Cathy Levy is Executive Producer of Dance at the National Arts Centre. On Friday she was named to the Order of Canada for her contributions to the performing arts.
Every so often in the theatre you get hit with that lightning bolt – un coup de foudre – that makes you sit up, your body filled with sensation. You know you’ve just witnessed something extremely rare and beautiful – hard to put words to, but it takes your breath away. As someone who sees hundreds of dance performances each year, those moments are unforgettable. You want to tell everyone you know to pay attention. And you do whatever you can as a dance programmer to bring those works to your audience.
I remember having those experiences early on in the career of Vancouver-based artist Crystal Pite, back some 20 years ago when she was making her first works for Ballet BC and Ballet Jorgen, among others. I was struck by her raw talent, and was sure it would be quickly fuelled by time and experience.
Fast-forward to 2019, a very auspicious year for Pite. In September, The Guardian named her 2015 work, Betroffenheit, the best dance show of the 21st century. Created with theatre artist Jonathon Young and Pite’s dance company, Kidd Pivot, the work explores a very personal tragedy and its after-effects in a compelling and irreverent manner.
Pite’s startling new production, Body and Soul – her first full-evening commission for the Paris Opera Ballet – recently played 20 sold-out performances in the prestigious Palais Garnier, accompanied nightly by rapturous audience response. Another recent Kidd Pivot collaboration with Young, Revisor (2019), will continue to tour extensively throughout Canada and beyond. And there are new and restaged pieces in development with a number of companies around the world. Whether choreographing a mass of bodies or astonishing, soulful duets, there is spirit, inner strength and humanity in Pite’s work. She has truly become one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers.
Pite has been dancing and choreographing since she was a toddler, eventually becoming an exquisite performer with Ballet BC. It was there where she premiered her first work in 1990 to great success. Other invitations quickly followed. There was something unique in Pite’s language – a blending of movement styles, rhythms and context, the telling of stories without linear narrative. Inherently, she knew even then about how to invent ideas and manoeuvre bodies in uncanny ways.
In the late nineties, Pite left Canada to spend five years performing with the Frankfurt Ballet under the leadership of the brilliant director William Forsythe. Forsythe’s astonishing interpretation of classical ballet garnered incredible attention, and Pite not only got to perform and tour extensively, but was also immersed in his creative process. It was a stimulating environment that gave her invaluable opportunities to cultivate her growing vocabulary as a dancer and choreographer.
The lure of Europe or New York was large, but Pite returned to Vancouver in 2001 to continue choreographing and dancing. She established Kidd Pivot a year later, and began to garner more attention. Her style was distinctive, as she explored the junctures of dance, theatre and music, interlacing her vivid movement language with poignant themes through the clever use of set pieces, puppetry, lights and text.
She allied herself with some of the best – and perhaps lesser-known – dancers from everywhere, and brought them to Vancouver to develop creations, while also beginning to juggle the new opportunities for outside commissions that were arriving. Many of those performers are still members of Kidd Pivot to this day. In fact, over the span of her career, Pite has surrounded herself with designers, composers, directors and performers with whom she has remained loyal. Her choreographies are vastly complemented by these collaborators and their innate understanding of her vision: They are part of her creative engine, and key players in her artistic approach.
Her breakthrough piece, Lost Action (2006), explored the ephemeral nature of dance itself. Noted for its rich blend of movement styles, it also has an unforgettably poignant through line of a character’s death played over and over with different outcomes – a construction and deconstruction of a human state that has become one of her signatures. Lost Action went on to tour nationally and internationally for more than three years, drawing a curious professional milieu and a fast-growing public audience.
Alongside Kidd Pivot, outside projects continued to beckon, including a three-year association with Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM), commissions for the legendary Quebec dancer Louise Lecavalier and New York’s Cedar Lake. The start of a long-term associate-artist position with the prestigious Nederlands Dans Theater further propelled Pite’s name on the world stage, and she was quickly juggling many new opportunities for larger-scale creations.
In 2008, the National Arts Centre and the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Awards selected Pite for the awards’ inaugural mentorship program, in which she would be paired with former prima ballerina Veronica Tennant as her mentor. At the gala performance, Pite performed a solo, A Picture of You Falling. Against a vocal score that she herself composed, her movements were dynamic, emotional, virtuosic. I could feel the whole audience riveted in their seats. They had no idea who she was, but now they would never forget. After the show was over, the lineup to talk to Pite was endless. I marvelled as she greeted each person with her characteristic kindness.
In 2015, her masterwork with Young, Bettroffenheit, premiered. The piece reverberated around the world not only because of its poignant subject matter, but because of its breathtaking beauty. It earned an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production in 2017, and the following year, Pite won the Olivier again for Flight Pattern, her first commission for the Royal Ballet in Britain.
All the while, Pite has stayed rooted in Canada, working methodically, quietly, generously, but with power and purpose. Wherever I travel I am approached by colleagues who now connect Canadian dance with her. She has distinguished herself as one of the most talented voices of today, a celebrated artist on the global dance scene, and one who continues to innovate, take risks and explore new ways the body can tell a story. Canadians should be very proud of her extraordinary success and impact on the international stage, and her incredible contribution to the dance scene, here and abroad.