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 before the world premiere of Body and soul, her new production for the French company, and it’s not over, she tells me when I join her. “I was listening to some of the 24 preludes that I hadn’t even touched yet. So… it’s difficult.
It’s an understatement, but Pite is no stranger to pressure on the world stage. Over the past few years, the 48-year-old artist from Terrace, BC, has blazed an exciting trail at the crossroads of contemporary dance, ballet and theatre. She favors large-scale paintings while imbuing her style of grounded, nervous movement with a sense of humanity that has earned her fame in Europe and North America. Remarkably, Pite is as comfortable creating rapid patterns for dozens of dancers as she ventures into emotionally charged territory. Betroffenheita heartbreaking exploration of grief created with actor Jonathon Young in 2015, topped The Guardian’s list of The Best Dance of the 21st Century.
Yet she tackles her biggest challenge yet in Paris. Body and soulwhich opens on Saturdays, is the first one-night production of Pite for a ballet company. The cannon of the seasons, his first piece for the Paris Opera Ballet and an instant hit in 2016, lasted just 35 minutes. This time, she’s responsible for three acts – with only slightly more time, just eight weeks in total, to achieve it.
In contrast, when working with her own Vancouver-based company, Kidd Pivot, projects like Betroffenheit could take two or three years to materialize. “I’m in survival mode,” the choreographer says with cloudy-eyed composure in her dressing room. “There are still a lot of unknowns. It’s like nailing Jell-O to a wall. I just try to keep building, to keep working.
As with many Pite productions, Body and soul aims to be an ambitious and non-linear mix of dance and theatre. It was inspired by a short text that Pite jotted down early in the making Reviseranother collaboration with Young, inspired by Gogol’s 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, the other lying on the floor: “Depending on how the dancers portray it, the meaning changes,” explains- she. “It can feel like a conflict between two individuals, a group and an individual, or it can be an intimate scene, a scene of loss.” Body and soul rotates a range of emotional states from four different versions of the text.
During a rehearsal in September, the dancers of the Paris Opera moved over the words as if they were musical notes. Individuals emerged from a tight group to embody an action – waving at the other character, for example – only to then be swallowed. “I’m interested in how the way we hear language affects the way we see dance,” says Pite. “There are things for which dancing is very ineffective. One tells 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 boundaries while managing a cast of 36 dancers from the French company, it’s Pite. The Paris Opera Ballet has experienced significant turbulence and several changes of directors in recent years. Alexander Neef, the head of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, is now set to take over as general manager of the opera in 2021. Either way, Pite’s local debut got everyone on board in 2016. studio for Body and soul, she drew the attention of the room without ever raising her voice, distributing corrections without ambiguity and moving quickly from dancer to dancer to demonstrate a position of the hands or to adjust the spacing between two bodies. After giving the wrong musical cue to an assistant, she apologized three times. “Wow. You’re so good,” she told the group with genuine warmth after a tryout. “I really appreciate your focus.”
“It’s gratifying to see their growth over the past three years since I was last here. They really are the body and soul of this show,” Pite says of the dancers. Leonore Baulac, a star (star dancer) of the Paris Opera Ballet, is full of praise for Pite. “She manages to keep us connected, to bring us closer, while remaining extremely kind. She knew everyone’s name the first day, and she does it so naturally that you’d want to work like that all the time,” she laughs.
Human connection is a recurring theme off and on stage for Pite. “The show is about conflict, of course, but also about connectedness. It’s always been my greatest desire to connect with other people and to connect other people to each other,” says the choreographer. She is a loyal artistic collaborator: Body and soul features his longtime creative team, from set designer Jay Gower Taylor (also his partner) to composer Owen Belton and costume designer Nancy Bryant. “I love a tribe. I know they’re going to pick up something and run with it – in the right direction.
After a marathon-like few years, which have included work for Nederlands Dans Theater and the Royal Ballet in London, Pite has decided to take “a lot of his time” in 2020, to avoid burnout. “Right now, I don’t have much time to see other work either. 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 wish I was a better parent, that’s for sure.
Pite has an eight-year-old son, Niko, with Gower Taylor. The morning we met, she was late due to a babysitter problem. “It’s not easy. We have a little package from his school in Vancouver that we brought with us to keep up. It’s going to keep getting harder and harder for us to take him everywhere with us,” she said seriously, “But…he dissolves all that pressure for me.”
In the dance world, Pite has been the one doing the mentoring lately. Since 2018, she has worked with the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which pairs established names with emerging artists in various fields for two years. Pite’s protege, Khoudia Touré, is a Senegalese hip-hop choreographer who was in the studio with her at the Paris Opera in September.
Despite their different backgrounds, the two found they had a lot in common. “She’s a totally hip-hop dancer,” says Touré, referring to the sense of articulation and muscle isolation that Pite (who moved between ballet and contemporary dance during her performing career ) brings to his choreography. Baulac, trained in ballet, agrees, explaining that “her movements have considerable power and are quite androgynous. Even as a duo, it is not necessarily a man who carries a woman.
Expectations are mounting in the French capital for the creation, but back in her dressing room, Pite seems upset by her new status as a star choreographer and the expectations that come with it. “I just don’t want to disappoint anyone,” she says. “But I want to do a good job, try to innovate, and there’s always a risk in that. So I have to be prepared to fail, which of course is the scariest part of it all.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. register today.