Crystal Pite’s Body and Soul

Body and Soul, Paris Opera Ballet, Opera Garnier, Paris, October-November, 2019, choreography and text by Crystal Pite, set design Jay Gower Taylor, costumes Nancy Bryant, lighting Tom Visser.

What has made Crystal Pite “one of the dance world’s most sought-after artists” (The Guardian) is not simply the ravishing movement sequences that she invents. Her dance-works are animated thoughts about the complicated miracle of being human in the universe—ongoing statements from an evolving worldview. She seems to want to touch the core of meaning, to glimpse, even for a moment, the why of it all (or not even that—the what of it all, the mechanics of existence). Through simple and unaffected images and metaphors that she manufactures from the unique language of human physicality—from dance—she invites us to join her in considering the enduring mysteries of the human condition.
The latest chapter in her continuing inquiry, her new evening-length work for the Paris Opera Ballet titled Body and Soul, probes ideas of conflict, control and social cohesion. In three short, contrasting acts, to equally contrasting musical accompaniment (electronic-experimental, Chopin, pop-rock), she evokes the conflict between the irresistible human urge to assert our uniqueness—to make the autonomous statement and to build (and lose) the connections that make an individual life important in the world—and our equally pressing urge (or is it obligation?) to fit in, to be embraced by the all-consuming anonymity (and of course protection) of the social group.
It’s a complex piece that doesn’t yield its depths easily, and if I’d not seen anything by Pite before this, I’d probably wonder if her huge public regard was overstated. Did I like it? More than Revisor and Betroffenheit, less than The Seasons’ Canon and Flight Pattern, which only tells you I’m more attracted to visual metaphor than narrative, at least where dance is concerned. It’s an important work in terms of both her creative arc and her thinking about the world.
She has shown us before how skilled she is at evoking both the individuality of the mass and the individual within the mass. Dozens of dancers in coordinated motion replicating the live swarming instinct—flights of birds, colonies of insects, schools of fish—are always striking to look at, and often stirring. Here, individuals and duos emerge organically from large ensembles—often left behind on the stage as the group departs, like rocks above the waters as the tide ebbs—only to be reabsorbed afresh when the group floods back.
These sequences of emergence and absorption conjure a dilemma without resolution, one that has been exploited throughout history both for evil and for good: on it rest the contrasting notions of the faceless army and of the rock star. It is the sharp delineation of that dilemma—how much autonomy can the individual claim in a world of mass manipulation? —that makes this piece so compelling.
Pite often enriches her animations with fragments of the language of words—poetry (Field Fiction, Dark Matters), verbal signs, theatrical dialogue (The Tempest Replica, Betroffenheit, Revisor). They pop up in different ways, but they all serve as signposts or provocations or even clarifications: things to help us see more clearly and think more usefully about the issues she’s addressing.
Here, it is a brief, voice-over description of (or instructions for) a simple movement sequence that starts in near-darkness as a simple duet, but morphs in significance and emotional weight as the piece proceeds. We see it ripple like vibration through a group: the first of a line of dancers will make a gesture that shimmers down the line and evaporates into the reassembling ensemble, and we are reminded of all the tiny things we do that change the world in infinitesimal ways, things that reassure us that, after all, we matter, that the world would have been different had we not been here, things that make the search for love and individual agency noble and worthwhile.
The human head has been a consistent point of focal interest in the dance-works Pite makes—its naked vulnerability, its need for disguise and protection (helmets, bandages, carapaces), its ultimate importance in housing the brain and mind and keeping the organism alive and changing. In this piece, the duo sequence that the text describes ends with one dancer manipulating the head of another: head on the chest, head in the hands, head on the ground, as the text has it. And that handling of another’s head—sometimes a manipulation, sometimes an act of apparent tenderness—becomes a leitmotif whose significance changes according to the music, the tempo and the numbers of dancers involved.
The opening act is performed in the gloomy semi-darkness that seems so prevalent in contemporary ballet these days, to a score by Owen Belton, Pite’s longtime musical collaborator, against a battery of standing lights across the back of the unadorned stage. The large cast (40 of the superbly trained and conditioned racehorses from the Paris Opera Ballet stable) is rendered largely anonymous in a uniform of long black overcoats, from which they emerge from time to time in simple white singlets and black pants. Their repetitive, synchronized groupwork suggests they are cyphers, manipulated by some larger force (we have seen before how fascinated Pite is by puppets and marionettes). Duets and ensembles of shared longing and loss underline the nobility of the human urge to love and be loved and to care and be cared for within a system that is beyond our imagining. Are we looking at some dark, dystopian future in which the individual spirit is at the mercy of the mass? Are we looking at something more primitive—the anonymity of original chaos?
In the second act, to Chopin piano preludes, a fresh, angular lyricism floods the stage, delivered by these dancers with fierce and vital conviction. Duos and ensembles emerge organically from the group, often flying and swirling, sometimes crumpled, sometimes swung, bodies wrapped (and rapt). Emotion is raw. I think this attempt to give individual joys and sorrows and hopes for love a place of relevance within the overwhelmingly numerous universe is at the tender, humanistic heart of this piece.
If the mood of the first two acts seem a little beset, with all that hopeful striving in the gloom, the finale, which follows on with only the briefest of pauses, hits a transformative note of shared ritual and transcendence. The curtain rises on the same drab and undramatic backstage setting, but after just a moment, enough to establish continuity, the scene is transformed into a glittering bronze otherworld and the dancers emerge as a phalanx of sharp-clawed insects in full-body costumes of shiny black latex, with pincers for arms and stabbing pointes at the end of their legs, their faceless heads encased in fierce, sharp-pointed casques. They look like futuristic biker-ants.
The music changes with the same abruptness as well, to a rock-pop song called Body and Soul by Teddy Geiger, and the insect army fills the historic stage with a tele-pop extravaganza of showy unison exuberance that wouldn’t be amiss on Broadway or YouTube. I wondered briefly if this scene might be telling us that, for all the tribulation and tenderness of the preceding acts, we have nothing to hope for, so we should simply have as good a time as possible until our moment in the world ends. But I think Crystal Pite’s worldview, while sometimes questioning and inviting regret, and certainly acknowledging the conflict on which survival depends, is ultimately hopeful, not apocalyptic.
At the centre of this orgy of synchronized show-dancing insects is a shaggy beast, driving them to greater and greater abandon, savage in the impact of its exaggerated gesture. This is the life force, surely: the thing that gives us all whatever it is that we have for as long as we have it.
And in a final moment that is both banal in its show-dance reference and powerful in its promise that, whatever befalls the individual, the life-force will go on, the beast slides down the stage on its knees to the front of the apron and spreads its arms to embrace us all as the curtain comes down. Despite our ineffectuality, our ultimate disposability, our defiant self-assertion and our need to fit in, we are part of the body and soul of the universe.


Addendum, March, 2012:

The first time I saw Crystal Pite’s Body and Soul was from the back row of the orchestra stalls at the Palais Garnier. You get the big picture very well from there, though you might not register all the details, and the piece I wrote reflects that. I responded to the large themes of inclusion and exclusion that I thought the work was about. I watched it a couple of times more when it was made available on film this month. Those themes are still there, but seeing the piece up close on-screen allows you to get a better understanding of what the choreographer was doing with the themes that she said she considered central: conflict and connectedness.

The genius of this piece is to take one very simple motif as a point of departure from which she can explore the many ways all these ideas can be expressed through the moving body. In musical terms, the entire evening functions as a theme with variations, or like an evening-long riff on a core melody by an endlessly inventive jazz ensemble.

The motif is a simple spoken scenario of movement instructions (left over, it seems, from her earlier work, Revisor) describing a scene of conflict between two figures. It is a precise, declarative description of a sequence of human movement. We see the simple statement of the theme/motif at the start, performed by two male dancers. Much of what follows is built around that simple scenario, broken down, reformulated and repurposed.

Early information about the show suggested Body and Soul would be made up of sixty separate sequences. I didn’t count them, but it certainly felt like an endless flow of invention and variety as she explored the places the words might take us, tangling and untangling of the bodies of her 35 dancers, sometimes in moving phalanxes, often in pairs. From time to time fragments of the spoken text returned like nudges to remind us of where we came from: as jazz pianist Erroll Garner once told me, “if you’re going to take the audience way out, be sure to bring them back in. How can they tell they’ve been out if they don’t know they’ve come back in?”

Inclusion, exclusion, conflict, connectedness—Crystal Pite encourages us into profound thinking about the world around us, the people we meet and the things that are important. But I don’t think she wants to dictate our thoughts, any more than someone improvising music wants to force us to think the way that they are thinking. What she does is use her art to clear the way for us to do our own thinking and responding about the issues she’s addressing, suggesting approaches we perhaps hadn’t considered quite that way before.

I found myself absorbed, again and again, by the way she took phrases from her basic text and used them for little bits of movement, fresh and arresting, that illuminated ideas like sorrow and reconciliation and hope with the force of a sudden searchlight. She speaks very clearly in movement, like a writer who doesn’t blur the flow of ideas with fancy adjectives and adverbs. The central section of Body and Soul, to selected Chopin Preludes performed by Martha Argerich, contains some of the most affecting and beautiful dance I’ve ever had the pleasure and privilege to see. And I found myself thrilled and delighted by the savage life-force that came screaming off the stage in the finale.

Seeing it from this new perspective also allowed me to get another take on her use of the mobile mass. Something atavistic stirs in us at the spectacle of coordinated human movement: marching bands, military parades, the Rockettes, the corps de ballet, even synchronized swimmers. We respond, perhaps, to a visual realization of the precision and mutuality of purpose that eludes us in our daily lives. Crystal Pite takes us a step further. I think Marius Petipa, who was probably the most renowned employer of the corps de ballet as an expressive element in its own right rather than just as a backdrop for soloists, would marvel at her post-modernist ways with the moving, anonymous group. Free of any sense of regimentation, but always linked in unity of purpose, her massed dancers sprawl around the stage like a loosened amoeba, sweep and recede like the tide, or swarm like predatory insects on a Saturday-night hunt for a partner in procreation: a whole live being, body and soul.

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