Crystal Pite
Crystal Pite. Photograph by Michael Slobodian

Pivotal Moments: Crystal Pite

“I’m a choreographer because I’m interested in connecting with people, in connecting to audiences, and in connecting with people I’ve worked with—performers—as a way of finding common ground. There’s something about the presence of story,” said internationally acclaimed choreographer, Crystal Pite.

“I just feel I can do that better with some sort of narrative content,” she added, “working with subjects or themes I feel are complex enough and contain human experiences and emotions. I don’t do so well in the abstract.”

It’s precisely this philosophy that drives Pite’s most recent work, a co-creation with her troupe, Kidd Pivot, which she founded in 2002, and actor/writer Jonathon Young and his Electric Company Theatre. The two-hour piece, “Betroffenheit,” which runs at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California, February 14-16, translates as shock, bewilderment or impact, and has its origins in an unspeakable tragedy: the death in a fire of Young’s 14-year-old daughter, in 2009.

How, then, does one come to terms with such pain? Indeed, how can anybody come to terms with something that exists in the past? With Young having written the text for the work, and acting in it as the protagonist, that, says 47-year old Pite, is the defining question of the show.

“There aren’t any easy answers. Our protagonist is on a search for some kind of epiphany, and what he comes to is that there is no epiphany,” says Vancouver-based Pite, who who has created more than 40 works for companies including Nederlands Dans Theater, Cullberg Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. “The process of coming to terms is like a daily practice—it’s work, it’s ongoing, but it’s doable. For me, it makes me feel hopeful when I see the performance.”

Pite and Young had worked together in the past, in the context of Electric Company Theatre, which was originally formed as a collective in 1996, with Pite having worked as a choreographer facilitating their projects and contributing to their creation, but “Betroffenheit,” she explained, was the first time Young asked Pite to direct him. It was also her first time working with a playwright.

“Jonathon had ideas for about five or six years,” Pite explained, “and was wondering “what kind of shape it might take. He originally thought it might be a one-man show. When we met to discuss it, we agreed there was more to it than that—that the content was best delivered through more bodies and in all kinds of different ways. We were also thinking it might be interesting to move the story out of Jonathon’s own personal story and into a more universal one.

“The first phase,” added Pite, “was pulling text apart and thinking about ways of physicalizing them. That process began to create a choreographic language to build the show. Because the vocal work was so complex and there were so many parts to it, we thought it should come out of different objects on the stage—light fixtures, doorways or speakers, as well as performers. We started with that in mind, and it helped us to find our way. As we were building the choreography, Jonathon would respond with a flurry of writing or text, because all the voices were his.”

Toronto-based Young, 44, who took over directing the Electric Company in 2014, said that he and Pite had known each other and been aware of each other since the early 2000s. But realizing that “Betroffenheit” could be a dance theater hybrid was not something he’d ever considered.

“We began from scratch when we had our first meeting. I may have had 10 pages loosely connected and had ideas about form and structure, although I don’t think any of that text made it in. It was a long slow process of figuring out how to work together, and we were inventing it as we went along.  We would talk, then go away, and sometimes it would be dialogue or prose describing events that were occurring.

“After that, we had some core ideas,” added Young, “then we involved our design team. We wanted a set that had a kind of pathology to it that also intertwined with the character’s predicaments.

As for the title, Young said that he was reading a book by theater director Ann Bogart, “And Then, We Act,” which was about making work post 9/11, in which she referred to the word, ‘betroffenheit.’

“There was a long definition that Ann had written,” noted Young, “which had some qualities I was interested in—the undefinable, the untranslatable. And some ideas she articulated inside that word are both positive and negative. In the wake of an event that has impacted you, there’s a potential for anything. Definitions,” he added, “had disappeared, and you’re in a sort of fertile and impalpable silence. I was attracted to the word, and for a long time it was the working title, because most producers and presenters were concerned about it, but at that point it became the title of the piece.”

When the audience first sees the protagonist, he’s stuck in a kind of industrial room with myriad cables scattered on the floor, and the room itself is speaking to Young in an effort to steer him away from his agonized thoughts. But he is powerless to escape, and in addition to the work exploring themes of shock and loss, “Betroffenheit” also deals with issues of addiction and recovery.

Jonathon Young with Kidd Pivot performing Crystal Pite’s “Betroffenheit.” Photograph by Michael Slobodian

The show-within-a-show, aptly dubbed, “Showtime,” is the physicalization of a drug-induced euphoria. This cabaret-like section includes a Brazilian salsa duet with a large feathered headdress and a gaggle of tap dancers in bowler hats.

Explains Pite: “We were trying to understand and create onstage imagery for substance abuse. We knew our protagonist was addicted and was using to distract from his pain, which had become problematic and dangerous for him.

“We came up with the idea of “Showtime,” and when he gives in and allows “Showtime” into the space and opens the door, this comes as a relief—not only to the protagonist, but to the audience. It is attractive and a great distraction from the content of the show, but as it continues, it’s dangerous, and eventually consumes him, like any substance would.”

With regards to addiction, Young maintains that there’s almost no concrete autobiographical information in the show. “That said,” explained Young, “all the universal aspects are deeply personal. That was something Crystal and I worked hard at, but we didn’t want to shy away from my own personal experience. We tried to strip away that which would make it too particular and turned to other strategies to find answers.”

Young, who has produced nearly 20 plays during his career, co-writing most of them, as well as having had lead roles in such diverse productions as “Hamlet” and “The Great Gatsby,” admitted to having his own experiences with addiction, which were exacerbated by tragedy. He drew on that experience to find the language. And though Young had no dance training, per se, he said that over the years he learned how to merge choreography with acting, something he calls an “image language system.”

He explained: “It was a term I coined when Crystal and I were in the midst of creating the piece, and it helps my thinking about what theater is, and how language and the body can be in conversation with each other. I’m the only person who speaks live, which puts me in kind of a central or lead position right off the bat, but that gets taken over by other members of the company. It’s an interesting way to think about making sure all the elements we were working with had equal value and that all the components were talking to each other and perhaps all afflicted with this idea of trauma.”

Reviews of “Betroffenheit” have been over the moon, with the Guardian’s Judith Mackrell writing, “Pite’s special genius is in choreographing the body language of emotion in the distorted, lifting, folding shapes of her dancers’ bodies. In the sharply specific rhythms of trauma and comfort we can read whole narratives of suffering and recovery.” The Globe and Mail’s Martha Schabas cited the work as, “rare and staggering.”

Pite’s enthusiasm for Young is also palpable. “In addition to Jonathon’s abilities as a writer and actor, he’s really articulate and coordinated and masterful with his body. He’s always had an affinity for movement, so I was excited to see what we could do together. I knew I wouldn’t have trouble getting him to move, because over these years he keeps getting more and more successful at it, and the other dancers in the cast have been an enormous source of knowledge and support for him.”

With five Kidd Pivot dancers in the cast—Christopher Hernandez, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen—Pite said that Spivey, who joined in 2009, has been with the company the longest. The youngest, Hernandez, is 26, and has been with the production for only three weeks.

“Everyone’s been helping him learn the choreography and his track in the show,” acknowledged Pite. “He’s incredible.”

With its stellar cast, unique storytelling and compelling storytellers, it’s not surprising that “Betroffenheit,” which premiered in Canada in July 2015, has—pardon the pun—legs. It also won an Olivier Award for Best Dance Performance in 2017, and, after its California run, the show tours to, among other places, Taiwan, New Zealand, Spain and Belgium.

The show, according to Pite, “continues to deepen. We keep finding new corners and new little slivers of meaning here and there, and our relationship to the show is quite interesting. Sometimes we feel like the show itself is an entity itself. It’s something we love and it loves us back, and has been a powerful presence in all of our lives.”

Jonathon Young, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, David Raymond, Tiffany Tregarthen, Bryan Arias in “Betroffenheit.” Photograph by Wendy D Photography

Pite, who began her career as a dancer with Ballet British Columbia when she was 17 and became a member of William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt in 1996, gave up performing eight years ago. Her choreography, however, is in constant demand, with commissions from troupes that also include Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, where she was resident choreographer from 2001-2004. As Associate Choreographer of NDT for the past 12 years, Pite said that she enjoys her relationships with dancers.

“With other companies, those are short-term projects and take less time to create, like a month or two. With my own company, I obviously have long relationships, and we’re working on one show at a time, and it’s full-length. The NDT dancers are incredible in some of the ways that Kidd Pivot dancers are—their versatility, their creative thinking, and [that they’re] curious creative contributors.”

In a nutshell, so, too, is Pite. One could say that it was her creative musing that led her to name the troupe Kidd Pivot. “It started,” she recalled, “with the word ‘pivot.’ It was something that for me was about rigor and a very specific move that changed your direction and your point of view—something that was pivotal.

“I settled on that word first and then was interested in the sort of inherent move that that conjured up, which was Kidd—an outlaw, a pirate, a prizefighter—and the counterpoint to the pivot. For me, trying to hold these things in tandem was important—that sense of relentlessness. I named it 16 years ago, and trying to name an entire body of work—most of it I hadn’t named yet—still represents the things that I really cared about. I also liked the idea that it sounded like a superhero.

In her own way, Pite might also be seen as a choreographic superhero, and becoming a mother in 2011 with her partner, Jay Gower Taylor, who is also Kidd Pivot’s set designer, enhanced not only her dancemaking, but also her world view.

“I think that being a mother made me much more vulnerable and terrified and sensitive—the sense of vulnerability I don’t think I would have wanted to approach this content or this show without having had that experience. It also made everything stand out more.”

“Betroffenheit” is decidedly a work that stands out, and what audiences will take away with them can range from the deeply personal to the universally profound. “Coming to terms with the unimaginable, it’s a long-term process of work,” said Pite. “But it’s not to be done alone, and that I guess that art—and theater—is a place for us to connect and to be together, and to be thoughtful together to connect through stories like this one.”

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