In the next eight months, Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite will have her work performed by Scottish Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet, to name but three. In short, she’s a choreographer in demand, unafraid to work with classical ballet on a large scale.
Back in 2009, however, when Pite walked through the doors at the National Ballet of Canada, it all felt very new. Although she had danced for many years with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt, and choreographed for numerous well-respected companies, the notion of ballet ranking – principals, soloists, corps de ballet – was alien to her.
“It was my first time to work with a large ballet company with a hierarchical structure,” explains Pite. “Because even though I had danced with ballet companies for my whole career, I hadn’t encountered those kind of ranks before, so it was really a new planet for me.
“But I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to have a big cast – so the hierarchical nature of the company, and the mass of people, became the starting point for the piece I created there.”
That piece was Emergence, a smash hit for the National Ballet of Canada, an equally big success for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2013, and soon to be presented by Scottish Ballet at the Edinburgh International Festival.
All three companies have hierarchical structures – but that wasn’t the only thing which inspired Pite. Looking for parallels in nature, she began to observe bees, birds and fish, to see how large groups of creatures move as one being.
“Emergence is what happens when complex structures arise out of simple interactions,” she explains. “So each little individual is doing their own thing, and has a series of very specific tasks – and then those tasks connect to all the other tasks and create these incredible structures.”
“Like when we see starlings in the sky or schools of fish, these unbelievable morphing entities that look like a single entity with one brain, made up of thousands and thousands of little creatures.”
After some research, Pite discovered that these swarms and flocks have no hierarchy (“I should make it clear, the piece is not about bees,” she says) – but felt there were still many parallels to be drawn between the natural world and the ballet studio.
“Ballet is a really good example of emergent structures,” she says, “in that there are a series of physical structures and rules, like technique, which are combined into complex dancing. The dancer contributes to the larger structure of the choreography, and responds to local stimuli by aligning their body to other dancers, turning to face a different direction, starting on a musical cue and so on.”
Watching Emergence, you instantly see what Pite is referring to. Small groups create intricate patterns on the stage, each dancer responding to the person next to them until all 36 dancers come together for a swooping moment of synchronised movement any flock of birds would be proud of.
For although Pite talks extensively about the structural quality of the work, she was also keen to give the audience something stunning to look at.
“I didn’t just want the piece to be about structures and systems,” she says. “I wanted it to vibrate with life and to be really intelligent and beautiful. For it to echo the natural world, and for us all to be reminded of the wonder of community and collaboration.”
That spirit of collaboration has been alive and well in Glasgow, where Scottish Ballet is learning to make the piece its own. A huge hit with audiences and critics in Canada and America, Emergence has also picked up several awards – which means Pite can now sit back and enjoy the ride.
“I really enjoy the process of re-mounting a work, and getting to know it again through a new group of dancers,” she says. “It’s very creative and energising, but doesn’t involve the terror I feel when I’m choreographing a new piece.
“I’m dealing with something that I know works, and that somebody has actually asked for. So there’s a really relaxed feeling and I can just enjoy discovering the piece anew, with no fear.”
Fifteen years have passed since French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj first created MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon Corps), the piece which accompanies Emergence on Scottish Ballet’s Festival double bill. Since then, the work’s subject matter has become even more pertinent.
In 2001, the internet was still relatively young, but Preljocaj was already concerned about where the human body fits in, when so much of life is carried out online.
“At the time, I was thinking about how we’re very invested in technology,” he recalls. “My question was: what about the body in this new world of internet connection and virtuality?
“There were games on the internet – parallel lives, people had other identities, other lives in a virtual world. And all that made me wonder how the real body will resist all this virtuality.”
The work’s title, MC 14/22, refers to the Gospel according to St Mark in the New Testament. In chapter 14, verse 22, Jesus breaks bread at the Last Supper, hands it to his disciples and says “Take it; this is my body” (or Ceci est mon Corps in French).
In Preljocaj’s piece, as with the Last Supper, 12 men are brought together in a work created solely for male dancers. Like Emergence, MC 14/22 demands fiercely sharp unison from the dancers.
“I imagine that these 12 men are living in a kind of religious community,” says Preljocaj, “where they use rituals each day to verify the body – but not like ablutions or daily routines.
“In a lot of religions, people used to do things that were very hard on the body, like walking on their knees to a sanctuary. So the piece also looks at that kind of sacrifice of the body – how, by suffering, you can reach some kind of spirituality.”
Those who remember Preljocaj’s incredible work at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival, And then, one thousand years of peace (a radical re-working of St John’s Apocalypse) will know that the choreographer has more than a passing interest in religion – not as an evangelist, but in an ethnological capacity.
“Even when things are bad, there are good questions to be asked,” he says. “And as a choreographer I think there is a lot to be learned from reading books about different religions – you learn about the rituals, traditions, beliefs and culture of different populations.
“Also, what happens with the body in all these religions, because they all have a specific point of view on what the body is and how to live with it. You can see that in Muslim, Christian, Jewish faiths – they all have their own ritual with the body, and as a choreographer that is very interesting. It doesn’t mean I agree with this or that, but you have to think about it.”
• Scottish Ballet: Emergence and MC 14/22, Festival Theatre, 18-20 August, 0131-473 2000 / www.eif.co.uk