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The Creative Universe of Crystal Pite

Nature as Experience — By Antony Desvaux

From one ballet to another, the Canadian choreographer, Crystal Pite, powerfully deploys a universe in which zest for life ceaselessly confronts its darker side. Bodies traversed by contrary forces, individuals in a struggle with the outside world, communities alternately united and in conflict: Crystal Pite’s aesthetics transfigure on the stage the relationships that run through our lives. Fascinated by the “natural world and the beauty and brutality that it contains”, this choreographer explores with relentless passion the same group of themes. On the occasion of the world premiere of Body and Soul by the Paris Opera Ballet, we look back over the creative universe of Crystal Pite through five of her works.



© Angela Sterling

Emergence (National Ballet of Canada)

Is the group a cocoon or a spider’s web, a refuge or a danger? In a natural world in which our gregarious instinct holds a strong attraction, will the individual have the strength to find itself? The title of this ballet, which was first performed in 2009, refers to a book by Steven Johnson that compares the different ways in which humans and insects manage groups. How does order emerge in the heart of nature? Combining human figures and the silhouettes of insects in an aggressive and worrying ensemble, Crystal Pite gives flesh to the affects and impulses that set us moving. She admits to being fascinated by the thirst for unity (fusion, eurythmy) which resounds strongly in all of us, but which can also swallow us up. With a love for choreographing big ensembles with the potential to embody contagion phenomena (a stimulus spreading through an entity that mutates, changes structure, evolves like a flock of birds in full flight), Crystal Pite allows us to experience, in ballets that are often epic, the multiple conflicts that lie at the heart of nature.

© Christopher Duggan / Jacob’s Pillow

Dark Matters (Kidd Pivot)

A double meaning for the title of this ballet first performed in 2009. Both an evocation of dark matter, “the unexplored territory of our era” according to Crystal Pite: the group of forces that act the universe as a whole. And also the position of the choreographer: “dark matters”, in other words darkness is precisely what counts, what it is important to apprehend in order to have a better grasp of the mysterious forces at work in our souls and our bodies. We are thus caught up in an holistic entity, a single release of waves and obscure movements. In order to embody this permanent game of creation and destruction, Crystal Pite chose to stage a group of puppeteers dressed in black in the style of Bunraku. But the wooden figure they control plays no less an active part in this same process. In its turn, it reverses the roles and turns against its creator. What part do free will and manipulation play in our lives? Is the dancer capable of attaining the grace of a puppet by renouncing his/her own impulses? These question, which are not without reminding us of Kleist’s major text (On Puppet Theatre), in a subterranean way, are at work within all of Crystal Pite’s ballets.

© Jorg Baumann

The Tempest Replica (Kidd Pivot)

First performed in 2011, The Tempest Replica duplicates on stage the world invented by Shakespeare, a world both magical and interiorised. The universe of the The Tempest is here “replied to” or duplicated, unfolding in two parallel spaces. The outline of the story is presented in a minimalistic way in the manner of a storyboard, on an island reduced to the scale of a model, by white faceless bodies as if their faces had not yet been drawn. In a completely different, urban and contemporary landscape, fully fleshed-out characters dance a series of portraits (Prospero, Ariel, Caliban...), developing the motifs and emotions only lightly sketched by the chalk figures. The articulations of these marionettes are also the articulations of the narrative, which the characters duplicate as they embody them. The story on one side, the bodies on the other, meet and influence each other: games of imitation and manipulation in the midst of the tempest, all themes that run through this choreographer’s work, underpinned here by an imaginative scenography that presents them in the form of theatre that is as narrative and figurative as it gets: for Crystal Pite, the totem of abstraction no longer has any reason for being.

© Julien Benhamou / OnP

The Seasons’ Canon (Paris Opera Ballet)

In an orange light, an individual emerges from a wave of interwoven human bodies amid the ramifications of Vivaldi strings, multiplied by Max Richter’s rewriting: a fugal writing process, in “canon”, sets off a series of chain reactions, of echoing gestures and counter-rhythms through the dancers and the sounds. In this 2016 ballet, Crystal Pite offers us a striking image of nature as matrix: both the source of germination, mutation and transformation and as a closed space from which one must partially extricate oneself: the fascination of synchrony, unity and imitation (“man is a mimetic animal”, says Aristotle) but also the opposite desire to detach oneself from the suffocating effect of the herd. Nature is presented here as a struggle: at its heart an incessant conflict ensues, which questions the human group as a whole and the place of each individual.

© Michael Slobodian

Revisor (Kidd Pivot)

In 1836, Nicolas Gogol imagined a play, in the style of a farce, about an inspector general. This revisor (the original title of the play) is sent by the Czar to inspect a local administration. A young traveller, who happens to be in the area, is mistaken for the dreaded functionary: he then reveals all the pettiness and corruption but finds himself, in his turn, caught up in the web of his own growing power. In a choreographic rereading of this farce, Crystal Pite explores the relationship between words and bodies. The ballet stages an entire gallery of costumed characters who react, through movement, to a recording of the play performed by a group of actors. The interplay between words and gestures (exaggerations, discrepancies, contradictions...) renews, in the register of the grotesque and of black comedy, the theme of free will and of the puppet: are we manipulated by words or master of our affects? Or is it always something more obscure that pulls the strings?

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