The extraordinary Crystal Pite

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Kidd Pivot company in a scene from 'Revisor'. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Kidd Pivot company in a scene from 'Revisor'. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Karen van Ulzen talks to the acclaimed choreographer on the eve of her company’s visit to the Adelaide Festival.

Crystal Pite is one of the world’s most acclaimed and sought-after choreographers but Australia has only really caught glimpses of her extraordinary talent. Most recently, audiences saw a sample in the Australian Ballet’s Kunstkamer – the highlight of the ballet, in my opinion. Yet she has created more than 50 works since choreographing her first professional piece for Ballet Columbia back in 1989 (and that’s not counting the dances she remembers, quite clearly, creating as a toddler). When I exclaim that this is a lot, she shrugs and disagrees, saying many of her colleagues are more prolific than she is.

Trained classically, an alumnus of William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt, she is a dancemaker who makes any division between classical and contemporary dance irrelevant. She has been choreographer-in-residence in Frankfurt in Germany and is currently associate artist with Sadlers Wells in the UK, Netherlands Dance Theatre and Canada’s National Arts Centre, all while running her cown company, Kidd Pivott, which she established in Vancouver in her home country of Canada in 2002.  Many of her works, if not created for Kidd Pivot, have been premiered by some of the biggest and prestigious ballet companies such as the Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. And soon, thanks to the Adelaide Festival, Australian audiences will see her Revisor, created in 2019.

Crystal Pite. Photo by Anoush Abrar.
Crystal Pite. Photo by Anoush Abrar.

Pite is especially admired for her breathtaking facility with large ensembles. She can carve exquisite patterns of movement out of large numbers of individual bodies, melding them into flfluid, sculptural formations and moving them around the stage as a single entity like murmurations of birds. As with the classical ballet masters of old, she brings to the modern stage an architectonic harmony, similar to the formations of swans in Swan Lake but with a contemporary inventiveness. She choreographs with equal skill on smaller scale, and says she embraces the challenges of either extreme – from huge spectaculars to intimate solos and duets.

Aside from her ability with physical language, her works are also admired for their intellectual depth, their emotional impact and their stimulating and complex themes.

Pite attributes some of her gift for creating form and shape to her upbringing on the beautiful west coast of Canada. “It’s humbling,” she says of the landscape (in an interview via Zoom from Canada). “I’m often captivated and inspired by the forms of the natural world around me. I tend to work with organic forms, things that look like one body, or flocking or swarming or physical structures like landscape or wave action, that kind of thing. So it comes from the natural world as well as my love of seeing large groups of people working together, aligned in their task: I find that really moving and beautiful and powerful.”

Once in the practice studio, however, I ask, how does she put her spectacles together?

“Mostly trial and error, to be honest,” she replies. She has the good fortune, she explains, to have access to a group of up to 40 students in her hometown of Vancouver where she can experiment with her ideas. “I use them like a human sketch pad or a test model. It is quite time consuming and labour intensive to work out my ideas – when I have the students with me I have more courage and I have more time. I don’t usually have that with a bunch of professional dancers. Big ballet company schedules are so tight.”

Pite also stands out from current trend in contemporary dance in that she is motivated by telling “story”, with plot and character. She believes storytelling is the best way to engage with human emotions and connect with other human beings, and the best way of exploring “the larger questions I might be interested in and to zoom in on a particular issue or content”. She mentions her ballet, Flight Pattern, which she choreographed for the Royal Ballet in 2017, as an example. “It’s theme was the refugee crisis, and the broad questions of suffering, borders, and so on. But what resonates most with the audience is when we zoom in and focus on one particular story and one particular family. That’s when the work gets its most traction, its emotional punch.”

In the past she has said that contemporary dance perhaps threw the baby out with the bathwater when it rejected narrative. But she has also said that dance is an “inefficient story teller”, which is why she likes to work with other theatrical tools, such as puppetry or voiceover. Which leads us to Revisor.

Revisor is based on the play The Government Inspector by the 19th century Russian writer, Nicolai Gogol, “a comedy of errors, satirizing human greed, stupidity, and the extensive political corruption of Imperial Russia,” to quote Wikipedia, set in a small Russian town with a cast of devious characters. For her version Pite has collaborated with Jonathon Young, with whom she has collaborated once before, on Betroffenheit, which was shown at the Adelaide and Perth festivals in 2017.

Why that story? I ask, now?

Kidd Pivot company performing Pite's 'Revisor'. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Kidd Pivot company performing Pite's 'Revisor'. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

She laughs. “It’s a preposterous idea! It was Jonathon who proposed it. He said I have this idea, it’s a farce, it might be interesting to work on as our next creation. At first I couldn’t imagine how we would turn it into a work of contemporary dance theatre; I was a little bit overwhelmed by the idea at first. But I did like the idea of working with a farce. I was very interested in that.”

Revisor is an extraordinary, riveting piece of theatre. With a cast of eight characters, it begins like an exaggerated mime show, with the characters in period costume, acting out the play’s script, which is supplied as a voice-over (spoken by Canadian actors), including the stage directions. About a third of the way through the mood suddenly changes, the costumes change, and the audience is taken down to the subtext of the play – the corruption, the oppression, the deceit – superbly embodied in twisted, distorted choreography. The voice-over continues, and so closely is the spoken text and the silent movement interwoven that it is impossible to tell which was created first.

One effect of this melding is to emphasise how much language uses words for bodily action and shapes to express human emotion and behaviour.

“We go down a rabbit hole,” Pite says, “and underneath the farce somehow. It is a kind of inspection of Gogol’s play.”

What is it like to dance Pite’s choreography? Dance Australia writer Belle Beasley, who has performed in her works in the past, describes the experience as thinking of movement in terms of weight and volume, of the pathways the movement might travel rather than the shapes being created. I ask Pite how she conveys her movement intention to her dancers.

“It depends on how much time I have and what dancers I have in front of me,” she replies. “If I’m working with a group of ballet dancers, their centre of gravity is usually higher in their bodies, so I trying to find ways to help them connect to the floor, to change the shape of their spine, to connect to their feet and the counter-rotations in their bodies in a new way. That’s one of the things I would focus on.

“There are lots of different principles in the things I do, and a lot of the learning happens in the process of learning the choreography itself. I will use a phrase of choreography from the piece as a kind of teaching tool as a way getting at the ideals, the values, I’m interested in, so move by move, step by step, we learn what the pathways are and what the physical relationships are within any process.

Tiffany Tregarthen in 'Revisor'. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Tiffany Tregarthen in 'Revisor'. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

“I like to talk a lot about pressure, degrees of pressure in the body, the amount of muscle we are using to execute something that feels, for example, very light or playful, effortless. I like to work with contrasts that way, to cultivate different states in the body, such as being in a state of conflict, with two different ideas that coexist in the body, creating a kind of tension. It’s nice to go back and forth between those extremes, just as an example.

“I don’t ever want anybody to be held back by my choreography." she goes on. "I want dancers to use it as a map or tool for them to deliver whatever it is that they’re are really good at.”

Being “held back” by dancing Crystal Pite seems an unlikely occurrence. Instead, she seems to free dancers to be more articulate, more eloquent, than they may have thought possible themselves. Adelaide audiences are in for a treat. 

‘Revisor’ will he held from March 17 to 19 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide.

Crystal Pite’s '10 Duets on a Theme of Rescue’, a series of intimate duets performed by Strut Dance, were also presented at the Perth Festival in February.

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