Contemporary dance can be feared as an intimidating, even impenetrable cultural pursuit for general audiences who worry they just might not get it. And then there's Crystal Pite dancing circles around that perception. The Vancouver-based choreographer opens up this world to the uninitiated with her irreverent, dizzying originality, her bold approach to movement, her theatrical sensibility as well as her use of narrative and multimedia elements. But for Pite, accessibility absolutely does not mean dumbed down; those in the know thrill at the risks taken in her work and its sublime achievements. She is wowing the international dance world – often from her home base in Vancouver.
Pite, 45, has been dancing since she was 4, starting with tap – although these days, the tap dancing is as much metaphorical as it is literal.
Internationally in-demand, Pite (rhymes with "kite") is beyond busy: She has spent this week in Ottawa, preparing to remount her acclaimed, searing work Betroffenheit; she's just back from The Hague, where she premiered her newest work, The Statement, for Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), where she is associate choreographer; she continues to run her dance company, Kidd Pivot, out of Vancouver; she has upcoming commissions from the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet in London; she's an associate artist at Sadler's Wells in London; and last month she won a National Dance Award in London – an honour she didn't even realize she was nominated for
She also has been taking her five-year-old son on the road and is trying to figure out that particular aspect of her working-mother juggling act, as his academic career progresses past kindergarten.
"We have to think about how this is all going to go in the future, but I love being with the show, I love touring, I love seeing the performances and experiencing the show with an audience around me," said Pite from Ottawa this week, where two nights at the National Arts Centre (where she is associate dance artist) kick off an international tour of Betroffenheit. "The actual performance doesn't exist, right, unless it's actually being performed. So I like to be there [when] it actually comes to life and exists; I like to be there to witness it with the audience and to be part of that ritual, to be part of that moment."
For Betroffenheit – co-created with Vancouver actor and playwright Jonathon Young, who wrote and performs in the piece – that moment has produced shattered audiences and raves from critics.
"Simply devastating," wrote Globe and Mail dance critic Martha Schabas, in her four-star review of the world premiere in Toronto last year. Young conceived the work in the wake of a horrendous personal tragedy – the death of his 14-year-old daughter Azra (with fellow theatre artist Kim Collier) and two young cousins in a 2009 fire. Wrote Schabas: "I can't remember the last time I heard so much audience-sobbing at a curtain call."
An artistic triumph, Betroffenheit has also been a seminal creative – and life – experience for Pite, who choreographed and directs the work.
"The stakes felt incredibly high and I knew at every stage of the process that I was working on something that I cared about more deeply than I ever cared about any other project," she says.
Pite was born in Terrace, B.C., in 1970 and moved to Victoria around the time she turned 1. She took dance lessons from a young age – tap (every Wednesday after school until she was 15) and ballet with increasing intensity. In 1988, when she was 17, she moved to Vancouver and joined Ballet BC as an apprentice. Her first choreographic work premiered with the company two years later.
Since then she has created more than 40 works.
In 1996 she left Vancouver to join William Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt. From 2001 until 2004, she was resident choreographer at Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. She founded her own company, Kidd Pivot, in Vancouver in 2002 where the work she has created includes the acclaimed Dark Matters. A residency at Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt beginning in 2010 saw the company name change to Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM temporarily – during which period Pite created The You Show and The Tempest Replica.
"It was a very intense, very rich time for the company and as much as I loved it, it also happened to be the first three years of Niko, our son," she says – her partner is Jay Gower Taylor, Kidd Pivot's set designer. "It was great, but being a new mom I really missed home and I felt like I couldn't sustain it at that level of activity."
After the Frankfurt arrangement ended, Pite moved to a more project-to-project model with the company, spending roughly half the year with Kidd Pivot activity and the rest of the time doing her "side projects" – commissions for other companies such as Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.
She has won too many awards to list here, but they include a 2015 Olivier Award in London for outstanding achievement in dance and that National Dance Award last month for best modern choreography for her Sadler's Wells piece Polaris – an aptly named work for this star from the north – which featured 64 dancers; there were 66 in the New York version.
The Statement, which just premiered at NDT, is an example of the kind of innovation Pite orchestrates. It concerns four characters – two men, two women – dealing with a conflict in a boardroom setting. Four dancers perform live to a recorded audio script (written by Young and voiced in Vancouver by four actors – Young, Meg Roe, Colleen Wheeler and Andrew Wheeler) so the text becomes a sort of score.
Whereas Pite commissioned Young to write The Statement, Betroffenheit started with Young, who asked Pite to collaborate with him on the tremendously personal work. Despite the dark subject matter at its root, Pite says Young, taking the lead, approached its creation with curiosity, openness and eagerness; so making the work was in fact joyful.
"I can't say that it was easy because it wasn't; it wasn't easy, but it wasn't dark," says Pite, whose company co-produced the work with Electric Company Theatre, which Young and Collier co-founded. "Of course the material was difficult, but there's a line in the show where Jonathon says, 'You have to stay open or you close' – and that's what he's showed us."
The work could be particularly difficult to dive into for a new parent. I remind Pite of something she told me in 2011, when her son was a baby. She said she thought being a mother was going to change her world view and her sense of what's important. This week I asked if that had come to pass in her work.
"Absolutely," she responds. "It makes me want to work with bigger ideas … with content that just really matters to me deeply. I don't want to waste any time working on things that I'm not completely inspired and intrigued and curious about." She adds that she has less time to create now and, as a working parent, worries that she's not as good a parent as she'd like to be and not as good an artist as she'd like to be. (Superstar choreographers; they're just like us.)
"On the other hand, I feel like I'm more aware, more vulnerable, more of a sponge than I've ever been," she continues. "I suppose a kind of terror and a kind of vulnerability has come into my life that I expect is going to make me a better creator."
Betroffenheit is at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Feb. 12 and 13; Canadian Stage in Toronto Feb. 18-21; the Vancouver Playhouse Feb. 25-27; Victoria's Royal Theatre March 11-12 (kiddpivot.org).