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Karole Armitage

'Echoes from the Street'

Can't escape stereotypes

By Rosella Simonari

July 22, 2004 -- Teatro alle Tese, Venice

The journey through the Grand Canal is mingled with heat and humidity (40 C°).  Still it bears the magic atmosphere of a fairy tale: time seems to have taken a different turn in Venice, not exactly lost in the past but rather with a contemporary view on long gone ages. And long gone is the armament factory, the Arsenale, famous and important since the XVI century, now turned into a series of structures for the Dance Biennale. It is a part of Venice I never ventured into before; there is a tiny leather mask shop close by an icecream shop. Tourists have not transformed this area. There is a Venician flavour absent in the rest of the watery city.

The Arsenale is just around the corner and I soon find the small Teatro alle Tese where Karole Armitage will present her new work, especially created for this festival. She has been appointed as Artistic Director and at the same time she presents her own work. This ambivalence does not seem to worry her. I find the 'Punk Ballerina' outside the theatre talking with some of her collaborators. Armitage is reknown for her interdisciplinary approach to dance, where popular dance and ballet are intertwined in a desecratory manner. She seems to have looked back at her past as the title itself suggests, "Echoes from the Street".

Before the actual beginning, Armitage herself appears on stage to introduce her piece. "It is always difficult to interpret a work", she says, "every time something is performed it looks different." She concludes quoting Dante's famous opening of the Inferno (Hell) with a reference to her work and to the unbearable heat. The Teatro alle Tese is a cosy small sized theatre' the stage is bare except for a curtain of ropes that vertically structure and shape the three sides of the theatre. A dancer comes in - she wears a golden coloured kind of bathing suit. The music by Béla Bartók highlights the movement of her flexible body. A duet follows between two other dancers. Their body structure is well built. They are taller and more powerful in their movement quality.

Little by little other dancers walk in through the ropey curtains in an alternation of pas de deux, solo pieces and group phrases, all characterised by Armitage's sense of space and excellency of body articulation. Little by little, the ropes emerge in their luminouscence as the tiny lights that run all along each rope begin to be turned on. A starry atmosphere is created. Soon the structured body movements leave space for a different contamination with dancers performing street dance and voguing pieces. With regard to the voguing the mind immediately runs to the much celebrated 1990 Madonna video 'Vogue' choreographed by Armitage herself.

"Echoes from the Street" is a nice piece of dance. The tension builds between the different fragments and the dancers' performance is of the highest standard. However, the mingling of structured, 'high' and street dance does not seem to have been sufficiently reworked. Furthermore there is a falling into stereotypes of gender and racial roles, especially in the duets, where men interpret the sustaining function and women that of the ballerina in classical dance. Even in the pas de deux between men, this role is reinforced in the choice of the smaller man in the role of the woman and of the bigger in that of the male dancer in ballet. In the Indian flavoured section, a tiny Indian dancer gains the central role performing yoga-like positions wearing a red version of the bathing suit costume. Armitage highlights the importance for dance in terms of its 'linguistic aspects', criticising those who 'borrowed from theatre or literature' to create a work.

On one hand, this is a kind of discourse that attempts to utilise 'the body's unique metaphoric ability to create meaning' as she says in the presentation of the Venice Biennale. On the other hand it risks falling into a solely aesthetic approach where the claim for the purity and universality of the dance language leads to discrimination and stereotypes. The latest research in Dance Studies suggests that it is important to contextualise dance within its cultural milieu. Whether the dance in question is abstract, narrative or theatrical, there is the need to locate it in its historical, sociological, cultural background. I personally found "Echoes from the Street" interesting and visually entertaining. In spite of that, I felt dissatisfied by the above mentioned dated and stereotypical aspects.

Edited by Jeff.

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