Crystal Pite is already a living legend. The rare choreographer who not only rises to a challenge, she takes exhilarating risks – including when she creates for elite ballet companies like the Paris Opera Ballet.
Amongst the most in-demand choreographers today, Crystal Pite receives commissions from companies like the Paris Opera Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Royal Ballet. On top of this busy schedule, she runs the company Kidd Pivot out of her homebase in Vancouver. Kidd is a reference to the outlaw and the pirate, whilst Pivot is a word denoting an action that requires great intelligence, precision and skill. The collaborators and artists who work with Kidd Pivot each come with their own unusual set of experiences and skills; a truly multidisciplinary group, coming from their own perspectives in theatre, music, circus, performance art, and dance. Like many other choreographers, she traverses different cultural and institutional contexts, each drawn to work with her uniquely poetic voice – and she has found her way to the top of her profession while retaining a mild demeanour.
According to Judith Mackrell of The Guardian: “On first meeting, Pite comes across as a woman of unusual sweetness and consideration; she weighs her words carefully when she speaks, and during rehearsal she is unfailingly appreciative of her dancers.”
It says a lot that ballet dancers in highly selective companies yearn to work with a choreographer. For example, the dancer Noealani Pantastico, now with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, was the person who introduced Pite’s work to PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal in 2008. Dancers are inspired to be in the studio with the choreographer; recognising that their gifts are not only being utilised but also stretched, growing. She empowers dancers to be co-creators in the studio, asking that they also arrange movement compositions following the logic of their bodies. While this might be an increasingly common way of collaborating with performers, it is still relatively rare for ballet companies; further, Pite still retains the specificity of her voice, honing in on physical details that change the body, its mood, its environment.
Pite believes that much of her best work has been inspired by violence, or darkness of some kind, although conflict in her own life seems to have been minimal. As a young girl in the Canadian city of Victoria, her childhood dream of a stage career faced no significant opposition; in fact, she credits her teachers for encouraging her ambitions. Before joining the Ballet British Columbia in 1988 at age 17, she danced in a small ballet school. Her teacher Maureen Eastick was pivotal in supporting her young creative voice, giving her space and opportunities to create choreography for her peers. Pite appreciates that “I had lots of opportunities not just to make choreography, but also to present it at festivals, which is rare.” Indeed – a powerful artistic voice like Pite’s has its genesis in quieter places, and through the patient efforts of multitudes of arts educators and advocates. Perhaps this consciousness informs her choices to create large-scale works with great ballet companies. In the studio with 40, 50, even 60 dancers, she would build complex compositions which reveal the organic and architectural possibilities of a mass of bodies, then create scenes which zoom in on the individual’s experience within this landscape.
While at Ballet British Columbia, a small Canadian company that focused on recent work and creations, Pite had the opportunity to dance in works by William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian. It opened the door to a more contemporary idiom. Quickly in demand as a choreographer, in 1996 she chose instead to focus on performance, joining Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt in Germany. She took that step to push her own growth as a young dancer – and indeed, the experience working at Ballett Frankfurt has led to the development of not just her choreographic career, but of many of her peers as well. Pite is one of four dancers featured in the well-loved and well-used media project, Improvisational Technologies by William Forsythe.
8 years ago, this maverick choreographer became a mother. As much as she dislikes drawing more negativity and attention to issues faced by female artists in a field largely populated by women, she acknowledges that becoming a mother has changed her time, her stamina and her priorities. Fortunately for her, her partner, Jay Gower Taylor, is also her set designer. They travel together for work, and share the childcare. To accommodate her child’s schooling years and the family’s resultant lifestyle change, it is said that she has worked internationally via Skype to rehearse dancers. Certainly, this is testimony to the potential for change and ways in which institutions can adjust to be more humane, more suited to the needs of artists in different life stages.
When speaking with Financial Times’ writer Laura Cappelle in 2016, she shared that she did get nervous working with the Paris Opera Ballet dancers. Working on-the-spot for many hours in a day, with a large group of dancers hungry for movement and artistic growth, is no mean feat. The choreographer has to command a roomful of individuals who enjoy attention, and guide each person performing into shaping movement and physical qualities that come together to craft a total experience. For her, playing a leadership role in the ballet studio has come naturally because of the type of environment she grew up in, where her individual vision and creative ambition were given room to thrive.
The relationship between Crystal Pite and the Paris Opera Ballet continues to grow; she will be working with the dancers for a series of sixty‑minute performances, pushing them to move beyond their limits and in tandem with each other, for a premiere at the end of this year.
In Singapore, this June, audiences here will be able to witness her work The Seasons’ Canon alongside Forsythe’s Blake Works I (2016) and Jerome Robbins’ In The Night (1970). An artist who seeks to be equal parts rigorous and reckless, the rise and fall of dancing bodies composed to Max Richter’s reinterpretation of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, promises to have the audience at the edge of our seats, living and breathing alongside – as if we are amongst them – the dancing corps.
Crystal Pite Seasons’ Canon with Paris Opera Ballet at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay 21-23 June.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.