NAC Dance: Kidd Pivot’s Revisor inspects the language of dance

A scene from Revisor with Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Doug Letheren, David Raymond, Rena Narumi and Matthew Peacock. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young were in the middle of the massive global success of their Olivier Award winning production Betroffenheit when they started talking about their next idea.

“We both agreed that we were inspired to do something political and we wanted to work with comedy. Those were the two thrusts coming out at the time,” Pite, the artistic director of Vancouver’s Kidd Pivot dance company, said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

Their gaze turned eventually to a 19th century political satire called The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol.

“Jonathan (the artistic director and co-founder of Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre) has always been fascinated by this play so he proposed it as a starting point for the project. He was so convinced that I agreed to it.”

It was a case of trust and verify.

For Pite, who is truly one of the leading lights of Canadian contemporary dance, the idea of this “well-worn and unfashionable farce” seemed “wonderfully specific in time and space. We thought would be interesting if we could place it in the now.”

Crystal Pite

So Young wrote an adaptation of the play that forms part of the show. And, she said, things just went from there. The result is Revisor, one of the most anticipated productions to come to the National Arts Centre certainly this season. It opens Feb. 28 and closes March 2.

“As we investigated further, we got really excited about the idea of deception and this recognizable story about a figure in disguise.”

The story essentially is about a Russian town full of corrupt officials who hear that someone from Moscow is coming in disguise to investigate them. The twists and turns of the plot flow from that premise.

“We thought it would be interesting to rely on the audience’s expectations of farce and mistaken identity to build the show,” Pite said.

The farce lies on Revisor like a mask, Pite said, “as if our show was under occupation.” The production has two co-existing artistic worlds. One is more contemporary and abstract and the other is hyper stylized and much more about the narrative and plot of Gogol’s story, she said.

“That was our mission. It has been an exciting proposition. It has been super-challenging, but the conversation between well-worn farce and our own time and reality in the world today was compelling,” she said.

Pite admits that, for her, being political is “uncomfortable.”

“I am definitely not an expert. Everything I do, I always have to place it in my own personal perspective. One of the things that helps me cope with material that really stretches me this way is, for example, when I think about corruption and deception, I can apply it to myself. and my own questions about my own corruption and my own disguises.

“That is helpful. When we make things personal and shift scale from universal questions of how we change a giant system to how we change our own corrupt selves.”

Her own corruption in this context is “my own ignorance and naive complicity in this story. How am I part of this situation? What should I being doing to question and change it from within?”

In the show, there is a narrator who performs a kind of inspection on the show.

“I feel a real connection to the character of the narrator, who is proposing these ideas and putting them on stage and questioning her own relationship with the content of the piece. That makes the material manageable for me and interesting and personal. It makes me feel invested.”

Revisor is a changing, updating and evolving piece of art. Pite does a lot of that in her work.

“In any creative project, our job is to inspect it and pull it apart, analyse  it and change it and revise it accordingly.”

For Pite, “this idea of revision is potent because it means that there is hope for change and something can be done because things are not necessarily fixed and forever. We are in a constant state of flux as we build ourselves, our shows, our country.”

No surprise then to learn that Pite is an inveterate note-giver.

“I do a lot of notes and revisions. I make tiny little adjustments at every opportunity. It’s true with anything I have made. It is a living, breathing thing that has to be nurtured. We want to go deep. We want to find all the possibilities in all the corners.”

The production audiences will see is a work within a work.

Young created a radio play of sorts that was voiced by nine Canadian actors and recorded. The radio play becomes the sound track of the performance.

The dancers each embody a character and the perform to the words.

“It’s a bit like lip-syncing except the dancers use their whole bodies to do it. It is remarkable how precise and masterful they have become,” she said.

The other part of the production is a more abstract, dance-based performance that happens within the farce.

In a sense the production is also examining the relationship between dance and theatre within the larger farce.

Pite said that one of most fascinating things about the project was the exploration of the relationship between language and the body “and seeing how that feedback loop between language and the body brings things to life. Sone truths exist in the words and some in the body.

“I come from contemporary dance where you don’t see a lot of complex plots. Most are actually pushing against the idea of story.

“I love story and I love theatre and complex plots and concepts that allow me to use language to get at those things that are very difficult for dance alone to address. Revisor has given me a new appreciation for what dance can do that language can’t.” And vice versa.

One wonders if use of words in a dance is limiting.

“The words earn us the opportunity to explore things in the dancing that we wouldn’t be able to explore otherwise. It also helps us to bring the audience along with us. When we go into the more abstract part of the show, the audience is with us because they have been informed by the language of the play. It’s a jumping off point.”

She has been exploring this in other projects.

“We want people to connect what they are seeing to what they are seeing in the world around them.”

That makes the sound design, prepared by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, and Meg Roe, central to the production.

The words of the farce become the rhythm of the dance. It is an intriguing use of language.

“I’m certainly not setting out to invent a new form or reinvent anything. It is my own fascination with language and the body and these particular stories and this content. I always ask myself: ‘How can I deliver it in such a way that we bring our audience along and we connect. That for me is the heart of it.”

Revisor has had the benefit of the help of donors from around the world and in Canada, including funding from the NAC’s Creation Fund, the Canada Council’s New Chapter fund and from the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts where it was workshopped twice.

The support has given Pite, Young and the dancers and creators “time. It gave us 12 weeks in the studio and we used every second of it.” It also allowed them to create on a large scale and create the voice over radio play, for example.

“It had to happen before we were stepping into the dance studio. It’s almost as if we made two plays. That was intense, time consuming and expensive.”

The support, she said. is essential.

“You cannot make new things and innovate without time and money. Imagination only takes you so far.”

These days, she is travelling with Revisor to Ottawa and beyond.

“I just really like to be there to experience it. Imagine I make this thing and then it is out of my hands. It only exists when it is being done in front of an audience. I want to have access to the thing I have just made.”

But the world does come knocking on her door. She is working on a new ballet for the Paris Opera Ballet premieres in October.

“I’m in the thick of it already. It is good to change gears and keep creating.”

Kidd Pivot presents Revisor
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, NAC
When: Feb 28 – March 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.