When Atalee Judy was 12, her father walked onto a Texas highway and was struck and killed by a semi. A geologist who bred quarter horses on his Arlington ranch, her dad had struggled with mental illness for years. Her mother had split a year earlier, taking Judy’s sister with her, but Judy was close to her father and had chosen to live with him. Initially she was told he’d died in a car wreck, and when the truth came out during family counseling, she was furious. “I had a violent streak,” she says. She got in fights, threatened to kill her stepfather, and turned to martial arts as an outlet for her anger. She also fell in with the punk rock crowd at school and began hitching rides to Dallas and sneaking into clubs to see bands like the Circle Jerks and Agnostic Front. “They had the voice that I wanted,” she says.

Six months after her father’s death, Judy ran away from home, using her savings from grooming horses to buy a one-way plane ticket to New York. “It was dumb, but I felt like it was do or die,” she says. “I would have killed my stepfather. I’m positive of it.” She wasted no time getting to CBGB, where she was befriended by John Joseph, front man for the hardcore band the Cro-Mags. She lived with Joseph and five others in a tiny apartment at Bowery and Houston for more than a year, attending school in Queens by day (some friends forged her entrance papers) and blowing off steam at punk shows by night.

“It’s the most invigorating feeling,” she says of the mosh pit. “There’s fists flying . . . if you stand there, you’re going to get a broken nose. So you’ve got to be quick on your feet, and that’s what martial arts teach you. I lived for it. It was the ultimate expression of what I was feeling. It was good, positive release.”

Twenty years later, the energy of the pit still inspires Judy, the artistic director of Breakbone DanceCo. Her aggressive choreography sends bodies hurtling through space, rolling and falling against one another, and crashing to the ground. And her choice of subject matter–guns, schizophrenia, sadism, suicide–can be as brutal as her movements.

Judy stayed in New York about a year and a half, during which she says the Lower East Side grew rife with gang violence (she was sometimes asked to climb a tree and act as lookout while older friends defended their turf). Frightened by the fights and stabbings she witnessed but unwilling to return to her mother and stepfather, Judy contacted an uncle who’d given her his card at her father’s funeral and came to live with him in north-suburban Northfield. There, as a member of the basketball team at a Catholic girls’ school, she was required to study dance. Leery of a “stupid leotard and pink tights,” she was surprised to be placed in a modern class where everyone wore baggy pants. The instructor was influenced by the Limon technique–an approach to dance in which principles of weight, fall, and recovery are emphasized–and taught lots of “grounded stuff” and deep lunges that Judy took to immediately. “That totally blew my whole stereotype of dance,” she says. “I was kind of transformed.”

She went on to study biochemistry at Beloit College, planning to become a veterinarian–a childhood dream. But after two years she took a leave of absence to come to Chicago and dance, and she never went back. She joined the work-study program at the MoMing Dance and Arts Center and later enrolled in Columbia College’s dance program, where she butted heads with several professors. “I would do what moved me–I wasn’t a technical dancer and I never claimed to be,” she says. “I was calling upon my own resources of performance ability, and a lot of it dealt with falls–getting up and falling back down. That was my thing, and they said it wasn’t dance, and just totally rode my ass about it.” She soldiered through the required ballet classes, becoming “even more athletic in the sense of jumps, but as far as the very fluffy hand movements and tilting my head ever so lightly, I wouldn’t do that.”

Since founding Breakbone in 1996, two years after graduating from Columbia, she’s steadily built her reputation with uncompromising work like the well-received Logotype series, a seven-part epic that took on commercialism, sexism, and the Holocaust and was driven by Judy’s signature “bodyslam” technique, which draws heavily on her years in both martial arts classes and mosh pits.

The company’s newest work, Deadtech, is a bit of a shift. It contains plenty of vigorous body slamming, but there’s also a creepily beautiful ballroom duet and even a play on the chimney sweeps’ routine from Mary Poppins. Choreographed for 21 dancers, Judy’s largest cast yet, Deadtech is what she calls a “children’s story for adults,” set amid postwar ruins in which an android dreams of life as a human prior to apocalypse. (The title is taken from a book of the same name that features photographs of industrial ruins in Europe and America.) There’s as much to digest on the video that runs through most of the 83-minute piece as onstage: in one sequence, bridled Lipizzan horses prance stiffly on-screen, their movement mimicked by punkish dancer-models in white platform stilettos.

“I’m not a ballet person and I don’t pretend to be,” Judy says, “but I’ve taken two ballet dancers and I’ve pushed their comfort zone and what they can do with their bodies. And as a result they feel stronger. There’s a lot of fear in dancers. They do not know how to fall. So that’s what I teach them–when they come in, I break it down to a kindergarten level, and we retrain our bodies to fall intelligently, like a cat.” Judy now wants to school her dancers in self-defense, which she’s taught, along with spinning and kick boxing, in gyms around Chicago. “I want to teach them how to really do some damage.”

Deadtech runs Thursday through Sunday, August 26 through September 5, at the Chopin Theatre. On Sunday, August 29, there’ll be a drink coupon in the program for a free postshow dance party next door at Big Wig. See Laura Molzahn’s Critic’s Choice in Dance for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.