A glitching supercut of our current political moment, Revisor is the dance-theatre hybrid 2020 needs

Choreographer Crystal Pite and theatre artist Jonathon Young chat about their latest collaboration, now streaming on CBC Gem.

Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young chat about their latest collaboration, now streaming on CBC Gem

Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Doug Letheren, David Raymond, Rena Narumi, and Matthew Peacock perform in Revisor. (Michael Slobodian)

Choreographer Crystal Pite and theatre artist Jonathon Young — the Canadian wonder twins of international dance-theatre — are housebound for the first time in years. Last year, Pite and Young's 2015 work Betroffenheit, a harrowing exploration of grief and healing, was named the best dance work of the 21st century by The Guardian, who called Pite a "dance genius." In March, their widely anticipated follow-up, the politically charged Revisor, was three stops into a major international tour when ... well, you know. The production had just completed its run in London (to more rave reviews than we can link to) when the balance of the tour was cancelled and the company sent home.

Lucky for us, a performance of Revisor was captured by the BBC and is now streaming on CBC Gem for us to watch and remember what it was like to be in a dark theatre with hundreds of other people, holding our collective breath as something mysterious and brilliant unravels before us. Revisor is a riff on Nikolai Gogol's 1836 play The Government Inspector, a farce about corruption and misinformation in the Russian empire. Pite and Young distort and deconstruct their source material, creating a virtuosic and disorienting work of dance-theatre that plays out like a glitching supercut of our current political moment.

Lest you worry about pressing play and crashing into a funhouse mirror of 2020 political despair, be assured that Pite's choreography dazzles from the get-go. Using Young's text as a score, the superb company of dancers lip-sync the recorded dialogue as they move with stunning precision and clarity. Partway through, the farce gives way and Pite transports us to a deeper space. The performers lose their period costumes, Young's text begins to fragment, and we're suspended in a liminal space that feels underneath language, below the thrum of the chaos and absurdity of the farce we've just witnessed. The unseen narrator seems to haunt the performers, pulsing through the scenery in a mesmerizing play of reflected light as a series of chilling theatrical images give way to one another. It's here that we feel most potently the depth and force of Pite and Young's creative partnership, and their ongoing investigation into our potential to find redemption amid suffering — and it's magic.

I caught up with them late last week over (what else?) Zoom to talk about Revisor, the pandemic, politics, and how they do what they do.

Clockwise from top left: Crystal Pite, Sean O'Neill, and Jonathon Young, featuring Crystal's CBC mug. (CBC Arts)

You've both built your lives around gathering groups of people together and sharing your work on the road, which are obviously not possible right now. How have you been coping over the last eight months?

Crystal Pite: Well, the first lockdown happened when we were just at the front end of a big international tour of Revisor. And so that was really jarring and hard to have to say goodbye like that, to disperse and send everybody back to their homes and not be able to deliver that show to all those places. But for me, personally, this period of time was something I had planned anyway — a time away from creating and touring, a time to just be home and reflect and think about new projects. Of course, I miss being in the studio with other human beings and exchanging that kind of energy in real time. It's going to be amazing when we can all get back in there. But this aligned nicely with what I had been intending to do.

Jonathon Young: I had a similar reaction right at the beginning, but that's also because I thought it was going to be, like, a two-month forced break. I was supposed to start a big contract in June, which would have been a long stretch of work as a performer. And I still was deluded and naive enough at that point to think, "Well, by June, surely things will be rolling out." I thought that for once, maybe I can start writing now, and I'll get the whole thing figured out so that when stuff does open up, I'll just arrive with a finished script. And did that happen? No. I realized that was just hubris. Like, I need deadlines, collaborators, physical space with people in order to manifest anything. Otherwise, it just sort of spins.

Revisor is the third dance-theatre hybrid show the two of you have collaborated on together, after Betroffenheit in 2015 and The Statement in 2018. What keeps bringing you back together?

CP: For me, I love the challenge of trying to keep up with Jon. I love how he helps me to extend my perspective and move beyond my regular habits and patterns. All my experiences of working with him on projects have been transformative and life changing. And what Jon brings into the room as an actor and as a writer helps our cast members discover new dimensions of themselves as performers. We're moving differently because of the way we're applying choreography to text, and this exchange of language and body, it's helping me to find new ways of moving.

I love jumping into the unknown with him because I often find myself reaching for some sort of safety, and he encourages me to let go and just sort of free float for a while. Also, he's my friend, and I just really like hanging out with him. And the things that we get into together are just endlessly fascinating and hilarious.

JY: And complex. And overly layered. And murky.

CP: Murky. Yeah. [both laugh]

JY: For me, it's a chance to work with a master. That's how I think of it. And why pass that up? And working with the dancers and their rigour and exceptional physical skill — the physical language will always be more articulate, or at least as articulate as anything I could possibly write. And so for me, that's what's so full of potential: that separation between what I do — crafting words — and what Crystal and the dancers do — crafting physicality. And the idea of bringing the two together never really occurred to me when I was writing for actors.

Renée Sigouin, Cindy Salgado, Rena Narumi, Tiffany Tregarthen, Matthew Peacock, Jermaine Spivey, David Raymond, and Doug Letheren perform in Revisor. (Michael Slobodian )

Watching Revisor was a really intense, disorienting experience. There isn't an easy emotional through-line to hold on to. There's no clear protagonist. We're witnessing this farce of corrupt bureaucracy play out amid a collapse of fact and truth, under a spectre of an ambiguous, looming existential threat. I was like, "This feels too real! It's too 2020!" I don't know whether it was deliberate or accidental that you ended up with a show that resonates so deeply with our current cultural moment, but can you tell me how you got there?

CP: We, of course, were inspired and motivated by current events throughout the process, yes. But we also wanted it to be more broad. There's never been a time in human history that lacked for some story of corruption and deception. But we were absolutely motivated and inspired to do something political in light of the time we were in.

JY: Without wanting to do something that was, like, blatantly a satire of U.S. politics, what we were responding to was the idea that there is this spectacle, like a veneer, and then there is the self or subject. And how do those two things coexist in this world? And it felt to me like if we were going to make a farce that evoked that, it would need to have qualities that were thin or superficial or beside the point, even though they seem to be the main action. I guess there's some danger in that in terms of how to draw the audience forward. But that tension is key: the deep urgency of the subject and the superficial reality of the main narrative.

So why this text? Why did you choose this 19th century Russian play as your source material?

JY: Yeah, it's mysterious, isn't it? [laughs] It started with the idea of farce. And we started talking about that form of humour, and the extreme physicality and the violence and the darkness that is contained within the best farces. And we were attracted to it as something that might lend itself to a dance-theatre hybrid because of those extremes. I went looking, and then remembered that I had long ago thought about The Government Inspector and doing something weird with it. We were looking for an apparatus to play on that would be recognizable to audiences. I think it had those characteristics, in addition to the content, of course: the ideas of inspection and an imposter and power structures and a kind of veneer over the truth.

CP: Many times during our process, we were kind of holding up this script and going: "This is in our show, so we have to deal with it." And we had to deal with something that, on the surface, felt like it had no redeemable characters. So one of the approaches that we took was to try to dig through it for the possibility of redemption, the possibility of change. I think when we landed on our narrator taking on the role of the Inspector, that she was on a search for meaning and truth, then we had something that felt potent and just full of promise —

JY: And mystery.

CP: And mystery.

Rena Narumi and Jermaine Spivey perform in Revisor. (Michael Slobodian )

What did the two of you learn about the themes you were working with — about the nature of power — in making this show?

JY: I think it comes back to the central questions [of the show] for me: Why am I here? What does it mean? What's my role in it? And then how quickly it can all seem futile to push back, to try to give voice to something when it just seems to be a deluge of chatter. It makes me want often to retreat from it, and to stop asking questions.

CP: One of the things that we kept coming up against was the tyranny of the text itself, the tyranny of the recording. And in a way, the relationship of the performers to the text is almost like a paradigm of our relationship to the content or the questions we were asking. Initially, because the text is so dense and demanding, we noticed that unless the dancers could be absolutely precise and align rhythmically with the text — unless they were nailing it — then the people watching it would be split between hearing the words or seeing the person moving. And so we talked about the text as being kind of tyrannical, that the dancers felt kind of strangled by it. But as we got used to it, and as they got better and more masterful with dealing with each line of text, they started to find space in it. And they were able to bring more of themselves to every moment.

It was like almost time would slow down, and they could fill it with more complexity. And I guess I felt like that a little bit in terms of the show itself. The farce had us by the throat. And then, through that experience of trying to work with that, and trying to uncover it and stretch it out, I felt like there were creative spaces to work with, and psychological and philosophical spaces to fill within it.

So I guess, in answer to your question, [I learned] that things are maybe more malleable than we think — that there's more space, there's more possibility for change within structures. But, you know, I also completely understand Jon's point of wanting to retreat and give up and feel so small in the face of it all. But I think we always end up coming back to the idea that we want to speak about content like this. We want to approach the world. And it's probably best that we do it through theatre, because that's what we're good at. That's what we've put all these years of work into. It's our best chance.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Sean O'Neill is a producer and writer. He co-created and hosted the CBC Arts series In the Making.

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