Monday, November 14, 2022

Crystal Pite: Art That Melts the Stars


Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Crystal Pite's The Season's Canon, 2022
photo @ Angela Sterling

I was sick the first time I saw one of Crystal Pite’s dances.

So sick that I almost stayed home in bed, but my friend Jessica Massart from On the Boards insisted that Pite and her company, Kidd Pivot, were absolutely not to be missed. So, in the days before Covid had us double-guessing every sneeze, headache and sore throat, I hauled myself down to OtB for a performance that changed my life.

The year was 2011 and Pite’s creation was called Dark Matters. It featured her talented dancers, a unique movement vocabulary, puppets (and masks, if I remember correctly), evocative sets, music and lighting, and meticulous attention to detail. These elements combined into what was, for me, a transformative artistic journey.

Unfortunately for all the dance artists I saw after that show, Dark Matters became my metric for great dance performances. And all too often, people not named Crystal Pite didn't meet her high bar.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Crystal Pite's The Season's Canon, 2022
photo @ Angela Sterling

More than a decade later I am still in thrall to Pite’s genius, her ever-evolving ability to whisk me away from my daily life to some cosmic realm that seems to exist beyond time and place.

This month Pacific Northwest Ballet presented the North American premiere of Pite’s epic The Seasons' Canon, originally created in 2016 for Paris Opera Ballet. I saw PNB's production three times; I could have attended every performance. Simply put, watching The Seasons' Canon was a transcendent experience.

During his tenure in Seattle, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal has carved out a permanent place for Pite in the repertoire. In 2013, audiences were treated to Emergence, then in 2017 Boal and company brought us the North American premiere of her Hitchcockian noir tale Plot Points. The latest addition to the Pite-a-palooza (long may it live) was this month’s production of her monumental The Seasons' Canon.

Before I start loving on that ballet, let's back up to PNB's first Pite.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Crystal Pite's Emergence, 2016
photo @ Angela Sterling

Inspired by the communal lives of bees, Emergence gave us a taste of Pite’s talents for harnessing the collective power of human movement on a large stage, her ability to transform human dancers into an apian community that buzzed, literally, with energy. 

Unlike a work that the choreographer might craft for her small troupe of awesome dancers, Emergence demands big numbers, the kind you find in a big ballet company. Watching that many bodies moving in unison, or in syncopation, was stunning, but only a promise of what awaited us in The Seasons' Canon.

Plot Points, with a smaller cast and a more defined story line, offered Pite's signature movement language, her fascination with masked faces, but it was smaller, more intimate than Emergence. I think it may have disappointed some of her devotees. That said, we were all thrilled to see it back last year.

PNB company members in Pite's Plot Points
photo @ Angela Sterling

The thing about Crystal Pite that’s just so amazing is that she’s not only talented; she's truly nice—generous with her time in the rehearsal studio and in an interview with a nosy journalist. The first time PNB presented Plot Points I sat behind Pite at McCaw Hall during a Saturday matinee. She was with her young son and I was delighted to watch her open this artwork to him.

Pite's affiliation with PNB didn't preclude On the Boards from presenting Kidd Pivot. We saw Tempest Replica, based on the Shakespearean tragedy, as well as the jaw-dropping Betroffenheit, Pite’s collaboration with Vancouver, B.C. theater artist Jonathan Young, based on the true story of the death of Young’s own child in a house fire. 

This spring Kidd Pivot returns to Seattle with a new Pite/Young collaboration called Revisor.

Meanwhile…back to the present. 

I attended the very last performance of The Seasons' Canon, a Sunday matinee with a packed house, the first truly large crowd I’d seen at McCaw Hall since the pandemic started. Seated on my right was a dance fan who’d been at the show the night before and bought another ticket because she simply had to see the work again.

Two other women sitting in our row had purchased tickets because of the good buzz they’d heard about the program, although they freely admitted they really didn’t know much about contemporary ballet. After each of the first two works on the bill they asked the Dance Fan and me to share our thoughts on what we’d seen, which we did. But Dance Fan and I were both more excited about seeing the Pite work, and I worried we over-hyped it.

PNB soloist Amanda Morgan, center, with company dancers in The Season's Canon
photo @ Angela Sterling

As the lights went down, and the PNB orchestra began to play the re-imagined version of Vivaldi’s classic The Four Seasons, featuring Michael Jinsoo Lim on violin, I truly shivered with excitement. Dance Fan had purchased a pair of opera glasses, which she trained intently on the stage. 

I can't really describe what it's like to watch 50+ dancers undulate in unison, or flick their heads in careful syncopation. They were like depictions of atoms moving in concert, greater together than individually, although there were some stand out featured performances. You've probably seen a sports stadium full of people doing the wave; this was a little bit like that but SO MUCH BETTER!

30 minutes later, the ballet ended and, along with most of the audience, Dance Fan and I leapt to our feet, clapping and cheering (me), and wishing we could have another 30 minutes. It was, indeed, as magical as we'd remembered. One of the women down the row leaned over to tell me The Seasons' Canon brought tears in her eyes. “I’ve never cried at a dance performance before,” she confessed.

Crystal Pite’s work in general, and The Seasons' Canon in particular, casts powerful spells. You don't need to be a dance expert, or even a regular ballet-goer, to appreciate her work. A former UW art professor who attended the show on my recommendation described Pite's choreography as living sculpture and that's true, although rarely does anybody stand still. 

Pite's dancers coalesce like kaleidoscopic colored glass bits into an ever-changing gallery of unearthly images, framed by an amazing backdrop that also is continually in motion. The result is a work of ineffable beauty; fleeting, but indelibly etched in my memory.

This morning, as I sat down to write about this work, I was reminded of something Gustav Flaubert wrote in his novel Madame Bovary.

“The truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language…[H]uman speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

My words here are crude; Crystal Pite’s art truly does melt the stars.




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