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Arts & Culture

The Punk Ballerina

May 25, 2011 | by

Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.

It’s easy to recognize young ballerinas. They own back-seamed pink tights; they keep their hair in buns and fill their backpacks with bobby pins; when they run, their toes are always slightly pointed. After school, they gather in groups to gain mastery of something frightening and foreign: their own bodies. For close to six years I spent hours each week in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors aligning my shoulders with my hips with my ankles, trying to breathe without moving my rib cage. When I see a woman onstage in a leotard, extending her leg horizontally from her body and holding it in place, I recognize, in that long, beautiful, excruciating, terrifying movement, a woman awakening to her own body and its power.

Ballet depends on the power of a woman’s body but rarely celebrates it. If anything, ballet encourages women to torture their bodies, rewarding their ability to be strong while appearing physically vulnerable. What choreographer Karole Armitage and her Armitage Gone! Dance company offer is not precisely a refutation of this rule, but its counterpoint.

Armitage, who once danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov, is known in the ballet world as the “punk ballerina.” The suite of three dances I saw recently at the Joyce Theater, featured two of her more famous pieces, including the revolutionary Drastic-Classicism, which debuted in 1981 and is set to a live performance of what might plausibly be called punk rock (Ryhs Chatham wrote the score). A drum set and several electric guitars share the stage with the dancers. Before the lights dimmed, audience members in the first row were offered earplugs.

It was also the world premiere of GAGA-Gaku, a dance performed in collaboration with the Dance Theater of Harlem and inspired by gagaku, the music of Japan’s ancient imperial court. The row of small, glowing candles set at the edge of the stage signaled these origins—as did the flattened aesthetic: bent elbows and knees, arms and legs held stiffly perpendicular from the body, flexed feet. A rather brief duet between a tall red-headed woman and her shorter male partner commanded attention. It was a dance of maybe-seduction, in which the woman seemed to exert power over her counterpart: she towered over him, drawing him closer, her long, lithe limbs threatening to envelop him. GAGA-Gaku was most stirring in moments like these, when one body seemed to exercise a kind of pull over the others. It was stunning to watch one dancer’s movement activate the group, to watch the company begin to move as a whole, each body merely a single part.

Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.

In ballet, emotion is conveyed through exaggeration. Two people in love move toward each other, their bodies yearning to merge. In a duet, the moments of tentative physical intimacy are slowed down, put on display—and the most affecting moments of the Ligeti Essays, the second dance in the program, were between a petite female dancer and her much larger male partner. Their bodies contorted in order to complement each other, each arrangement made somehow more affecting by the enormous disparity in their sizes. A hand reaching, a head inclining, a leg reaching around a beloved’s body: these outsize gestures of love were so convincing, it seemed they might kiss—and mean it.

The most successful dancers possess a control over their bodies so complete it is almost invisible. They convey grace and ease, even, or especially, when their bodies are tired, hurting. The poignancy of ballet is almost always linked to making something difficult look easy, making something choreographed look spontaneous, making something painful look beautiful.

Drastic-Classicism, the final dance—with its deliberately shocking juxtaposition of the classical and the countercultural (the dancers’ tights were ripped and their hair was messy)—existed on this line between the carefully controlled and the falsely facile. People don’t dance to punk rock, they thrash; their movements are purposely purposeless. To see a group of trained dancers mimic the flailing limbs and careless movements of apathetic adolescents—hopping up and down frantically as the music roared, lounging languidly on the floor or against the wall between songs—was to understand the complexity of the physical motions we all take for granted.

Near the end of the performance, the dancers—eleven in all—arrayed themselves in the center of the stage. Facing different directions, they went through what I suddenly recognized as a sequence of traditional barre exercises: arms rounded in second position, legs kicking out in vicious grande battements. The chorus of perfectly controlled bodies harnessed to a chaos of noise was incongruous and thrilling.

When all fourteen dancers bowed, individually, at the end of the program, they did so distinctively, with a shrug or a hair ruffle or an exaggerated flourish. These movements, spontaneous and uncontrolled were charming but empty of a certain visceral charge—the charge attached to a dancer mastering her own body, extending her leg from her body, holding it there, willing it not to tremble, calming her face, and reveling in it.

Miranda Popkey is a contributing writer for The Daily. She is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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