Dance as a mother tongue

A portrait of Crystal Pite

By Sarah Crompton 24 April 2018

© Michael Slobodian

Crystal Pite

Dance as a mother tongue

Alongside her former master William Forsythe, who engaged her at the Frankfurt Ballet in 1995, Justin Peck and artist Tino Sehgal, Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite takes to the stage of the Paris Opera for the first time with a piece set to a score by Max Richter that revisits Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. She tells us about her conception of dance, her career and her wishes. A Portrait

Crystal Pite doesn’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t dance. “I think I was always a dancer and always a choreographer too because I remember even as a toddler making up dances, ones that I would repeat and practice. I would use the same music, the same clothes, do them the same way every time,” she says. “Being a dancer and being a choreographer was just this trajectory that I was on my whole life.”

Now 45, that path has taken her to the pinnacle of the dance world. She is admired by William Forsythe and Alexei Ratmansky; she has worked with Robert Lepage. When Sylvie Guillem retired she confessed that one of her very few regrets was that she had never danced in a work by Crystal Pite. The best ballet companies in the world, including the Paris Opera Ballet and London’s Royal Ballet beat a Pite herself remains both flattered and unaltered by the fuss. “It is an incredible honour to be making a work for the Paris Opera Ballet,” she says, smiling. “Talk about pinching myself. It is such a gift and is going to be a great adventure.”

Répétition de « The Season’s Canon »
Répétition de « The Season’s Canon » © Julien Benhamou / OnP

In person Pite seems quiet and unassuming. She talks in sentences that have a habit of ending in the sound “hmmm” as she thinks about what she might say next. Yet watch her in a rehearsal room and she is an elemental force. She might speak softly, but she knows exactly what she is trying to achieve. “I like to see movement that has meaning and purpose and I like seeing people in a state of effort and striving,” she says. “I am very moved by that.

“As a dance artist, I ask myself all the time why should we do anything as dance? It would be so much easier to do it with words.” She laughs as she speaks. “I am trying to think of the viewer and how the audience might use the experience of watching dance as a way to bypass language and access other parts of themselves. It is visceral. We all know our bodies have a physical language and we all speak it. It is another kind of language and sometimes I feel it is my first language.”

Her work as a result has a very direct connection to emotion, but she is also not afraid to grapple with serious thought and important themes. This desire to create work that matters has been deepened since she became a mother; she now has a five-year-old son called Niko, with her partner, designer Jay Gower Taylor. “I think there is a new kind of vulnerability and awareness that has come into my life since my son arrived that makes me feel I want to be very careful and choosy about the content I deal with. I want to work with content that is meaningful to me,” she says. “I have only so many years, so many creations and I want to choose wisely.”
Pite took her inspiration for her ballet for Paris Opera Ballet from Max Richter’s version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – “both the structure and the content.” She goes on: “I am trying to make this music visible. The resulting shape and structure of the choreography looks to me like natural phenomena. ” It is also underpinned by the writing of the American Annie Dillard, particular the book A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which attempts to understand the process of creation in the natural world. “Annie’s writing serves as a way to verbally articulate what I am trying to offer in the work – which is a sense of wonder and amazement,” says Pite.  

Répétition de « The Season’s Canon »
Répétition de « The Season’s Canon » © Julien Benhamou / OnP
The fact that The Seasons’ Canon is presented on the same programme as Forsythe’s Blake Works is a source of particular pleasure for Pite. The American choreographer has been her mentor and friend ever since she danced for five years with his Ballett Frankfurt. “It was profoundly important in my development as a dancer and a choreographer,” she says. “I was 25, and I felt a bit out of my depth. I felt like an imposter, but he encouraged me to choreograph and I made two works while I was there.”

An unconventional path

Her route to Frankfurt, and to ballet in general, had been quietly unconventional. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, she went to a local dance school, something she believes influenced her entire career. “I feel really fortunate that I didn’t end up going to one of those big ballet schools. I think I would have died there,” she says. “I was very lucky in my little ballet school because I had these amazing opportunities to create. My ballet teacher would give me the key to the studio and I would go at weekends and just make up dances. ”

Her first job was with Ballet British Columbia, which she joined in 1988 and where she choreographed her first major work. After her years in Frankfurt, in 2001, she returned to Canada, basing herself in Vancouver, and the following year she set up her own company Kidd Pivot. “I always had it in my head that the final destination for me was to have my own company,” she says.

Kidd Pivot remains the spiritual heart of her work, the place she forges ideas and experiments, always pushing in different directions, creating works that are full of strong feeling and often use words and other theatrical techniques such as puppetry alongside dance. Her work for them includes The You Show, which contains the duet A Picture of You Falling – the story of a relationship from beginning to fraught end. In 2011 she made The Tempest Replica, an examination of Shakespeare’s play and in 2015, Betroffenheit, a collaboration between her and Jonathon Young, which explores the extreme effects of a traumatic event, and becomes a picture of human suffering and survival.

Simultaneously, she has continued to work with other companies around the world, forging a close link with Nederlands Dans Theater where she is associate choreographer. She has also worked with the National Ballet of Canada, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Cullberg Ballet and Ballets Jazz de Montreal. In 2013, she became an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells in London and her first act was to create Polaris, a thunderous work for a cast of more than 60 to a score by Thomas Adès.

That impulse to think big when working away from her own company reveals Pite’s interest in filling stages with challenging movement that ebbs and flows between the huge and the small. With dancers she knows intimately, she can explore intricate gestures and steps within a single body. Entering a company like Paris Opera Ballet for the first time, she takes full advantage of the scale. “I want to build complexity over a lot of bodies, and I know I can trust a ballet company to be able to do that beautifully. For The Seasons’ Canon, Richter’s score itself holds a tension between simplicity and complexity, between vast, vertiginous spaces and tiny densities. That’s the tension I always strive for – I love the energy created by contradiction. I’m curious about whether choreography can evoke both the micro and the macro.” 

Répétition de « The Season’s Canon »
Répétition de « The Season’s Canon » © Julien Benhamou / OnP

It is the emotional weight and physical detail of all Pite’s work that makes her so distinctive, but she does not see herself as following any particular style. “I would say I am like a hybrid of all the things I have learnt, all my early teachers, all the choreographers I have worked with – more than 30 in my dancing days. In the early days of my company so much of what I built came out of my own body, my own limitations and possibilities.

“Now I don’t dance anymore I have had to find a way to deliver choreography that looks like mine through other people. That has been a really interesting shift, and I think my choreographic vocabulary is becoming more interesting because my own body is not getting in the way.”

The elusive magic of live performance, the sense that performers are bound together in a rite of communication with the audience, fascinates Pite. “What I love about live dance is that the art that you are watching is always in a state of disappearing. It is so ephemeral. It leaves these traces behind but they are just dissolving. So it is very, very present. For the dancer and the viewer. You are always in a state of loss and there is something very potent about that."

Sarah Crompton is one of Britain’s most respected writers and broadcasters, commentating on all aspects of culture and the arts. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, the Sunday Times, British Vogue, and the Economist magazine Intelligent Life among others. She specialises in writing about dance; her first book was a history of Sadler's Wells in London, Sadler’s Wells : Dance House, Oberon Books, 2013.

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