Karole Armitage shows her dance moves from ballet to Broadway
Karole Armitage makes an odd candidate for Orange County "it" girl. The former high priestess of downtown Manhattan hip demonstrates how far she’s stretched her choreography career with two mainstream outings in one week at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
"Fractus," her 10-minute commissioned piece for the home-cooked Russian-ballet mash-up "Reflections," continuing through Sunday, intertwines Bolshoi dancers Yekaterina Krysanova and Denis Savin in a staccato rendering of Rhys Chatham’s crunching electric guitar score.
Then, just as the Russians vacate the Costa Mesa theater (heading for "Reflections" performances in Moscow), in will straggle the barefoot hippies of "Hair," following a run at the Pantages Theatre. Armitage’s copasetic dances for a revival of the 1967 rock musical garnered her a 2009 Tony nomination and a resilient Broadway credential.
Kansas-raised Armitage, 56, admits she never saw the original stage show. And she’s far from reverential about Twyla Tharp’s liquid lava-lamp work for Miloš Forman’s 1979 film: "The Tharp dances were almost too formal and too dancey. I found them too technical, trying to be impressive. I thought that was not the right approach.
"I wanted it to be intimate, spontaneous and personal. I wanted it to look like everyone was making it up, like there wasn’t a real choreographer. And I would disappear," she says, her clarion voice radiating confidence.
The primary dance numbers in Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni’s theater-world shocker, concerning the tribulations of a counter-culture cluster and a Vietnam War Army inductee, include "Aquarius," "Hair," "Good Morning, Starshine," and the show’s finale, "(The Flesh Failures) Let the Sunshine In."
"I knew the music very well. I had a very clear idea in my mind. My director [Diane Paulus] said, ‘Karole, just go.’ It was trial by fire.
"The dances have been a big part of the show’s success. It feels so human and touching. You feel like you know these characters in that hippie tribe; they feel like unique individuals."
A research biologist’s daughter who grew into a heady choreographer (her current fascination is string theory, which examines the oscillating nature of the universe), Armitage hid her methodology in "Hair": "There’s a deep structure, rhythmically and conceptually, to the dances. There is geometry of how people interact on stage. But it appears almost completely undirected. That makes it personal, emotional and sensitive.
"They are not improvising. I would give [the performers] gestures relating to the song. I would help them, one by one, develop their own special way of interpreting the movement idea. With cast changes, some learned what came before. People don’t move alike. I wanted it to be as true as possible, with that great rigor and discipline underneath.
"There’s a place in the show, in ‘Going Down,’ where they have to interpret being devils, reflecting the rebellious spirit of Berger [the draft dodging lead character]. All 28 people on stage become devil characters, doing independent movement [motifs], the tail, the horns, the iconography of a devil. I feel very proud overall, but especially of that moment.
"Another is more choreographed. In 'Aquarius’ ["Hair’s" great opening anthem], a girl floats up backward [she’s lifted] and a guy floats up backward. They hover above the tribe and kiss. It gives that blissful utopian feeling. It feels free and innocent."
"Hair" runs at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through Sunday night and opens in Orange County on Tuesday.
-- Debra Levine
Top: A scene from the national tour of "Hair." Credit: Joan Marcus.
Middle: "Fractus," danced by Yekaterina Krysanova and Denis Savin. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.
Bottom: Karole Armitage. Credit: Marco Mignani.