Self-professed rebel Karole Armitage leaped into fame when she worked with Madonna on the pop star’s music video for “Vogue” in 1990. Born in 1954 in Wisconsin, Armitage was exposed to ballet at an early age and went on to dance for George Balanchine in the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland at nineteen. Armitage later joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1976, and began to work with dancer-choreographer Michael Clark and artist Charles Atlas in 1983. Armitage’s first prominent choreographic piece, however, the bombastic Drastic-classicism from 1981, established her signature fusion style, showcasing balletic line with a postmodernist improvised bent. Dancers wore black leather pointe shoes and ripped up warmers while splaying their legs in erotic frenzy as a rock band simultaneously performed on stage. The piece won her the moniker “punk ballerina,” a nod to her incorporation of subculture within her technical compositions.

Armitage later choreographed standout works such as Wild Thing, 1988, with a Jimi Hendrix score, and The Watteau Duets, 1985, a pas de deux set to fierce, atonal timpani. She and her New York–based company, Armitage Gone! Dance, return to New York Live Arts this month with Mechanics of the Dance Machine, a labyrinthine performance in black, red, and white light, which plays at NYLA January 31–February 2 and February 5–7.

Here the drastic-classicist speaks about the inner workings of her latest work and about the frenetic energy required when changing step.

Interview with Karole Armitage.

— As told to Frank Expósito