Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Dark Matter of Dance Creation: Kidd Pivot at the Playhouse

In astronomy, dark matter is undetectable to the human eye, contains no atoms, and emits no electromagnetic radiation. Yet it is thought to exert a gravitational pull on visible matter. And, according to the Big Bang Theory, it is believed to make up the vast majority of our universe.

Local choreographer Crystal Pite taps into this fathomless paradox for her latest full-length dance creation for her company Kidd Pivot. Dark Matters, a co-production of Dance Victoria, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and Montreal's L'agora de la danse, played the Vancouver Playhouse last night (and the Friday before) as part of DanceHouse's second season, and as a showcase event of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. In Pite's work, dark matter becomes a metaphor both for the unconscious and for the wellsprings--and the recesses--of creative imagination. As Pite and her dancers demonstrate in this piece--and as she herself has talked about in print in relation to her own uncertainty about where and when ideas will come to her for new work--bursts of inspirational energy can just as quickly turn to a paralyzing abyss.

The 100-minute piece is structured in two parts, with the first operating as a quasi-theatrical dumb show (and, in fact, a stage dummy does make a crucial appearance at the very end) to the more pure dance explorations of the second. To this end, the curtain opens upon a makeshift set. A man (Peter Chu) sits at a table filled with paper, cloth, scissors, thread, clearly experiencing some sort of blockage. Out of this pile he pulls two marionette legs, crafting a little dance with them centre stage. Suddenly the creative juices are flowing again and over the course of a few quick blackouts (which are used most effectively throughout the first half) we are eventually introduced to his creation, a benign-looking puppet attached to wires manipulated by the rest of the Kidd Pivot company, clad all in black like the traditional puppeteers in Bunraku theatre. Our puppet is far from benign, however, and combining references to Frankenstein, Pinocchio, Coppélia (the story by Hoffman and the ballet by Saint-Léon), The Wizard of Oz, and Freud's Ego and the Id, among other texts, Pite tells the familiar story of creature rising up against creator (as in the best of Chekhov's plays, those scissors are on stage for a reason).

Except, wily creative artist that she herself is, Pite renders the familiar strange once the inevitable climax has occurred and the puppet, having stabbed his creator/amanuensis, and with nowhere left to channel his energy, himself expires. It is at this point that the black clad supernumeraries--the literal dark matter in this show--take centre stage, their previously discrete yet no less precise manipulations of the restless puppet (and it is truly a marvel to see how Pite transposes her choreographic vocabulary onto the startlingly life-like movements of the puppet, which I can only imagine required immense rehearsal time and coordination from her dancers) now unleashed in a riot of acrobatic and martial-arts like movements as they rush about, clearly discombobulated by the acts they just witnessed and abetted. Pite is having fun here, and her cultural touchstones during these sequences are as much Spider-Man and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger as they are the high art works of Shelley and Hoffmann. All of this energy culminates in an inexorable gravitational pull being exerted on the visible matter before us on stage, i.e., the set, and when this comes crashing down--as, of course, it must--Pite literally reveals to us, in the form of the Playhouse's black back stage wall, the "invisible" scaffolding of the theatrical deus ex machina: what we take to be fate is in fact just fake (as one of her supernumerary's brandished signs reminds us).

The dummy that is tossed amid all of this detritus at the end of Act I provides the visual segue to the start of Act II, as the lights come up on a single, lonely supernumerary sprawled on the bare stage. Pite plays this role herself, at once plainly disguising and making plainly visible her own creative energies as an artist . That is, in the 55 minutes that follow, and in which we witness the rest of the company (Chu, joined by Eric Beauchesne, Yannick Matthon, Cindy Salgado, and Jermaine Spivey) "animate" her trademark choreography--which is itself all about the reanimation of bodies and/in movement--we are also witnessing (although not without careful concentration) the black-clad Pite rushing about the stage moving lights, doing things behind scrims, popping up in unexpected places (including emerging from the orchestra pit at the very lip of the stage), and finally inserting herself within the other dancers' bodily chains to provide them with an added force, or a change of direction (remember her company name has "pivot" in the title), in their deliberately uncertain movements.

Pite's work has always been intensely self-referential, and this certainly feels like her most deeply personal work, mining her own creative process to reveal to her audience the at times self-shattering stitching behind any work of art. In this regard, the piece ends with Pite, alone on stage, facing the inevitable abyss of loss (for performer and audience) that comes with the end to any show, removing her black costume and sitting down on the stage in her underwear in a single pool of light, exhausted and spent. The animator herself now needs to be reanimated, and this is the cue for Chu to return for a final very moving pas de deux in which he and Pite reciprocally exchange the roles of choreographer/dancer, puppeteer/puppet, creator/doll.

I haven't done justice to all of the other wonderful dancing in the second half of Dark Matters, but one thing I did want to reference before closing is that this piece once again fully displays how amazingly original and adept Pite is at choreographing for men, especially in group and partnering sequences. The four-man striving and collapsing routine from Lost Action is referenced here at key moments, but what lingers most with me from last night is the extraordinary partnering that takes place midway through Act II between Yannick Matthon (who also appeared in Lost Action) and Jermaine Spivey. They do things alone and together with their bodies over the course of three minutes or so that had me gaping in amazement.

All in all a truly amazing evening: despite the fact I was stuck behind a very tall man and had to lean forward for most of the performance; and despite having to negotiate the crazy Olympics crowds afterwards in our hour-long journey home. The only somewhat sour note is the news that Pite and Kidd Pivot have recently accepted a two-year residency in Frankfurt. While Pite will continue to remain connected to Vancouver and the west coast, Frankfurt is able to offer her sufficient resources to create new works and pay her dancers full-time, resources that just aren't available in the current fiscal climate in BC. This is distressing mostly for the message it sends to the world at a time when we are supposed to be showcasing our artists to the world: namely that we don't really care about our own.

How dark a matter is that?


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