Arthur Pita on His Disco Days & Boredom With Balanchine
The ballet world can't get enough of Arthur Pita. With his maverick, surreal imagination, the self-styled "David Lynch of dance" brings a welcome theatricality to everything he touches, from his version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis to 2017's Salome for San Francisco Ballet.
The South African–born Pita competed in disco dancing and later performed with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures. Today, he is Bourne's offstage partner, and the pair live together in London. His latest work, which premiered in November, is a one-act adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 Texan novel, The Wind, for The Royal Ballet.
Here, he shares insight into his creative process (and confesses why Balanchine used to bore him) with Dance Magazine:
For a story ballet like The Wind, I have a complete scenario, set moment by moment. I write cards, not with steps, but just with the narrative: This character arrives, this one does this. There needs to be a duet, a group dance. And then I start to piece it together. Sometimes I put cards up in the room, to see what needs to go where.
When you want the audience to really understand a story, you have to be daringly literal. Just do the image that says: This is what's happening here, these people are getting married—she's wearing a bridal gown, there is a priest. Once you've found that, then you can go on a tangent, go into an absurd place.
Pita in the studio at San Francisco Ballet. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
I love to use all the brains in the room. I give the dancers tasks: word tasks, couples' tasks, a language. If I can get everybody to just throw ingredients in, we can cook it all together.
I did disco dance championships when I was younger. I'd think of different techniques to stand out from the crowd: The music would start and everyone would go nuts straightaway, so I'd do something very slow, the opposite.
I like working with a new score. I have such a trusting relationship with Frank Moon, who composed Salome and The Wind. I call him my music husband. We like to give the performers space in the score, so they don't have to act on the counts. Then you start to get a different kind of timing.
I've been with Matthew Bourne for 21 years. We approach the creative process differently: I love being in the studio, but then I get nervous when we go onto the stage, and that's his favorite bit, because then he's set. There is no whispering in each other's ear. When I watch his work, I'll go: "How did you do it like this?" I'm always impressed, because I would never have done it like that.
Lately I've started to get into some really abstract Balanchine work, which I used to hate. I thought the movement was so dry. I watched Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and it's amazing, outrageous choreography. There are moves in there breaking every rule.
Actually, my next work, for San Francisco Ballet's Unbound festival, will be abstract.
Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.
My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.
In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."
An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.
"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.
With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.