Paris Opera Ballet in Crystal Pite’s Body and Soul. Photo by Julien Benhamou.

Premiered November 2019 and filmed live at Palais Garnier, Paris.
Film is presented by Digidance and streamed online February 17-23, 2021.

Crystal Pite’s Body and Soul, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, has some utterly powerful moments that upend our subconscious complacency, but some challenges in continuity prevent it from being a stellar full length work.

The piece exposes our presumed stability of narrated text. The short script, voiced by Marina Hands, is a series of cues for movement such as “Left right left right”, “the hands move incessantly”, “Figure 1…extends an arm reaching for Figure 2” and “a struggle”, which directs the actions of two designated parties. What begins as a fairly literal interpretation by two dancers morphs into surreal scenes as the script (sound design by Owen Belton, a longtime collaborator with Pite) is repeated for a dancer against a large ensemble or two large ensembles, at altered speeds and rhythms, with some phrases muffled and other phrases emphasized and accompanied by a soundscape of hums and drones. 

Pite’s ensemble choreography for this cast of up to 36 dancers, is visually striking. More than a kaleidoscopic spectacle, the ensemble embodies abstract roles within the work such as a force of conflict within or against an individual, and also more literally representing an ocean wave or a rioting crowd. Pite’s phrasings combine predominantly everyday gestures such as one’s hands over the mouth or on the hips, with exaggerated and elongated lunges and arm reaches. Movements are spliced together in different arrangements, at times spun into anxiety-inducing repetition, and sped up or slowed down as if in control of time itself. Pite and the dancers hold our trust ever so delicately by maintaining minimal assurances of familiarity while subtly drawing us deeper into their realm. 

Part Two of the piece continues to explore the themes introduced in Part One with greater intimacy. The dancers strip the black and white suits, shirts and ties from Part One for baggy pants and white or nude tops (costume design by Nancy Bryant). In a series of duets, set to Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Pite’s choreography harnesses momentum and rebound between partners and from floorwork. 

Having been guided so deftly from Part One to Part Two, Part Three seems to be from a different work altogether. Whereas in Part One and Two, the dancers retain the fourth wall, the characters in Part Three are directly soliciting attention from the audience. The large ensemble resembles a swarm of leggy insects – grasshoppers perhaps – and brings to mind Pite’s 2009 work Emergence, which premiered at the National Ballet of Canada and also featured a large ensemble of insect-like creatures. Dressed in slick black bodysuits, with pointed head pieces and arms propped onto long spindle-like sticks, the dancers creep along the stage in visually captivating formations. Then, a creature in a hairy suit vogues and struts toward the audience and around the stage, at times as the catalyst instigating the formations of the ensemble. A similar hairy creature appeared briefly in Pite’s 2019 work Revisor, which was performed by her company, Kidd Pivot. The soundtrack is a mashup of the earlier script with rhythmic sound effects, then escalates to Teddy Grieger’s pop-rock song Body and Soul. It certainly lifts the piece out of its meditative exploration but it’s a forced conclusion. Perhaps the piece could be reworked into a tighter but shorter work.

The film is directed by Tommy Pascal (a former dancer himself) and has a good balance of close ups and long shots, as well as much appreciated views of the ensemble formations from above. It combines the best seats in the house and is the next best thing to the live performance. 

Paris Opera Ballet in Crystal Pite’s Body and Soul. Photo by Julien Benhamou.