Karole Armitage didn't set out to be a rebel.
For most of her first 20 years of life, she executed pirouettes and jetes in pretty tutus as a classical ballerina. When that started feeling rigid and automatic, she ditched Europe for New York and became a modern dancer.
Eventually, though, the Lawrence native decided she had something important to say and turned to choreography.
"I felt like no one was doing what I saw in my imagination," Armitage says. "The punk movement, the rock 'n' roll spirit, was prevalent, and everyone was doing a very kind of cool, sober, unemotional, unpsychological dance. And I just thought, you know, there's room for something else."
So in 1981, while still a standout member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Armitage unleashed "Drastic-Classicism," a maelstrom of punk rock music and dance - anchored in the structure and phrasing of classical ballet but driven by a sense of anarchy.
This creation and others prompted Vanity Fair to dub her the "punk ballerina." The name stuck.
At 53, the spiky-haired blonde still dances every day but hasn't performed in years. Now she pours her creative energy into making work for her company, Armitage Gone! Dance. The group will follow Armitage home next weekend for a Saturday evening performance at the Lied Center.
Time hasn't dulled her edge. Although she has refined her style, Armitage still gets a charge out of departing from the ordinary.
"I think art is about pushing boundaries and adhering to tradition at the same time - taking tradition and turning the dial a little bit," she says. "I suppose in many ways that's a rebellious act because it does question the status quo automatically. It means that the way things are can be looked at differently.
"But I'm not trying to be a rebel. What I'm trying to do, really, is be an artist."
Armitage got a rather unorthodox start in dance for a little girl growing up in Kansas. When she was 5 years old, Tomi Wortham from the New York City Ballet moved to Lawrence and opened a studio. She taught youngsters dances that had been created by George Balanchine, widely regarded as the best ballet choreographer of the 20th century.
"When you're kind of thrust into that greatness, you feel it," Armitage says. "That hooked me."
During the summers, Armitage lived in the isolated wilderness near Crested Butte, Colo., with her parents - biologist Ken Armitage and historian Katie Armitage - while her father conducted research. Hellbent on continuing her training, she hiked over a 12,000-foot mountain pass to Ballet West in Aspen. She began studies at the School of American Ballet in New York at age 13, and later graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts.
If you're serious about dance, Armitage says, you really give up any shot at a typical childhood.
Fortunately, her perseverance paid off. From 1973 to 1975, she danced with Balanchine's Geneva Ballet, then joined Cunningham's company from 1976 to 1981, performing leading roles around the world.
Retired Kansas University dance instructor Joan Stone saw Armitage perform during that era, recalling that she joined the company on the tail end of a watershed period that left the troupe subsisting with less stunning dancers than in the past.
"I remember turning to my husband and saying, 'Oh my goodness, Merce has finally found another great dancer,'" Stone says.
Language of the body
As much as she loved dancing with the revered company, Armitage was curious what it would be like to create her own work. Shortly after choreographing her first piece, "Ne" (1978), and then "Drastic-Classicism," she was invited to present her work at several European festivals. The exposure snowballed into commissions from the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and frequent gigs choreographing for and directing operas across the continent.
After 15 years away, Armitage returned to New York in 2004 when the Joyce Theater asked her to create a new piece. The resulting "Time is the Echo of an Axe within a Wood" garnered rave reviews, and Armitage decided she was ready to set up shop long-term.
Her dances are full of unexpected combinations, off-balance motions, breaks and accelerations.
"It's very complex in terms of movement, which means it's interesting, which means it surprises you," Lied Center Associate Director Karen Christilles says of Armitage's work. "It's very powerful, strong movement."
Armitage finds herself selecting music by modern composers working in the classical tradition - like Bela BartÃ³k, Gyrgi Ligeti and Annie Gosfield - who mirror her own interplay between the past and present.
Armitage also is known for her collaborations with other artists, from filmmakers Merchant and Ivory, to fashion designer Christian Lacroix, to painter David Salle. She even worked on music videos with Madonna ("Vogue") and Michael Jackson ("In the Closet.")
Most often the collaborations result in the creation of sets and costumes for one of Armitage's dances, which she says lends a deeper context to the works, helping audiences feel less intimidated.
"People understand storytelling, and they're afraid, when there's no language, that they don't understand," she says. "The thing about dance is the body is a kind of language, writing in the air. What you feel watching it and what you think about it, is right. But people are afraid to trust. They think they're maybe missing the point."
More work to do
As Armitage talks about her work, she rattles off the names of visual artists, composers, designers and historical movements in the arts. It's clear she's done her homework. Such depth of knowledge, she says, is particularly appropriate for a choreographer.
"Dance is almost like film; you bring together so many layers," she says. "Film has music and, of course, the camera and the lighting and the actors and the story. In many ways dance is the same in that you are bringing together so many different worlds that have to all get on the same wavelength."
At this stage in her career, it would seem that Armitage has perfected the art of stitching together each of these elements into cohesive, beautiful, meaningful packages.
"She has reached that wonderful point of maturity for a choreographer where she is really doing her own thing," KU's Stone says. "Her work has taken on the look of a mature choreographer who is in command of her ingredients."
But she still has more to do. Although Armitage enjoys the contradiction inherent in her long-held nickname, "punk ballerina," she laments the fact that "punk" doesn't really mean anything these days.
"Things have just gotten more corporate and more mass market and more homogenized. There's much less marginal culture now than there used to be in the U.S.," she says.
"I feel like that's one of my roles - to offer an alternative to this big entertainment culture and corporate culture that reigns. There are other ways of thinking and feeling about the world, and I feel that's very much one of the things that I try to offer an audience."