PNB Preview Q&A with Crystal Pite

Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, founder and artistic director of Kidd Pivot (and associate choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theater), is known for her innovative choreography and deeply insightful subject matter. Based in Vancouver, B.C., Pite is making her Pacific Northwest Ballet debut this week with Emergence, a complex work commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada in 2009 that is part of Kylian + Pite, opening this Friday at McCaw Hall. We chatted with Pite on the phone about her inspirations, being on the bill with Jiri Kylian, and what it’s been like working with PNB dancers. 

First of all can you tell me about the collaboration with PNB, how it came about, and how did you decide to use Emergence for this show?
I met Peter Boal at Jacob’s Pillow in 2008, and he hadn’t been the director at PNB for that long, but he talked to me about choreographing a piece to them, and he’s such a great guy and so convincing that I agreed. I had been so busy at the time and it was too hard with my schedule to come to PNB to make a new piece, so I proposed remounting a new piece I was working on. I made Emergence in 2009 and this is the first time it has been remounted.

I was really keen to see it come to life again. It’s a work that I really liked, but saw this as an opportunity to fine tune it a little more.When I choreographed this piece I made it for the National [Ballet of Canada] and I had about 18 days to make the piece so there were things I wasn’t able to flesh out as much as I wanted at the time. 

Can you tell me about Emergence?
Because I was working with a big ballet company I had the opportunity to work with a lot of dancers. Even though I had a short amount of time I decided to really go big and used 38 dancers. Since there were many people I thought I would come up with systems of structures to help the piece make itself. In the natural world with the idea of ‘emergence,’ individual agents respond to local stimuli, and then each individual interacts with the individuals around it and the entire group works together to make something larger, like the movement of a flock of birds or school of fish. It often looks like it has an intelligence to it, and really it does.

For the choreography I started with a lot of small building blocks or groups for certain scenes and worked out from there. I think it was a nice experience for the dancers because it really pushed against the hierarchal nature of a ballet company. 

Your work is emotionally deep, and often visually dark. Is Emergence like that as well? What were your inspirations and ideas for the piece?
Because the commission of this work made for such a limited amount of time I was thinking of how I was going to deal with those limitations I immediately thought that I would make the work self-generative, and that brought me right to the idea of swarm intelligence—I was reading a book about it at the time—and that brought about that idea of working with a big ballet company that is so hierarchal in nature, and this idea of taking that structure away.

The last few times I’ve seen your work it was at On the Boards with your own company. How has it been working with the dancers at PNB?
It’s been really nice for me because there are some really good movers in the company that transition very easily between classical technique and more contemporary movement. With the extra time I’ve had I’ve been  able to dig in and work with more details and the complexity of the movement.

The composer for the piece is Owen Belton, who did an original score for the work. Can you tell me about the ways in which the work and the music informed each other as you were creating?
Normally we create a bunch of ideas separately, he makes a lot of short samples, and then we combine them, but I walked into this creation with more music than I usually do. Owen had a lot of music already, but it wasn’t in any kind of order. There were nine different soundscapes of music that I knew I was going to use, but it was just a case of nailing down which music went with which scenes, what were the transitions and the order of events. One of the things that is always amazing about working with Owen is his ability to make these beautiful transitions in the music to get from one idea to the next. He works with a mixture of acoustic instruments that he plays himself, and then a lot of electronic sampling and manipulating of sounds.

You’re on the bill with several works by Jiri Kylian. In what ways do you relate to his work and choreography?
I’m a huge fan of his work, I think he’s one of the great titans of our time, so I am so honored to be in a show where his work is on stage with mine. Working with the Netherlands Dance Theater I’ve had a lot of exposure to his work—I feel like I’ve learned more and more about choreography and worked with dancers who are incredibly grounded, rich, and complex, and that’s been a rewarding experience. 

Kylian + Pite runs through November 17. Tickets here.

Artists of The National Ballet of Canada in Crystal Pite’s Emergence. Photo © Bruce Zinger, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.