Stories With Legs

Danced in socks and bare feet, Crystal Pite’s edgy choreography has been dubbed the future of ballet. “Modern dance” is an outdated term. Maybe “ballet” is, too

Photograph by Jörg Baumann/Kidd Pivot
Photograph by Jörg Baumann/Kidd Pivot

Dark Matters is a taut, strangely hilarious dance thriller about a man and a small wooden puppet he creates one day while making a sandwich in his kitchen. The hinged puppet is manipulated by several shrouded figures via long poles attached to its body, allowing it to walk, kneel devoutly, show affection, and pursue revenge. At the end of the show, which I caught at the Vancouver Playhouse in February 2010, one of the shadow figures—the only one to remain hidden throughout—stepped out of her black pants and hoodie, revealing a slender blond woman in bra and panties. It was Crystal Pite, the work’s choreographer. She and the man (Peter Chu) danced the closing duet, an intimate, tumbling finale.

A year and a half later, as she fuelled up on lamb soup and bread at a small eatery near the downtown Woodward’s campus of Simon Fraser University, Pite recalled how the invisibility of the role had initially disappointed her. She was on a lunch break during a four-day technical residency at SFU’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre: “But the choreographer in me knew it was totally necessary.” As the work’s creator, dancing the shadow puppeteer herself seemed conceptually apt, and there were practical gains: the role made it easy to step out of the piece during rehearsals so she could direct.

Pite’s last appearance as the shadow figure in Dark Matters was at the 2010 Venice Biennale when she was three months pregnant. She continued working offstage, premiering a quartet of short pieces in Germany. Then she returned home to Vancouver with partner Jay Gower Taylor (a dancer turned set designer) for the birth of their first child, Niko. Labour happened quickly—so quickly she didn’t make it to the hospital and her midwife called an ambulance. Four arrived, filling the East Vancouver street with lights and sirens. One paramedic came inside: “He was lovely,” Pite said. “He stood in the corner of my bedroom like a soldier, ready for anything.”

The event sounds like a scene from one of her shows: the serious drama (childbirth), lightened by absurdity (all those ambulances) and at times touching (the on-guard paramedic). Pite does abstract ballets, building elusive, fanciful architecture by moving bodies around in time and space, and yet she typically manages to fold a narrative into her pieces as well—never with so much story that a libretto is necessary for the audience to understand what’s going on, and never so fanatically non-textual that mime is needed (both devices are lingering conventions of nineteenth-century story ballets).

Pite’s approach is sheer twenty-first century: drawn to story but not in thrall to it, she establishes just as much character, location, and plot as the staging will hold, using varying amounts of text (live, recorded, or projected), inventive set and lighting design, atmospheric soundtracks, and, most of all, movement—choreography that stutters and gushes in restless, surprising flows, as intellectually motivated as it is viscerally thrilling. This combination of fresh, virtuosic movement, contextualized by a dose of fractured or otherwise deconstructed narrative, is getting her noticed around the globe by critics, artistic directors, and audiences desperate to find someone who stands for dance’s future rather than its past.

The Germans have shown strong support for Pite and her Vancouver company, Kidd Pivot, which gained the suffix Frankfurt RM for the duration of a two-year residency arrangement with Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, an “artists’ house” that supports a range of innovative production and performance from a renovated soap factory in a residential neighbourhood of Frankfurt. The organization wanted her to relocate to Germany, but when she declined to give up her West Coast base, a partial residency and naming rights agreement was devised. Renewed for an additional six months, the grant—and its money—runs out on June 30, 2012, which is fast approaching. The Germans’ hefty financial contribution, approximately $1.5 million from the Frankfurt Rhine-Main region, has made all the difference to Kidd Pivot’s operations, allowing Pite to rely on a full-time company of seven crack dancers from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia. Without the German support, and given British Columbia’s limited arts funding, they will have to go back to working project by project. “We’ll get together, rehearse quickly, do a tour, and disband,” she said.

Two months after Niko’s dramatic entrance, the family was on the road with Dark Matters (which finishes its three-year world tour in July), and Lost Action, a gripping lament from 2006 that evokes street violence and battlefields. Touring two major productions with an infant in tow strikes me as challenging, but Pite brushed it off: “I’d be having the sleep deprivation at home anyway.” Gower Taylor often put Niko to bed at the hotel while she was at the theatre. “The actual travel was a little hard,” she allowed. But she didn’t want to abandon her dancers.

She was drawn to choreography early on in her dance training, spending Saturday afternoons making small pieces with others from her ballet class at the Pacific Dance Centre in Victoria, an unusual opportunity offered by the school. One year after Ballet BC hired her as a dancer in 1988, right out of high school, she created Between the Bliss and Me for a company workshop, and the piece made it into the repertoire. Such early choreographic success is rare for a dancer of Pite’s calibre; many focus too much on the demands of performing onstage.

Ballet BC proved felicitous for her on several counts. One benefit of the short season at the always financially strapped company was that it gave her time to choreograph. She also met Gower Taylor there (recollecting their kiss in Serge Bennathan’s In and Around Kozla Street, held throughout a long, spinning embrace, Pite smiles: “It was so romantic!”). And Ballet BC is where she first danced in a work by William Forsythe, the notorious deconstructor of classical technique who was becoming influential worldwide.

The American master provoked great excitement when he arrived in Vancouver in 1990 to set his ballet In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. “There’s this crashing movement that is right in sync with the music—a big kick equals a big crash—which as a dancer I found incredibly satisfying,” recalled Pite. She was immediately smitten with Forsythe’s off-balance, cutting-edge aesthetic. After performing in another Forsythe piece, The Vile Parody of Address, in 1995, she flew to Germany to audition for Ballett Frankfurt, the company he then directed. A fluid mover with an extraordinarily articulate body, she got in. As an emerging choreographer, though, Pite faced the risk of becoming just one more follower “in the school of Forsythe.”

Post–Ballett Frankfurt, her choreography did show evidence of Forsythean cerebral logic, which can make dancers look as if they are wilfully resisting going with the flow, thinking their way through every step and pose. But she never lost her warmth or humour. As if to prove just how friendly and approachable she was, her work in The Stolen Show, for Montreal’s BJM Danse, was daringly over the top, with a life-sized bear and a chorus line of rubber chickens. Amazingly, she pulled it off: the show is hilarious. In conversation, Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, gave it a double thumbs-up: “I loved it! I loved it!”

Pite even inserts humour into a serious piece like Dark Matters. Not everyone likes the mix: the New York Times complained that “the work’s tone zigs and zags puzzlingly between a mood of sinister cinematic drama and slapstick buffoonery.” Another criticism levelled at Pite—this time from London, in a Guardian review of Lost Action—is that it goes on a tad too long (a common failing of evening-length dance, and one to which she does occasionally fall prey). Mostly, though, the Guardian review raved, and over at the Observer she was referred to as “one of that handful of choreographers who are moving the conversation forward.”

Wendy Perron, editor of the American Dance Magazine, also believes in Pite’s ability to push dance into the future, placing her (and four European-born men) squarely beside heavyweight avant-gardist Forsythe. Perron’s 2010 article about the future of ballet opens with high praise for Dark Matters, “a harrowing story of fearful shadows, human creativity, and willful destructiveness.”

Why is Dark Matters—danced in socks and bare feet, with an edgy, urban aesthetic that seems to have little in common with the high-art world of tights and turnout—the lead in an article about ballet? Pite’s work, as Perron says, “is ballet today.” It is not about the art form’s past, with multiple pirouettes and “open, long-lined upper bodies”; instead, Pite uses ballet technique as the basis for a new virtuosity that is about “initiating movements from a precise place in the body and sending currents of energy that stop and start with thrilling complexity and daring.”

Pite is ballet today, but she is also today’s modern dance. Ours is an egalitarian age, and, like so many contemporary dancers, she has trained in both forms as well as several others. Vocabulary from different genres is a typical part of the choreographic palette for artists on either side of the divide. Even when Pite does a pointe ballet such as Emergence, for thirty-eight National Ballet of Canada dancers, the aesthetic is contemporary: the movement is angular and thrusting, passing in waves through the dancers’ bodies. “Modern dance” has long been considered an outdated term; maybe “ballet” is, too.

Interest in ideas constitutes a great deal of what makes Pite such a modern dancemaker. She reads widely as part of her research process: essays on writing by Annie Dillard for one piece, books on insect social systems for another. Recently, it has been manuals on storyboards, a cinematic tool she appreciates because each frame captures “the essence of a moment.” She began studying storyboards for Plot Point, her fourth piece for the prestigious Nederlands Dans Theater, which played two distilled stories off each other, one featuring white-clad figures who deliver the plot in a series of tableaux; the other, realistically costumed characters who dance the scenes’ emotional content. Eventually, the two worlds collide.

For her current work-in-progress, which Pite described as “quite narrative,” she looked at familiar tales that will let her jump to the heart of the story without needing the kind of background detail that she feels is so “clunky” to express through dance, but she didn’t yet have an actual story in hand. “I’m not trying to be tricky,” she assured me, “but I don’t want to choose the wrong story.” Already, she had spent time with the dancers, building characters with broad strokes: someone who is being chased, someone who is shifty. That morning at the Wong Theatre, hours before we met over lamb soup, composer Owen Belton played an excerpt from his score, which included the crash of falling garbage cans (she had asked for sounds of a fight), while the stage design team (including set designer Gower Taylor) experimented with projections of storms at sea.

As we shared the last piece of bread, Pite let slip the fact that she might actually have found her story. Pressed for details, she said firmly, “I’m going to keep it a secret.”

When the piece, titled The Tempest Replica, premiered in Germany last October, the secret was out: she had been reading Shakespeare. Romantic ballets inspired by the Bard are common, but Pite’s modernist horror of straightforward translation means this latest work, which comes to Canada in the fall, promises to be something completely different. The Tempest Replica will doubtless zig and zag between profound and foolish, high art and low—in a most Shakespearean manner—wooing audiences with an idea-rich and altogether lively dance.

This appeared in the May 2012 issue.

Kaija Pepper
Kaija Pepper has written three books about Vancouver’s dance community. She is the editor of Dance International magazine.