by Kaija Pepper

Back home in Vancouver last June, Crystal Pite received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Simon Fraser University. At the ceremony, the dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology, Aoife MacNamara, introduced Pite as “an internationally renowned Canadian choreographer, whose works are sought by some of the world’s best dance companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet.” MacNamara noted the work Pite choreographed in 2014 for SFU dance students, Singularity, performed at the university’s downtown Woodward’s campus.

Singularity also included students from Arts Umbrella, where Pite has a longstanding relationship as guest faculty, and Modus Operandi, a school run by David Raymond and Tiffany Tregarthen, who dance with Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot. This kind of project is a good example of how, despite the pace of her international career, Pite remains embedded in her local community.

When we sat down at a café a few days after the degree ceremony (she had just dropped off her eight-year-old son, Niko, at school), Pite explains, “I needed students from all three schools so we could get enough dancers together to do these experiments for my Sadler’s Wells piece, Polaris. I imagined it with a cast of thousands, but the biggest group I’d worked with was 36 for Emergence [for the National Ballet of Canada].” Polaris would premiere in 2014 with more than 60 dancers from her own troupe and a large contingent from the London Contemporary Dance School and Central School of Ballet. In 2015, it won the best modern choreography award from the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards in Britain.

Crystal Pite in rehearsal Photo: Rahi Rezvani, courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater

There were, says Pite, many simple questions that research with the student group could answer. “Like if you line people up shoulder to shoulder, how many can fit onstage? Or, if you put them front to back, how many people fit on the diagonal? You could do the math and tape it out on the floor — but really!” she smiles.

In any case, Pite is a keen collaborator. “I do love working with people, and if there’s one thing I’m good at it’s choosing the right people to surround myself with.”

These include her fairly consistent group of about eight company dancers, who she praises as “heavy hitters.” It’s with this handpicked troupe — who come together from Canada, the United States and further afield whenever projects are in development or on tour — that she is creating her next Kidd Pivot work, Revisor. The piece, which premieres at Vancouver’s Playhouse theatre in February, includes a large element of farce. “Their characters are so extreme,” she says, her face lighting up, “and so distinct and funny. I’m laughing just thinking about it!”

It’s her third collaboration with Electric Company Theatre’s Jonathon Young, who is writing the script. The title is inspired by an article Young read some years ago about Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1926 non-realist production of Nikolai Gogol’s farce, Revizor (known in English as The Government Inspector). “We’ve adapted the title, not translated it,” says Young when we met up later that week. “Our central character is a revisor, which is someone who usually works in law and who is responsible for the revision of legal texts.”

The day we spoke, he had just come from a working session with Pite to record the script with actors; this will form part of Revisor’s soundscape, providing a score used both for content and as music. Then, says Young, they need to figure out “how much else needs to be built in and around” the script, such as music and, of course, physicality. The relationship between text and movement is complex and intimately interwoven, as it was in Betroffenheit (2015) and in his and Pite’s second collaboration, The Statement (2016), for Nederlands Dans Theater.

According to a review in Britain’s Independent,The Statement is a dazzling account of complicity, naivety and guilt …” Pite “has a gift for working with text, illustrating, undercutting and opening up the words on the soundtrack — in this case, Young’s play for four voices.”

“What we discovered with The Statement,” says Pite, “was that this relationship with the text and the body could be sustained. Granted that was a one-act, 19-minute-long play, but it worked beautifully and so it gave us the courage and inspiration to do something even bigger.”

Kidd Pivot’s Tiffany Tregarthen in Crystal Pite
and Jonathon Young’s Revisor
Photo: Michael Slobodian

During the recording session for the evening-length, eight-voice script for Revisor, both Pite (the choreographer and director) and Young (the writer) were involved with directing the actors for rhythm, character and intention. They asked each other questions, says Young, “like, do we have the pattern of voices right here? Because I’m writing a conversation, I want a balance between who is saying what and who is figuring out the problem, just as Crystal is thinking about how things are going to stack up and tumble about onstage.”

Both are reticent to talk about themes this early in the process. Pite says they are still “circling around the content,” with several weeks of rehearsals scheduled for Vancouver, followed by a second technical residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta in February. It seems safe to say, however, that Revisor will be about the absurdity of power, and about corruption and occupation, all current political preoccupations. And there will be much play between forms.

“It’s like I’m with a co-worker who is writing in a slightly different language than I am,” says Young. “We’re working together to create images.”

The interplay between what words can do and what dance can do — how they contribute in terms of both form and content — has long been a defining factor in Pite’s choreography. Text has inspired many of her works, as with Field: Fiction, inspired by Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and The Tempest Replica, a Shakespearean tale that incorporates many projected words and phrases.

“Text has always been an essential part of how I think about theatre,” she says. And not just text: stage design, costuming and music, too, are all part of the palette from which Pite and her collaborators build a work.

“There are so many different types of people who come to the theatre, and some of them are willing to follow a passage of abstract choreography, and others aren’t,” she says. “They want other pathways into the content.” The important thing “is to have a conversation with the audience.”

Meanwhile, Pite says her work with text — with Revisor and other pieces — is helping her discover “just how powerful dancing actually is. The movement pops out with greater relief and clarity against what the text does. Somehow it’s helping to identify what the essence is in dance.”

DI WINTER 2018

Dancers from Simon Fraser University Dance Program, Arts Umbrella Graduate Dance Program and Modus Operandi in Crystal Pite’s Singularity
Photo: Jonathan Kim, courtesy of SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts