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Science and ballet: Choreographer melds many dimensions

| Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012

Punk ballerina Karole Armitage does more than think outside the box. She melts the box away.

As a dancer, she worked with two utterly contrasting masters, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. Her creations aren't limited to ballets. She's choreographed Broadway shows, operas, videos by Madonna and Michael Jackson, and will create the choreography for Cirque de Soleil's 2012 tent show "Amaluna."

"In years of study to learn dancing on pointe and technical virtuosity, you seek great control over your body so you can do anything you want," Armitage says. "We do off balance, very sensual happenings with funky, democratic rock 'n' roll spirit to combine with traditional beauty of ballet. I believe artists should create something new that you can't see on television. It's thrilling. because it's new ideas. My job is to be innovative."

Pittsburgh Dance Council will present Armitage Gone! Dance performing "Three Theories" on Saturday at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

Armitage Gone! Dance was founded in 2004 in New York City after the dancer had spent 15 years in Europe.

"I didn't plan to have a company," Armitage says. "The dancers and I loved working together on a project and decided to stick together."

"Three Theories" was created in 2010 out of the unusual combination of dance and science she's known since she was a child.

Armitage was born in Madison, Wisc., in 1954. and began studying dance when she was 4. He father was a biologist, which opened her eyes to science.

"It definitely gave me a sense of awe and wonder as I looked at the natural world, full of wonderful things and fascinating," she says.

Brian Green's book "The Elegant Universe" inspired "Three Theories."

The first section of her ballet is Relativity, drawing on Einstein's idea that gravity is the warping of the space-time fabric. Quantum takes its energy from quantum mechanics' account of the motion of extremely small particles. The concluding section is String, for the string theory which asserts that the fundamental matter of the universe is microscopic vibrating string.

"We all studied geometry in school -- triangles, rectangles, circles," Armitage says. "Dance has been based on Euclidian geometry. I started thinking about the fractal geometry of mountains and clouds -- the real geometry of nature. I create curvilinear, sinuous analogs by using these ideas from science and things happening in culture. You can invent a new way of doing balance and light and rhythm. It can all be very fresh. That's my goal -- pushing boundaries and creating new things."

Armitage's family had moved to Lawrence, Kan., by the time she began dance lessons. Fate can be good. Her first teacher had been a dancer in Balanchine's New York City Ballet. So was her next teacher, when the family was living in Gothic, Colo. Her training paved a specific path to what became her dream.

"At that time, ballerinas were like supermodels of today -- icons of glamour, featured in Life magazine," she recalls.

"So, I wanted to be a ballerina. I studied at (Balanchine's) school in New York City. When he fell in love with someone who married someone else, he opened a school in Switzerland, partly to get away, and took 20 of us to Geneva," she says.

Thus, she began her professional career in 1973 as a member of Balanchine's Ballet du Theatre de Geneve.

"It was an incredible experience to live in Europe at age 17. I learned about culture and worked with the man who is probably the Shakespeare of dance," she says. "He created comedies and tragedies, existential ballets. And I got to work with him."

Three years late, she moved back to New York City to join Merce Cunningham's company, another eye-opening experience.

"He was using the technique and refinement of ballet but thinking of how to move and the meaning of movement in an entirely new way," she says. "He was using Zen philosophy -- whatever sounds you hear, whatever you see, let the world unfold without trying to impose your will on it as an artist. That kind of acceptance."

Armitage became interested in the visual arts because of the noted artists around Cunningham -- Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Now, she collaborates with Jeff Koons, David Salle, Phillip Taaffe and Brice Marden.

She formed her company, Armitage Ballet, in 1980, soon winning admiration for her piece "Severely Classical." In 1985, she was tapped by Mikhail Baryshnikov to create a work for American Ballet Theatre. After Rudolf Nureyev asked her to create for the Paris Opera, her career began to thrive on two continents. In 1996, she became director of the Maggio Danza in Florence, Italy.

"What happens in the American dance world is that you have to do fundraising, administration, choreography and dancing," she says. "I was getting a lot of attention from Europe. I was called a 'punk ballerina' for putting together the refinements and beauty of ballet with raw, more democratic sensibilities that was American -- putting together European and American sensibilities."

Armitage found she loved working with big established companies, free from having to raise money and free to work with anyone. She had wonderful experiences in Europe, including directing opera.

"Then, I had what happens to Europeans, I became very comfortable," Armitage says. "Everyone has a good, secure job. I yearned for the American spirit of sincere commitment. If you're going to be a dancer, you have to do it with all your heart and soul. I realized I wanted to work with New York dancers. They go further than anyone else. In 2004, I came back and founded my company."

Additional Information:

Armitage Gone! Dance

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $19-$45

Where: Byham Theater, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or

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