I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
As a composer, improviser, and cross-cultural collaborator, I hope to be innovative; to deliver work of the highest integrity. In this era of information-overload-induced confusion, that’s not always easy; whether I manage, I don’t know. But once in a while I come across an artist who, in my opinion, definitely does. Karole Armitage is one of these rare artists. From her earliest work combining ballet, modern dance, and punk to her ever-unpredictable choreographies for various European ensembles and her current work with her own troupe back home in New York, Karole has done something I greatly admire: she has asked herself questions, answered them, and in so doing, came up with new questions. This entropy of questions is unavoidable and actually a necessity for a truly creative artist.
When Karole invited me to work with her on a piece, The Elegant Universe, a ballet about new discoveries in particle physics, I was delighted. If dancing about architecture seems difficult, dancing about physics is truly a challenge. And yet, dance is physiology, gravity, shapes, and geometric formations. The intersection of dance thought, musical thought, and the thinking of a physicist are perhaps not as far removed from each other as one would think.
Soon this project was joined by another, unrelated one, which will open at BAM Opera House in Brooklyn on November 4. Karole had seen Burkina Electric, the West African electronic-dance-art-pop band I co-lead with my friends Maï Lingani, Wende K. Blass, and Vicky Kafando from Burkina Faso; Zoko Zoko from Côte d’Ivoire; and Pyrolator from Germany. Karole became interested in choreographing to this music and adding another dimension to our already unusual mix, leading to the contrasting of—and unification of—ballet and African dance. It was the merging of West African pop seen through an occidental lens and Western symbolism examined through an African one. The piece, originally entitled Summer of Love but since rechristened Itutu, has helped all of us develop completely new ways of understanding what the other does, and what we do ourselves. What more can one ask?
Lukas Ligeti How do you manage to juggle so many different, independent ideas? Are you addressing similar issues in different pieces and just looking at them in a different light?
Karole Armitage Really it’s using a different light to get at a feeling. I’m thinking of dance as a poetic form, making metaphors that draw upon science as an underlying structure with some kind of poetic content to make meaning. Whether it’s a piece about physics or a piece like Itutu, with African influences, the basic way of making the dance doesn’t change.
LL All dance is about physics because there are the laws of physics and the physiology of the body—but that’s not really what you’re addressing here when you say it’s about physics.
KA I’m just saying you have two arms, two legs, one head, certain joints; the body can only move in a few ways because that is how the human physiology is made. Unlike music, we can’t actually plug in—though I’ve longed to be able to put an electric current into my body many a time.
LL It’s going to happen sooner or later. (laughter)
KA There are a couple of ways I think about physics quite consciously. I try to make a majority of my movement come from a principle analogous to “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” For example, a dancer pushes another’s shoulder, making that dancer turn and follow the force of the push. This trading of forces can go on for a long time, producing a different look to the movement than that of a dancer taking positions. Given that the movement is made by dancers trained in ballet, they add that conceptual and physical knowledge to the pulls and pushes and come out with exquisite form combined with rawness.
Traditional dance is based on Euclidean geometry and is very vertical and horizontal. I am more interested in the geometry of fractals, which describes the shapes of clouds, coastlines, or mountains. It is full of curves. So is Japanese calligraphy, and these ideas have helped me to turn my dance vocabulary into a curvilinear, sinuous language. I’ve been thinking about a 360-degree sphere around the body that allows the dancer to make shapes in all sorts of angles that were never really thought about in the 20th century. These curves and tracings are lyrical and could become monotonous, so I interject a lot of violent accents and spastic interruptions. The path of getting to a shape is more important than the actual shape, so it’s a kind of anti-materialistic dance.
The same dance movement can be permutated into many different forms and scales. For example, an arabesque is the most famous dance shape—the leg is up in back. Traditionally there is one correct way to do it, but in fact you can do it lying on the floor, upside down, low, high, twisted, contorted. I have used this idea as a way to make a lot of dancers pulse together in fractal-like group formations. I have a phrase, “cubism in motion,” which describes this form of visual organization. The dancers interpret the shape while facing different directions. My interest in creating order within great disorder is tied to my love of nature. This form of group organization is somewhat like that of a flock of birds in flight; each dancer is moving in their own way with a common purpose. The dance and dancers are in constant metamorphoses. I want dance to be as fast as my ideas, as fast as consciousness, so that it looks like people are thinking, that their bodies become the tool of thinking, and you’re seeing them feel, notice, act, all simultaneously.
LL In what you’re saying here, I see many analogies to my own work as a composer and improvisor. Imitating various aspects of nature, juxtaposing the natural and artificial, seeing people think, and observing a piece (of music) in a metaphorically spatial way—hearing it differently based on which part or line you’re concentrating on. I came late to music, and when I started, I began listening to and trying to make many different types of music simultaneously. I studied composition the Western-classical way, but I can’t say I’m grounded in one tradition as opposed to another. You, by contrast, started very early as a ballet dancer, and your basic vocabulary comes from that tradition. Certain gestures in ballet have meanings that are historically encoded. Does that weigh on you or do you not think about it?
KA It doesn’t weigh on me at all. I like to use tradition because it’s so finely honed; it gives you the ability to riff on well-known auras, like how a woman in pointe shoes is supposed to behave. But dance is so ephemeral. I don’t dwell on using the history too much because the references are fairly obscure. I use references all the time, but I don’t use the quotes. I don’t think people know where they come from and I don’t really worry about that much.
LL What about when you’re working in a relatively commercial context, like you did for Hair?
KA Well, Hair is first of all a story, a very schematic one; its narrative predetermines the way people look upon art. Hair was the right project for me because I wanted to make something that looked as if it wasn’t choreographed. I wanted to be as invisible as possible. Because, of course, the ’60s ethos is spontaneity, individuality, free expression, and sharing within the tribe. So I took very conceptual—kind of radical, actually—ideas, and gave them a little bit of rhythmic and musical structure. But I gave everyone images related to the words in the songs or on the grand theme of sexual freedom and had them improvise on them. Everybody made up their own stuff, so it didn’t look like one person told anyone what to do; there was no unison whatsoever.
LL That doesn’t sound like commercial choreography.
KA It’s not. That’s the point. The fact that it went over well is a miracle. But it just suited the subject matter. I mean, it would never work for any other musical.
LL How about Passing Strange?
KA Passing Strange has the brilliant work of Stew, who takes all kinds of cultural references, turns them upside down, topsy-turvy, and makes ironic and brilliant commentary on their limitations. Again, Passing Strange was so playful, and the piece was so conceptual—you had four black actors playing Dutchmen and Germans and Americans, each playing ten roles—that it worked. It wasn’t trying to illustrate; it wasn’t trying to do dance numbers. It was helping actors become these different situations.
LL Does a context like that in itself satisfy the urge to do something new?
KA In the case of Passing Strange, the director, Annie Dorsen, was very brilliant and very radical. She was absolutely determined to do everything as outside the mainstream as possible. I was just a cog in the wheel of trying to be outrageously unconventional. So those are two oddball productions … and Passing Strange wasn’t a great commercial success.
LL No, but it still was vaguely commercial. (laughter) During the 20th century, the prevailing language of Western concert music—tonality, writing music relating to a central pitch—was gradually deconstructed to the point of not really being a language anymore. And when there is no common language to subvert, it’s difficult to determine whether something is in a certain style or not. I had a conversation with a critic-type who told me he thinks it’s impossible to do something new in jazz. I played him something of mine that had attributes typical of jazz—improvisation, some of the communication. I said, “I think that’s something new in jazz.” He said, “No, I don’t think so. It’s not jazz.” I think we now lack a mutually intelligible language to contextualize or define things. In dance, is there also this deconstruction and emergence of new languages, but the lack of a shared one?
KA It’s very similar. When minimalism was part of the art and music mood, dance also arrived at a point where walking was almost too complicated a statement. And then people were doing pseudo-Cunningham, or there was a moment when people didn’t have new ideas about how to rebuild the language again. Forsythe came along then and found a new range in real virtuoso capabilities. He has taken his own language and deconstructed it to the point that it almost has no movement left. Now he’s starting to do art installations, so it’s like the body has even disappeared. There seems to be this kind of constant push and pull between him and people like me who are trying to do an elaborate sort of language with a big range of possibilities that includes metaphor, and accepts that dance has poetic content. Then there’s this other thing: almost non-movement, more purely conceptual dance.
LL Do you feel that this language you’re creating relates to the language of other choreographers? Or is everybody working more or less on their own planet?
KA I feel like I’m kind of on my own trajectory. I was trained as a ballet dancer, then I danced with Cunningham, then I was influenced by punk, and I put those three things together and that was considered to be a terrible thing. (laughter)
LL But it was a new thing.
KA It was very new. It excited a lot of people and it horrified a huge number of people. In a way that still kind of sums up what I’m trying to do: combining ballet with modern, scientific with poetic. And using raw, pop influences—whether punk or other kinds of street-culture influences—more as atmosphere, not recreating street moves or vocabularies or their ethos. It’s a kind of energy in the work rather than a vocabulary. Anyway, I’m in neither the ballet nor modern world; it makes people uncomfortable to this day.
LL So you feel like an outsider.
KA Yeah, and yet there clearly are people who are interested in that. Possibly more in Europe than in the US.
LL Do you find younger choreographers imitating you?
KA Not a lot. I think I’m hard to imitate because you need a lot of skill as a dancer to do what I do. Unless you’ve really pushed your body—like classically trained ballet dancers who are trying to supersede the human… . It’s just not that available to a huge amount of people. There are probably ten choreographers in the world who are on a similar trajectory. We’ve done ballet and modern and we want to make both of them go into unexplored territory, where there is no division between them. Believe it or not, there’s still a really big division between what is ballet and what is modern. There are only a few of us who think the division is meaningless.
LL Well, it seems to be a situation that is pretty analogous with music.
KA They’re so intrinsically connected, music and dance; two sides of the same coin, really.
LL In Africa you can’t separate them at all. There aren’t even different words in most languages for those two things. In a way, playing music is dancing because you need to move on the instrument to produce sound. Maybe you’re just moving your fingers and it’s a difficult dance for the audience to see, but it’s still a dance. I think what’s reversed is the cause and effect. Because in the case of music, movement causes sound and in the case of dance, sound causes movement.
KA The dance that I like most is dance that has a musical soul, as if the music were visual. Inevitably, dance has human content. We have mirror neurons in our brains which are designed to allow us to read other people’s intentions; that’s how we’re social animals—we look at each other to read feelings and objectives and therefore when you’re observing dance you are seeing people behave and you read into it all kinds of meanings.
LL Your choreography is closely tied to music. That’s where you’re very different from somebody like Cunningham.
KA Cunningham was very, very private. He did not want to collaborate by talking to people, ever. Not that this wasn’t based on really interesting ideas, but I think the personal and the conceptual go hand in hand. I love not dancing to music, too—I actually think it’s much easier. It’s much more difficult to make the two work together so that they’re entwined but completely independent. Really good choreography is both at once: it’s like you’re collaborating with the music. You’re in a relationship with it; it’s basically a dialogue, giving and taking like in a love relationship.
LL These kinds of relationships happen not only between music and dance, but within the music itself, and within the dance. When I write music I sometimes build in little things that actually go against my structure to make it less transparent, or just to give myself a hard time.
KA I love accidents more than anything. I’m just blessed by accidents. Half the best stuff I do is an accident. Like I’ll show a phrase to dancers and they misremember it, and it looks better, or they fall over, or they try something with too much force and it leads to another thing.
LL What kind of a tradition in choreography is there for the use of accidents?
KA I have no idea; I trained as a ballet dancer and then decided to try choreography, so I don’t really know how it’s taught. Dance is a strange, strange thing. We don’t communicate very much with each other. You can’t look in books. Of course there’s video, but major history is gone and people don’t talk about it. Maybe they do at universities; I’m sure there is a kind of consensus about how you’re supposed to choreograph and what you’re supposed to look for, but I have no idea what those things are.
LL If you were, say, 30 years younger, how would you start now? Could you see yourself dancing in your company?
KA That’s an interesting question. We just revived some pieces that I did dance—some of these early punk pieces. I’m really interested in the sensuality and the erotics of movement. And it is very sensual; it’s nice to be enveloped in that world. So I guess the answer is yes.
LL Something I was going to ask about is this sensual and erotic side of dance. The way in which society views sensuality and eroticism and the gestures associated with them have gone through enormous changes over the past couple of decades. Does your current choreography reflect a different approach to sensuality than the old one?
KA What comes to mind is the difference between how people moved to be sexy in the early ’80s when MTV started and how they’re moving now. Like the club dances: they’re just all about the booty now, and that wasn’t the case. What to me is erotic and sensual is how you feel air molecules around you, how you feel gravity, how you use your hips, how you go out of a straight line into something that has other kinds of curving stuff. So it’s not based on pop culture—it’s really about an interest in the other.
LL To get back to being a young dancer or choreographer today: are you looking for similar technical personalities, for lack of a better term, in dancers today as you were in your early choreography?
KA I’m looking for people who are virtuosos in the sense that they have a wide range of ability to control their bodies but who don’t look academic, who have a very personal way of moving. Their own voices within. They have to have some kind of interesting internal lives, an eccentric personal relationship to the world that comes through. I need people with a point of view.
LL You were working with dancers in New York in the ’80s, then you went to Europe for a while, and then you came back here. I was trained as a musician in Vienna—the home of classical music—and a lot of stuff that was going on there was very sloppy, although with an inherent knowledge: we are this tradition, we don’t have to prove anything. In America I see a lot more effort put into being very structured and academic and technical. Like being more Catholic than the Pope. On the other hand, I see the exact opposite in jazz: there’s a lot of very inspired, sloppy jazz in America, and European jazz musicians tend to be a whole lot more clean, yet are often quite derivative. There’s a certain spiritual thing that’s very important in jazz. Jazz and hip-hop have a strong American sociopolitical aspect and a European jazz musician exists in a complete vacuum as far as that is concerned. Is there any of this attitude in European dance: not having to prove anything?
KA No. I think you have to prove it every single day, physically.
LL You have to stay in shape, like an athlete does.
KA Yeah, and if you did something last week, but can’t do it this week, you’re a disgrace. Paris opera training is fantastic; no one is coasting on the fact that they invented classical ballet as we know it. They’re killing themselves to keep it going.
LL Do you think the general absence of government funding for the arts in America creates an atmosphere more conducive for innovation?
KA I think the exact opposite. We are punished here by being so economically and culturally marginalized. In Europe art is a part of daily life. It is simply normal. I don’t think it makes you more innovative to waste so much time just trying to survive. A lot of innovation comes from downtime; we know that so many enormous discoveries happen when people have time to daydream or drop out—
LL And produce accidents.
KA Exactly, and here you always have to make the next occasion work for you in some way, whether it’s social, or getting the next audition, or whatever.
LL But you still wanted to come back here and exist in this stressful environment.
KA I’m American and it’s strange to live an entire career in foreign countries—two months in Holland, three months in France, two months in Italy, two months in Spain—creating new ballets for all these different sites. I wasn’t developing an aesthetic. I would teach something conceptually and physically in one place and then I would have to start over again in the next place. I wanted continuity rather than these one-time things.
LL I wanted to create a bridge and now I forgot it.
KA We were talking about the sociopolitical context of jazz.
LL Right. In Africa, where I’ve spent a lot of time, hip-hop is really big now. Like in Burkina Faso, where Burkina Electric, the group that plays for Itutu, is from. Which elements of African-American culture catch on there and which don’t is very interesting to me. American hip-hop is so bound to certain social situations and political environments; African hip-hop is in a sense decontextualized from that. How did you approach working with African music and dancers? In seeing Itutu develop, I was very touched to be part of this African band, yet I’m not African. It’s this weird zebra existence. But I have become thoroughly Africanized in that sometimes I see from a European-American viewpoint and at other times from an African viewpoint. That’s one of the reasons why it is interesting to be part of Burkina Electric. I cofounded it, so we’re like a family, but there are a lot of differences in background and we’re constantly learning from each other. One thing that really touched me was seeing the Burkina Electric dancers and the Armitage Gone! dancers completely flowing together. For example, seeing the Burkina Electric dancers participate in the ballet warm-ups is something I really enjoy. How do you bring those things together?
KA Well, Itutu is incredibly challenging and I don’t think I’ve figured it out yet, because it’s a piece without context. I mean, the context is a wonderful idea about things colliding and flowing and crossing boundaries. We’re crossing boundaries between Africa, Europe, and the US, and we’re crossing dancers and musicians, and we’re crossing abstract intellectual culture with pop culture, so it’s a very complicated world that we’re trying to create. I want to push the piece even more.
LL It’s not really important where somebody comes from; it’s important what culture they ground themselves in. In cross-cultural projects it’s important, I think, to respect the choice of the identity performers give themselves, not necessarily the identity they’re born with.
KA Another challenge to the piece is how to go from instrumental music—your compositions, which are dense, polyrhythmic, abstract pieces with a lot of electronics and ambiguity—into the world of the pop songs by Burkina Electric. These are very different musical worlds. The songs are literal, unambiguous, and direct. The Burkina Electric members think of themselves as a band performing for a public rather than as performers caught in the midst of an experience. The songs are extroverted and grounded in the present; your abstract music is roiling with layers of tensions and are connected to the beyond. I want to go from the world of day and song to the more abstract world of night, a world of mystery. I hope it is possible to make these disparate, contradictory musical worlds mean something theatrical so that the piece holds together in a coherent way. I think you understand better than I do some of these issues.
LL I’m not sure about that. (laughter) And I co-wrote those Burkina Electric songs, so … I had a very interesting experience with African musicians I have been working with. This was with Beta Foly, an experimental ensemble of musicians from different parts of West Africa. We would listen to music together, say, Korean traditional music, and then try to imitate some of the atmosphere. How they approach meter … it would sound nothing like Korean music, but like a very strange African music. We played each other lots of different types of music, and the reactions were generally ones of great interest. But strangely, one composer made everybody draw a total blank: Steve Reich.
KA Wow, that’s amazing.
LL Yes, so strange. Morton Feldman, for example, makes music that’s incredibly static and yet you used it as a springboard for some very intricate movement in Connoisseurs of Chaos. What about the extremes of approaching movement to music by Feldman and then movement to music by Burkina Electric?
KA It’s very often important to have music that isn’t too full, so that there’s room for the dance.
LL African music tends to be very full.
KA Yeah, but something like Mozart is so full that adding anything feels extraneous. Adding to it can be so rich that it becomes nauseating. You have to find music where the visual can somehow join with it. African music, even though it’s dense, there’s space in it—it doesn’t feel tight. There is room there for the body.
LL To me, one of the fascinating things about African music is that it’s very three-dimensional, sculptural music. Listening to different layers is like looking at an object from different sides. Something I know has challenged you is that we always play this music differently.
KA That’s really difficult.
LL And we play a lot less differently than we normally do! (laughter) I think we’ve converged on a certain compromise in our collaboration there.
KA Aside from collaborating on music, I’m often intricately involved with a painter who is working on a design of some sort. It’s the same idea of almost creating a cosmos or dream place—a mental space where these productions take place. Philip Taaffe is designing Itutuand, in this case, is even creating the designs for the fabric that the dancers and musicians wear. It is not African-based design, though it uses the kind of graphic energy that one associates with the syncopated rhythm of the African visual world. Another painter, Will Cotton, is designing tiaras. It’s a collaboration. I’m trying to align the artists creating set designs, the lighting designer … all of them, so that they’re riffing off of each other to make one complete experience.
LL The lighting design of Itutu is kind of a nocturnal atmosphere.
KA That’s definitely going to change. The piece really isn’t finished yet. We had limited equipment for the one version we’ve done. Some of it is meant to be night, in that the piece is trying to explore the night side of our imagination—mysterious or irrational forces, these primal impulses that pulse through us.
LL Sunsets in Burkina Faso have a lot of dust in them, so the light is very different from what you find in America or Europe. In the city, people light small fires by the roadside, and it becomes smoky and dusty; it creates a very mysterious atmosphere. Many Westerners have difficulty grappling with something about African art, music, textile design, whatever: for them, it conjures happy feelings. There are major chords, a lot of colors that seem to exude happiness, yet the lyrics can be about disaster. Of course, in an African cultural context, things that seem happy to someone from the West aren’t necessarily happy at all. Have you found that to be a challenge in this collaboration?
KA I see vitality and energy; patterns that have a great vibrancy to them. So I don’t see that as happy as much as energetic. Some of the Burkina Electric music has this kind of deep visceral urgency. It’s not the opposite of happy, but it has a charm of letting itself be what it is. It’s tricky for me to understand how to make songs have an interesting evolution so that I don’t get stuck in the structure.
LL They don’t have an evolution, really, so maybe the evolution can come through other things.
KA Yeah, the thing that I want to emphasize the most is that we’re just in this together. In the beginning I thought maybe I needed to slowly introduce these worlds coming together, but I actually think it’s more interesting to be already there, already doing this crazy thing!
LL I think that’s the perfect way to end. We’re born, and we’re all thrown in together.
Composer-percussionist Lukas Ligeti has crafted a unique style all his own, drawing upon downtown New York experimentalism, contemporary classical, jazz, electronica, and world music, particularly from Africa. Known for his non-conformity and diverse interests, Ligeti creates music ranging from the through-composed to the free-improvised, often exploring polyrhythmic/polytempo structures, non-tempered tunings, and non-Western elements.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee