Dancers & Companies

Why Crystal Pite Still Feels Like an Outsider in Ballet

A creation for the Paris Opéra Ballet or The Royal Ballet would have pride of place on any choreographer's resumé. But Crystal Pite is going one better and choreographing works for both companies this season. "Isn't that crazy?" she exclaims at the Palais Garnier in Paris, still sounding surprised. "I have to pinch myself sometimes when I come into this building."

Still, Pite has plainly demonstrated in recent years that she belongs at the top of the choreographic ladder. Since creating her own company, Kidd Pivot, in 2002, the Canadian dancemaker has realized her ambitious vision for dance theater in increasingly large-scale productions: the Shakespeare-inspired The Tempest Replica, in 2011, was described by The New Yorker as "a work of astonishing beauty and thoughtfulness." Since 2013, Pite has been an associate artist at London's prestigious Sadler's Wells Theatre, where her most recent works, from Polaris to Betroffenheit, have made her a critical darling.


And while Pite considers herself a contemporary choreographer, the ballet world has paid attention. A former dancer with Ballet British Columbia and Ballett Frankfurt, Pite has made works for Nederlands Dans Theater and the National Ballet of Canada, among others. In September, her Seasons' Canon made people sit up and take notice in Paris, and The Royal is next for a Pite premiere in March.

"It's exciting to be able to use that knowledge, that mastery classical dancers have," Pite says. "How do I use them and still create a piece that looks like something that I would make?"

Given Pite's background in ballet, it's not surprising classical companies have come knocking. While there was no pre-professional school in her Canadian hometown, Victoria, British Columbia, she trained at "a very good little ballet school" from the age of 4 to 17.

Her hours were limited, but the school's focus on the creative process compensated: "My teacher, Maureen Eastick, would make new pieces for us all the time. We had the experience in the early days of being choreographed on." Her school also entered dance festivals where Pite herself was allowed to develop her creative skills. "We were onstage a lot. I had the opportunity to choreograph on my peers."

Pite in rehearsal at Ballet BC. Photo by Michael Slobodian, courtesy Ballet BC

After graduating from high school in 1988, she was offered an apprenticeship with Ballet British Columbia in nearby Vancouver. "It turned out that it was the perfect place for me to go," she reflects. "It was a small company, the focus was on new work and contemporary ballet, and I was able to widen my vision of what was possible in ballet and dance."

The company's repertoire included works by Jirí Kylián and William Forsythe, and while her own choreographic career was taking off on the side, Pite opted to challenge herself by joining Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt in 1996. Many of today's top choreographers have come from the company's ranks, and Pite credits Frankfurt's collaborative ethos with pushing her as an artist.

"Bill [Forsythe] was attracted to people that were creative to begin with, people that were willing to take risks, and there was this incredible creative spirit at work there."

By 2001, however, she longed to go home. "I always had the dream to dance in my own work, in my own company, and I wanted to do that in Canada," she says.

With the support of her long-time partner and designer, Jay Gower Taylor, Pite launched Kidd Pivot. Adequate funding was hard to secure in Canada, but she steadily developed her choreographic voice while dancing in her own works for a decade. "I think those two sides of myself, being a dancer and a choreographer, have always fed each other, and at that point I felt this great synthesis within myself," she says.

Her retirement from the stage coincided with the birth of her son Niko, in 2011. "I always imagined that my dance career would end when I either got injured or had a baby. Fortunately, it ended up being the latter, but the decline was exponential," she says with a laugh. "The aging, the child, the challenges of trying to juggle everything! It was a new beginning and an ending all at once."

Kidd Pivot now works roughly half the year, allowing both Pite and her performers time for side projects. Its bold productions have an experimental, multidisciplinary side to them. Pite's grounded vocabulary is often blended with text and commissioned music, with Gower Taylor contributing seamlessly modern set designs. 2015's Betroffenheit, a raw exploration of loss and grief, was a collaboration with actor and playwright Jonathon Young.

"I'm interested in offering an audience a variety of ways to get into a piece," Pite explains. "Some people can connect in a visceral way to pure movement, and others connect more to language. I like to be able to use anything to get people in the same world as each other."

Despite the commissions she has lined up, Pite still feels like a visitor in the ballet world, where she is one of the rare high-profile female choreographers.

"Ballet dancers have a very different skill-set and vocabulary. The way they use their spines, their relationship with the floor, to each other in partnering: There is a whole different kind of musculature that kicks in when they connect."

Pite has adapted, making ballet works that are more dance-centric than her repertoire for Kidd Pivot, and more focused on group work. "I can achieve a physical complexity within an individual body easily with my own dancers, but with dancers I'm just meeting, I'm not going to be able to," she says. At the Paris Opéra Ballet, she found strength in numbers, with 54 dancers often moving as one—and scenes that paid tribute to their unique lines and technique.

Paris Opéra Ballet in Season's Canon. Photo by Julien Benhamou, courtesy POB

At The Royal Ballet, Pite will use the first movement of Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, "music that is very familiar and beloved," she says. She plans to "follow its trajectory," and mine the dancers' classical training for inspiration.

They will have to adjust to the bold yet rigorous earthiness of her style, however. Pite thrives on the energy that comes from that mix: "When there is tension, something flourishes and becomes alive, complex," she says. "I want dancing that looks like it's being discovered in the very moment it's being danced. I want it to look like it's reckless, dangerous and also delightful."

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

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Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

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Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

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Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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