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."
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
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A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.