Crystal Pite’s The Tempest Replica brings white masks and shipwrecks

At first overwhelmed by the play, celebrated Vancouver choreographer Crystal Pite found her own unique way to put <em>The Tempest</em> into dance

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      For an indication of why dance artist Crystal Pite is planning a yearlong hiatus, you need only look at the week when the Straight reaches her. She’s just arrived in Montreal from New York City, where she was working on The Tempest, Robert Lepage’s new opera at the Met. She’s now in Quebec to present her newest dance piece, The Tempest Replica, before it heads to Calgary, Seattle, and Germany, then finally hitting Vancouver. When we finally reach her, she and her partner, set designer Jay Gower Taylor, are struggling with the less glamorous task of trying to feed their toddler, Niko, tortellini in a hotel room before Pite heads to the tech rehearsal.

      The in-demand Vancouver choreographer has announced she’ll be taking a sabbatical after debuting a new piece for the acclaimed Nederlands Dans Theatre in February 2013. But it’s not just about having a rest, she emphasizes. Yes, she needs a creative breather from a decade of nonstop creation, both for her own troupe Kidd Pivot and for the likes of Cedar Lake, the National Ballet of Canada, Ballett Frankfurt, and other big contemporary companies around North America and Europe. But it’s also aimed at firing up her artistic inspiration.

      “I’ve been planning it for a long time and I’m really ready. Everybody’s been very understanding and very accommodating. This was in the works even before the baby,” she explains. “Since I started my company in 2002, I’ve just been a creating machine, making so much work for my own company but also other companies. It’s been this intense creation period for the last 10 years and I felt it was time to take a moment to fill up on other things, see other things, and read and figure out what I want to do. It’s a rest, but also taking stock about where I want to go as an artist.”

      Interestingly, it was the busy forces in her life that drew her to create her cinematically visual and deliriously deconstructed riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

      “I was really drawn to the higher themes of the play: it’s about a creator, a magician, Prospero, trying to reconcile his art and work with his family,” she explains. “It’s his needing to connect with his daughter. After having Niko, I could relate to that.”

      As usual for Pite, who has wrestled with such abstract subjects as the universe’s dark matter and the artist’s need to let go of a work, the process was neither an easy nor a direct one. She had been exploring the idea of using an existing script as a basis for a new dance piece. “It’s a bit of a taboo with dance and I thought it would be fun to look into that,” she explains.

      She was searching amid the film-noir and crime realm, but couldn’t find a story line that resonated with her. “I need to be with the subject matter for a long time—up to five years—so I have to really love it,” she stresses.

      Pite first stumbled upon the idea of The Tempest while she was reading The Open Door, a book by former Royal Shakespeare Company director Peter Brook, who wrote about the creation process behind his staging of the show in 1968. Those who have seen Pite’s work—from Dark Matters’ cataclysmic scene of the entire stage set getting sucked into the void to Fault’s Godzilla-stomping earthquake—won’t be surprised at what drew her to the play: it was the opening shipwreck during a storm.

      Still, Pite initially thought there was no way she could manage it. “I thought it was way too difficult and set it aside,” she admits.

      Bard on the Beach director Meg Roe turned her around, however. Roe had helmed The Tempest at the Vanier Park festival and was doing sound design for Pite; she convinced her to give it another look.

      That’s when Pite began to see Prospero as an artist trying to reconnect with his family. It’s also when she came up with the idea of splitting her show into two—first presenting a kind of “on-stage storyboard” that ran through the basics of the tale, and then interpreting it through dance.

      “I would love if every audience member that came to see it knew The Tempest, but that’s of course not true,” Pite explains. “So I thought, ‘Let’s tell it through an on-stage storyboard, with figures that are like the plastic people in an architectural model.’ They become a sketch of the story. It’s a way of trying to avoid the awkwardness of exposition.”

      In the kind of innovative, utterly unexpected theatrical touch that typifies Pite’s genius, she decided to tell the initial tale with faceless “replicas”—ghostly white-masked spectres, dressed in white and set against a white background and floor. “That way the audience is just focusing on the story in the body. When you take the face away, it’s amazing how you can watch the story in the body.”

      Pite has also used projections of the play’s text to aid in the storytelling. And the storm and shipwreck? Let’s just say she went to town on them—sound effects and all.

      “I love the idea of translating something that big and epic to the stage,” she admits enthusiastically. “There’s something magic when the audience is complicit in a scene like that. They have to participate in imagining it’s an earthquake or a storm. It’s like ‘This is a show and we’re all doing it together.’ Plus, the storm is also just a great metaphor for an emotional state, for things that feel so big and epic and so beyond us. ”

      Pite may not have known The Tempest at all before she started the process, but now, needless to say, she knows it inside-out. And that came in handy when she received an unexpected call from Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina company. He wanted her to choreograph his new opera production of The Tempest—and his people had no idea that she’d just completed her own take on the play.

      “There were so many firsts for me: it was the first opera I had collaborated on; it was my first time working with Robert Lepage and his amazing team,” Pite says. “So there were a lot of things to be nervous about, and at least I had in my back pocket that I knew the story.

      “He surrounds himself with masterful people, so that’s also very amazing to see all the machinery around,” she tells the Straight before having to help with a tortellini meltdown and then running off to her tech rehearsal.

      No doubt the opera experience, and the witnessing of Lepage’s multimedia creation on a grand scale, will influence future works she does. But, of course, we won’t know quite what form that will take till at least 2014. For now, this stage magician is putting her powers to rest.

      DanceHouse presents Kidd Pivot’s The Tempest Replica at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (November 9 and 10).

      Watch a preview for The Tempest Replica.