It’s 9 a.m. at the Palais Garnier, the imposing home of the Paris Opera Ballet, and Crystal Pite is listening to Chopin alone in her dressing room. The Canadian choreographer has 10 days to go before the world premiere of Body and Soul, her new production for the French company, and it’s not finished, she tells me when I join her. “I was listening to some of the 24 preludes that I haven’t even touched yet. So … that’s challenging.”
It’s an understatement, but Pite is no stranger to pressure on the world stage. In recent years, the 48-year-old from Terrace, B.C., has blazed a thrilling trail at the crossroads between contemporary dance, ballet and theatre. She favours large-scale tableaus yet imbues her grounded, sinewy movement style with a sense of humanity that has earned her acclaim around Europe and North America. Remarkably, Pite is as comfortable crafting fast-moving patterns for dozens of dancers as she is venturing into fraught emotional territory. Betroffenheit, a heart-rending exploration of grief created with the actor Jonathon Young in 2015, made it to the top spot on The Guardian’s list The Best Dance of the 21st Century.
Still, she is tackling her biggest challenge yet in Paris. Body and Soul, which opens on Saturday , is Pite’s first evening-length production for a ballet company. The Seasons’ Canon, her first work for the Paris Opera Ballet and an instant hit in 2016, ran to only 35 minutes. This time, she is responsible for three acts – with scarcely more time, just eight weeks in total, to pull it off.
By contrast, when she works with her own Vancouver-based company, Kidd Pivot, projects such as Betroffenheit might take two or three years to come to fruition. “I’m in survival mode,” the choreographer says with bleary-eyed composure back in her dressing room. “There’s still a lot of unknowns. It just feels like nailing Jell-O to a wall. I just try to keep building, keep working.”
As with many of Pite’s productions, Body and Soul is set to be an ambitious, non-linear blend of dance and theatre. It was inspired by a short text Pite jotted down in the early stages of making Revisor, another collaboration with Young, which was inspired by the Gogol play The Government Inspector and had its premiere in Vancouver in February. Pite wrote a description of a scene between two characters in the play, one pacing back and forth, the other lying on the floor: “Depending on how the dancers embody it, the meaning changes,” she explains. “It can look like a conflict between two individuals, a group and an individual, or it can be a scene that’s intimate, a scene of loss.” Body and Soul spins a range of emotional states out of four different versions of the text.
In a rehearsal in September, the Paris Opera’s dancers moved to the words as if they were musical notes. Individuals emerged from a huddled group to embody one action – beckoning to the other character, for instance – only to be swallowed back in. “I’m interested in how the way we hear language affects the way we see dancing,” Pite says. “There are things that dance is very inefficient at. One is delivering a complex story. I’ve always been drawn to working with language, and I don’t want to feel like anything is off limits to me just because I’m a dance artist.”
If anyone can push the envelope while managing a cast of 36 dancers from the French company, it’s Pite. The Paris Opera Ballet has experienced significant turmoil and several changes of directors in the past few years. Alexander Neef, the head of Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, is now set to take over as general director of the opera house in 2021. Regardless, Pite’s local debut made everyone see eye to eye in 2016. In the studio for Body and Soul, she commanded the room’s attention without ever raising her voice, doling out unambiguous corrections and moving swiftly from dancer to dancer to demonstrate a hand position or to tweak the spacing between two bodies. After giving the wrong musical cue to one assistant, she apologized three times. “Wow. You’re so good,” she told the group with genuine warmth after a run-through. “I really appreciate your focus.”
“It’s gratifying to see their growth in the three years since I was here last. They really are the body and soul of this show,” Pite says of the dancers. Léonore Baulac, an étoile (principal dancer) of the Paris Opera Ballet, is effusive in her praise for Pite. “She manages to keep us connected, to bring us together, while remaining extremely nice. She knew everyone’s name on the first day, and she does it so naturally that it makes you wish you could work like that all the time,” she chuckles.
Human connection is a recurring theme off and onstage for Pite. “The show is about conflict, of course, but also connectedness. It’s always my greatest desire to connect with other people and to connect other people to each other,” the choreographer says. She is a faithful artistic collaborator: Body and Soul features her long-time creative team, from the set designer Jay Gower Taylor (also her partner) to the composer Owen Belton and the costume designer Nancy Bryant. “I like a tribe. I know they’ll take something and run with it – in the right direction.”
After a marathon-like few years, which have included works for Nederlands Dans Theater and the Royal Ballet in London, Pite has decided to take “a big chunk of time” off in 2020, to steer clear of burnout. “Right now I also don’t really have a lot of time to see other work. I need to be inspired by artists. I feel like I need a mentor,” she says, before adding with a laugh: “I could use a parenting mentor. I would like to be a better parent, that’s for sure.”
Pite has an eight-year-old son, Niko, with Gower Taylor. The morning we met, she was running late because of a babysitter issue. “It’s not easy. We have a little package from his school in Vancouver that we brought with us to keep up with it. It’s going to continue to get less and less easy for us to take him with us everywhere we go,” she says seriously. “But … he dissolves all this pressure for me.”
In the dance world, Pite has been the one doing the mentoring lately. Since 2018, she has been working with the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which pairs established names with emerging artists in a range of fields for two years. Pite’s protégée, Khoudia Touré, is a hip-hop choreographer from Senegal who was in the studio with her at the Paris Opera in September.
Despite their different backgrounds, the two have found that they have much in common. “She’s a totally hip-hop dancer,” Touré says, referring to the sense of articulation and muscle isolation Pite (who moved between ballet and contemporary dance during her performance career) brings to her choreography. The ballet-trained Baulac concurs, explaining, “her movements have a sweeping power to them, and they are fairly androgynous. Even in duets, it’s not necessarily a man carrying a woman.”
Anticipation is building in the French capital for the creation, but back in her dressing room, Pite seems conflicted by her new status as a star choreographer and the expectations that come with that. “I just don’t want to let anybody down,” she says. “But I want to make good work, to try to break new ground, and there’s always a risk in that. So I have to be willing to fail, which of course is the scariest part of it all.”
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