At Arts Umbrella, Crystal Pite workshops epic ideas while a dancer from Lebanon comes full circle

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      It has been a long, globe-spanning journey for young dancer Charlie Prince to this moment. Just back from a tour of the Middle East with Switzerland’s cutting-edge company Alias, he is now moving amid 50 dancers who are all clasped together, hunched, and undulating like some giant, gorgeous amoeba.

      Above them, standing on a chair, is celebrated choreographer Crystal Pite, who’s using dance students at Arts Umbrella to workshop ideas for her big Paris Opera Ballet debut this fall.

      Even when he’s trying to catch up to the others, Prince’s expressive, supple frame stands out.

      “You feel everyone’s pulse,” he marvels on a break while talking about the work, which will appear in excerpt at Arts Umbrella’s upcoming Season Finale show. “You’re also sending a pulse to everyone else. It’s a very empowering feeling.”

      Prince says when he told members of Alias that he had worked a few times with Pite already at Arts Umbrella, they were incredulous. “They were like, ‘Crystal Pite? That’s ridiculous! People move companies to work with her.’ ”

      It’s hard to believe today that Prince’s route to Arts Umbrella began on a boat, fleeing war-torn Lebanon when he was 14.

      With only his sister as a companion, he found his way to Montreal and began to build a life centred in the arts. An athlete who swam competitively in his home country, Prince had never danced. It wasn’t till he was 17, studying composition at McGill University, that at the urging of a dancer girlfriend he tried his first ballet class. “I went to the class barefoot and in jeans and got kicked out,” he says with a laugh. “Then the next time I went in pyjama pants and socks because I didn’t have any sweatpants. But right away the teacher came up and said, ‘You have a lot of dance talent.’ ”

      Charlie Prince's long journey to Arts Umbrella started on a boat escaping war-torn Lebanon.
      Michael Slobodian photo

      “So then Arts Umbrella became this sort of dream for me, because from afar it has this crazy-good reputation,” he says.
      Prince came out for a summer intensive, and then dance-program director Artemis Gordon asked him to stay, on scholarship, in the pre-professional program.

      Recently, things have come almost perfectly full circle for Prince. In April, Alias’s Middle Eastern tour took him back to Beirut for a dance festival. “My whole village rented a bus to come to see it,” he says, referring to his small hometown of Deir al-Qamar. “My mother said, ‘Who would have thought when you left at 14 that you would come back here on a dance stage?’ You never know where life is going to take you.”

      The tour visited Jordan, Palestine, and Israel—where he worried for days about crossing the border. Because he was born in Beirut, officials there pulled him aside for six hours of questioning before letting him in.

      The entire trip was intense, but it’s returning to Vancouver that has made him feel surprisingly uneasy, he admits. “It feels so, so peaceful; I feel a bit spoiled,” he says after spending a month amid the intensity of the Middle East. “I miss the chaos.”

      Even after he graduates in June, things won’t slow down for Prince. He’ll head back to Montreal to work with Paris-based iconoclast Jérôme Bel and then spend time with icon Marie Chouinard in August.

      But for now, he’s immersed in preparing for Season Finale, which features work by big contemporary names like Sharon Eyal and Mauro Astolfi. And of course there’s the chance to work on an epic piece with Pite, a choreographer who’s in demand around Europe.

      “It’s life-changing for every dancer here,” says Gordon while rehearsals continue at the school’s East 7th location. “Not just because of her name but because of the work she does and the vocabulary and the images she’s developed. Nothing she does is superfluous or without purpose; the dancers have to be engaged at an extraordinary level of physicality, of coordination, of intent and focus.”

      For students like Prince, it’s a huge opportunity. But for Pite, too, there are benefits.

      “This would be something very, very hard to do without bodies,” she says of working through her ideas for Paris. “I’ll have five weeks there, and it’s not like I have exclusive access to the dancers [there]. We’ve done a lot here. I’m trying to prioritize the finicky; I’m doing the hard stuff for me.”

      The work, she says, reflects her continuing interest in the natural world—an interest she has shown in pieces such as the hivelike Emergence for the National Ballet of Canada (excerpts from which will also be performed at Season Finale). Set to the driving strings of Max Richter's Four Seasons Remix and featuring complex, intermingling rows of so many dancers, it's a world away from Betroffenheit, the dance-theatre piece the versatile talent recently presented here with her own company, Kidd Pivot, and Electric Company Theatre.

      In the end, Prince credits Arts Umbrella with giving him a chance and opening the world of dance to him with work like this.

      “I don’t think I could have imagined working with so many rich and profound artists,” he says. “Arty [Gordon] doesn’t bring anyone who is mediocre here. She brings people who will bring something really important to teach us,” he adds before heading into a choreographic mentoring session with Pite.

      “The only trap is you begin to take it all for granted. I have to remind myself not to do that.” 

      Arts Umbrella’s Season Finale takes place at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of the Expressions Festival from May 26 to 28.