Hive Mind: Crystal Pite's electric choreography is swarming Pacific Northwest Ballet

The Vancouver choreographer talks with PNB's Peter Boal about working with Seattle's top dancers and the risks of unconventional ballet.
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Choreographer Crystal Pite in rehearsal with Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers.

The Vancouver choreographer talks with PNB's Peter Boal about working with Seattle's top dancers and the risks of unconventional ballet.

When you’re a professional dancer, you never let on if the piece you’re working on is, well, Meh. In rehearsal, you have to sell it to the choreographer. Then out on stage, you can’t hint to an audience that what you’re performing isn’t anything but great. But Peter Boal, PNB artistic director, inadvertently overheard the following exchange one day.

Dancer 1: What do you think of this piece?

Dancer 2: Oh man, I (expletive) hate it!

“I had NO idea,” Boal says, cracking up, “because he [the dancer] was such a pro and he had been doing such a great job.”

We’re in his Pacific Northwest Ballet office and Boal’s making a point about how sometimes dancers love and sometimes they find what they’re working on ho-hum.

These days, his company is working for the first time with contemporary choreographer Crystal Pite, who’s arrived from Vancouver, B.C. And to hear Boal tell it, his dancers are in total awe.

“They’re so inspired to be in the studio with her,” Boal says. “It’s intangible. But it’s there.” He continues: “I actually had two dancers walk into this office blinking back the tears because they didn’t think they would be in it.”

To which Pite, the choreographer who is also here in Boal’s PNB office for this interview, responds, a bit sheepishly: “Aw.”

“I’m always so grateful when people take a chance on me,” she says. “Otherwise, the work never gets out there into the world.”

Her work has gotten out there, whether it’s been with her own company, Kidd Pivot, based in Vancouver. Or with the Nederlands Dans Theater, where she is associate choreographer. Or with New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. And, there’ve been more.

Pite, a former ballet dancer with Ballet British Columbia and William Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt, creates theatrical work that pulls from all genres: classical, hip hop, modern.  She upends the mainstream notion of how a body can move. And she creates movements that spotlight specific body parts, like the spine, or the neck, or the right shoulder.

In a review last year of Pite’s “Tempest” in British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun called her “one of the hottest choreographers on the planet.” In Seattle, Boal tweeted he had just seen a run-through of “Emergence” and added the hashtag: #blownaway.

I recently spent about an hour watching rehearsal and seeing tight, explosive formations of dancers; dancers with zombie arms; dancers looking like they were on a baseball mound executing a pitch; dancers actually counting out loud (it adds to a regiment-type quality). And I left totally amped.   

“I’m so grateful the dancers are going to have a chance to do this and that our audience will have a chance to experience it," Boal says. "And I’m kind of proud of me, too, for wanting to do it.” He laughs.

From a financial standpoint, Boal is taking a risk with this very contemporary rep, which includes Pite’s “Emergence,” as well as a second Seattle premiere -- “Forgotten Land” by Jiri Kylian of Nederlands Dans Theater. Two other Kylian pieces – “Petite Mort” and “Sechs Tänze,” which PNB has previously performed, round out the bill.

Even when the dancers wear pointe shoes (they don’t always), PNB audiences don’t generally embrace something perceived as too radical from classical ballet. Ticket sales for the story-length ballets such as “Swan Lake” or “Giselle” are always higher. Those are the works that might lure in coveted ballet newcomers. And the masses always go bonkers over “Nutcracker.”

“Yes, ticket sales will be smaller,” Boal admits. But bringing work like Pite’s to Seattle is about 1) mixing it up for PNB’s loyal audience and 2) inspiring and growing his dancers. Actually, when he considered Pite, Boal acknowledges he was thinking of his dancers first.

“It’s about growing them as artists, showing them what they’re capable of,” he says. “They still have to go out and do ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ But they’re not on a track that they can’t break out of.”

It was actually one of his PNB dancers (Noelani Pantastico, now with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo) who walked into Boal’s office in 2008 and said, "Crystal Pite. Have you heard of her?"

“She made me write down the name and look her up,” Boal says.

Several PNB dancers had seen Pite’s work (“Lost Action”) at On The Boards that year. “I looked at what [videos] were out there,” Boal says, “and I was hooked.”

When Boal ran into the choreographer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance festival in Massachusetts, Pite proposed “Emergence” as a possibility for the classical ballet company. It was a piece she had recently created for the National Ballet of Canada.

“It was my first time ever working with a large ballet company,” she says. “That was what was appealing. The chance to work with the entire company. The spectacle. The chance to work BIG.”

The entire PNB company – the 38 dancers who are not injured, that is – will dance a piece that’s based on how bees operate in a hive. “Swarm intelligence.” The dancers will, in fact, emerge onto the stage through something that looks like a tunnel.

“I often look to nature for inspiration,” Pite says. And then she quotes that children’s song. The ants go marching one by one. Hurrah. Hurrah. “That’s really such a great quote,” Pite says. “It’s all about individuals adding up to something greater than themselves.”

In a departure from most choreographers, Pite actually taught the whole company 24 dance combinations. Then she divided them up into groups of 6. She assigned dance captains for each group. And then she asked the groups to remix their own combinations. 

“You empowered them,” Boal says.

“I did,” she agrees. “They helped me create the scene.”

That scene – the finale – in which a stageful of dancers move as one and then whip around, all necks, shoulders and spines, to a part-human/part-insect-sounding score (the music is by Owen Belton) was heart-pounding, Boal says.

And that’s exactly what he wants to feed his audience.

If you go: “Emergence” is being performed as part of the Kylian+Pite rep Nov. 8 – 17 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.


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