Karole Armitage, the distinguished choreographer, is directing the world premiere of Schoenberg in Hollywood, composed by Tod Machover with libretto by Simon Robson. The opera, commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera, makes its debut Nov. 14-18 at the Emerson Paramount Center in Boston.
Armitage has choreographed since the 1980s, creating dances for her New York City contemporary company Armitage Gone! Dance, American Ballet Theatre (under the direction of Mikhail Baryshnikov), Boston Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and companies around the world. She has strong Boston connections, having collaborated with Diane Paulus of American Repertory Theater, and she has also choreographed Broadway’s Hair, which earned her a Tony nomination, and Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna. This season, she is an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow and in 2015-2016 was a Harvard University Radcliffe Fellow.
Armitage tells Exhale that “Boston Lyric Opera, under Artistic Director Esther Nelson, has an admirable commitment to developing new works. So does the Boston Ballet, with Mikko Nissinen as artistic director, who has a long history of offering opportunities to adventuresome choreographers. Boston, as a whole, seems more thoughtful than New York City and more open to experimental artists.”
Armitage studied ballet during high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts and summers at New York City’s School of American Ballet. This led to two years dancing at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, which George Balanchine supervised while simultaneously running New York City Ballet.
I was at home when dancing Balanchine’s abstract ‘leotard ballets’ but began to feel uncomfortable when dancing in a tutu.
Speaking of her early career, Armitage says, “I was dancing in the Swiss all-Balanchine repertory company Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. I was at home when dancing Balanchine’s abstract ‘leotard ballets’ but began to feel uncomfortable when dancing in a tutu.”
Armitage moved to New York City, where she danced for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham was known for his abstract structures, chance organization, and radical use of sound. His dancers had an astonishing balletic yet barefooted technique. It was during this period that Armitage began to think about using her own voice to choreograph.
While I honor the revolutionary contributions of earlier artists and the relevance to their own times, I wanted to propel my choreography into my own contemporary scene—a hybrid world of raw punk jubilation and destruction.
Armitage reflects: “While I honor the revolutionary contributions of earlier artists and the relevance to their own times, I wanted to propel my choreography into my own contemporary scene—a hybrid world of raw punk jubilation and destruction. I felt minimalism was all head, with no heart, no eroticism, and I started breaking out of these concepts.”
Armitage Gone! Dance became a high-profile presence in the dance scene worldwide. Because of her unusual use of pointe shoes coupled with radical aesthetics, daring movement style, and choice of collaborators, Armitage became known as the “Punk Ballerina.”
She has collaborated with artists Jeff Koons and David Salle and composers John Adams, Lukas Ligeti, and John Zorn. Work outside of concert choreography came her way, with choreography for Broadway, opera companies, and videos including Madonna’s “Vogue” and Michael Jackson’s “In the Closet.”
Notwithstanding Armitage’s success and work with Paulus and other prominent female artists, Armitage does feel that female choreographers are at a disadvantage.
It’s true there are many more male choreographers than female, especially in the world of ballet. I’ve been embraced by European companies but have found things more difficult in the U.S.
Armitage explains, “It’s true there are many more male choreographers than female, especially in the world of ballet. I’ve been embraced by European companies but have found things more difficult in the U.S. European companies, who are funded by governments, seem to be more adventurous. The structure here, with boards, who tend to be more cautious, may have something to do with a more conservative nature in commissioning and artists.”
Directing opera is almost an exact opposite of creating one’s own work. In concert dance, one can go anywhere, starting with a set of choices entirely under one’s own intuition. In opera, one starts with a known set of materials into which one must infuse life in a way that is true to the composer’s and librettist’s intentions.
The musical style riffs on popular culture, musical history, and Schoenberg’s inner life while simultaneously being playful and serious. Written for three singers, Omar Ebrahim as Schoenberg, Sara Womble, and Jesse Darden, each of the latter two playing various roles, the opera used Schoenberg’s 1930s Hollywood period as a takeoff point.
Having fled the Nazis, Schoenberg finds himself in Hollywood grappling with his stoic conviction toward his own music, which is complex and ahead of its time. Schoenberg’s inner dialogue leads the way thru flashbacks structured with comedy and pathos. Scenes veer from Holocaust imagery to a meeting between Schoenberg and Irving Thalberg, set up by Groucho Marx, who believed Schoenberg was the best contemporary composer. He is trying to find artistic meaning in the wake of brutality and personal loss.
The opera represents an artist’s personal struggle, finding humor, heroism, and—ultimately—hope. “The story is a roller coaster. It’s a fantastic, non-literal story,” Armitage says, “but a real one.”