Karole Armitage, Punk Ballerina and Voguing Pioneer, Brings Her New York Work "Rave" Home

Karole Armitage, Punk Ballerina and Voguing Pioneer, Brings Her New York Work "Rave" Home

In the very early ’80s, dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage started going up to Harlem to judge vogue balls, the ecstatic underground dance competitions held by different “houses.” As she began to incorporate the styles she witnessed into her own works, the culture of voguing was trickling into the mainstream. In 1990, Madonna asked Armitage to choreograph a music video. “Vogue” was a hit, and the now-infamous moves emerged on dance floors and television screens around the world.

Since then, Armitage has been busy establishing herself as one of the world’s premiere choreographers, collaborating with — among other luminaries of all mediums — Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lukas Ligeti, Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson, and Merchant Ivory. But she returned to her background in voguing for her 2001 work “Rave,” which was inspired by the tragedy of September, 11, 2001. Far from somber, it’s an exuberant but respectful celebration of New York City (Armitage was living in France at the time). It premiered in 2001, but was never preformed in the United States. This weekend, Armitage is giving New Yorkers their first chance to see “Rave,” 10 years after the towers fell. You can see the work at the Abrons Arts Center, located at 466 Grand Street, tonight and Saturday. 

We recently spoke with Armitage on the phone while she was in Chicago, performing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She ended up there by way of Toronto, where she is working on a Cirque du Soleil show called “Amaluna,” about an island under the rule of goddesses and at the mercy of the cycles of the moon.

ARTINFO: What took “Rave” so long to get here?

ARMITAGE: First time in the U.S.! Well, it has 26 dancers and that implies a huge amount of government funding. I came back to New York in 2004 and formed my company — it has seven members. But the dance world has been so down in the doldrums because funding has been so down since the economic crash. I realized that “Rave” is so exuberant and so much fun and it looks like nothing else on the face of the earth and it plays with fashion and Kung Fu and vogueing, and it has a great spirit that feels right for the times. It’s kind of a carnival – everybody plays the role of celebrities. It’s fun for dancers in these hard times to take on the roles of these kinds of characters. These people have power and money, while in dance people have neither! So it has a kind of political twist in a very lighthearted way.

You’ve said that “Rave” was in part a reaction to 9/11. This is the first time it’s playing in New York. Do you think that it can be looked at in the same way now — 10 years out — as it was seen in 2001?

The fact that we’re in these economic hard times and the future feels so uncertain — that has a similar, though not extremely similar, psychological effect as those times [after 9/11]. The dance world, we are just struggling so hard to survive. So there’s a sense that it feels like a response to the cultural context we’re in. “Rave” is about when things go topsy-turvy, how do you understand what life is? It’s about the fact that, truly, life goes on; embrace it and survive.

You had been in Europe when you wrote and premiered the work. Does it feel emotional to bring it to New York, where these events took place?

I live eight blocks away from the World Trade Center, so it was very personal. But this piece is not about 9/11 — it is about little people taking on these other kinds of rules, it is about joy, it is about life. Everybody is painted from head to toe in bright colors. They’re wearing these dazzling costumes by a fashion designer who does all of Donna Karan’s haute couture lines. It’s got a fantastic sense of style. It uses voguing and Kung Fu and runway walking and ballet and modern dance. It’s about having all these world cultures come together in an organic way. It’s about life being something to be grateful for.

The incorporation of voguing really grounds it to New York City, too. Was that a conscious thing?

Voguing was really the fundamental part of this piece. Willi Ninja came with me to Europe and to Italy where we taught voguing workshops to ballet dancers. One of my dancers grew up in a voguing house. It’s so refined and it’s so fierce, just like ballet. It’s interesting to me that voguers use extreme leg positions, incredible rhythmic complexity to fight battles for who’s the best — instead of using knives to kill each other. Ballet does the same thing. Well, they’re the same thing but opposite sides of the coin. Ballet and voguing are so much alike physically and they’re both kind of marginal things in culture, and there was this way of the street coming together with high art. The voguers loved that and they were so glad that I was bringing this into the art world and the dance world.

Being on the voguing scene in the early '80s, that must have been incredible exciting.

So vibrant! And it has such a deep psychological and interesting role in relation to consumer culture. These were poor kids who didn’t have great clothes or eyeglasses or purses — and most of them were gay. They had no way to participate in mainstream culture, so they invented their own form. You can have it in your own way, and it makes you feel at peace.

Opening the series is going to be a series of short works from prominent artists. I don’t think you’ve ever done something like this before.

No, I haven’t. It really is like a performance art variety show. What I think is so funny about it is it’s got an animal act, it’s got film, it’s got theater, it’s got song, it’s got tap. It’s just gonna be an incredible, fun and unique evening. Bill Wegman is loaning his dog, it’s just fantastic.

And Will Cotton is doing his Katy Perry cotton candy routine…

That’s correct.

Have you seen it before?

I’ve seen a little bit on video, but never live.

So you’ve been up in Canada working on "Cirque du Soleil."

It premiered yesterday! It’s gotten great reviews and it seems to be a hit.

It’s your first time doing this, right? What’s different?

It’s a big corporation. I’ve never worked for a corporation, and there are a lot of rules I wasn’t used to. Working with the acrobats was very natural, though, because dancers and acrobats are very similar. They both use their bodies to do extreme things.

What do you have next?

We go to San Francisco with a completely different program. After that, we do something completely different again, in Italy. And I’m working on a very theatrical piece about global warming that’s taking animal fables from around the world — American Indian fables, Aesop’s fables, Chinese fables, African fables — because all of them talk about animals and their relationship to nature. If you read them with a modern eye, they’re totally about global warming. And we’re using a lot of puppets. I want it to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

“Rave” is currently in the middle of its first run in New York City. You can see it at the Abrons Arts Center, at 466 Grand Street, tonight and Saturday. There is a 7:30pm show and a 10:00pm show each night. Tickets are $30.