See This: Karole Armitage, Dance's "Punk Ballerina," Opens Costume Exhibit

Karole Armitage - H 2015

In collaboration with former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, the innovative choreographer curates a new retrospective of her costumes and set pieces for ballet, theater and film

For an art-world reveal of what’s under dancers’ tutus, especially hot pink ones designed by Christian LaCroix, "punk ballerina" Karole Armitage recruited former Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch to curate a new retrospective of her costumes and set pieces for the ballet, theater and film. Making Art Dance: Backdrops and Costumes From the Armitage Foundation draws on the innovative choreographer’s long résumé of collaborations with fashion designers like LaCroix, Jean Paul Gaultier and Donna Karan’s Peter Speliopoulos, as well as with artists and filmmakers including Donald Baechler, Alba Clemente, Jeff Koons, James Ivory, Christian Marclay, Brice Marden, David Salle and Philip Taaffe. Opening Jan. 11 at Jersey City’s Mana Contemporary’s Glass Gallery, the show is a short PATH train commute from New York City — and a chance to check out this 50,000 square foot exhibit space designed by Richard Meier that opened last year.


Karole Armitage in front of Philip Taaffe’s backdrop and Peter Speliopoulos’ costumes for Itutu (2009). Photo by Joe Schildhorn /

Armitage is popularly known as a maven-of-moves for several Michael Jackson and Madonna videos (including 1990’s Vogue directed by David Fincher), two Broadway productions (Passing Strange and Hair, which garnered Armitage a Tony nomination), several Merchant-Ivory films and Cirque du Soleil’s 2012 tent show Amaluna. But, as Deitch’s essay on the exhibit points out, she also is the only choreographer to have worked with both George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. Armitage said that she and Deitch deliberately pinned costumes on old-fashioned dress forms rather than the display mannequins often seen in the blockbuster museum exhibits about fashion because it’s “an art exhibit…not a costume show,” with an effect that is “so much more abstract.”


Particularly compelling are James Ivory’s watercolor paintings of costumes he designed in 1997 for Armitage’s Apollo e Dafne? (1999). It’s also fun to see the fuzzy pastel-colored pants with contrasting slippers from 1978 for Armitage’s first ballet Ne designed by Marclay, then a lowly art student who evolved into the renowned artist best known for his 24 hour film The Clock. In the room devoted to production design for Itutu (2009), two enormous backdrops painted by Philip Taaffe frame Speliopoulos’ costumes for that show. Viewers can examine these, and all the costumes, almost stich by stitch. And a back wall devoted to Speliopoulos’ sketches, fabric swatches and Polaroid photos of performers brings home the complexity of creative collaboration behind every performance.

The vast, 50,000 square-foot Richard Meier-designed space housing Armitage's sartorial past. 

Armitage thrilled when asked about a blue top with a golden sculpted head by Constantin Brâncu?i silkscreened on it; the costume had been worn by Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Elizabethan Phrasing of the Late Albert Aylerin 1986.

Until her current troupe Armitage Gone! Dance took up a residency in Mana Contemporary’s main building adjacent to the gallery, the hundreds of objects that comprise the exhibit were stored, she said, with relatives in Texas who had a barn, in her apartment, and eventually in a shed the choreographer owns in Crested Butte, CO. There they by chance were kept in optimal low-humid conditions; indeed, most of the canvases, fabric and drawings on view are pristine. 

Armitage, who broke from a rehearsal to be interviewed with her dancers scattered about on the floor nearby, said she never fantasized about an exhibit, but rather held onto her sets and costumes because, she said, “in dance we have a history of reviving things.” Indeed, there will be some revivalism at the opening on Jan 11, when Armitage dancers are expected to perform three works, at least one in costumes David Salle designed in the late 1990s.