Crystal Pite: the dance genius who stages the impossible

Betroffenheit, our best dance show of the 21st century, takes the breath away – and reveals the Canadian trailblazer’s superb craft

Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Betroffenheit is the kind of work where by the time the interval comes, you’re still not exactly sure what you’re watching, and by the time it finishes, you’re speechless. The sense of the performance doesn’t so much unfold as slowly seep into the audience’s consciousness with growing horror – it’s a study of grief, trauma and addiction based on a tragic event in Young’s own life. The subject matter in itself carries enormous emotional clout, but it’s the craft that elevates this piece to genius levels.

Betroffenheit is not entirely typical of Canadian choreographer Pite’s work, being a co-creation with writer and actor Young, a genuine integration of dance and theatre (a partnership they have continued in a new work, Revisor). But it makes sense that Pite would seek to synthesise with another artist, because when she creates she is always in conversation with something or someone. Whether that is mirroring the structure of Gorecki’s music in Flight Pattern (2017), getting behind Shakespeare’s text in The Tempest Replica (2011), responding to an article she has read or a conversation she’s had, or collaborating with dancers on the creation of material. The ultimate conversation is with the audience. Pite wants to connect with the viewer. “It’s the most important thing for me,” she told me a few years ago. “I really care about it so much. I don’t know how to think about it any other way.”

Pite wants to communicate something real, something legible, something meaningful. That doesn’t mean serving up the obvious; she likes a “colossal, impossible subject”. It energises her to work with content that she thinks is beyond her. So there is richness, complexity and texture, and playing with linear structure but never the wilful obfuscation of an artist proving their cleverness. Her work feels undeniably human, even when it veers into experimental territory.

How many ways can bodies intertwine? Kristen McNally in Flight Pattern at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2019.
How many ways can bodies intertwine? Kristen McNally in Flight Pattern at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

That humanity appears in different guises. Some of her work connects to the problems of the real world. Flight Pattern, for example, made for the Royal Ballet, was a response to the refugee crisis that avoided cliche and clobbering you over the head with the issues and used a journalistic technique of zooming in on one person’s experience to give power to the story of the masses.

Then there’s one-to-one connection between two people dancing. The pas de deux is one of the most common and most challenging templates in dance. How many ways can those bodies intertwine? How many ways can they say “I love you,” or maybe, “I don’t”? But great choreographers can make even the most hackneyed setup blindingly new and essential again. Pite has the ability to turn these intimate conversations of limbs into something fresh, or sublime or crushingly real – like the man desperately chasing a woman, who when he finally gets her attention, can find nothing to say to her (from 2008’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue).

There is another strand to Pite’s work, that on the surface seems to distance itself from personal connection. Works that use large groups of dancers en masse, as a morphing whole, rather than individuals; a reinvention of the corps de ballet. You can see this in The Seasons’ Canon, for Paris Opera Ballet (2016), and perhaps most strikingly in Polaris (2014), created in London for an evening of dance set to the music of Thomas Adès. Pite found that the only way to match the vastness of Adès’s eponymous composition was to flood the stage with 64 dancers, who moved like the galaxy itself expanding – a fractal of bodies, their impact multiplied to something almighty.

Emergence by Crystal Pite at the Edinburgh festival in 2016.
Predatory … Emergence by Crystal Pite at the Edinburgh festival in 2016. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Polaris was a progression from a piece Pite made for the National Ballet of Canada in 2009, Emergence (later performed by Scottish Ballet), again harnessing the corps de ballet but turning them into something altogether more insectoid and predatory, moving in tightly orchestrated swarms. It’s a work that could be seen as a stepping stone from William Forsythe’s Artifact, the same celebration of ballet’s precision and geometry, but with a more organic otherworldliness. (Pite danced with Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt before moving into choreography and launching her company, Kidd Pivot.)

This mass movement seems like a simple idea, bodies moving in unison and canon, but it is deceptively difficult to achieve. Pite steps back to see the stage from the audience’s point of view and the connection she makes here is with something innate in the viewer – the concord and inner logic of these large-scale configurations firing primal pleasure centres in the brain, as well as intellectual ones.

Pite comes across much like her work: thoughtful, intelligent, honest, warm, curious, with no trace of egotism. She is exactly the sort of person you want to have a conversation with.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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