For­ward Motion

Chore­og­ra­pher Crys­tal Pite is chang­ing the way we see dance

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Martha Sch­abas

Chore­og­ra­pher Crys­tal Pite is chang­ing the way we see dance

On an over­cast day in Covent Gar­den, Lon­don, Crys­tal Pite faces the mir­rors of a bal­let stu­dio at the Royal Opera House with thirty-six dancers be­hind her. She starts rock­ing back and forth from her feet, main­tain­ing an eerie still­ness through her chest and shoul­ders. It’s the sim­plest move­ment, but Pite makes it look fo­cused, in­tense. It’s a week be­fore the world pre­miere of her first work for the Royal Bal­let, and the dancers, wear­ing socks and sweat­pants (the women are with­out their usual pointe shoes), watch her re­flec­tion care­fully. Af­ter a few mo­ments, they seem to swal­low her motion whole, repris­ing its mood in their own bod­ies. As they hunch over in unison, Pite stops them and says, “This is one of my top-ten mo­ments in the piece.” She rushes into the mid­dle of the clus­ter to demon­strate. “I should see the back of ev­ery­one’s left ear for a sec­ond. The tilt of the head is meant to show anx­i­ety.”

Flight Pat­tern fol­lows the jour­ney of a group of dis­placed peo­ple in their search for asy­lum, zoom­ing in on the ex­pe­ri­ence of a par­tic­u­lar fam­ily. It opens with a bedrag­gled clus­ter of dancers mov­ing un­der dim light on a stage, con­strained by barriers. The dancers’ cloth­ing is di­shev­elled, and their con­trolled, stac­cato ges­tures sug­gest ex­haus­tion and de­spair. We get the feel­ing that these fig­ures have crossed many miles, over many months. There are no al­lu­sions to the Ro­hingya of Myan­mar or the lost boys of Su­dan; Flight Pat­tern could be about the plight of any group of refugees (Hen­ryk Górecki’s Third Sym­phony, to which the piece is set, uses text that was scrawled on the wall of a Sec­ond World War prison). But for the au­di­ence watch­ing the pre­miere in March 2017, the over­lap be­tween what un­folded on stage and ac­tual world events pointed our con­sciences nat­u­rally to­ward Syria.

Pite wor­ried about her abil­ity to make a dance piece that de­picted a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and about her abil­ity to cope with the ma­te­rial on a daily ba­sis in re­hearsal. But as the news out of Syria kept get­ting worse, she couldn’t bring herself to think about any­thing else. “What I kept com­ing back to is: What’s the al­ter­na­tive? The al­ter­na­tive is to not do this,” Pite says. “Just to not talk about it, to make some­thing that is sep­a­rate and safe.”

Pite makes her work (she never calls her pieces “bal­lets”) from se­ri­ous, top­i­cal, and emo­tion­ally dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter. If you

ask her what any of her pieces are about, she will give you ar­tic­u­late and straight­for­ward an­swers that in­clude war, colo­nial­ism, trauma, lone­li­ness, the un­known, cre­ative ob­ses­sion, and ro­man­tic love and loss. She will ex­plain the ex­ten­sive re­search she’s done, of­ten in­volv­ing months of back­ground read­ing and writ­ing be­fore she goes any­where near a stu­dio. She tells me, “I don’t think I can just de­liver dance moves — when I’ve tried to work on a purely ab­stract level, I’m not in­spired. I think the best pure chore­og­ra­phy I’ve made has been in di­rect re­sponse to try­ing to de­liver a state or an im­age or an emo­tion or a scrap of nar­ra­tive.”

This is far from the norm in the world of con­tem­po­rary bal­let and dance, where there are a few pre­dom­i­nant trends: chore­og­ra­phy that’s es­sen­tially ab­stract with, per­haps, light in­flec­tions of char­ac­ter or theme; chore­og­ra­phy that’s con­cerned with the sheer form of the steps; con­cept-driven chore­og­ra­phy (for in­stance, a piece that uses ev­ery­day, pedes­trian move­ment to ex­plore an in­tel­lec­tual ques­tion); and chore­og­ra­phy shaped pri­mar­ily by plot — ver­sions of the tra­di­tional “story bal­let.” Pite melds the best of each school, us­ing nar­ra­tive arcs and chore­o­graphic ab­strac­tion as a way to ex­plore top­i­cal ma­te­rial you rarely see in dance at all.

It’s an ap­proach that gives her work a unique rel­e­vance and clarity. The forty- sev­enyear- old Bri­tish Columbian has be­come one of the globe’s most sought-af­ter chore­og­ra­phers. In the past two years, she’s had world pre­mieres at two of Europe’s most pres­ti­gious com­pa­nies: the Royal Bal­let (where she was the first fe­male chore­og­ra­pher to have a piece com­mis­sioned for the main stage in eigh­teen years) and the Paris Opera Bal­let, where she de­buted The Sea­sons’ Canon. Pite runs her own com­pany, Kidd Pivot; is an as­so­ciate chore­og­ra­pher at Ned­er­lands Dans Theater; and holds as­so­ciate artist po­si­tions at Sadler’s Wells in Lon­don, Eng­land, and the Na­tional Arts Cen­tre in Ot­tawa.

Pite’s abil­ity to cre­ate ma­te­rial that is as the­mat­i­cally con­crete as it is emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing has helped her win over peo­ple who nor­mally find dance alien­at­ing and es­o­teric or, al­ter­na­tively, too dec­o­ra­tive and light. Au­di­ences “un­der­stand” what’s hap­pen­ing in a Pite cre­ation the way they would have a log­i­cal han­dle on the con­text and emotional stakes of a chal­leng­ing play; crit­ics some­times re­fer to Pite’s work as “dance-the­atre.” But as a chore­og­ra­pher, her vo­cab­u­lary is ul­ti­mately non-rep­re­sen­ta­tional, mean­ing she can evoke more slip­pery tones and moods than aplay­wright gen­er­ally can. Her pieces of­ten place us in a world ruled by in­stinct and the un­con­scious, set­tings more dream­like and in­ti­mate than nat­u­ral­is­tic the­atre, but be­cause of her work’s struc­tural rigour and clarity, we know how we got there; we never feel lost.

Nowhere is Pite’s tal­ent for wield­ing emotional and con­cep­tual power more ev­i­dent than in Betrof­fen­heit, which had its world pre­miere in Toronto in 2015. Acol­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Pite and play­wright-per­former Jonathon Young, of Van­cou­ver-based Elec­tric Com­pany The­atre, Betrof­fen­heit deals with a vis­ceral and — un­usu­ally for dance — au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal event: the death of Young’s teenage daugh­ter and two of her cousins in a cabin fire in 2009. Young was in a nearby cabin when it hap­pened and sub­se­quently strug­gled with pro­found trauma and ad­dic­tion. Young asked Pite to di­rect the pro­ject be­cause he wanted to lean on her chore­o­graphic skill; he knew lan­guage could only go so far to ex­press the im­ages he had in mind. As they started to dis­cuss how to stage the in­ter­nal phe­nom­e­non of psy­cho­log­i­cal an­guish and how to zoom out to a more uni­ver­sal ques­tion of suf­fer­ing, the piece be­came in­creas­ingly phys­i­cal. They de­vised a two-part struc­ture that let them blend the ab­stract and the lit­eral into a stag­ger­ing ex­pres­sion of loss that has moved au­di­ences around the world.

The first part of Betrof­fen­heit, which com­bines chore­og­ra­phy and text spo­ken via voice- over, shows the pro­tag­o­nist (played by Young) trapped in an in­dus­trial room where a talk­ing sur­veil­lance sys­tem tries to save him from his guilt and de­spair. Even­tu­ally, he suc­cumbs to his ad­dic­tion, and the dancers, who’d been cross­ing the stage to taunt him, be­come the hal­lu­ci­na­tions of his high. In the sec­ond part, which uses less voice-over and more chore­og­ra­phy, the in­dus­trial room dis­solves into a night­mar­ish open space that sug­gests the des­o­late land­scape of his grief.

“What’s the al­ter­na­tive? The al­ter­na­tive is to not do this—to make some­thing that is sep­a­rate and safe.”

I have seen Betrof­fen­heit twice, at that pre­miere and then the fol­low­ing win­ter. Both au­di­ences re­sponded with an al­most stu­pe­fy­ing emotional in­ten­sity, far be­yond any stand­ing ova­tion I’ve ever seen. Betrof­fen­heit went on to win Bri­tain’s Olivier Award for best new dance pro­duc­tion and had crit­ics across the world scram­bling to ex­press how it re­de­fined what we ex­pect from dance.

I sat down with Pite at a cof­fee shop in East Van­cou­ver last sum­mer, just af­ter she had de­buted the pro­duc­tion in Paris, and asked her why she thought Betrof­fen­heit is such asuc­cess. “For peo­ple who struggle with watch­ing dance, it’s a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. I think the first half of the show re­ally pre­pares you for the sec­ond half. When you en­ter that world in the sec­ond half, which is so much more of a pure dance ex­pres­sion of the ma­te­rial, it’s as if you’ve been given the keys for how to watch it. You un­der­stand the con­tent, you un­der­stand what’s at stake, you rec­og­nize the play­ers, then things are blown apart, frac­tured, ab­stracted. But be­cause you have all that con­tent in your back pocket, you’re able to con­nect so much more than you would if you started with part two.”

Pite’s chore­og­ra­phy re­lies on dra­matic im­agery and sus­pense­ful mo­men­tum, un­der­pinned by a deeply rooted sense of flow. The dancers ap­pear so elas­tic at times that their bod­ies can look bone­less, with ev­ery inch of a leg ar­tic­u­lat­ing as it ex­tends up­ward or a back un­du­lat­ing like a rib­bon of smoke. Pite’s dancers are al­ways im­mac­u­lately trained, but they also pos­sess the artistry that lets them work against their tech­nique when the nar­ra­tive calls for it, ap­pear­ing un­gainly, re­ac­tive, flawed. Non-dance crit­ics of­ten note mar­tial-arts in­flec­tions in Pite’s propul­sive part­ner­ing and lifts — I’ve heard peo­ple say it re­minds them of the fight scenes from the film The Ma­trix.

The post­mod­ern Amer­i­can chore­og­ra­pher Yvonne Rainer fa­mously wrote that “dance is hard to see,” be­cause it’s gone as soon as we rec­og­nize what we’re watch­ing. But there’s so much de­tail in Pite’s style, so much of a sense of process made vis­i­ble that, at times, it feels as though we can see more than what’s in front of us. The move­ment stretches our vis­ual com­pre­hen­sion of time — we get flashes of the in-be­tween, as though we can make out the pix­els.

Pite started to chore­o­graph as soon as she be­gan her dance train­ing, at the age of four or five. At the Van­cou­ver cof­fee shop, she pulled up a black-and­white photo on her lap­top: a row of lit­tle girls stand­ing at the barre in leo­tards. Pite is rec­og­niz­able as the long-limbed, blond girl in the mid­dle. Grow­ing up in Victoria, she stud­ied at a small, lo­cal stu­dio, and by the time she was thir­teen, she was pre­sent­ing her own so­los in the young chore­og­ra­pher’s di­vi­sion at lo­cal com­pe­ti­tions. Even then, her cre­ations were never ab­stract. “They al­ways had a theme or a lit­tle story,” she told me. Her teacher gave her the keys to the stu­dio so she could work on her own pieces on the week­ends. She chore­ographed the dance se­quences for her high school’s mu­si­cals and or­ga­nized im­pro­vi­sa­tional dance ses­sions with her friends.

De­spite not hav­ing trained at a full-time bal­let school, Pite was of­fered a con­tract with Bal­let BC straight out of high school, and she joined the com­pany at seven­teen. It meant working over­time to get her tech­nique up to scratch, but she still man­aged to find op­por­tu­ni­ties to chore­o­graph, mak­ing pieces for her col­leagues and ac­cept­ing com­mis­sions from com­pa­nies across Canada, in­clud­ing Bal­let Jör­gen, Al­berta Bal­let, and Bal­lets Jazz de Mon­tréal. By the time she was twenty-five, she was known through­out the coun­try as a bold emerg­ing chore­og­ra­pher.

Pite then danced at Bal­lett Frank­furt un­der artis­tic di­rec­tor Wil­liam Forsythe. The Amer­i­can chore­og­ra­pher, who ran the Frank­furt com­pany for twenty years and re­con­fig­ured key bal­letic con­cepts, was hugely in­flu­en­tial on the young artist. Known for in­ject­ing classical tech­nique with new ideas about bal­ance and co­or­di­na­tion, Forsythe de­mands a lot from his dancers, us­ing im­pro­vi­sa­tion as both a means to gen­er­ate ma­te­rial and as part of the chore­og­ra­phy it­self — cer­tain se­quences would be rein­vented on­stage ev­ery night. “You know those things in life where there’s a be­fore and there’s an af­ter? It was like that,” Pite said of her time in Frank­furt. “It was so pro­found, ex­hil­a­rat­ing, and in­tense. I was there for five years but it felt like fif­teen.”

Pite had al­ways planned to have her own com­pany, and when she re­turned to Van­cou­ver, at the age of thirty, she founded one that drew on the trust and in­ti­macy that she had ex­pe­ri­enced in Frank­furt. Over twenty-five dancers have been part of Kidd Pivot over the course of its six­teen years, and she gets to know them well, rel­ish­ing the long-term re­la­tion­ships that de­velop and the un­der­stand­ing of process and pur­pose that comes with them. It means that, for a pro­ject such as Betrof­fen­heit, she shows up at re­hearsal with no chore­og­ra­phy pre­pared in ad­vance and builds it with her dancers in the stu­dio. There’s a feed­back loop be­tween bod­ies and theme; el­e­ments of the chore­og­ra­phy come out of im­pro­vi­sa­tion and a lot of trial and er­ror.

She works very dif­fer­ently when she’s com­mis­sioned by big bal­let com­pa­nies, show­ing up with “truck­loads” of chore­og­ra­phy al­ready built: there isn’t time to teach new dancers her aes­thetic. In­stead, she pares down her move­ment vo­cab­u­lary and fo­cuses on cre­at­ing evoca­tive en­sem­ble work. “By us­ing sim­pler phys­i­cal struc­tures over a large num­ber of bod­ies,

I can get the kind of com­plex­ity that I’m in­ter­ested in. It’s un­likely that I’m go­ing to get that kind of com­plex­ity in an in­di­vid­ual body in the time that I have.” So the sinewy and sen­tient de­tail you might see in a Kidd Pivot dancer is trans­ferred onto the col­lec­tive; it ex­ists, in­stead, in the ex­pan­sive im­ages she can build with thirty plus dancers on stage.

When she’s im­mersed in a par­tic­u­lar mood or phys­i­cal idea, Pite finds it dis­rup­tive to shift gears, so pieces cre­ated around the same time can look like sib­lings — I’m of­ten re­minded of Pi­casso’s colour pe­ri­ods. She con­sid­ers some pieces to be com­pan­ions to oth­ers; In the Event, from 2015, was cre­ated mid­way through Betrof­fen­heit’s re­hearsal process. To me, it looks like bonus footage from the sec­ond half of Betrof­fen­heit, un­fold­ing in a post­dis­as­ter land­scape where the char­ac­ters grap­ple with the pos­si­bil­ity of tran­scen­dence. Her re­cent Paris and Lon­don com­mis­sions both present stag­ger­ing im­ages of hu­man­ity en masse, bod­ies upon bod­ies tan­gling in and out of col­lec­tive shapes, with dozens of bare arms sweep­ing in the same, and then in coun­ter­point, di­rec­tions. Both use a step I’ll term the “clock­work head,” in which heads tick back and forth on a ver­ti­cal arc, sug­gest­ing an au­to­mated re­sponse to des­per­a­tion. They’re also both set to emotional classical scores; The Sea­sons’ Canon uses a gor­geous re­work­ing of Vi­valdi’s Four Sea­sons by Bri­tish com­poser Max Richter. But un­like Flight Pat­tern, Canon is fun­da­men­tally a non-nar­ra­tive piece and more tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing in its use of pas de deux. It feels a bit like Flight Pat­tern’s mysterious, and more in­scrutable, older sis­ter.

De­spite the beauty and, at times, strik­ing orig­i­nal­ity of Pite’s move­ment, she tells me that the chore­og­ra­phy it­self is the last thing she wor­ries about. She com­pares chore­ograph­ing to filling in a colour­ing book with the right crayons: the re­search, plan­ning, and re­flec­tion have al­ready given a piece its shape; the steps add tone and shad­ing. Nail­ing the con­cept and how it can be most evoca­tively staged is the real work. “That’s the hard­est part — fig­ur­ing out how to cre­ate the con­di­tions for chore­og­ra­phy to hap­pen,” she says. “It’s funny, it sounds weird to say this, but the chore­og­ra­phy for me, the ac­tual chore­ograph­ing of a phys­i­cal vo­cab­u­lary, is al­ways the eas­i­est part.”

On a sun­nier af­ter­noon in the Royal Opera House’s Fonteyn Stu­dio, a few days af­ter the full-cast re­hearsal, Pite is working with dancer Marcelino Sambé on a solo that comes near the end of Flight Pat­tern. Pite looks for emotional depth and avail­abil­ity when she casts dancers in lead roles, and in Sambé — a young, mus­cu­lar bal­let dancer from Lis­bon — she saw a will­ing­ness to show anger. She wanted this kind of fire for the part. They go over a sec­tion that builds up to beau­ti­ful ren­versé jump, in which the body twists in the air and lands with the torso tip­ping to the side. Sambé does it over and over again, testing how much he can throw his weight away from the direc­tion he’s mov­ing in. When Pite’s sat­is­fied, she demon­strates the floor work that comes next. “It may need more crawl­ing,” she says as Sambé tries it him­self. “An­i­mal crawl­ing, just tear­ing up the floor as you get there.”

In order to help herself cope with the in­ten­sity of her sub­ject mat­ter, Pite de­cided not to por­tray any ac­tual vi­o­lence but to fo­cus in­stead on the idea of peo­ple stuck in limbo. She tried to recre­ate the sense of a hold­ing area, a check­point or a camp — a place where the refugees are in­finitely re­lieved to have es­caped one sit­u­a­tion but have no idea what will come next. “They haven’t yet en­tered the next chap­ter of their lives — they don’t know if they ever will,” she says.

When we met months later in Van­cou­ver, I asked Pite whether Flight Pat­tern marks the be­gin­ning of a more ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal turn in her ca­reer. “Right now, what else can we do?” Pite said. “I don’t re­ally feel like I want to spend time do­ing any­thing else — I’m so priv­i­leged to have the op­por­tu­nity to make art, and I don’t think that it has to be ac­tivism. But I think it has to re­,” she cut herself off and paused. “I don’t think art has to do any­thing. I think for me, right now, it’s all I can do. It’s all that I’m in­ter­ested in — try­ing to re­flect what’s hap­pen­ing in the world around me at this mo­ment. It feels nec­es­sary to me.”

Dancers per­form Flight Pat­tern dur­ing the show’s March 2017 pre­miere in Lon­don

Crys­tal Pite, now forty-seven, in Van­cou­ver’s Queen El­iz­a­beth The­atre in 2015

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