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Putting on Itutu

Karole Armitage brings her new African-inspired dance piece to BAM. logo
Karol Armitage
(© Marco Mignani)
Theatergoers have become familiar with the work of Karole Armitage in the past few years, thanks to her astounding choreography for the musicals Passing Strange and Hair. But Armitage has been a fixture in the world of modern dance for over 35 years. Her newest work, Itutu, a collaboration with the West African band Burkina Electric, will play the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House on November 4, 6, and 7. TheaterMania recently spoke with Armitage about this exciting project.

THEATERMANIA: What was your inspiration for the piece?
KAROLE ARMITAGE: One of the reasons I wanted to do this is my fascination with Africa, and I wanted to try to explore the mysteries behind the veil. This piece also allows me to make the polymusical into the polyvisual, which I find exciting. It's a wild piece; I am actually quite amazed at how it's turned out.

TM: Has this project been a long time in development?
KA: It's been very on and off. It originally started as a quick throwaway to be done outdoors in Sicily last year as a sort of summer Dionysian homage, but they canceled the production. I realized it had potential and was worth developing. Finally, the Sicilians agreed to bring it back; we did it indoors in April in the opera house there. The good thing about working on it off and on is that sort of distance enabled me to see what was good about it and what needed work.

TM: Has getting it ready for BAM been more challenging than you expected?
KA: Yes, it's been a huge conceptual challenge. If I knew how how hard it would be, I wouldn't have done it. Until yesterday, I constantly thought about throwing in the towel. I want the dance to be loose and groovy, like this fabulous African music, but I finally had the revelation that what was needed on my part to achieve that was the deepest possible rigor. There had to be tremendous structure at every single juncture. Then, not only did my dancers have to learn African movement; but it's been really hard to find a system of cueing the music. With the band, one day a section of music is five minutes, then the next day it's eight minutes. And even being on the same place on stage every night has been disorienting for them. We've finally worked it all out, though -- after a few bouts of hysteria on everyone's part.

A scene from Itutu
(© Julieta Cervantes)
TM: Once again, you're working with some great visual artists on the piece, including Philip Taaffe, who did the sets and the fabrics for the costumes. Why do you consistently choose not to work with traditional theater designers?
KA: I think that artists are more able, especially given the current economic situation, to be very extreme and deliver unique, strong work that's not just literal or realistic. I am interested in creating a universe; it's not just about finding an external reality. Visually, I think this piece is quite dazzling; Philip's backdrops are the best set I've ever had. I also speak their language easily, which is good because they need a certain amount of guidance when it comes to stage work. Ultimately, we speak the same language for different media -- bodies versus paints, if you will.

TM: Would you be interested in working on another piece of musical theater?
KA: All it would to take is someone to ask me. Of course, I would have to feel the material was right for me, but both of the shows I've worked on have been wonderful experiences. I hope I get another opportunity.


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