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GONE? HARDLY: KC Ballet presents world premiere by edge-cutting choreographer

You’d be hard-pressed to find an American artist in any field as interesting and engaging as Karole Armitage. The Wisconsin native, who grew up partly in Lawrence, learned classical ballet initially and absorbed the work of George Balanchine at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève before becoming a dancer with the legendary Merce Cunningham. Shortly after forming her own company in New York she began creating choreography for dozens of the world’s top companies. Known for works that blend dance, music and visual arts, she has garnered a Tony nomination for her work on Broadway and has choreographed videos for Michael Jackson, Madonna (“Vogue”) and several Merchant-Ivory films. In 2009 she received France’s most prestigious award, the Commandeur dans l’orde des Arts et des Lettres. Even the name of her current New York-based company is interesting: Armitage Gone! Dance.

The major press has groped for superlatives. “Armitage follows a path cleared by George Balanchine,” wrote Deborah Jowitt in The Village Voice. “She presents the performers as molten steel cooling into stunning shapes, yet also reminds us that they are not clones of a technique but individuals, with minds, moods, and imperfections of their own.” The New York Times wrote that her Echo of an Axe Within a Wood was “one of the most beautiful dances to be seen in New York in a very long time.”

So what a privilege it was for me to be able to observe a rehearsal with Karole and the Kansas City Ballet dancers, who were lobbing imaginary paint all around the Bolender Center studio in preparation for the world premiere of Karole’s new piece, Energy Made Visible. It forms part of the Ballet’s spring program (May 3-12), which also works by Margo Sappington (Common People) and Donald McKayle (Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City). Commissioned by KC Ballet, Karole’s piece features saxophone music by UMKC professor Bobby Watson, to be performed live onstage and tracked over itself. It’s unlike anything you’ve never heard. After the rehearsal I sat down with Karole for a fascinating conversation about music, art, dance, and all manner of things. 

Part of the reason I was interested in Jackson Pollock was that he was kind of “dancing around canvas.” And there’s a kind of control and lack of control, a sense that the paint has a mind of its own even though he’s launching it with intentionality. So that is just a part of the creative process. Sometimes he would launch it with paintbrushes, or with sticks, or sometimes pouring it … so that it created different kinds of patterns. It feels to me almost like he was revealing the underlying pattern in chaos, and there’s something very beautiful about that, something that feels truly like a metaphor for creativity. There’s control and there’s chance operation, interacting simultaneously. Bobby Watson’s music is basically improvised, so it’s not like we are dancing to a score in the traditional way … it’s not like the notes have been written down, so there’s going to be something very “live” about it, which I think is exciting.
What inspired you to create a piece based on Pollock?

Is that scary for the dancers?

Not yet, but we might get there (laughs). Jackson Pollock was building layers, and so we’re building layers. So the first three sections of music will be solo sax, and then we put another layer on top of that and another layer, so it gets denser and denser, just very much like building a Pollock painting. And yes, Pollock used a sort of calligraphic language, and I’m basically writing on the air with the body – the air is the canvas, and the body is the brush, so it’s sort of using a similar sense of design and geometry, they’re sort of reflecting each other. As for Bobby Watson, it’s not like he’s playing a melody from beginning to end, he is fracturing it, and going off on tangents, like the molecules are being recombined. It’s almost like cubism, you’re seeing it from all these different angles, and then it’s recombined, and then it comes back and then it goes out, so you’re getting this theme-and-variation. And I’m trying to do the same thing with the dance: You’re kind of seeing theme-and-variation at the same time, you’re seeing the movement from all different angles at once, and sometimes simultaneously in multiple layers. You might say some people are dancing in tan paint, and other people are dancing in white paint, and so forth. It will be very contrapuntal that way.


What do you think “Mr. B” (Balanchine) would have thought about this piece?

He’s the father of my investigation into movement. I think he would find it very recognizable. I mean, he’s the one who gave me permission, you might say, to think that ballet is not limited by anything, except your mind. You can use the conceptual thinking of how the body unfolds and articulates, but that doesn’t have to make the academic steps. I think he would like the music, for him there was nothing more important than the music. I think he would love the music.


During rehearsal today, (KC Ballet artistic director) Bill Whitener and I were whispering about how it seemed we heard Stravinsky in some of Bobby’s recorded music track.

I know, it’s funny. It happens when you start having those layers there, and you start hearing all those colors. Stravinsky has such a great sense of the palette, of color. And also, you know, Stravinsky writes very physical music. It has the rhythm of the body as part of it, and of course Bobby as a sax player uses his body and uses his breath, it’s a physical rhythm. … So I think that’s a reason why you hear Stravinsky in it.


As a musician who was trying to “get” dance, I remember studying the score of Stravinsky’s Agon and I just didn’t get it – until I saw it danced.

Balanchine’s ability to make that piece coherent is incredible. But I’ve noticed, and this is something interesting, that a lot of the music that I have used – strange Ligeti music and such – it’s amazing how much bringing the body into it anchors it in a way that we recognize it. Just because the body is there, it becomes less abstract. It immediately creates relationships, and therefore it can bring it down to earth quite easily. 


What of “Kansas” is in you still?

Frontier pioneer spirit. I think a feeling of freedom, a feeling of personal responsibility and also just the great American dream – that you can do what you want to do, that anything is possible. The two coasts are much more political, there’s much more power at play. People have a lot to lose, and they know it and they defend their territory. The middle of the country is still a very civil place, and maybe because it’s so civil and not so political, it gives freedom for individual expression. I always have felt that it’s a great place for freedom of thought in that way, that you don’t always have to adhere to the powers of the status quo. You can be a pioneer spirit.


Do you feel good about the future of dance?

No, terrible. It’s catastrophic. I think we’re reaching the tipping point – and I’m not speaking about a company like the Kansas City Ballet, which is an institution – but a tipping point for people like me, who are in the tradition of Balanchine and Cunningham and Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp, for all of us who have felt that our role is to take the art form forward. As culture changes, the art form changes, and we’re trying to be listening to the culture and seeing how that is reflected in dance. That is getting so hard to sustain because of so many reasons: a lack of media attention, a lack of cultural will, a lack of finance – which follows those two things. But it’s very hard in a totally consumer-capitalistic society that is dominated by selling things. And really in dance we are the performance experience, we have no mass-market thing to sell.


Well, except maybe The Nutcracker.

(Laughs) Well, yeah it does make a lot of money, and people do know about it, and they do buy those tickets. And I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s maybe the one thing in this country that gives companies a kind of almost commercial, reliable product to sell. Every company benefits from it. If you don’t do a Nutcracker, like me and my company, you have nothing. (Laughs) [My company] has no reliable source of income whatsoever. …

There’s been a flagrant cultural change, especially in New York, that people just don’t want to go out. There’s such an overload of options that people are just staying at home. Maybe they’re on the internet, but they’re not going out to live performance, it’s truly a cultural shift. No one knows what to do about it, and no one knows what the future is.


When I first came to dance, getting to know the work of Merce Cunningham was life-changing. What was it about Merce? Was it just that he had really great dancers (laughs)?

I think it was more that he had great ideas. The next degree of breaking into dance is to independence. Balanchine liberated dance from story and from costume essentially, so that music and dance could just make the “meaning.” And then with Cunningham, dance itself made the meaning, because you didn’t have music that you were using as a partner. It was independent. There was a soundscape, yes, but we were not relying on music in any way. If I hadn’t danced with Cunningham I don’t know if I would have known how to deal with Bobby Watson, who is going to be improvising. We’ll be relying on the physical, on the music of the body so utterly that we will share energy.

The other great thing that Merce did was to break up the hierarchy of space, so that you don’t have a central focal point, which again makes it even less about narrative. You’re looking at the whole canvas, and this is where Jackson Pollock comes in: Every point is as interesting as every other point. It’s a very democratic idea. Even as a reflection of what you might call physics. I mean, we know that the universe is larger than just our planetary system revolving around our sun, we know that it’s expanding and contracting and there are these great forces. And on a molecular level, from quantum mechanics we know there’s this whole volatility and absolute chaos, which is operating on a very fundamental level in the universe. Cunningham’s lack of hierarchy of space is incredibly important. It’s democratic, it’s funky, it’s modern, rather than, “some people are more important than others on the stage – or in society.” Well, perhaps in our celebrity culture that’s not true but it’s what we should be aiming for (laughs).



The Kansas City Ballet’s program runs through May 12th. For tickets call 816-931-2232 or go to kcballet.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net


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