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Karole Armitage takes on the universe

“Physics makes me dream,’’ says choreographer Karole Armitage, whose company will perform “Three Theories,’’ inspired by Brian Greene’s bestseller “The Elegant Universe,’’ at Jacob’s Pillow. “Physics makes me dream,’’ says choreographer Karole Armitage, whose company will perform “Three Theories,’’ inspired by Brian Greene’s bestseller “The Elegant Universe,’’ at Jacob’s Pillow. (Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe)
By Valerie Gladstone
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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NEW YORK — The stage darkens, and the plaintive sounds of Rhys Chatham’s “Two Gongs’’ set a contemplative tone for Karole Armitage’s “Three Theories.’’ Two dancers appear, light reflecting on their sinuous bodies as they move like panthers to the classical Indian “Raga Jog.’’ Others join them, swirling in circles, creating images of floating objects converging, twisting, blending, and escaping from one another. Dressed in stark black or white pants and tops, the dancers seem both in and out of control, belonging to a greater whole and free.

As they slice the air with their arms and lift each other on high, they create a hypnotic maze of movement, sculpted by bursts of bright colored light. The momentum builds, and the music changes to Chatham’s volatile score for 100 guitars and drums, then finally to John Luther Adams’s silky composition “Dark Waves’’ and a rapturous close.

Armitage gave an informal talk about the piece before this performance last month at the theater at Cedar Lake, but it could hardly prepare the audience for the engulfing experience of her sensual response to Brian Greene’s best-selling book “The Elegant Universe.’’ The one-hour work will be performed at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Wednesday through July 18.

Tall and slim, with her short blond hair in a spiky cut, Armitage at 56 still fits the “punk ballerina’’ tag she earned years ago. And standing in front of her audience, she dived headfirst into modern physics. The Greene book, she noted, covers three basic theories of theoretical physics — general relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory — and addresses the inherent conflict between two pillars of 20th-century theoretical physics: Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, with string theory an attempt to resolve the conflict.

“I establish one essential image for each theory,’’ she said. “The first, relativity, is essentially serene, the second, quantum, is the opposite: chaos reigns. And for the third, because the strings in string theory are thought to be oscillating lines, I created cloudlike imagery. It’s a philosophical look at how we perceive the universe. I don’t understand the math or the theories, but I wanted to make these abstract ideas carnal, intellectual, and spiritual.’’

Armitage didn’t choose the daunting subject of “Three Theories’’ arbitrarily. In her airy Tribeca apartment a few days later, she explains how the dance evolved. “I’m a curious person,’’ she says. “Physics makes me dream. I try to think outside the box and open up my mind. I like science. Science always questions authority. This conflict between theories seemed to me so dramatic and so incredibly fundamental.’’

In fact, science has always been a part of her life. Her father is a biologist, and she grew up hearing scientific discussions at their home in Lawrence, Kan., where he taught at the University of Kansas. The family would spend summers in the wilderness near Crested Butte, Colo., where he pursued research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. He also supported her passion for dance, hiking with her once a summer from their house over a 13,000-foot mountain pass to the summer ballet school in Aspen. “I also got my passion for nature from those years,’’ she says.

Wearing mismatched but stylish black-and-white patterned pants and shirt, Armitage pulls a chair away from her cluttered desk and gives all her attention to the conversation. A breeze blows through her spacious flat, which sits on top of a narrow brownstone at a busy intersection, a place she loves but rarely occupies because of choreographic assignments far and wide.

While most choreographers are worldly, she is especially so, embracing different cultures and music and dance styles with unusual fervor. It could be the result of pondering the essence of life from an early age and taking so many risks professionally so young. But in any case, she comes across as knowing exactly who she is and what she wants. No one could be bolder. This makes her dances excitingly direct, increasingly effective in their combination of influences.

Armitage was accepted at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York at the age of 13 and later graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts. From 1973 to 1976, she was in the Geneva Ballet , which was directed by George Balanchine, and performed in some of his greatest ballets, including “Agon’’ and “Serenade.’’ Already showing a spirited sense of adventure, she left that company for Merce Cunningham’s very different modern dance troupe in New York, dancing with it from 1976 to 1981.

During the ’80s, she led her own company, choreographing a piece called “Drastic-Classicism’’ to punk music in 1981 that made waves and captured the attention of European companies. In 1987, Rudolf Nureyev asked her to choreograph a ballet for the Paris Opera Ballet. From 1995 until 2004, she directed and choreographed for companies in Italy and France.

Since reestablishing a company in 2005 in New York, Armitage has worked on a variety of projects. Nominated for a Tony Award for her choreography for the musical “Hair,’’ she’s also directed operas and choreographed for pop stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna, as well as film directors such as Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Spike Lee. She also collaborates with fashion designers and visual artists, most famously David Salle and Jeff Koons. This summer, she begins collaborating with MIT-based composer Tod Machover on his opera “Death and the Powers,’’ which involves choreographing for robots.

“What’s fascinating about Karole,’’ said Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, “is that she is so intellectual and so physical at the same time. She’s a real thinker who can create the most demanding and thrilling choreography.’’

Her dancers thrive on her diverse interests and talent for combining ballet and contemporary dance techniques. “We’re all very different kinds of dancers from very different backgrounds,’’ says Leonides D. Arpon, “and Karole lets us interpret her choreography in our own ways.’’

William Isaac, who like Armitage dancer Marlon Taylor-Wiles graduated from the Pillow School, loves her energy. “It’s youthful and fresh,’’ he says, “and she’s very open-minded. To me, this piece is the culmination of her ability to merge her ballet and modern influences. It’s a whole new and thrilling vocabulary.’’

Armitage appreciates them as much as they do her. “Most of the dancers have been with me at least five years,’’ she says. “They share daring and great sensuality. We’ve created a culture together. It is the only way I could have done something this extreme.’’

Valerie Gladstone can be reached at vgladstone@saharaltd.com

ARMITAGE GONE! DANCE At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, July 14-18. Tickets: 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org