Choreographer Crystal Pite Makes Dance About Us
“As the evening goes along, the pieces become more and more dramatic, and more and more epic,” Crystal Pite explained of the four pieces that make up The You Show. “I was interested in the idea that even though these stories of heartbreak and love loss arevery intimate stories, that are small in scale, to the person to they’re happening to they’re huge and epic and massive. They’re like earthquakes. They’re these huge shifts. And I was interested in trying to physicalize that. To make things bigger than us, superhuman, to make them as epic as they feel to the individual.”
Mid last week I was on the phone with the Victoria-born, Vancouver, B.C.-based choreographer Pite, conducting an interview over a crackling line courtesy of her hotel in Budapest, where her company was performing their 2009 piece Dark Matters at the Trafó. Starting tonight, her company Kidd Pivot brings one of their 2010 work The You Show to the Baryshnikov Arts Center for a brief run that is apparently nearly sold out.
Somewhat surprisingly, this is the company’s first New York presentation, despite Pite being a rising star on the international dance scene (admittedly, Dark Matters was at the Peak Performance Series at Montclair last year). After starting her career as a dancer with a BC ballet company, Pite joined the Ballet Frankfurt, where she worked with William Forsythe from 1996 to 2001. (“He’s also really great at destroying his work,” she told me. “I learned a lot watching how he would edit and remove things. There was as much for me to learn from that as from what he created.”). After Ballet Frankfurt, she returned to Canada and started her company around 2002. By 2006, she was producing works like Lost Action, which toured widely and generated further co-commissions, leading to the company’s current engagement as the resident company of the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt. All of which places New York a bit behind the curve when it comes to Pite’s work–it’s been everywhere else, why not here?
As we were talking, she was also spending time with her son, who’d occasionally intrude with a brief wail. “We’ve been on tour off and on since he was seven weeks old,” she said, “and now he’s almost 14 months. He’s a great little traveler. He’s a really good sport.”
I first caught her work in 2008, with Lost Action, and was duly impressed. In the extremely technical parlance of the contemporary dance world, Pite’s work falls into the “dance-y dance” category: her work is deeply informed by her background in ballet, relying on a rich and intense physical vocabulary, emotionally resonant imagery, and even narrative, as compared to the often conceptual work that leans toward natural and somatic movement we see in New York. But while I can’t comment on her choreography for companies like Cedar Lake Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater, the Kidd Pivot work I’ve seen is extremely contemporary and completely lacking in the academic dryness one might expect from that description. Pite’s vocabulary is several steps beyond traditional ballet, very rich and idiosyncratic. There’s also often a surprisingly mechanical component to it, with dancers pushing, pulling, and shaping other dancers’ movement, which has provocative intersections with the content of her shows–Dark Matters, for instance, explore the idea of the puppet and puppeteer.
“It always comes back down to the content, the subject I’m working with,” Pite said of her approach to creating dance. In Dark Matters, for instance, “[T]here’s a lot of imagery of the body collapsing and unfolding. It looks like a lot of manipulation done to the body from the outside, as if you’re a puppet and there’s an invisible puppeteer moving you. The joints are folding and unfolding accordingly. There’s a real sense of not being control. So we developed a lot of movement around that idea because I was interested in the unknown, I was interested in the unseen forces at work on the mind and the body, and doing a dance with the unknown and being in a state of not-knowing. And so that was the concept of that piece, so my work was to encourage the body to feel that, the sense of the body being danced as opposed to dancing.”
The You Show, though, is a completely different animal. Dark Matters, its immediate predecessor, functioned as a sort of diptych, the first part given over to a straight narrative component featuring a puppet show on a stunning scale, which follows the trajectory of the Pygmalion myth and ends the first half with the entire set destroyed. In the second part, the company does a more abstract dance performance informed by–and informing–the themes and ideas raised by the first. By contrast, The You Show scales back the spectacle substantially, serving up instead a quartet of duets of sorts (the final one, for instance, features the entire company).
“My first impulse was to work with duets. I have nine dancers in the company, and I wanted to do an evening of duets, so I was thinking of relationships, and what were some of the different things I wanted to explore between two people,” Pite told me, adding also: “I was interested also in narrative, I was interested in story, and I always have been. And I’m more and more interested in it as I go along, but I was interested in not necessarily telling a new story, but telling a story everyone knows. Familiar story-lines of love and conflict and loss, and heartbreak, because I was curious about working with themes the audience already has within them. That they could inhabit the performance. These are all stories we share together. I was really hoping with The You Show–even in the title–to make a piece about the viewer, so that the viewer would really feel that the show was about them.”
“I have a favorite proverb, and it is, ‘Talk to a man about himself, and he will listen for hours.’ And I was thinking this might be really good advice for theater-making, that if the audience really feels the show is about them, that they are inhabiting the work, that it’s them represented on stage, that maybe they’re that much more engaged.”
In order to achieve the effect, The You Show starts (in the piece “A Picture of You Falling”) with a form of direct audience address, asking the audience to see themselves as a dancer. As the piece unfolds, this identification leads the audience members on a gender- and identity-bending journey that proceeds through the subsequent pieces, including “The Other You,” which explores the conflict between Self and Other, “Das Glashaus,” about the experience of personal disaster, and finally “A Picture of You Flying.”
“They’re kind of climbing on one another, they alternate being the climber and being the climbed,” she explained of the final piece. “And so that imagery is quite rich, in terms of the relationship between these two people, and seeing that sense of support and then seeing that striving and climbing and pushing down, I guess overcoming each other.”
Sadly, the engagement at Baryshnikov is only two nights, and ticket availability is limited to on-call at best. But hopefully it’s only the first opportunity for New York audiences to catch Kidd Pivot’s work, which is ever more in-demand. When I asked Pite about what it was like to be a resident company, allowing for maintaining a full company during the residency, she praised the opportunity to explore a deeper engagement with her dancers, even as she noted with a laugh: “Of course what’s happened is because of that we have more activity than we’ve ever had before, we have more tours and therefore we have more exposure, more interest in the company because of our visibility. And so now we’re getting incredibly busy so we still feel like we’re very rushed and have little time to prepare.”