Performing Arts: Theater
July 22, 2011
Karole Armitage gained recognition as a superb dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and notoriety as a “punk ballerina” (pointe shoes and punk hairdo). She broke away from the postmodern master to form her own troupe in the free-wheeling 1980’s. Since that time, Ms. Armitage--trained in ballet and modern--has ruffled aesthetic feathers, gained legions of fans, while amassing glowing and hard-hitting reviews. Uncontrollably intrigued by the new, Armitage retains a true devotion to the traditional principles of choreography while bending those movements into personal statements.

A striking presence, the long and lean Armitage is keen on collaborations. That trait came in handy when director Diane Paulus called Armitage in to choreograph the hit musical “Hair.”

First produced in the 1960s, Armitage never saw “Hair” in production but, like so many counter-culture people growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, could sing all the songs by heart.

When I caught up with Karole by phone, she was speeding off in a limousine to the airport for a project in Beijing and explaining in a matter-of-fact tone to the driver how to negotiate Canal Street –“Why do I think you should go that way???? Maybe because I’ve lived here for 30 years.”

Armitage insisted this was a perfectly good time to chat about her experience as the choreographer of the energetic revival of “Hair” currently at the St. James Theater through September 10.

When asked how she was tapped for the part, Armitage explained “my involvement began because the Public Theater was producing the musical and they already knew I was a team player from my contributions as choreographer of “Passing Strange” (2008 award- winning Broadway musical).

Originally revived as a special entry in the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park series-- “40th anniversary production of "Hair" in 2008”--Armitage recalled the production was realized at whiplash speed. Because there was no time for dance rehearsals, Armitage would shout instructions from the wings or just grab actors on the fly. Despite the harried pace, Armitage had a “pure feeling for Hair” and knew exactly how she wanted the choreography to look. Later, when the wildly successful "Hair" transferred to Broadway, Armitage got more body-to-body time to “turn my line drawing into a painting.”

Eager to fold the movements invisibly into the dramatic action Armitage noted “I wanted to make the choreography invisible; make it look seamless so it was completely personal and spontaneous.” Despite the improvisational look of the material, she designed a hidden structure and crafted the sequences in a way that gave focus and emotional coherence to the randomness.

Naturally, working with actors who aren’t dancers posed a different set of challenges. Armitage linked the movements to the lyrics (Gerome Ragni and James Rado) combing through the songs “word for word” with the actors to understand how a gesture matched an idea and the music (Galt McDermot). She went on, “Take the line ‘the mind’s true liberation, Aquarius!’ I asked them to tap their foreheads demonstrating ‘consciousness.’ (During the show, some tap their foreheads with two fingers, others use the palm of their hand, two hands or run fingers lightly sideways). By letting each person find their own way, and then setting the movement, I realized better results—the right vibrations."

"Of course, not being trained dancers; movement memory was not as acute. For example, during group sequences, they might not always go through the same hole. And I had to tamp down a tendency to break into big brassy show businessy attitudes, hip-hop or American Idoly stuff. But these are their references.”

"Ultimately, the freedom I felt in pursuing this very personalized process is really a tribute to director Diane Paulus."

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