go Guitars and Red Shift—the accompaniment for Armitage’s piece. Balanchine’s Bugaku comes to mind, as does Gaga, a fluid dance technique developed by Ohad Naharin, and Lady Gaga as a fashionista. The female members of Armitage’s company, plus three guest dancers from Dance Theater of Harlem, wear black briefs and short, shiny black tops by 132 5. ISSEY MIYAKE, made via a complicated process to resemble origami (later the women shed these and continue in bras). The men wear matching kilts.
In this pounding new piece, Armitage has indulged her interest in Cambodian court dance, Balinese dance, and Japanese Noh theater. The contained and reticent atmosphere evoked by the votive candles along the front of the stage and the dancers’ ceremonial entrance doesn’t prevail. And the low-hung red curtains behind them (set by Salle and Taylor), lit by Taylor, hint at conflagration.
The 14 cast members stamp their feet and assume angular positions reminiscent of temple bas-reliefs. Often, one or two people move smoothly through the poses, while others hit them and freeze momentarily. But the dancers also unfurl their legs to point at high noon and launch themselves into attitude turns. The choreography is intriguing at first, as Armitage breaks up and develops the patterns and allows individual dancers—the dynamite Leonides D. Arpon, for instance, or gorgeous Kristina Bethel-Blunt, or feisty Masayo Yamaguchi—to shine. But the red curtain is hung quite far downstage, and the space in front of it quickly
Some things are puzzling. Why in the aggressive maelstrom of movement are two women wearing pointe shoes, although they rarely use them? Why does Arpon ceremoniously carry on a black object and place it on the floor? (Turns out it’s Emily Wagner’s top, and eventually someone slips it over her head.) Why does musician Matthew Mottel enter with a mic to rap at a line of dancers simulating a many-armed deity?
You could also wonder why, for her duet with tall, husky Jacob Warren, Megumi Eda—one of the company’s most vibrant performers—wears long fingernails, but it’s best not to. As the two wrap around each other in a dreamy, erotic limbo, they can’t ever hold hands, and the ways they find not to do this gives the duet a strange power—an anchor amid cultural confusion.