Crystal Pite - Rigour and Recklessness

Crystal Pite & Jonathon Young Betroffenheit, Wendy D Photography

Crystal Pite, the internationally acclaimed Canadian choreographer, talks about the processes and emotions that come together in her extraordinary work.


Betroffenheit is Crystal Pite’s current favourite among the 40+ works she’s created over the past 25 years.

It is also the most harrowing.

The German word doesn’t translate easily into English, but as Pite explained, “in the context of our performance it means a kind of shock or trauma.”

Co-created with the Vancouver actor and playwright Jonathon Young, who wrote the piece and performs in it, Betroffenheit arose from a personal tragedy: the death in a fire of Young’s 14-year-old daughter in 2009.

Crystal Pite choreographed and directs the work. “I was anxious about getting it right and I was anxious about dealing with the content, but at the same time I was also very inspired and fascinated and curious about the question of suffering and survival.”

Though anchored on a devastating event, this collaboration with Jonathan Young brought her huge emotional fulfilment.

“I really followed his lead in terms of how he approached each day of the creation, how he was able to work with such an open heart and willingness; so, for me I think it was a surprisingly joyful, surprisingly beautiful process.”

Betroffenheit may be her current favourite – “I care very deeply about this work” – but Crystal Pite is quick to point out she feels very strongly about all her works:

“You have to feel invested in what you’re creating because otherwise it doesn’t gel.”

Crystal Pite c/o Sadler's Wells
Crystal Pite c/o Sadler’s Wells

Now 45-years old, Crystal Pite doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t want to choreograph. Simply put, “I like to create things.”

Born in 1970 in British Columbia, Canada,  she joined the Vancouver-based Ballet BC as an apprentice dancer at 17. Her first choreographed work was shown by the company two years later.

She left to join William Forsyth’s Ballet Frankfurt; and later became resident choreographer at Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. As a dancer she performed the works of more than 30 choreographers and absorbed many influences:

“I think all of us are hybrids of all the people we’ve encountered from our very first teacher to the choreographers that we’ve worked with on a professional stage.”

However, it was not until she formed her own company, Kidd Pivot, in 2002 that she had the chance to dance her own choreography.

She feels that’s when she came into her own as a choreographer.

“I found there was a really good synergy that happened, there was a good connection between myself as a dancer and myself as a choreographer. I could deliver the best of myself and I knew very well my own limits and possibilities as a dancer.

“There was also more control because I found the choreographer in me wanted more out of the dancers, but ultimately I think I learned a lot about creating my own vocabulary and finding something that was distinct through my own dancing.”

“An image maker of rare distinction” in the words of a critic for The Australian, Crystal Pite has earned international acclaim and a raft of awards too numerous to list in full, most recently a British National Dance Award for best modern choreography for her work Polaris, shown at London’s Sadler’s Wells.

Featuring 64 dancers (she had originally asked Sadler’s for 100) Polaris illustrated her amazing ability to move large numbers on stage to overwhelming effect.

Polaris from Thomas Ades: See The Music, Hear The Dance @ Sadler's Wells. photo Tristam Kenton
Polaris from Thomas Adès: See The Music, Hear The Dance @ Sadler’s Wells.
photo Tristam Kenton

Rigour and Recklessness

Pite’s work “makes you feel passion and unease under your skin,” wrote The Guardian; and to a large extent that’s the result of the powerful way in which she combines “rigour and recklessness:”

“For me there is something interesting in that kind of contrast (…) I always cultivate first of all a sense of rigour to reach the idea of the work, but at the same time keep openness and recklessness and feel that we are always on the edge. I think there’s something interesting and beautiful in that.”

There is a sharp intelligence at work in Pite’s use of any stage and theatrical devices that will help drive her narrative or flesh out her concept, from puppets to video projections and the spoken word.

Her latest work, The Statement, which has just premiered at Nederlands Dans Theater, is set in a boardroom and in it two pairs of dancers perform to a recorded audio script voiced by four actors. She explains:

“I think there are lots of kinds of different people that come to watch our performances and I like the idea that we offer different facets. Some will respond to the actual dancing, the choreography, and others will respond more to the text or to the visual statement, the environment. So I like to explore content and also offer content in different ways in our work.”

One of her most ambitious works is The Tempest Replica, a retelling of Shakespeare’s complex last play, created during Kidd Pivot’s temporary residency at Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt, which started in 2010.

She’s produced work for a huge array of international companies, among them NDT, where she is now Associate Choreographer, Ballet Frankfurt, and the National Ballet of Canada to name but a few. Since 2013 she’s been an Associate Artist of Sadler’s Wells.

She likes to ground her work on the specifics of the commissioning company:

“I always try to work to the strengths and abilities of the people that I work with. I find that it doesn’t work any other way.”

Future projects include commissions from the Paris Opera Ballet and Britain’s Royal Ballet. In fact, Crystal Pite is so much in demand she’s having to turn down work, not least because she has a five-year-old son, Niko, with her partner, Kidd Pivot set designer Jay Gower Taylor.

Becoming a mother, she says, has fundamentally altered her outlook on life.

“It’s having an influence in the way that I approach everything, including my artistic work. Having a child makes me more aware, more passionate, more terrified, more vulnerable than I’ve ever been before.”

Ultimately this will, she’s sure, make her a better choreographer. We can only wait with bated breath for her next work. And the next.

Betroffenheit is at Sadler’s Wells on 31st May and 1st June.


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The Strange Case of the Missing Choreographers...

Crystal Pite photo Georgia Straight

Does gender, rather than talent, determine which choreographers get commissions? We report on the state of an increasingly heated debate.                                 

Towards the end of her 10-year tenure as Director of Britain’s Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason was asked why she had never commissioned a work by a female choreographer.

This was her reply: “quite simply, I have not come across one that I felt was suitable. Choreography is not a gender issue – it is an issue of talent.”


Eat your heart out, Crystal Pite. Helen Pickett. Shobana Jeyasingh. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, et al.

Sorry, ladies, you’re quite good but… how to put this?… not good enough for the august Covent Garden stage. Too… “not classical” maybe? Too… contemporary? Not as contemporary, though, as Wayne McGregor, whom Dame Monica appointed Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet.

Go figure.

The debate on the continuing failure of top ballet companies both in Britain and across the world to commission new work from women choreographers has been flaring up regularly over the past 10 years or so.

Just last October Rambert held a one-day symposium on this question. That in itself was interesting. More interesting, perhaps, is that a very similar, if not identical event was held in 2009 at the initiative of Dance Umbrella and Dance UK.

That was meant to lead to changes and progress. In reality, nothing much seems to have changed in six years.

Just a few days ago a press release landed in my inbox. Edge, the London Contemporary Dance school post-graduate dance company, is touring 15 venues and six countries with a programme of new works.

All four featured choreographers are men.

And so the debate rages on.

Tamara Rojo, ENB
Tamara Rojo, ENB

Never one to miss an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet, English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo has stepped in with She Said, a programme of specially commissioned works by women choreographers for ENB’s Spring period. It will feature Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yabin Wang and Aszure Barton.

This is how Rojo explained her decision:

“I had the idea for female choreographers four years ago before the current debate started. My original motive was simple: I had never done a piece by a female choreographer. In the theatre the dynamic of the piece is always from a male perspective.”

If you think about it, from its beginnings with its ethereal sylphs all the way to the modern-day fashion of women being manipulated and passed around the stage splayed crotch foremost, ballet has always obeyed a very male view of what women are, or should be like.

It seems that in the field of decision-making, the perspective is also very much male.

The immensely talented British-based Spanish dancer and choreographer, Avatâra Ayuso, has thought about this a great deal. Recently honoured with a nomination for the Emerging Artist Award in the 2015 National Dance Awards, she describes her attempts to get funding for her choreographic projects as a permanent struggle.

Avatâra Ayuso
Avatâra Ayuso

“The directors of the institutions who have the power to commission are men. Society is ready for half and half (…) but those that run the institutions don’t do enough research to find male and female choreographers. They just go with the habit of having male choreographers.”

She goes further:

“They don’t want to take risks! I think having a woman is also taking a risk, because they don’t know what we can do.”

Or as the American choreographer Elizabeth Streb bluntly puts it, “people like giving money to men.”

Despite the glaring omission of women from the forthcoming Edge programme of contemporary dance, gender inequality seems more acute in classical ballet than in contemporary. Women have, after all, played a key role in the development of the very concept of contemporary ballet, its themes and its language.

The roll call of female giants of contemporary dance is long and awe-inspiring.

Martha Graham, Letter for the World (1940) Pina Bausch, Haendel Suite
Martha Graham, Letter for the World (1940)                       Pina Bausch, Haendel Suite No. 11, Sarabande

Isadora Duncan. Martha Graham. Pina Bausch. Twyla Tharp. Lucinda Childs. Crystal Pite…Just a few names of out of a list too numerous to call in full.

But look at classical ballet.

Not even fact that ENB’s new crowd-pleasing and hugely successful production of Le Corsaire was re-choreographed by a woman, Anne-Marie Holmes, seems to have given major companies an incentive to follow suit.

Full kudos, then, to Scottish Ballet, for commissioning not one woman but two – choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and film director Nancy Meckler – to create its dance version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 2012.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Balllet
A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Balllet

It paid off. The ballet was nominated for the Olivier awards and won the Critics’ Circle Best Dance Production and the South Bank Best Classical Choreography awards.

Next on Scottish Ballet’s list is a new commission from Crystal Pite, and perhaps even more significantly a new piece from its budding in-house choreographer, the young dancer Sophie Laplane. Both will feature in the company’s 2015/16 season.

Defenders of the status quo look at such successes and argue that, in the words of (male) dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, “we don’t need more female choreographers for the sake of it.”

Or, as the Spectator ballet critic Ismene Brown put it, “I’m having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy in dance.”

To which The Observer ballet critic Luke Jennings, responded in characteristically trenchant fashion by pointing to “a gender imbalance so egregious, and of such long standing, that it shames the British dance establishment.”

Jennings argues that in contemporary dance “the more large-scale and high-profile the commission, the smaller the probability that it will be awarded to a woman.”

And he goes on, “In classical dance, female choreographers face even greater discouragement.”

The last time the Royal Ballet commissioned a female choreographer to create work for its main stage was in 1999 (pre-Dame Monica’s directorship, obviously…): Siobhan Davies’ A Stranger’s Taste.

This imbalance in Covent Garden is mirrored in some of the major international companies.

Women may have been Balanchine’s muses, but no new works for New York City Ballet bear the imprint of a woman choreographer.

And for all his protestations that he wanted to drag the Paris Opera Ballet kicking and screaming into the 21st century, Benjamin Millepied filled his first (and as it turned out his last) season in Paris with the works of male choreographers – McGregor, Peck, Wheeldon, Ratmanski… and more.

Here’s the problem. Talent is subjective. You can always argue, as Monica Mason did, that she couldn’t see enough of it to justify a commission.

In other areas that fall under anti-discrimination laws compliance is easier to measure. But how do you “measure” talent?

Nevertheless, there is clearly a predisposition on the part of those who commission to give men, rather than women, a chance to prove their talent. And a chance to fail and try again.

So, in the cogent words of Luke Jennings, “it’s time for dance to shed its institutionalised sexism, to rid itself of the whiff of privileged boys’ clubs and backstairs deals and join the artistic mainstream.”

ENB’s She Said will be an important step in that direction.

However, it will probably be judged almost exclusively in terms of gender; and that will, to a certain extent, obscure an objective assessment of the works’ artistic merit.

I would argue that it’s only when a programme on any dance stage – august or less so – is made up of works by both male and female choreographers and the focus of attention are the works themselves rather then the gender of their creators that a proper balance will have been achieved.

Avatâra Ayuso has been very active in the campaign for a level playing field for female choreographers. She welcomes the current debate:

“I think the issue should be out there. We’re not silly girls waiting for things to happen. No! No, no! It’s good that people get to know what’s going on. In fact, I have my own kind of survey that I normally do with people who are not dancers. I ask them, “so, was it a male or female choreographer?” They answer, “oh, I don’t know!” They don’t care. They just want to see quality.”

Teresa Guerreiro

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