'Enter several strange shapes, bringing in a banquet; they dance." Shakespeare's stage directions show that he wanted dancers in The Tempest, but he probably never imagined they would take over the whole show, as they do in Crystal Pite's The Tempest Replica.
There are plenty of full-length dances based on Shakespeare, most of them relatively straightforward adaptations of Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Pite's take on The Tempest, which Canadian Stage presents at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre starting Wednesday night, looks at the play from two different angles, from the outside and then from the inside. The show's first half is a compressed narrative presentation for whitened puppet-like dancers, with some projected text. The dancers then shed their white masks and dig into the relationships between characters in a series of duets.
From the outside, the Vancouver choreographer's career looks like a charmed rise to international stardom. Pite's contemporary company, Kidd Pivot, was in residence for three years recently at Frankfurt's Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm, which became her base for a two-year touring blitz of Europe. She has a long-standing relationship with the prestigious Netherlands Dance Theatre, and recently became an associate artist at Sadler's Wells in London. At age 43, she is one of the most sought-after choreographers of her generation.
From the inside, however, Kidd Pivot's situation looks a lot more precarious. Pite's independent company is based in British Columbia, which has by far the lowest per capita arts funding in the country. Her European connections give her an international stage, but they also provide a vital bridge to resources: rehearsal time, tour support and money. She works abroad in part because if she didn't, her company might not survive.
"I have to rely on European co-producers, really, to be able to do anything I want to do," she says, on the phone from England, where Kidd Pivot was on tour last week. "I don't have a full-time operation the way I did during the Frankfurt years. I'm working from project to project again, the activities of my company reduced to half the year."
The Tempest Replica was one of those Euro co-productions, made in 2011 at the midpoint of her Frankfurt residency. Pite arrived at Shakespeare from an unexpected direction: film noir, which she had hoped to mine for a narrative dance piece. "But I couldn't live with any of those stories," she says. "I wanted something that had more humanity and spirituality in it."
Also, The Tempest had a shipwreck. "I got as far as the word 'shipwreck' and I was caught," she says. "I was like, 'I want to make a shipwreck in a show, and translate the idea of shipwreck into the body, and make a solo that's a shipwreck.'" But by the time she was fully on board with Shakespeare, rehearsals were only two weeks away and the opening curtain eight weeks after that. Pite almost got more shipwreck than she planned: "I was scrambling, panicked, just barely keeping my head above water."
Meg Roe, a Vancouverite who directed The Tempest at Bard on the Beach in 2008, helped Pite prune the story to the basics. Splitting the show into two distinct halves increased the piece's narrative efficiency, while allowing her to extend a continuing fascination with what controls our feelings, actions and bodies.
"Are we puppets of some other force that's driving us, or do we drive ourselves?" says Matthew Jocelyn, artistic director of Canadian Stage, summarizing one of her major themes. He saw the same question of agency surging through Dark Matters (presented by Canadian Stage in 2012), and in Emergence, a work revived last year by the National Ballet of Canada in which dancers moved sometimes like insects, sometimes like reflective creatures.
"I do a lot of writing when I work, about what the piece is and what it means," says Pite. "I struggle with it, because it's like homework, but there's a beautiful feedback loop between the words and the wordless thing that takes place in the studio. For me, they're essential parts of each other."
The loop was a bit too short for The Tempest Replica the first time around. Pite watched the premiere in Frankfurt and knew that "it wasn't done. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't what it was going to be. I knew that I would need more time and money to fix it."
She got her chance last year when Sadler's Wells gave her the resources to do an extensive revision. Like Robert Lepage, with whom she worked on English composer Thomas Ades's opera The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera two years ago, Pite is driven to get things right from the start, but sees no shame in presenting work while it's still in progress.
"She comes with a very clear concept, and generally a clear structure outline, for her piece," says Stephanie Hutchison, a National Ballet first soloist who created a role in Emergence, and who danced with Pite when they were both members of Ballet B.C. "Even tiny movements are very detailed and physical."
"Crystal is a choreographer-philosopher," says Jocelyn. "Whatever movement complements her own thinking process, she'll use. She's an expansive choreographer, and she's really interested in stage vocabularies, such as clown, that can interact with pure dance forms."
Pite's work horizon includes a piece with Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre for the Panamania festival in Toronto in 2015, and a work for 60 dancers at Sadler's Wells next October set to Polaris, an orchestral piece by Ades. True to the cosmic title, which refers to the North Star, Pite is thinking in terms of constellations of bodies moving in a large system while also reacting to nearby events. "Working with so many dancers, I need to be able to create a lot of complexity through individuals responding to local stimuli and simple instructions," she says. "Those actions will then create emergent structures over the big group."
Most of the performers on stage will be students from London ballet and contemporary-dance schools, performing in groups each led by one of Kidd Pivot's six or seven dancers. Pite will workshop the piece in Vancouver for three weeks, following a familiar pattern: Lay the foundation at home in Vancouver, complete the work abroad. Yet she's committed to staying in her hometown, where she lives with her partner, Jay Gower Taylor (Kidd Pivot's set designer) and their young son.
"There's a temptation to leave," she says. "I could take over a company somewhere, and inherit a lot of structure and resources. But I really want to do this in Vancouver. It's where I live, where I want to raise my kid."
Kidd Pivot performs The Tempest Replica at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre May 7 through 11, the Royal Theatre in Victoria on May 21, and Quebec City's Le Grand Théâtre de Québec May 29 to 31.