Choreographer Karole Armitage, a native of Lawrence, Kan. says artist Jackson Pollock can be viewed as "a metaphor for the creative process"; his lines of dripped and poured paint are like a dance. Kansas City Ballet concludes its season with a world premiere by Armitage, exploring the intersection between art, jazz, and dance.
Keeping a funky edge
"OK, let's see if we can get to this spot," directs Karole Armitage, dressed in a blue hoodie and black tights. About 20 dancers are gathered in the large studio at the Bolender Center for the second week of rehearsals for Armitage's new work "Energy Made Visible" at the Kansas City Ballet.
Armitage stands with her back to the mirror, with her trademark short white-blonde hair, and black ballet slippers on her feet.
"Here we go, 7, 8," she says, counting the beats,"1, 2, 3, 4 - Pump your arms! - 5, 6. That's it. Remember, this is hard. I know, you got to remember."
Dubbed the ‘punk ballerina' in the 1980s, for her mash up of classical and modern, Armitage has choreographed for ballet and opera companies across Europe and the United States, including her own company Armitage Gone! Dance in New York City. And she’s created choreography for Broadway musicals, like Hair, and dancers from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Madonna. Her speech is peppered with dance terms.
"You should pop it. You know popping and locking everybody?" Armitage asks the dancers. "So that means,'Umph.' So you have to be a little bit forward in your body and (clap) funk it up a bit. There you go."
Inspired by Jackson Pollock and the "idea of an all-over canvas"
Dance, music by saxophonist Bobby Watson, and artwork by painter Jackson Pollock are all woven together in Armitage’s work "Energy Made Visible."
"Which is a famous quote about Jackson Pollock that his paintings are energy made visible," says Armitage. "And of course, that’s really what dance is, it’s almost like physics made visible."
Armitage transitions easily between science and dance. She grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, but her family spent summers in Colorado, as her father, a biologist, conducted research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Over the last decade, she's taken inspiration from calligraphy and geometry, incorporating a "curvilinear language" into her choreography.
"Both controlled and chance operations, I like that also there is that play between structure and lack of control. And, I think, again, is just how I feel about how the universe operates," she says with a laugh.
Improvised music brings extra energy
Jazz Studies director Bobby Watson’s office is at the end of a long row of student practice rooms at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. Watson says this spring has been one of the most creative periods of his career – playing festivals in Europe and making his acting debut at UMKC Theatre. Armitage’s ballet draws from his solo album called This Little Light of Mine (1991).
"Her concept was to use some of the original tracks without me, and some of the original tracks with me, overdubbing two or three or four times. And some of the tracks would be recreating them on the spot," says Watson. "When I first talked to her, I said, you know, Karole, that was 30 years ago."
Watson says Armitage visited the studio during the recording process – and that helped provide clarity. He says he was surprised by the experience.
"The funny part was, I was telling somebody, I was playing with my young self," says Watson. "And instead of being intimidated by myself of 30 years ago, I was inspired by my young self."
No technical boundaries for the imagination
During the performance, Watson will improvise on stage, playing along with the recorded tracks and responding to the dancers’ movements. Also on stage, video projections of ink drawings by artist Jackson Pollock – brought to life by French videographer Gilles Papain. I caught up with Papain by Skype before his visit to Kansas City for final rehearsals.
"I tried not to be the guy who would say, no, technically, we can’t do that," he says.
Papain was an opera stage manager for a decade – and says he’s often tapped to create visuals for ballet and opera because he knows the stage well.
"The idea was to go into the painting of Pollock, to dive into his paintings," says Papain. "So I tried to do that in 3-D."
Drawings "like music on the page"
Armitage says much of the movement of the dance comes from the calligraphy of the drawings - the dancers will recreate "like writing on the air" what Jackson Pollock did on paper.
"The way he painted was basically a dance, because he was going around the edge of the canvas, throwing and splattering paints while dancing around the edge essentially," says Armitage. "And it was all totally physical gesture. So that’s the reason that it really translates well to dance because it’s physical.
"And it looks musical, because it’s all these kinds of calligraphic curlicues. It also looks like music on the page, almost, swirling. So each thing is independent to a great extent, and yet, very intricately involved on a deep level."
Like Pollock, Armitage says she feels that "much of what an artwork becomes is only discovered in the making of it."
Kansas City Ballet presents "Hey-Hey, Going to Kansas City" with choreography by Donald McKayle, "Common People" with choreography by Margo Sappington, and "Energy Made Visible" by Karole Armitage, May 3 - 12, 2013, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo.