New York — Karole Armitage's choreographic preceptor is Merce Cunningham, while the source of her movement ideas is George Balanchine. Although similarities have been noted between these two giants of modernism, one in the modern dance arena and one in ballet, when they meet in Armitage's dance their influence is mutually nullifying. Whatever Balanchine lends her in terms of shape, line, or elegance, Cunningham takes away with an insistence of nonlinearity. Cunningham's spontaneity and daring, his playfulness and sensuality, are suppressed by the rigid academicism and didactic condescension in which Armitage cloaks the ballet technique. Someone could argue that this thwarting of expectations is precisely the point. Armitage pictures herself, in her public statements, as a rebel - a subversive with a wit too subtle for most of us to discern. If we fail to be charmed, we're obviously too stuck on our preconceptions. Why I find the realization of her program less interesting than the concept is that, as an integrator (or disintegrator) of other people's styles, she doesn't make her own mark on them.
``The Tarnished Angels'' and ``The Elizabethan Phrasing of the Late Albert Ayler,'' which made up the Armitage Ballet bill at the Next Wave Festival, are plotless pieces, with movement pieced together out of the ballet vocabulary - pointework, port de bras, classroom steps. This lexicon is, however, subjected to all kinds of disruptions and dislocations. Bodies are pulled out of kilter; phrases are chopped up or wrenched sideways; transitions between steps are constructed in the clunkiest way possible. Various cultural clich'es are pushed at us almost indiscriminately. Women in stiff tutus twitch their hips or cast sultry stares over a raised shoulder. Men leap athletically and mime pitching baseballs. I suppose these plebeian interpolations are meant to show us how affected high culture is, but since L'eonide Massine did the same thing 70 years ago in ``Parade,'' it's no shock now.
With the exception of casting herself as a heavily ironic grande-dame figure, Armitage creates no character in her ballets, though she does feature some dancers in duets and solos. Victoria Hall, an 'emigr'e from the New York City Ballet, and Nora Kimball, late of American Ballet Theater, give a physical coherence to Armitage's movement, especially Kimball, who makes the irrational phrasing look like lucid dancing. The other seven dancers, including Armitage, look gauche and slightly self-conscious all the time.
The audience is left to watch the bland, rudderless choreography as it heaves from one classic bit to another. Large chunks of movement are lifted from Balanchine but given no shape within Armitage's ballet. Things begin and end without achieving a climax or making a point. On the other hand, Armitage's dances are drenched in attention-getting accessories. There's aggressively loud taped music - Charles Mingus's frenetic progressive jazz for ``Tarnished Angels'' - and an assortment of Webern, Stravinsky, and bebop for ``Albert Ayler.'' The latter piece also features the flamboyant monologues of Lord Buckley.
D'ecors and most of the costumes are by Armitage's collaborator, David Salle. His contribution, unlike the dance, is gigantic, suggestive, and absolutely sure of itself. Huge drops go up and down arbitrarily during the dances. They are simultaneously literal and fantastic, intriguing and empty. Monster fish swimming every which way in a burnt-orange aquarium. Humanoid shapes. An alligator made of metal plates. Eighteen identical objects that look like a cross between a light bulb and a spark plug. Four blinking chandeliers in irregular shapes made of square translucent panels. These vast artifacts overshadow the dance without adding anything to our understanding of the dance. Sometimes they begin to dance themselves. The most arresting moment of the evening came when two rows of two-dimensional skeletons came down from above the stage, paused, and descended almost to the floor, swaying all together from side to side like a ghostly corps de ballet.