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Crystal Pite

“I love working with the rhythm and the complexity of language”
Crystal Pite. Photo by Michael Slobodian
Crystal Pite. Photo by Michael Slobodian

Founder of dance company Kidd Pivot, Crystal Pite is one of the world’s most sought after choreographers. She speaks to Anna Winter about reigniting her partnership with Jonathon Young to create Revisor at Sadler’s Wells, how she copes with doubt and being inspired by postmodern maestro William Forsythe

In 2015, choreographer Crystal Pite and actor- playwright Jonathon Young unveiled an extraordinary piece of dance-theatre. Based on a tragic accident in Young’s own life and taking its name from the German word for the wordless consternation that occurs after trauma, Betroffenheit delved headlong into the bleak heart of grief and addiction.

So it’s surprising that such dark material inspired the Canadian duo’s latest co-creation, a farce called Revisor, which refashions Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector (Revizor in Russian) into a hybrid of movement and narrative. “We had such a profound experience working on Betroffenheit, and there were things in that show that looked like they were going to lead to something else, little inklings of new ideas that we wanted to expand upon. One of them was the idea of doing a farce,” Pite says.

“We never put it in Betroffenheit, but we had this idea all along of how interesting it would be to stage a farce in the style we’d been working in, using this connection of narrative and body language. Jonathon was mulling it over and came up with the idea of working with The Government Inspector as the base of our next creation. We thought it would lend itself well to that physicality and we also wanted to do something funny and political.”

There was a political slant to Pite and Young’s 2016 work for Nederlands Dans Theater, The Statement, in which the frantic movements of the dancers – suit-clad members of a nameless ministry – physically undermined the bland recorded statement of the title, its smooth assertions of unaccountability and denial cracked open to reveal squirms of craven corruption.

Betroffenheit at Sadler’s Wells, London in 2016. Photo: Michael Slobodian
Betroffenheit at Sadler’s Wells, London in 2016. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Adapting Gogol’s play

Given the extremes of today’s political climate, ideas of slipperiness and skulduggery are brought to the fore in Revisor, says Pite. “It seemed really timely and potent and necessary to adapt and stage this classic farce about corruption and deception. Absolutely, current events are motivating us to work with the content. But we’re striving to ask timeless, universal questions about the human condition and there’s never been a time in human history where there hasn’t been stories of corruption and deception to draw from. It feels particularly acute these days, so it’s good to work in this form as a response to that.”

True to its title, Revisor takes a new look at Gogol’s play. “It evokes the idea of revision, of change. We’re thinking about how we change a corrupted system at both extremes of the scale, both personal and global. How do we change our little corrupted selves first of all?” Pite says.

“Because the play itself is about this idea of inspection, we thought we’d like to stage both the farce and the deconstruction of the farce and that our deconstruction of the farce would be a kind of inspection of Gogol’s play. There are lots of nice looping, circular ideas in there.”

There’s never been a time in human history where there hasn’t been stories of corruption and deception to draw from

Young adapted the original Gogol text (“he stripped it right down to its bare essentials”) and the script was then recorded “like a radio play”. Headphones on, the dancers of Pite’s Vancouver-based company, Kidd Pivot, then took to the text, each one “inhabiting a voice with their body. They take a character and apply their own body to the voice so it’s seamless.

“They learned the script that way, finding a physical language that would match the verbal. You get these amazing hybrids. A lot of the process was the dancers listening to their vocal counterpart and getting to know the rhythm of the text, the musicality and emotion and figuring out how to deliver that. It’s just a delight to see what’s come out.”

As well as being genuinely appreciative of her dancers, Pite also speaks with earnest delight about Revisor’s tricksy design. “We wanted to stage the farce as a kind of recognisable, familiar thing. We have all the trappings: furniture, filing cabinets, doors, desks, costumes, wigs and beards, uniforms and boots and all these wonderful things that I love working with so much. In contemporary dance we don’t often have those kinds of trappings.”

Her partner and regular set designer Jay Gower Taylor and costume designer Nancy Bryant “went to town and created this wacky world. But to stage its deconstruction we needed it to be quite impermanent, we needed it to float and drift and disappear and reconfigure in other places on stage. So everything is in flux and has the potential to disappear, turn around and become something else. That was a great challenge.”

Interview continues…

Q&A Crystal Pite

What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a walking advertisement for a shoe store. I walked around downtown Victoria, which is my home town. I was 13 years old. I had a huge foot over my head and handed out business cards. I guess it was sort of theatrical.

What was your first professional theatre job?
I started working for a semi-professional theatre company as a kid doing musical theatre and pantomimes, so I performed professionally when I was 12 or 13. Then I got my first job at Ballet BC aged 17.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
It’s hard to say. My parents and certain people in my life as a child were a huge influence on me.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Demonstrate curiosity, a willingness and excitement about learning and discovering. If I think about dancers I love to work with, they’re all curious beings who are genuinely in a relationship with creativity.

If you hadn’t been a choreographer, what would you have been?
I would have to be something creative. A writer or illustrator or a combination of the two. If I had the skill, I would love to have been a musician. I often look at musicians with a great deal of envy. At the age I’m at now they’re just getting better and better, but as a dancer the time we have to perform is so limited.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I try not to have them because if whatever I’m trying to do doesn’t happen, I don’t want to ruin my mental state. I never go on stage without brushing my teeth though.

Connecting with the audience

She might be one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers, but there’s no trace of aloof starriness in conversation with Pite. Softly spoken and considered, she has a warmth that comes across even on a transatlantic phone call. Connection, she says, is at the heart of everything she does, even though dance – especially contemporary dance – is a form that some theatregoers might feel is alien and impenetrable.

“I just want to connect with people – with the performers and collaborators and also the audience. There’s something so magical about bringing people together inside a theatre. There’s this potential for a transformative experience. I’m so touched and moved that people come to the theatre at all. There are so many other things that they could spend their time and money on. So I feel a huge responsibility to make something that reaches out to them, that will connect with them, that strives to create a profound experience. I really do this because of that desire.”

Connection, though, doesn’t mean twee cosiness or a basic approach to dance. Pite challenges her audiences and isn’t afraid of facing difficult subject matters, as in Betroffenheit or 2017’s Flight Pattern for the Royal Ballet, made in response to the migrant crisis. Here Pite sent a large, massed ensemble through swathes of surging motion, sometimes huddled, sometimes reaching raggedly for a kind of relief or hope. Within this, a searing duet homed in on the plight of two individuals: their bewilderment, loss, the sorrowing remains of a relationship.

While demonstrating Pite’s skill at navigating scale (“I like to work small and I like to work big. There’s a feedback loop that happens between those kinds of experiences that feels energising to me”) Flight Pattern was a dance that forged, in Pite’s words, “channels to the humane”.

She credits her family with instilling in her an ambitiously far-reaching mode of thought, or at least an ability to handle big ideas: “That’s really helped me when we’ve approached these great unanswerable questions about suffering, for example. My dad and uncle used to talk to me about the cosmos and about these colossal ideas that I couldn’t understand as a child and will never be able to understand, but it was a type of thinking that felt thrilling to me – to reach way beyond my grasp and to not shut down.”

Coping with doubt

Nevertheless, she’s honest about her doubts, even in the wake of accolades and successful big commissions from the likes of the Paris Opera Ballet – for which she made The Seasons’ Canon in 2016 and Body and Soul in 2019 – and the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden.

“The most challenging thing for me is having to get up in front of a bunch of people and not know what I’m doing. I’m trying to learn how to be okay with that. But I remember as a dancer that it never crossed my mind that the choreographer at the front of the room was in agony.” She laughs. “I was always just worried about myself as a performer. I’m sure I’m far more worried about these things than I need to be.”

But, she admits, the burden of expectation just keeps on growing with each gig. “It doesn’t seem to lessen – the pressure, the doubt. I’d like to say it is getting easier but it’s not, it’s actually getting more difficult, the more work that I do.

“A lot of it has to do with coping with that kind of pressure and the desire to meet the hopes of people that work with me. They hope they’re going to have a good experience. I have the same hopes but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, despite our best intentions. The stars don’t quite align but I’m trying to learn how to manage that and keep going anyway.”

The cast of Flight Pattern at the Royal Opera House in London in 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The cast of Flight Pattern at the Royal Opera House in London in 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Does she have strategies for coping with the doubt? “It depends on the day. I find that there is always something I can work on, even if I don’t necessarily have an idea or any inspiration that I feel convinced by. There is always the work that we did yesterday that I can spend some time refining. If I distract myself with just crafting something, or tinkering with a little phrase of movement, often I get distracted enough that the ideas will come. I’ve learned not to rely on inspiration at all, I can’t just count on it to show up.”

Is it a more relaxing process to work with the dancers of Kidd Pivot, founded in 2002, as opposed to showing up in the studios of unfamiliar opera houses with a deadline and massive stage looming? “I know my own dancers so well that the pressure just grows and grows in terms of delivering their talent and giving them something that is worthy of them,” she says.

“I feel an intense pressure to keep them challenged and inspired. They themselves have a kind of intense rigour that I can rely on and so in that way I am more relaxed because I know they will be developing things in the right direction, with the right intent. And with the kind of rigour that sometimes I don’t even feel I have; they’re so committed.”

Pite, though, is nothing if not committed. She began choreographing as a toddler “before I even knew what it was called. I called it making up dances. I’ve always done it and loved doing it”. Aged 17, she joined Ballet British Columbia as an apprentice dancer. The company’s seven-month contracts meant she had plenty of time to commit to choreography outside of dancing, while also “lobbying the directorship” to provide choreographic workshops for the troupe.

Learning from choreographer William Forsythe

By the time she joined Ballet Frankfurt, aged 25, she had significant experience of dance-making in Canada, although the opportunity to see European work “was an enormously important part of my education”. Until 2004, Ballet Frankfurt was led by American-born William Forsythe, a choreographer renowned for deconstructing classical ballet and pushing it to bracing new extremes.

What did she learn from the postmodern maestro? “So many things. But I think one of the things that amazed me about him was his willingness to throw things away. I loved that, I found it shocking and thrilling to see how he would chuck entire chunks of something you’d been working on and start over at the 11th hour, to edit and destroy. It was a really interesting and important thing for me to see and learn. I don’t have that same kind of ability. He thinks so quickly that he’s able to create something very quickly. I don’t have that same kind of speed. It was revelatory to me to see that he could throw something away and what would rush in to fill that void. His curiosity and delight, that was amazing.”

I’m always amazed to hear people say I don’t do this for the audience – I carry the audience with me at every moment

At the moment, Pite’s own curiosity seems to stem from the experience of working with words and how they can enhance the communicative power of dance. “My recent collaborations with Jonathon have been really rewarding because we’ve been able to bring text into the dancing in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.

“I’m able to tell a complex story now with dance; I can get things across in terms of narrative that I would never be able to do without language.” She clarifies, ever self-effacing: “I mean me personally, things I would not be able to do without using language. I’m sure there are other choreographers out there that could, but I am not one of them. I love working with language in this way, working with the complexity and the musicality and the rhythm and things that we could never get to with just dancing.”

Movement, of course, can articulate states of feeling that elude verbal language. That special emotional power of dance “is why I’m still a choreographer and not a theatre director”, she says. It all comes back to communication, conversation, connection. “It’s at the root of why I do any of this. I’m always amazed to hear people say I don’t do this for the audience, I do this for the process or the art or whatever it is. I carry the audience with me at every moment. I guess that’s the way I am.”

CV Crystal Pite

Born: 1970, Terrace, British Columbia
Training: Pacific Dance Centre, Victoria, Canada
Landmark productions:
• Emergence, National Ballet of Canada (2009)

• The Tempest Replica, Kidd Pivot, (2011)
• Polaris, Kidd Pivot, Central School of Ballet, London Contemporary Dance School (2014)
Betroffenheit, Kidd Pivot, Electric Company Theatre (2015)
• The Statement, Nederlands Dan Theater (2016)
• The Seasons’ Canon, Paris Opera Ballet (2016)
• Flight Pattern, Royal Ballet (2017)
• Partita for Eight Dancers, NDT (2018)

Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Revisor at Sadler’s Wells in London closes tonight. Details: sadlerswells.com

Betroffenheit review at Sadler’s Wells – ‘electrifying dance-theatre’

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