Acclaimed Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite premieres her new ballet with the National Ballet of Canada on Feb. 29. The ballet, titled Angels’ Atlas, is Pite’s first piece for the company since her break-out ballet, Emergence, in 2009. A decade later, Pite is one of the world’s most in-demand choreographers, creating work for ballet companies internationally and for her own renowned troupe, Kidd Pivot.
“Five years ago, Karen Kain invited me to come and make another work at the National, so it’s been some time in the making,” Pite says, speaking from her home in Vancouver. Kain, long-standing artistic director of the National Ballet, commissioned Pite’s Emergence, which launched her onto the international stage. Emergence, with Pite’s signature aptitude for moving large ensembles and distinctive choreography, is now in the repertory of several major ballet companies.
Returning to work with the National Ballet, Pite notes how the company has grown artistically. “I feel like they're more skilled in contemporary movement and they definitely have more complexity in their bodies than when I was last here. That's really positive and exciting for me.”
The new piece comes on the heels of Body and Soul, Pite’s latest work for the Paris Opera Ballet, which she says was a “very special experience.” Pite says her new work builds on some of the themes and choreography explored in Paris, which I take to mean that this work will look and feel very much like a “Pite piece” – organic choreography engineered for large groups, emotional depth, a sense of transcendence – which for Pite fans, is music to the eyes.
But this is not to say that there is nothing new. “The impetus for [the ballet] really came from my partner, Jay Taylor, who is the set designer for the project,” Pite says. “He has been developing a system that allows him to manipulate reflective light.” Together with lighting designer Tom Visser, the pair have devised a new technique of delivering light to a backdrop. Pite explains: “It’s analogue, so it’s made of the simplest materials, and yet it manifests these incredibly complex images onto the screen that are rich and painterly.
“It has this quality of controlled chaos, and it looks ethereal, like a frontier or a portal. It looks intelligent and benign and otherworldly. It really inspires in me a kind of wonder, because I know how simple the materials are.”
Pite’s choreography takes cues from the lighting design, connecting with the changeful nature of light. “There's also something about the mercurial, ephemeral way that the light moves that is very much like dance or very much like choreography.”
This is what I think makes Pite’s work compelling, from a movement and aesthetic point of view, and why her work transfers from contemporary dance to the ballet stage with equal resonance. Her ability to put “love and death and the infinite” in one sentence, or one ballet, is what makes her work great art. She says, “it’s about creating the right conditions to glimpse the infinite.”
“Dance itself is ephemeral; it’s always in a state of disappearing and impermanent. So, I’m using dance as a real metaphor for the impermanence, the temporal, the temporary nature of our existence. There is something so beautiful about that and so poignant – that the dance and the content are inextricable.”
Musically, the ballet features two choral pieces together with an original composition by Pite’s long-time collaborator, composer Owen Belton. “[Belton’s] piece is an electronic portion that pulls from vocal samples and other beautiful things like glass and bells and strings and other things he’s working with.” The two choral pieces bookending the work are Tchaikovsky’s liturgical hymn Hymn of the Cherubim and a contemporary work by American composer Morten Lauridsen, O Magnum Mysterium.
Pite’s new work is featured on a mixed bill with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma (2006) and Marguerite and Armand, Frederick Ashton’s balletic rendering of Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias. Dancing Marguerite, these performances will be principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson’s last with the National Ballet before her retirement from the stage.
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