Karole Armitage, New York Live Arts

The one-time punk ballerina is a puzzle – a veteran choreographer whose evident intelligence guarantees little. A Karole Armitage ballet invariably slips and slops between inspired and ridiculous without seeming to notice the difference.

The splashes of promise in Armitage Gone!’s current outing stem from the premise. Like Balanchine’s Square Dance, the hour-long Mechanics of the Dance Machine runs popular idioms through a ballet lens – in this case, torqued and tortured late-20th-century ballet. Intriguingly, the social-dance sources are also post-1960s, after people began hitting the dance floor solo, to become an instrument of the music or whoever might wander into their “space”.

With each of DJ-composer Gabriel Prokofiev’s sample-stuffed numbers, superb lighting designer Clifton Taylor beamed another configuration of squares or rectangles in infrared and luminous white on to New York Live Arts’ piazza-like stage. Whether the design resembled a Rothko or a chess set, the tight frame brought out the dancers’ reactiveness and the movement’s strain and stretch. The performers shuddered to every electronic hiccup and pushed strenuously against their partners – the improvisations of 1960s grooving translated into aggressive pas de deux.

Armitage arrived at this rough and ragged mode, shaded in S&M, in the 1980s – before almost everyone else – but she resorts to it so mindlessly that it begins to look derivative. Add to that the dancers’ parted lips, heavy lids and underwear for costumes, and we might as well stay home and watch Victoria’s Secret spots. If she had air-quoted the posturing and vamping, at least we would get to enjoy some Halloween-y fun. But for that she would have to wake up to tone – how the sources she samples mesh with the present culture.

On the up side, Armitage has always had an excellent eye for dancers, whose good sense nearly compensates for her lapses. Troupe regular Abbey Roesner overrode the choreography’s faux outrageousness by mining every move, classical or twisted, for full sensual value. She did not mug or pose; she dug in to the movement and expressed what she found. Masayo Yamaguchi, in her fifth season, transcended the work’s pretensions by letting in some light. In one duet, the full-bodied glee with which she teased and tangled with her partner proved contagious.

Until Saturday, www.newyorklivearts.org

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