An Extremely Drastic Case of Déjà vu Karole Armitage and Rhys Chatham Revive Underground Dance Classic in NY

People who view the New York No Wave scene as one of the last truly exciting chapters in the city's cultural history can buy as many compilations and artist's monographs as they like, but nothing beats an opportunity to time-travel. Earlier this month at The Kitchen, New Yorkers jumped at a chance to spend two hours back in the early '80s — a time when drive-by shootings and burning cars were daily staples of downtown life, but also when a late-night walk down 19th street just might land you in the middle of a dialogue between a professional ballet dancer and an army of electric guitars. Think Punk!, an evening of music and physical performance by choreographer Karole Armitage, cast a younger generation of New York Noise-makers in a recreation of Drastic Classicism, an explosive collision of classical ballet and No Wave punk.

With its bare black walls and industrial metal scaffolding, The Kitchen seems like the last place one might expect to stumble upon a choreographer who danced with the likes of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham in her time — even if we are privy to its instrumental role in the avant-garde performance scene of the '70s and '80s. When guitarist Steve Gunn (GHQ, Orleans-Gunn) and drummer Kevin Shea (Talibam!) take the stage, we prepare ourselves for an impromptu concert: the musicians set up their gear, tune up, and strike a few tentative whole notes in a dissonant tuning. Just when we decide that we are witnessing some kind of open dress rehearsal for a concert at Carnegie Hall — black slacks and dress shoes and all — the arrival of two dancers in leotards and cut-up fishnets makes us wonder if we aren't actually back stage at Swan Lake. But as Gunn and Shea break into a galloping pulse and the dancers begin coupling perfectly executed back extensions with raunchy pelvic thrusts, the scene begins to seem more like a bacchanal at the Mudd Club than a night out at the opera house.

What we are actually witnessing is the opening sequence of Drastic Classicism, a collaboration between Armitage and New York minimalist composer Rhys Chatham that premiered at the Dance Theater Workshop in 1981. Unique for casting its musicians in more than supporting roles, the production combined highly-trained dancers from the Merce Cunningham company (including Armitage herself) with the physical spectacle of a six-piece rock ensemble: Chatham, Ned Sublette, Nina Canal, and Scott Johnson on electric guitars; Michael Brown on bass; and the monstrously powerful David Linton on drums. “Since the way Karole and I planned it was as equal collaborators,” Chatham recalls, “Karole had the musicians right on stage with the dancers. Karole even had her dancers manhandle (or womanhandle, as the case may be) us, kicking and jumping on us from time to time. And, of course, we musicians were dancing too, in our own way, each according to his or her ability.”


Drastic History, or a Showdown between Apollo and Dionysus

When Armitage and Chatham first met in a restaurant on Thomson Street in Soho in 1979, Chatham already had a long history of composing and performing music for choreographers (Meredith Monk, Kenneth King, Daniel Nagrin); he had even entertained the idea of pursuing a career in dance as a teenager. With Guitar Trio (1977), he began combining his study of minimalism and just intonation (a form of musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by whole number ratios, forming a wide variety of harmonic series) under Tony Conrad and La Monte Young with rock instrumentation à la Ramones, generating a high-volume, overtone-dripping guitar composition that was just as at home in contemporary art spaces as it was at CBGBs. If there was one thing that Chatham had in common with the young choreographer, then still a dancer with Merce Cunningham's company, it was an amalgam of top-notch classical training and a penchant for the exuberance and critical disobedience of punk. “Art in New York was pretty uptight at that time,” Armitage remembers. “But in dance, it was really puritanical: no emotion, no psychology, no virtuosity, no story, no drama, no sex. It was all about being as neutral and purely formal as possible. So I just thought, I want to communicate with the audience! Punk has been born, rock and roll energy is incredible, and I just wanted to do something that had that kind of rebellious spirit to it, and that also combined all of my ballet and modern dance training.”


“There is no movement vocabulary associated with punk. I mean, spitting and pogo-ing?” --Karole Armitage


The artists' collaboration began with Vertige, a performance for one dancer and one musician that adapted Guitar Trio into a piece for solo guitar and premiered at Tribeca's Tier 3 in 1979. Though they made an instant sensation among the no-wavers downtown, Armitage and Chatham were relegated to a pitiful 10 PM slot at the Dance Theater Workshop when they decided to rework the piece into a full-scale production. If Drastic was deemed “too outrageous” for the DTW's regular programming, it was partly because of the new musical part Chatham had scored, which was not only hair-splittingly loud, but completely unsettled the entire rhythmic foundation upon which ballet and modern dance was built. “No other choreographer ever had the courage before Karole to work with the intensity of sound that I was using,” Chatham suggests. “It wasn't just a matter of a dance company working with rock music, or even No Wave music, for that had been done before. She was working with a crazy minimalist composer who had scored a piece that wasn't so much rock as pure unadulterated noise; or, depending on your background, a viscous, gelatinous sphere of screaming overtones being played in a relatively small room! It really took the dance audience completely by surprise.”

Like Guitar Trio, Drastic reflected Chatham's proclivity for “literally playing one chord for hours at a time, listening to the overtones and considering them to be the entire melody.” But while Guitar Trio possessed a relatively stable tonal foundation (two guitars in just intonation, and a third restrung with all low E strings), Drastic attempted something much more harmonically complex. Setting his own guitar in a highly discordant tuning, also in just intonation, Chatham tuned all of the other guitars in minor second intervals with respect to one another, “dissonant both in relation to themselves and to each other.” Bolstered by Linton's muscular, fill-heavy back beat, the guitarists strummed open chords across a succession of rhythmic changes, selecting which overtones to play by moving their right hand up and down the fret board — and, at times, which rhythms to strum. Setting aside its radical presentation as choreography, Drastic provided enough food for thought to impress even the most hard-nosed minimalist and enough visceral impact to make rock audiences wonder why they didn't view noise as an end in itself. “On a musical level, in an art context (e.g. the Kitchen or Artist's Space), people heard Drastic as a new, uncompromising form of minimalism. When I played it in a rock context, people heard it as a wall of noise, and I can say with considerable pride that Drastic was one of the pieces that started the noise rock movement.”


Drastic on the Dance Floor: “Where classical values that were flayed alive, stayed alive” (Arlene Croce, 1981)

The title of the production, coined by Armitage the night before the piece's debut, captures the unique blend of classical values and youthful waywardness that courses through every note and every pirouette. On a visual level, Drastic feels more like an exercise in misshapen ballet than an envoy from the world of modern dance — at least in the piece's 2007 incarnation. A young woman advances to the front of the stage and raises her arms in a perfectly rounded porte de bras, comically flaunting her technical prowess. Suddenly, a second woman comes up from behind, slaps her, and draws her into a snaky, flat-footed slow-dance. With as many as a dozen dancers on the stage at once, Drastic abounds in half-baked group formations, in mutant spin-offs of “ring around the rosy” and pas de deux flirtations that swing both ways — sometimes, even, in the direction of the musicians. As through their hormones were bursting through the confines of the Armitage's synchronized geometry, the dancers writhe and contort their way through the rotations of a Tuesday afternoon dance class, now and again dropping the routine entirely and convulsing like roaches on the floor. But even where they are literally bending over backwards to break the rules — substituting a flat foot for a pointed one, shoulders forward for shoulders back — the clarity and precision of their movements belies a reverence for the very tradition they are systematically “flaying alive.” “I love ballet, still.” Armitage confesses. “It's not like it's a set of rules that you have to adhere to. What it does is the exact opposite: those ways of controlling your body give you the freedom to do what you want.”


"I can say with considerable pride that Drastic was one of the pieces that started the noise rock movement." --Rhys Chatham


And freedom, at least in the political sense of the term, is exactly what Armitage's work is all about. Although her ties to the New York No Wave scene earned her a reputation as “the punk ballerina” in the mid-'80s, she confesses to having been more inspired by its oppositional spirit than the aesthetics of punk performance itself: “There is no movement vocabulary associated with punk. I mean, spitting and pogo-ing?” At a time when modern dance was not exactly a bastion of political engagement, punk struck the choreographer as one of society's last strongholds of resistance against the omnipotence of America's rising monoculture. “I just felt, even as an unconscious teenager, the power of the corporate ‘Society of the Spectacle,' to use Guy Debord's phrase: this media control, this corporate control, how everything would be immediately recuperated and turned into a money-making enterprise […] Rock and roll, which had been raw, and authentic, and really a voice of individuals, had turned into a money-making machine. So punk really was a rebellion against all that glossiness, and it was doing things with very little money. You didn't need technique, you didn't need fancy equipment -- it was something you could just do with good ideas. And it was raw and direct and powerful, with very few means.” Even if Armitage's more mature output is a far cry from the DIY, bare bones aesthetic of her earlier compositions, she upholds the liberation of the mind from social and economic constraint — and, by extension, the liberation of the body — as the motor that powered her entire career.


Let's Do the Time-Warp Again!

So why bring Drastic back to life now, when New York punk — as Armitage and Chatham experienced it, at least — is little more than a footnote in the city's cultural history, and the worlds of experimental noise and modern dance are about as friendly as oil and water? For Armitage, reviving Drastic was not just a question of “showing those first early impulses,” but a response to a sensation of déjà vu she experienced in 2006, when she returned to New York after 15 years abroad in Europe. “I felt like there was this uncanny similarity to the mid-'70s, when punk was born. England was a dying colonial power. The U.S., of course, under Bush, became this colonial empire, thinking it could go start wars and control the world. [I was also struck] by the ever more powerful domination of the world by advertising and business and media and entertainment culture, and the less and less space there seemed to be for counter-culture. It just seemed like [the performance] was really timely, politically and socially as well.”

If we add on the eerie parallel between the economic recession of the early '80s and the one we are currently living through, New York in 2009 — on paper, at least — doesn't seem all that far off from the New York that spawned Armitage and Chatham's careers. Which is perhaps why there is something so touching about seeing Drastic performed by a younger generation of dancers and musicians, even if it is hard to imagine many of them collaborating outside these four black walls on West 19th street. So why did Armitage decide to use performers around the same age as the members of the original cast, ie., in their 20s and 30s? Because Drastic “is a piece about youth!” Karole replies. “Exploding! And taking over! And our generation's turn to have a say in how things are and what music and dance and life is!”

The five young musicians who appear in the production — each “movers and shakers in their respective fields,” Chatham insists — were selected, not only on the basis of their technical ability and experience playing Chatham's music, but because of their perceived physical resemblance to members of the original cast. “Looks were a factor in our selection because Karole wanted to make the look as close as possible to the original performance on a visual level, her being a theater director these days and all.” Gunn, whom Chatham believes “looks vaguely like [he] did when [he] was in [his] 20s, in terms of his aura, at least,” leads the band in the role of the composer himself, while Shea recalls the brute force and drummerly idiosyncrasy of a David Linton. Sarah Lipstate (Parts & Labor, Noveller) plays the part originally played by Nina Canal (hopefully not only because she is a girl), Tom Gerke (Cropduster), that of Scott Johnson, and Paul Duncan, that of a fellow southern gentleman: “Paul is very tall,” Chatham says, “so we gave him the part that Ned Sublette played, since Ned is from Texas, thin as a reed and tall, and so is Paul. Paul is not from Texas, sadly, but he is from the south, so we figured that was good enough!”

For those of us familiar with these musicians' work, it is hard not to wonder what is running through their heads when they are up there on stage, playing their parts, and warding off the arms, legs, and pelvises that are flying at them from all directions. “First thing is, I hope I don't impale someone with the neck of my guitar!” admits Gerke, who, like all of the other guitarists, recalls participating in a much more sedentary capacity in last year's rained-out Lincoln Center performance of Chatham's A Crimson Grail. For Lipstate, who is literally forced to her knees at one point by the amorous onslaughts of a male dancer, the choreographic component of Drastic takes the upper hand over the musical one: “I definitely feel like I'm playing a support role in this piece. When I'm playing in a strictly musical setting, I feel like I take on more of a dynamic role because the focus is on me or the band. In Drastic, the musicians are kind of like props that the dancers jump on and push around. I just try to be as stoic as possible and keep my balance.” For Gunn, however, what initially felt like a divide between dancers and musicians evolved into a feeling of mutual reinforcement: “Without much experience working with dancers, I was initially a little concerned that I would be distracted by them. After doing the piece with them a few times, it started to feel more like a synchronized collaboration, with my own concentration and role providing a guiding focus for me.”

And focus, especially considering the piece's emphasis on counting, is probably one of the main learning experiences the five musicians will take away from The Kitchen. In addition to alternating between different overtones at break-neck speed, keeping the choreography running like clockwork requires negotiating between “a lot of rhythmic variation” (Lipstate) and passages that “can go on for 64 bars at a time, with no changes” (Gerke). “For me,” Gunn reflects, “the exercise of counting and remaining in exact rhythm with the dancers has been a nice challenge. Most of my own music has more of a free-form flow to it, and the changes are never really precise. So, it's been different and a good exercise for me, because it's giving me the chance to use parts of my musical knowledge that I don't usually tap into.”


Given the increasing division and specialization of human endeavor in Western society, even within the micro-universe of independent music, is it possible to imagine a cross-disciplinary collaboration like Drastic emerging out of the current generation of New York artists? Perhaps it is telling that, out of all of the interviews that went into writing this piece -- which attempts to record a small but groundbreaking moment in the history of American counter-culture -- this was the one question that received the least attention. But if the amount of attention Think Punk! received this month is any indication — not to mention the handful of incredibly talented musicians who jumped at the occasion to participate in it — the demand for breaking down the boundaries that divide the different art forms is as strong as ever. And we can feel this at the heart of The Watteau Duets (another '80s revival on the Think Punk! program and worthy of a full-length article in itself), where Talibam!'s interpretation of David Linton's collagist score is so chocked full of slapstick antics that we cannot help wondering who is performing the actual pas de deux. “The NYC scene, I think, is very similar to Karole and Rhys and David's generation,” synth-meister Matthew Mottel concludes without hesitation. “People just want to see work happen that steps outside of the usual borders of what music, dance, and performance generally are perceived as. So I'm psyched to make it happen!”

Culled from interviews with Karole Armitage, Rhys Chatham, John King (Musical Director, Think Punk!), Sarah Lipstate, Steve Gunn, Tom Gerke, Kevin Shea, and Matthew Mottel, March 2009.

[Photo: Paula Court, courtesy of Armitage Gone]

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