Choreography and Conversation

March 14, 2016
Index Magazine

Choreography and Conversation

The deep, guttural groan of the didjeridu slowly filled the Harvard Art Museums’ Calderwood Courtyard. As the sound grew stronger, a dancer in an orange leotard ran into the center of the courtyard. She stuck both hands on the ground and one leg straight up, holding the position for a few seconds. Then, she began to travel around the space with organic movements.

Soon she was joined by a male partner, and not long after that, by 16 other dancers, all dressed the same. Each dancer moved as an individual, but the group shared certain gestures. Eventually, the performers united in a line to move en masse. Viewed from anywhere in the courtyard, the group looked like a giant orange millipede, dancing slowly and deliberately, even after the didjeridu’s haunting tone ended.

“The dance is about mysterious forces, and how life is more than rationality or objectivity,” said Karole Armitage, who choreographed the performance. The world-renowned dancer and director of Armitage Gone! Dance Company and the 2015–16 Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study developed the dance in honor of the Harvard Art Museums’ exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia. It was performed on a February evening by two Armitage Gone! dancers and 15 Harvard students.

“It’s a celebration of the exhibition,” Armitage said. As a nod to the Indigenous cultures featured in Everywhen, she chose to choreograph to a composition by Stuart Dempster, who is credited with introducing the Indigenous didjeridu to the United States. His piece, Didjerilayover, recorded inside a cistern, represents a Western perspective on the instrument, Armitage said, as well as a unique opportunity to use its traditional sounds in a contemporary way.

The composition “has a lot of power and mystery in it,” Armitage said. “I love the sound [of the didjeridu] because it has a tonality that feels connected to the earth; it’s not ephemeral. It really has a gravitas to it.”

After the performance, Armitage shared her thoughts on the performance and the Everywhen exhibition in a conversation with Lisa Mullins, host of WBUR’s All Things Considered. Audience members could suggest questions through their mobile devices.

Among the topics that arose were the use of hair during the performance—all female dancers wore their hair down (a far cry from tight ballet buns), and at a few points, covered their faces with it. In some ways, that act reflects Armitage’s own boundary-breaking relationship to the art form. Dubbed the “punk ballerina” since her start as a choreographer (when her early works were set to punk music), Armitage has been known for her unique dance vocabulary and a fearlessness about shaking things up. (Among Armitage’s many accomplishments is choreographing the music video for Madonna’s hit song “Vogue.”)

During the course of the conversation in Menschel Hall, Armitage realized that the act of covering faces was inspired by art in Everywhen. Those particular works were photographs by Christian Thompson, as part of his 2012 We Bury Our Own series. They depict Thompson’s face with his eyes covered by various materials: a picture frame in Danger Will Come, a model ship in Invaded Dreams, and a veil and butterflies in Lamenting the Flowers. The works reference the Indigenous custom of avoiding photographing or looking at images of the deceased.

Reiterating that her dance was not meant to represent the content of Everywhen, but rather to simply mark its presence at the museums, Armitage encouraged visitors to explore the show. “It’s so beautiful on its own terms—just the geometry, the tactility, the emanation that comes from these works,” Armitage said, but learning the stories behind the art makes the experience “even richer.”