Arts: When opposites meet

She may no longer dance in public, but Karole Armitage is still a major force in ballet. By Nadine Meisner
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The Independent Culture
We are at the School of American Ballet, in New York's Lincoln Center, for rehearsals of the New York Ballet Stars' programme at the Royal Festival Hall. There is a heatwave outside, but the studios gleam in calm, air-conditioned cool. They are also big, big, big, and the people there tall, including Karole Armitage (choreographer and retired wild- ballerina) and Antonia Franceschi (dancer, but currently the London season's hair-tearing fund-raiser, artistic director and factotum). So now I know why American dancers move big. They also move lean, mean and headlong. During the run-through of Balanchine's glittering Rubies, a girl slips and thumps to the floor. Franceschi grins approvingly. "Mr B liked it if you fell, it meant you were really going for it."

New York Ballet Stars enlarges the format introduced by Franceschi last year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This time, she brings a company of 18 to the capacious Royal Festival Hall, to be accompanied not by taped music, but the 60-piece Brunel Ensemble. The dancers, mostly culled from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, may be on the their summer hols, but they are keen to demonstrate how they perform Balanchine and some of his disciples - which, given the lengthy absence of New York City Ballet, we rarely get to see. The programme closes with Rubies and opens with Balanchine's Allegro Brilliante, containing, according to the choreographer, "everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes". These pieces, plus the pas de deux from Balanchine's Agon, will frame two contemporary duets: Armitage's Life Story (a world premiere) and Lar Lubovitch's Concerto Six Twenty-Two pas de deux. "I wanted to show how the new generation of American choreographers have been influenced by Balanchine, because choreographers in England haven't," explains Franceschi. "And by presenting them in their Balanchine context, you can understand where they come from and where they are going." The programme's three duets represent, she says, "essays on relationships from three different points of view". Lubovitch's, for two men, is lyrical and sculptural, "like the edges of Rodin's The Kiss". The Agon pas de deux is an erotic confrontation so chilling it burns. Two NYCB principals will perform it, matching the white woman-black man combination of the original Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell cast in 1957. You will discover NYCB's youngest star in the making, Maria Kowroski, pale adolescent face poised on a graceful neck, long javelin-legs cleaving sumptuous arcs. And you will admire Albert Evans, beautiful in his plasticity, superb in his quiet strength.

Evans also dances Armitage's duet, partnering an alarmingly thin Wendy Whelan (NYCB). Rehearsing in the studio, they twine in harshly manipulative lifts, or move in parallel, arms angled and twisted. The CD plays Thomas Ades's setting of Tennessee Williams's poem, "Life Story", about a one- night stand, sung (as it will be in London) by the soprano Mary Carewe. Armitage's wrenched images evoke an Agon taken to extremes, which is no accident since she sees her duet as a sequel. "In Agon, each person tests the other," she says, "yet through their sexual relationship, they still find a powerful way of binding together; whereas today, it's very hard to believe that eroticism leads to happiness. This ultimate alienation, even desperation in the sexual act, it is Agon taken to a new era."

Meeting Armitage seems like a reunion with a lost friend. I remember her visits to England in the early 1980s, first as a freakily rangy dancer with Merce Cunningham's company, then as a punk ballerina and choreographic pioneer, the first to marry nicely brought-up classicism with rude pop culture. In Drastic Classicism (1981), she and five other dancers spun ferocious patterns around thunderously amplified rock musicians in front of a nervous audience with earplugs. "It was probably louder than I realised," she says, "because when you're dancing, you know, that music propels you, gives you energy, and I wanted the body to be electric." In 1981, the young Michael Clark joined her group for 18 months, performing pieces that gave him license to wear a kilt and spit on people, then left to create his own choreography based on her precepts.

Her work depends on contradictions: classical order and contemporary malaise; utopia and anguish; balance and imbalance. In Life Story, eroticism faces alienation. But where is the raucous rock music? We may have this single picture of her in England, but she insists: "I have a lot of different flavours, including pure or even lyrical ballet." Punk was simply her gateway into challenging the strict categories between modern and classical, high art and low art. "I loved punk because it was like a feeling of permission, jubilation and destruction. Through simple means you could make something very powerful that was emotional and exciting and fun." This was the antithesis of the neutral dance practised by Cunningham. "With Cunningham, you didn't dance to music, you didn't have emotion, you didn't have a story. And I felt this was no longer necessary, we could put content back in again, and punk was the first ingredient in that process. But my grounding was always absolutely in ballet, then modern dance, and I've always been on the same path. I love the virtuosity and expressiveness of ballet, and there is no reason why you can't do anything you want with classical technique; the boundaries are only self-imposed ones."

Perceived as controversial, she was shunned by American funding organisations. Continental Europe, however, never afraid of mixing the old with the new, embraced her. During the 1980s and 1990s, she created pieces for many big companies there, including the Paris Opera Ballet (with Sylvie Guillem), and from 1996 to 1998, headed the 45 dancers of the MaggioDanza company in Florence. Now she is back in New York, but will probably accept an offer to direct a major ballet company in France.

Life Story will be her first piece in Britain since 1985, when she danced The Watteau Duets with Joseph Lennon. Then she had seemed so fashionable, she was intimidating, an intergalactic ballerina on ballet points like daggers, blonde hair aggressively spiked. These days, she no longer dances ("I didn't want to go into physical demise in public"), but she still takes daily class, so the beanpole body remains. Correcting Whelan and Evans, she shoots into a pirouette and undulates her arms and torso. Posing for the photographer, she splats herself on the floor, her legs at 180 degrees, tendons apparently quite happy. She has also been busy making a piece for Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project, which means that after the London first night, she will fly back to New York for the Baryshnikov premiere.

We agree on reflection that actually she wasn't quite a lone pioneer. Although based in Europe, her fellow-American, William Forsythe, was simultaneously kicking ballet into the 21st century. Why were American choreographers first in the game? She thinks: "Because there was the example of Balanchine in New York; you knew this was a normal procedure and it should continue." And I think: long may such choreographers keep making ballet alive and contemporary, because there aren't enough of them.

New York Ballet Stars, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) tonight and Saturday 7 Aug