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Crystal Pite, Jonathon Young use 'full-body lip syncing' and wade into political corruption in Revisor

The acclaimed Canadian artists combine theatre, dance and farce as they put a fresh spin on Gogol's work

The acclaimed Canadian artists combine theatre, dance and farce as they put a fresh spin on Gogol's work

Gogol's The Government Inspector has inspired countless adaptations, but none like the new show by Canadian arts luminaries Crystal Pite of Kidd Pivot and Jonathan Young of Electric Company Theatre. (Michael Slobodian)

When word arrives that a government inspector is headed for a small Russian town, it sends the corrupt politicians — including the mayor — into a panic as they feverishly try to cover their tracks.

A low-level civil servant gets mistaken for the dreaded inspector, and a comedy of errors takes over the town as the civic leaders try desperately to win the man's favour.

The satirical play The Government Inspector (or Revizor in Russian) is widely considered Nikolai Gogol's greatest masterpiece, and it has inspired countless adaptations since it was first published in 1836.

But none of them have been like the one by Canadian arts luminaries Crystal Pite of Kidd Pivot and Jonathon Young of Electric Company Theatre that's having its world premiere in Vancouver this week, then touring to Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. 

Inspired in part by the overwhelming success of their earlier collaboration Betroffenheit — a searing work that explored post-traumatic stress and addiction — the pair is returning to the unique dance/theatre hybrid they created, and in particular, to what they call "choreographic ventriloquism."

For the new work, aptly title Revisor, Young penned an audio drama loosely inspired by the Gogol original — actually, it was inspired by an article Young read about Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold's 1926 non-realist version of the farce — then recorded it as a radio play with top Canadian actors.

From there, Pite took that audio, as well as original music by composer Owen Belton, and created a movement the choreographer describes as "akin to lip syncing, but done with the entire body."

But it's not nearly as simple as it sounds: in their take, the central character is a revisor — that is, someone who is responsible for the revision of legal texts — and the show itself is in a kind of disguise that gets deconstructed along the way.

"We're coming in and out of the farce, trying to turn it upside down and poke through it for meaning. And one of the things we do with the farce is to deconstruct it. We do a kind of inspection of the farce itself," says Pite. "And I feel that it's working, even though it sounds crazy when I say it."

Canadian dance and theatre luminaries Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young put a unique spin on the Gogol masterpiece The Government Inspector in their new show Revisor. (Michael Slobodian)

For Pite, who is associate choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theatre, associate dance artist of Canada's National Arts Centre and associate artist at Sadler's Wells in London, working with text is a challenging departure from the norms of contemporary dance, which have tended to push against narrative.

"The dancers each embody a character, and they physicalize the text — sometimes in a very analogous way, so you really recognize the text as coming out of the body in a way that looks familiar. It looks like it's come to life. At other times it's more deconstructed and pulled apart and made more extreme and stylized in the body," she explains.

"It's an interesting tension, to find out how far can we go in that direction before meaning gets lost, or before the audience gets split into seeing and hearing," she says. "So it feels like it's really freed me up to work with things I wouldn't normally be able to work with."

For Young, who co-founded Vancouver's acclaimed Electric Company Theatre, the opposite has been true.

"In theatre we're always contending with the tyranny of narrative and working with Crystal has enabled me to start a venture into territory where that language disappears, and something else that's more immediate and poignant and harder to pin down starts to emerge," he says. "So I'm learning constantly."

While the story may not always be easy to pin down, for the creative duo the text had to be. Normally in both theatre and dance, last-minute tweaks and changes are normal at the rehearsal stage; but with Revisor, the text was recorded well in advance, so there was far less wiggle room.

"It means if you decide to change one scene, the whole thing has to be re-recorded and re-edited and re-scored and then re-choreographed. So we had to have that text locked down, and then we had to contend with it. And we had to keep reminding ourselves that we had chosen this as a problem," says Young. "Because there was no way around it. And that's part of the exploration."

Of course, tales of political corruption are just as common today as they were nearly two centuries ago, and that currency was part of the draw for both Pite and Young, who often draw social and political themes into their work.

"The premise has become archetypal, this idea of a group of people who hold a lot of power, and have become corrupt and lazy and incompetent and deceitful. Someone who is not who he seems comes into their inner circle and he is endowed with all sorts of qualities that he obviously doesn't possess," explains Young. "So it's that kind of willful blindness, and how that may pertain to stuff that's happening today, that was at the core."

Revisor is at the Vancouver Playhouse Feb. 20-23; at the NAC Theatre in Ottawa Feb. 27-March 2; at Canadian Stage in Toronto March 7-10 and 13-16, and at Dance Danse in Montreal April 3-6.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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