Ballet's newest Young Turks aren't plotting to overthrow the art form; they're scheming to get in. Karole Armitage recently proposed a formidable agenda to an interviewer: She wants to see where classicism can go after Balanchine. One catch to it is how you define Balanchine's classicism. It seems to me that an Armitage succession would include only a few of the qualities that account for Balanchine's massive impact on 20th-century dance.
Armitage's early ballet training left her with stretchy feet and a strong back, to which she added speed and an eccentric sense of design from five years with Merce Cunningham. She made a typical break for independence, and ``rebellion'' is also readable in her choreography, with a certain chic decadence attesting to various Parisian successes. As a personality, except for stylistic details, she doesn't seem very different from other ambitious young choreographers: She affects an extreme ``look,'' talks intellectually about dance to the press, and makes dances for companies far and wide.
With her own group she showed three pieces for a week at the Joyce Theater, demonstrating a novel if limited classical new world. ``Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger Poppin' Daddies'' had the visual and aural eclecticism that Armitage cultivates, with David Salle as designer; music by Webern and Stravinsky; Lord Buckley's hip rendition of Marc Anthony's funeral oration from ``Julius Caesar''; and frequent changes of outfits, ranging from tomato-red polo-shirt, leotards, and stale-green tights to pink silk tutus over chartreuse and lime tiger-striped body suits. Amid this tasteless but inoffensive disorder, the four men and three women danced in extremely formal patterns, with many references to Balanchine.
In three simultaneous duets recalling Balanchine's Webern ballet, ``Episodes,'' the couples relate to their own Webern selection but almost never to each other except for final cadences. Armitage, dressed in black among their bright colors, plays the ballerina-at-large, doing solo bits behind them instead of out front. In another duet, the participants seem to be using ``Agon'' for a blueprint, trying out different ways to twist Balanchine's original bizarre partnerings. Later, two men dance behind two women, never touching them, as if in some permanent state of suspended partnership.
All of Armitage's dance seems to be about commenting on other dance or behavior. The dancers look arch and anxious for the audience to ``get it.'' The trouble is, once you get it, that's all you've got. Either she has a minimal sense of composition, or she's following post-Cunningham orthodoxy by not developing or shaping movement in predetermined ways. This would disqualify Armitage in my mind as a classicist. She knows how to distort and fracture the classical shapes and steps, but she doesn't use them as a way to build progressions or continuities.
In ``The Watteau Duets,'' which she made two years ago with another individualistic Cunningham alumnus, Joseph Lennon, Armitage examines the pas de deux as a vehicle for sexuality. First, in black leather earflaps and gaiters, she assumes vampish poses and apache seriousness that are supposed to madden her partner (Phillip Otto the night I attended). Next they become frenetically romantic, to a Latin big-band sound. With a new partner (David Grenke), Armitage dons red toe-shoes and engages in a series of suggestive metaphors. Finally he wears a leather skirt, and she stratospheric high heels.
Although the piece irritated me with its insistent posturing and its deafening score (David Linton's tape, backed up live percussionists Tom Goldstein and Thad Wheeler), it was the most interesting on the program. At moments in the Latin section, Armitage actually speeded up her poses enough to get some dance momentum going. I didn't see the piece with Lennon, but I can imagine his saturnine, rough-edged style suiting it better than the good looks and amiability of Otto and Grenke.
Kinkiness is a key commodity for Armitage, and its importance was obvious in ``Les Stances `a Sophie,'' a new work that featured New York City Ballet principals Stephanie Saland and Robert La Fosse. Saland moved easily through passages of erratic jazz and tricky double-work. Dancing for Balanchine must have prepared her to make anything look smooth and rational. This is the opposite of what Armitage's dance is about.