With Dark Matters, Crystal Pite casts a creepy spell

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      A Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM production. Presented by DanceHouse and the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday, February 26. No remaining performances

      In her Dark Matters, Vancouver’s Crystal Pite casts a surprisingly creepy spell, working a sinister magic with towering shadows, menacing puppets, and hooded figures.

      The Kidd Pivot choreographer has made the bold choice to cleave her ambitious new work into two distinct halves. The first is stunning, a dark fable about a man (the expressive Peter Chu) who creates a rudimentary marionette that’s operated by four figures clad, kabuki-style, in black from head to toe. But soon the little creature is clinging to him, eventually destroying him in a violent flash of scissors. It’s riveting—almost cinematic—viewing, complete with filmic blackouts and a haunting score by Owen Belton that’s worthy of a David Lynch movie.

      Pite has managed to choreograph the featureless cardboard and wood puppet so we see him in human terms, whether he’s hanging his head in sorrow, ripping maniacally at the sepia wallpaper, or creeping in ominously from the wings. The fable can be read as a Frankenstein story about playing God, but it’s also about being an artist: that what you create can destroy you.

      It’s at the end of the short tale that Pite really starts to have fun, stripping away the artifice of her theatrical story. Our hooded puppeteers clean up the aftermath, dragging away the puppet-maker’s body and mopping up the floor, eventually breaking into kung fu fighting that trashes—I mean really trashes—the sets. Suffice it to say the entire world Pite has just crafted for us gets sucked away like there’s a gigantic Hoover sitting just off-stage.

      After such a mind-blowing opening, it’s difficult at first to submit to the more dancerly abstractions of the movement-based second half. Still, you have to appreciate what Pite’s doing here—exploring the themes of the first section through complex choreography. The six dancers fracture the movement of their limbs like puppets. But Pite also blows the themes up to a cosmic level, her performers pulling together like tangles of subatomic particles, then exploding apart.

      She reinvents these ideas in countless intricate experiments that could arguably have been edited to tie in more tightly with the first half. The second segment isn’t entirely removed from the first part, though: the puppet maker and one lone shadow figure are still present. And in a night full of theatrical surprises, the latter held perhaps the biggest, when the hooded figure who had been lurking throughout the second half finally unzipped its costume to reveal Pite herself. Pite proceeded to prove that she is still her own best interpreter: stripped down to pale undergarments, she wrapped herself into an arresting duet with Chu’s inventor, somehow becoming the puppet, but breathing sensual new life into the doll-like creature.

      At first, like Daryl Hannah’s android in Blade Runner or the fairy-tale Little Mermaid, the character seems to want to be human. But the final duet is more about the artist finally coming to terms with his creation. Whether you preferred the first half to the second or vice versa, you have to admire how Pite has stayed true to her own—and yes, a little bit warped—vision. That, and how lucky we are to have such ambitious, fearless dark matters on-stage when the world’s eyes are on us.