The Ephemerality of Existence
Crystal Pite on Her New Work for The National Ballet of Canada
February 3, 2020
Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite
is producing some of the most original contemporary dance pieces in the world today. Her ability to be aesthetically inventive while remaining attuned to human stories and experiences gives her work its unique power, whether she’s evoking the refugee crisis in Flight Pattern
or exploring trauma in Betroffenheit
. For as eclectic and visually fascinating as these works are, they also resonate on an intimate level, as windows into our world.
This March, Pite will present a brand new work, Angels Atlas
, for The National Ballet of Canada, her second collaboration with the company since 2009, when she caused a sensation with the dark, hive-like universe of Emergence
. This time, Pite says, the impetus for her creation is light.
“For the past few creations my partner and set designer Jay Gower Taylor
has been working with our lighting designer Tom Visser to develop a system that allows him to manipulate light on a surface,” she says. “It’s analog and made of the simplest materials but what it delivers is this incredibly rich thing that has a painterly quality. It’s like a moving, shifting topography and with the choreography of Tom’s lighting, it’s like they’re creating the conditions for the unexpected to happen. It’s been really inspiring to think about how to dance with that.”
Collaboration is central to Pite’s creative process, particularly in the studio. For her new piece, she is working closely with the dancers of the National Ballet in small workshops and as a large group in Toronto, while creating some elements offsite in Vancouver, where her company Kidd Pivot
“I have a beautiful group of students in Vancouver at Arts Umbrella
who sometimes help me test ideas,” she says. “That gives me a bit of strength, coming in here with things that I know work and are pre-created. But then I leave big territory unmade and unknown so I can respond to what’s here and draw inspiration and ideas from the people who will actually be on stage. It’s always a combination of both.”
The state of “not knowing” that Pite describes is a thematic concern in her new work, which engages with the transience of human life – and equally, its intensity – through the ephemeral media of dance and light.
“When I was a little kid my uncle and my dad talked to me a lot about the cosmos and I remember having these moments where I could kind of perceive how tiny I was,” she says. “They encouraged me to think about these great unanswerable questions and these colossal ideas that I didn’t, and still don’t, have the capacity to understand. Somehow working with that surface of light that Jay and Tom have been working on together, which is so chaotic and beautiful and unpredictable, reminds me of that feeling of being small, of not knowing, and the thrill of that. And it also has this morphing ephemeral quality that reminds me of dance itself.”
The score for the new piece is bookended by two choral works, one from Tchaikovsky
and the other from American composer Morten Lauridsen
, with the middle section featuring new electronic music from Pite’s longtime collaborator Owen Belton
, who sampled bells, voices, clicks and other sounds to give it “that pulse and that feeling of time and urgency that I’m trying to get at,” Pite says. “It’s very beautiful.”
“There is a quote from the writer and critic Max Wyman
that I really love. He says, ‘dance is an art form that simultaneously defines and defies the ephemerality of existence. We have nothing but the body and soon enough we will not even have the body. But it is that physicality that speaks so eloquently about the implications of mortality and at the same time voices our defiance."
“Our lives and our dances are always built in relationship to time and, by extension, mortality,” Pite continues. “I would like for this creation to put something on stage that looks like that. I want to see if I can speak about our ephemerality and at the same time voice our defiance.”
Angels' Atlas Chroma & Marguerite and Armand are onstage February 29 – March 7, 2020.