NCR > Nearly 20 Questions with dancer/choreographer Crystal Pite
Words are metaphors for rich sensory experiences. Each word is filled with a lifetime of experience and association. Our ability to articulate with nuance and grace the deepest of our selves with words is limited to the language we speak and share with others, the vocabulary we have been able to integrate, our nimbleness with those tools and how honestly we have marinated in our histories. When all of these things are in place, the potential for being shaken by the truth of the collective human experience is propitious.
For me though, the moments of greatest revelation have come through witnessing the vocabulary of the body; feeling in the way a body collapses into itself or seems to be in conflict with itself my own grief or turmoil or joy. Crystal Pite is a master at creating choreography that is surprising, exciting, raw and affectingly honest. She combines text and movement poetically and articulately. Her work seems to masterfully convey the profundity of the human struggle. It is awesome. In the truest sense of that word.
Here is a little info on her:
- Former company member of Ballet British Columbia and William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt.
- She has created over 40 works since her 1990 choreographic debut.
- She formed Kidd Pivot in 2002 in Vancouver.
- She is the recipient of many awards, most recently the 2011 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, the inaugural Lola Award in 2012, and the Canada Council’s 2012 Jacqueline Lemieux Prize.
- Kidd Pivot is currently touring “The Tempest Replica” in England, the USA and across Canada. For details please check out http://www.kiddpivot.org/upcoming-tours/
New Culture Revolution: How old were you when you knew you wanted to become a dancer?
Crystal Pite: I have always danced since toddlerhood~ I don’t even know when it started. But I have always danced. There wasn’t a defining moment when I knew, it evolved naturally over time. Dance is always what I have done. It must have been around eight or nine or ten when I understood that this was something I could do as a job, but I was always on track for that.
NCR: What was the first dance performance you saw that moved you? How old were you? Where was it?
CP: Every year in my dance school we would compete and I would see some of the older girls do their dances and I remember being really moved by that; how good they were, and how beautiful and how much they knew and I remember being really touched by the way they would dance. I think it was just something that was always out up ahead of me, something to aspire to.
Then I would have been 16 when I first saw the work of William Forsythe. Ballet British Columbia had a piece of his in their repertoire called “Love Songs” and I remember being blown away by that piece. And later, work by Jiri Kylian was really moving and inspiring and changed the way I thought about what dance could be. I started to understand more about contemporary dance because, as a kid growing up, I don’t think we ever really understood what contemporary dance was. I mean, at the time, we would have been calling it modern dance and in my little ballet school we would have thought that modern dance was what you did if you couldn’t succeed in ballet. We had no idea what it actually was or what it could be as a life or as a career. These works would come into my life early on and I would realize, oh there’s more to dance than a Broadway musical or a big story ballet.
NCR: How would you describe your process as a choreographer?
CP: My process differs from project to project. If it’s a commission there are always a series of limitations and possibilities that I respond to. For example: Can I work with a live orchestra? Can I make something for all the dancers in the company? Can I create a piece that is between twenty and thirty minutes? Can you do this within this budget? That can give me a direction. Also other work the company has done, that may be something I want to push against to try to do something other than what they’ve been doing lately.
If I have carte blanche to start from scratch, work on my own company for example, then I start with content. I start with a subject that is interesting to me, something I can really sink my teeth into, that I can learn something from.
Particularly with my own company I have noticed that whatever I choose to work with we end up living with that for five years or more; there is research, creation, the performances, there’s the remount, the touring, the more touring, the more remounting. These works, they live with us, become part of our family and we live with them for years. Now that I understand that, twelve years into having a company, I am very careful about what I choose to work with. I need to choose higher themes that really resonate, themes I can commit to for many years.
NCR: What is “The Tempest Replica”? Why did you want to make “The Tempest Replica”?
CP: I chose The Tempest because it was a story, a human story, I could really connect to and live with for a long time. Those themes were going to be running through my life forever.
At the front of the process I set out to challenge myself to working with an existing script, I had been working with narrative and with little fragments of story and my own text in my work but I had never actually worked with a whole existing script. It was then about finding the right script and I hadn’t intended on using Shakespeare. I was reading a book by Peter Brook about theater making and he was talking about his own 1968 production of The Tempest and he was using that as an example as a way to illustrate some things about creative process. He was talking about the shipwreck and how every director that works with that play has to make a decision about how much time and money they are going to spend on it because there is only one scene in the play there and the rest takes place on an island. I got about as far as the word shipwreck and I was caught. I thought, oh I want to make a shipwreck. I want to make a shipwreck as a dance; I want to do that on stage somehow. From that first impulse I thought of doing it in two different ways, one was to really overtly try to make it look like a shipwreck was onstage and another thing I thought of was to try to make it a solo, to try to put a shipwreck in a body. I loved the idea of it, but then I actually read the play and realized it was way too complex to try to do it as a solo dance. There is great complexity to the backstories, all this exposition that I was going to have to do, so I decided to give up on it. There was no way I could pull that off.
It just so happened that one of the sound designers I had pulled into the project had directed The Tempest a year before in Vancouver, so she knew the play inside and out, backwards and forwards. She sat me down and talked me through it and I was completely compelled, I was hanging on her every word, she explained the whole thing to me so beautifully. And because she was on the project anyway she could basically hold my hand through the process as I tried to deal with the play. There were many points along the process here I wanted to give up because it is really complex and dance is a really inefficient way to tell a story. I just about gave up, but I am happy with it now. It took some time. It premiered in 2011 and it was okay but it wasn’t what I had hoped it would be so when I remounted it we did some major renovations to make it the show we hoped it would be.
NCR: As a creator, how much of the process is inspiration and how much is discipline and persistence?
CP: It is 90% persistence and work and discipline, putting in the hours trying to figure stuff out. I don’t trust in inspiration, I don’t trust that I am going to have any revelations or flashes. When they do come I’m so grateful. I need to know that I can solve things through pure diligence and hard work it’s too terrifying otherwise. I can trust in my ability to do that. And then if inspiration comes in then great, it’s wonderful, it’s like flying, and it’s a great feeling. I don’t assume I’m going to have it.
NCR: How do you know when you have completed a piece of choreography?
CP: I am still tinkering with everything I do. I constantly change it and tweak it and finesse it. So in that way, it’s never done; that’s why I like working in dance, I can’t imagine writing a book and having to publish and then that’s it, you can’t go back and fix it. I love dance for that reason, it’s just in my nature to keep fussing. There is a moment though where you feel like it’s landed. The details you were working on get smaller and smaller and smaller; you’re not changing entire chapters, you’re changing a few bits of punctuation here and there. Sometimes that doesn’t even happen until halfway through a tour. It can keep changing and evolving. It can change when a new performer comes into the mix, new technology. That also needs to be integrated.
NCR: What do you hope an audience walks away with after watching one of your pieces?
CP: I want them to be moved, I want them to be touched, I want them to be amazed. I want them to think and feel through their body in a new way, a different way. I want them to recognize certain gestures and postures and trajectories in their own physical self; there are narratives, stories that are contained in their own body. I want them to tap into that, find new ways of seeing. Like anybody, whether you’re trying to touch people or connect with people through writing or film or visual art, you’re just trying to connect. You’re trying to create a sense of connection across cultures and generations and that sense of shared rituals between people: that sense of connection creating empathy.
NCR: How did your dance company Kidd Pivot come into being?
CP: I had been dancing with William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet for five years between 25 and 30. At 30 I wanted to move back home. I loved my time in Frankfurt but I was being pulled back home. I came back to Vancouver and I started Kidd Pivot. The first piece I made was a duet for myself and another woman, called Uncollected Works. I created that show and toured for a couple years. That is how it all began. I always had the dream of having my own company and I also had the dream of dancing in my own work, which I did for ten years. And that was a special time in my life, being a performer inside my own work. It was really confronting and challenging in many ways but it was also a great coming together of a lot of different aspects of myself and a synthesis of my dancing and my choreography.
I am touring Tempest Replica now and then I am working on a new show. I am actually working on it now, but more intensely in the summer. So that’s up ahead. I was on sabbatical for a year. I had to dig deep to see if I wanted to continue having a company because, as you can imagine, it’s a lot of work and I have other options; I can create in other places where there is a whole infrastructure that I can walk into and not worry about any logistics. But after a lot of soul searching and a lot of reading I felt like to do what I want to do I really need a company. I need a company because I need dancers around me and collaborators, but particularly dancers around me with whom I have history and with whom I can try new things and where I can really lean on all the things we have done before and go forward. There is a lot of understanding and a lot of trust knowing people so well. It is only in that state that I feel I a truly innovate in my own work. When I make work for other companies, which I love, I love doing commissions for other companies, I am walking into a situation where I have about maybe a month to make a new piece and then it’s going to premiere and then I am going to leave and I am not going to have my hands on that work anymore~ I’m not going to be able to watch it, or touch it. For me that’s when the growth happens; being on tour with the piece and having the opportunity to fix it and change it and live it, that’s where I really learn things, discover things that help me to grow.
NCR: How has being a mother affected your life as an artist?
CP: It has added complexity. It’s really intense. It’s forced me to think on my feet a lot more; I don’t have the time to prepare myself the way that I used to, I don’t have enough hours. I used to put in a lot of hours: on a new creation I would put in sixteen to eighteen hours a day, just insane hours. Now I can’t do that, I have to change the way I create. I need to work over a longer period of time so I don’t work so many hours during the day. And I need to be able to think on my feet: be able to walk into the studio and not necessarily be prepared or know what I am doing and be able to figure it out in a moment. I also feel like there is a vulnerability or sensitivity or terror that has come into my life, along with all the beautiful things about being a mother. This kind of vulnerability that I think is going to make me a better artist ultimately. I feel much more raw. I feel much more connected to the world than I did before. I just feel a whole dimension has opened up in myself that I am sure is going to make me a better creator. Of course, now I am a creator that has a lot less time to create. I feel so fortunate. I have loved being able to take Niko with us everywhere we go on tour. He knows the show, he knows the characters, he wants to try on the costumes and act out the scenes. He loves to dance he is so delightful.
NCR: Do you have any practices that keep the mind/body/soul connection alive for you?
CP: If I did, I don’t have time to do them anymore. That’s why I had to stop dancing too: I don’t have time to train. It’s definitely a lack right now. I am just trusting that it’s going to get easier eventually. As he gets older, school starts to come into the mix and there might be a couple more hours in a day to take care of those things.
NCR: What’s on heavy rotation in your music library right now?
CP: Raffi! Ha. I was working on a piece on paper about a month ago and in the background I had on Max Richter, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons remix I loved having that music as the accompaniment to my process as I was thinking and writing. That’s what I have been playing over and over lately.
NCR: How would you describe your personal style?
CP: I have no personal style. I need help. It’s hilarious. Right now I am wearing jeans and a white t-shirt: it happened to be clean and it was lying on the bathroom floor and I put it on. I wish I had a personal style. But no, it’s pretty bleak.
NCR: What do you do for fun?
CP: I hang out with Nico. I play with Nico and Jay, my partner. It’s really fun hanging out with a kid.
NCR: Is there an artist, writer, filmmaker, poet, scientist, etc. that you would like to share with our readers?
CP: I have been reading a couple of books that have helped me a lot by Anne Bogart. I’ve really enjoyed her writing about theatre making, really inspiring stuff. And Then You Act, A Director Prepares: both of those books were real touchstones for me during my year off. In fact, it was reading her that I was affirmed in my choice to keep a company. It solidified that choice.
NCR: Do you think there are ways we can better support the arts?
CP: It’s so boring to say it but we need more funding. More support. For example, in British Columbia, we have the lowest per capita support for the arts than every other province. It’s dire over here in terms of what we are getting from our provincial government. It’s not just money to create the work, it’s money to maintain the work and tour the work and to get the work to the public. I wish ticket prices weren’t so high. When I compare the price of a ticket here to the price if you want to go in Frankfurt; so many more people can afford to go to the theatre in Germany than in Canada. Government subsidizing centres and theatres to keep prices low would help. Tickets don’t cover the cost of putting on a show. Not even close. I wish there was better access for people. Theatre is so tricky right? It is just a brief moment in time when the work actually exists: it only exists in the moment it is being performed. People can’t have access to it unless it is actually on stage in a theatre. Whereas with film or a book or a visual art you can have more access to it you can touch it more easily. Performing arts can be tricky because they need all of these things to add up.
NCR: Do you have a manifesto or motto that you create with?
CP: Keep working. Just keep trying. I can just trust in the hard work of it. If I feel lost, if I feel terrified, if I feel like I can’t figure something out or I have no idea how to make something work I just keep trying. Just keep plugging away at it. And I can kind of busy myself, if I just busy myself with the crafting and sometimes not even working on the thing itself, just working on something around the thing… if I keep myself busy with the crafting I keep going forward. It can be tempting to just wallow around in the terror of it; it’s easy to just be paralyzed so I have to really push myself to just keep trying.
NCR: What are you most proud of? In your work or elsewhere.
CP: Two things:
1) My little boy.
2) I’m proud of the good spirit and the good energy that permeates my company. I’m proud of the way in which we are together, I’m proud of the way we work together. It feels inspiring and it feels healthy, it feels very loving.
NCR: What has been your most challenging obstacle? How have you overcome (or are overcoming) that obstacle?
CP: Fear. It’s the big one. It’s like I said earlier I just have to keep going in spite of it, keep working in spite of it. Sometimes to even keep working with it, along with it, to allow it and to try to bring it along.
Will Forsythe, who I would consider a mentor in my life, said that the fear sits there in the corner of the studio to make sure you don’t do stupid stuff, that you don’t make bad work. It’s there to keep you away from mediocrity. I like that. I sometimes try to picture this terror I feel: it either sits on my shoulder or in the corner of the studio. And it’s there as a security guard against mediocrity.
Photo credits top to bottom: Crystal Pite- Michael Slobodian, 3 photos of Tempest Replica- Jorg Baumann, Dark Matters- Eric Beauchesne, You show- Michael Slobodian