Last spring the National Museum of Dance opened The Karole Armitage Collection, a permanent installation of costumes donated to the Museum by groundbreaking dancer, choreographer, and director Karole Armitage. These extraordinary costumes, designed by David Salle, Alba Clemente, and Christian Lacroix, were first shown at the Museum in Making Art Dance, a major exhibition from Mana Contemporary in 2015 that explored Karole’s dynamic collaborations with visual artists. That same year, Karole choreographed and directed Dido and Aeneas for Opera Saratoga, performed in the courtyard of the National Museum of Dance. We are so pleased to share with you our recent interview with Karole Armitage.
You are unquestionably one of the world’s most prolific and diverse dance artists. What has compelled you to work in and create for not only the concert dance stage but for theater, opera, film, and beyond?
I’ve lived in many countries. One learns different ways of thinking and being when speaking a different language and living in a different rhythm. Different cultures have different ways of understanding how to be human. A diverse point makes for a richer life.
I love the energy of pop culture, I love the traditions of the classical arts, I am inspired by art traditions from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. There is richness everywhere. I like the desert, I like the rainforest, I like the mountains, I like the plains. I like theater, opera, film, and dance. The most important aspect of working in any form, is to have a strong point of view. You have to know what you’re aiming for and eliminate the rest. It is very severe. You must find what is essential.
Collaboration with visual artists is one of the hallmarks of your incredible oeuvre, explored in the exhibition Making Art Dance at Mana Contemporary which later travelled to the National Museum of Dance. Your partnerships with visual artists seem more unique than simply commissioning sets and costumes for a particular production. Would you agree and how do you typically approach these collaborations?
I enjoy collaboration because more brains create more fun, excitement, and a broader picture of culture. I find what works best is to choose people whose work is already in harmony with the underlying philosophy of the work and unleashing them to be totally free. But you must build in time for everyone to come up with their own point of view. Everyone has to be generous and willing to discard ideas in finding their way toward commonality. Without ever constraining the work by defining it, everyone must intuit what it is and then aim for the underlying point of view in order for a collaboration to be successful.
Visual artists are very audacious. They work alone and need only an audience of one who has the economic power to purchase a work in order to survive. In dance we need a massive consensus in order to get grants and an audience. This makes for a very different context. Visual artists push their ideas to a wonderful extreme. The artists I worked with brought incredible insight into the cultural moment and where it was going. They are very generous.
Your company, Armitage Gone! Dance, is a permanent resident at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. How has being part of this arts space enhanced your creative process and the evolution of your company?
Being a resident at Mana Contemporary is heaven for us. We have our own studio. This permits us to do a kind of work we could never do otherwise. When you are in the same studio where the shape and size is constant, the dance gets stronger, more sure, more wild, more free. Our own studio also gives us the ability to use props or objects or complex costumes in ways that would be impossible if we had to move from studio to studio every day as is typical in New York City. It has simply changed what our dance company is. It is invaluable.
You have directed and choreographed opera for many years and it was particularly thrilling for this community to have your Dido and Aeneas for Opera Saratoga performed in the courtyard of the National Museum of Dance. What was the genesis of that project and the importance for you in having it performed outside and in nature? What draws you to opera as art form?
Directing opera is my favorite thing to do. You have an extraordinary piece of music, a poetic story, singers who, being entirely musical, move beautifully and you can add all kinds of visual and performance elements to enrich the pleasure of going into a dream-like experience. Dance, in my way of working, requires inventing the “story” as we go along. We are not telling or creating a narrative. We are making rules and structures that become their own story. It is simply harder to make a dance than to make a narrative come alive.
I was invited to direct Dido and Aeneas by Opera Saratoga. It was their idea to do it outside. When I went to see the space, I wanted it to stretch in ways that would allow us to embrace nature. We created a stage that encapsulated the trees and bushes in the area. Being in nature brings forth the mythic. There is truly magic in the air as the moon rises above you and you sit in the dark, feeling a lovely breeze as you watch and listen. That is potent.
Speaking of nature, your beautiful Fables on Global Warming felt so timely in 2013. Seven years later it feels even more crucial, along with On the Nature of Things (2015) performed at the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History. How does the natural world inspire your life and the creation of your works of art?
I am not interested in art that is civic lesson, which unfortunately feels like much that is trending today. However, there’s no doubt the climate change is an existential threat. While in the middle of this unprecedented pandemic, we mustn’t forget that there is a greater problem to be faced and that systemic change is essential. Nature gives me great pleasure and renewal. Seeing it destroyed by a lack of consciousness is painful to me. I decided to do several works on the theme. By bringing emotion to a subject, people find the energy to respond. Statistics alone will never galvanize us to take action. It is thrilling to see that young people understand the importance of facing climate change and changing our way of being. A consumer oriented economy based on obsolescence is self-destruction.
The natural world inspires me because of its prolific diversity. In the permutations of plant and animal life there is a boundless imagination and creativity born of adhering to rigorous, systematic structures. Art can never be as rich or profound as nature, but nature gives us a measure for our efforts.
Ideas from nature have inspired me to create complex geometry, curvilinear forms, simultaneous actions that are not unison but dancers moving with the same intentions, a natural ease and spontaneity – a general philosophy of being rather than trying to obtain a goal.
What are you working on now?
Good question and I wish I had an answer. I’m getting my energy up to think about how to think. What I love about Dance is its sensuality, the sharing with people in the room; it is not a form that lends itself to media. The body is an extraordinary technology. Adding an extraneous technology to it, dilutes the power of the body itself. I can imagine conceptual pieces that are more of a visual art experience than a dance experience. Those would be great on zoom. But what to do with dance? I don’t know. Anything on screen is a different form.
To learn more about Karole Armitage and Armitage Gone! Dance please visit her website.