From a distance, it might seem like things come easily to Crystal Pite. The well-known Vancouver artist’s genre-mashing work—as likely to feature dancers sporting dinosaur spines as astronaut helmets—has won praise from publications from the U.K.’s Guardian to Europe’s biggest dance mag, ballettanz. Her company, Kidd Pivot, has just signed a two-year contract to work at Frankfurt’s Kí¼nstlerhaus Mousonturm theatre, and she’s associate choreographer at the prestigious Netherlands Dance Theater. Her new piece, Dark Matters, is hitting some of the world’s top arts festivals this year: Australia’s Sydney Festival last month, a showing here at the height of the Cultural Olympiad, and a run at the world-renowned Venice Biennale later in the spring.
Watch the trailer for Kidd Pivot's Dark Matters.
Maybe it has something to do with her flaxen hair and angelic looks, but Pite seems to be the local dance scene’s golden child. It turns out, though, that in the studio, things have been insanely difficult. Despite her success, her work comes out of an almost exquisite pain, she confesses. Anyone who’s ever sat in front of a blank canvas or an empty Word document can relate to the brain-battering struggle for inspiration. But for Pite, the creative process is particularly harrowing, so hard that it’s the basis for Dark Matters—a haunting vision of a menacing marionette and shadowy puppeteers.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have said, ”˜This is the last piece that I’m ever going to do,’” she admits candidly, talking to the Straight from her room at the Banff Centre, where Dark Matters is making a brief stop before heading to Vancouver for its hometown debut next Friday and Saturday (February 26 and 27) in a DanceHouse presentation at the Playhouse—right at ground zero for the Olympic happenings. She’s been on the road for weeks, hitting Oz and Holland in the last month alone, and is just easing her way into the morning by boiling some water for tea.
“I have been in that place where I feel like it can’t be done,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t get out of the car and go into the studio.” What pulls her through is knowing that she has experienced this doubt before—and that, somehow, something magical and challenging always emerges from it.
Pite realizes that with every success she’s had, expectations rise—and that’s cranked up the pressure. It’s something that’s happened from the earliest moments of her career. Barely out of her teens, she took only a few seasons to become a star at Ballet B.C. in the early ’90s. Later that decade, at the Frankfurt Ballet, she was hand-picked as a protégé by the famed William Forsythe. These days, there’s barely a review of her recent work that doesn’t preface it with some variation on “expectations are high”.
“In some ways it’s harder now,” she says reflectively, stopping to stress that she doesn’t want to come off as a complainer. “In my earlier works, I don’t remember struggling the way I do now. But there were no expectations then, and I didn’t have anything to lose. I was just thrilled to be doing it all. As the years have gone by and the expectations have gotten higher, I definitely have more doubt and the fear becomes more paralyzing.”
Part of the trick, for Pite, has been to embrace that fear and express it through dance. The choreographer is an intellectual and an avid reader—she easily quotes everyone from Voltaire to John Patrick Shanley—but she knows how to make her abstract ideas vivid and real. Take 2002’s Uncollected Work, which finds a soldier kicking over a wobbly wooden army to illustrate the artist’s need to let go of work—to edit and destroy. When Pite started to create Dark Matters about a year ago, she was just coming out of a heavy year of choreography. And when she stumbled upon the concept of dark matter, she knew she’d found her inspiration. The mysterious force is what scientists believe makes up 96 percent of our universe. Only they can’t see it: they know it’s there from the way galaxies have evolved and the way they rotate.
“To show up and keep going even if one doesn’t know how it will turn out and if it will work: I felt like I was being pushed around by this doubt—this unknowable force,” Pite explains.
But her skill is in making even a concept that abstract and nebulous concrete on the stage. And that’s where Dark Matters’ shadowy figures, manipulating a single crude cardboard puppet, come in.
Pite drew on the ideas of the kuroko stage hands and the Bunraku puppeteers of old Japanese theatre. “They’re these anonymous black-clad characters that move puppets,” she explains. “You see them there as an audience but you kind of block them out so you can enjoy the magic.” She adds that having four of these shadowy dancers working a single puppet with hinged limbs is the ultimate team-building exercise: “It requires an enormous amount of patience.”
As for the puppet itself, Pite worked with designer Robert Lewis to make the faceless little figure look as rudimentary and handmade as possible. In the studio, Pite became fascinated with choreographing the puppet as she would any dancer.
“Puppeteering is an art and it requires mastery for it to come off as true. I’m sure I’m committing all these crimes against puppetry because we’re just learning it as we’re going along,” she says. “But I’m really enjoying my innocence. I love the fact that I’m able to work in this form without all the baggage and knowledge. That innocence is not something we get much of at this stage of our careers.”
Still, the most audacious thing Pite does in Dark Matters may be to cleave her show into two separate parts. The first half is what she calls a “theatrical fable”: a story about a person who creates a puppet that consumes him. The second act is pure dance, playing off the lessons from the first half, drawing on the broken-down movement of marionettes. It’s fragmented, but expect the kind of fast, electric choreography that could rival the athleticism and kinetic spectacle of anything on view on the surrounding rinks and slopes at the Winter Games.
Splitting Dark Matters in two was bold, but it marked a creative breakthrough in one of those harrowing sessions crafting the work. “For a long time I was trying to make a show that didn’t have a break in it, and I finally decided I had to break it, and not just for the audience. It had to snap!” she recounts. “I care so much about transitions, and I spend so much time trying to make them work. I had spent all this time trying to make it all flow together, and suddenly it all made sense. That was a huge moment.”
The resulting show is surreal and theatrical. It’s exactly the kind of work Pite feels the freedom to do with Kidd Pivot—work that pushes far beyond the more dance-based choreography she’s invited to do at companies around the world. Pite says that when she set up her own company in 2001 upon her return from the Frankfurt Ballet, she purposely left the word dance out of the name. To this day the company allows her a creative liberty she rarely finds in her other commissions.
It’s a freedom she guards fiercely. Kidd Pivot needs more funding than it can drum up here at home, and the pending arts cuts in B.C. have her worried. That’s why the new two-year contract from Frankfurt’s Mousonturm is so welcome. At first, the German cultural centre had offered to bring her in-house to start up a company there. When Pite politely turned them down because she wanted to stay rooted in Vancouver with Kidd Pivot, they came back with the offer to allow her to maintain the troupe here, but also have it spend time in Germany to create new commissions and stage older pieces over the next two years. Enter the new incarnation of her company: Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM.
“I would have been crazy to turn them down,” says an elated Pite, who intends to bring back work created in Germany to Vancouver audiences. “It means I’ll be able to do things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”
It’s Frankfurt’s gain and, fortunately this time, not our loss. Luckily, for Pite, Kidd Pivot will continue to grow strange and beautiful works out of the dark matter of doubt.
“With Kidd Pivot, I am free to do whatever I want,” Pite says. Then, as always, she forces herself to be honest and face her innermost fears: “But that can be terrifying as well.”