On today’s episode of ‘Conversations On Dance’ we are joined by choreographer Arthur Pita. Arthur’s choreography has been featured across a broad spectrum of art forms including opera, ballet, film, and musical theatre, never shying away from artistic risks like tackling Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ or creating to the music of Bjork. Today we talk to Arthur about his surprising early inspirations, finding his own choreographic voice and how his new work for Houston Ballet finally found its way to the stage after navigating its way through the pandemic.
If you are in the Houston area, you can see Arthur’s ‘Good Vibrations’ starting Thursday, September 22nd through October 2nd. You can purchase tickets at houstonballet.org. https://www.houstonballet.org/seasontickets/pdps/2022-2023/good-vibrations/
Speech-to-text transcript excerpt by Assembly AI
<Michael Sean Breeden (MSB)> Well, let’s get into talking about the work you’re doing in Houston. It has, I guess it’s not that atypical now, but it’s probably unusual in your own life as a choreographer, in that it’s taken several years. It’s not through your own choosing, but it was intended to premiere in the 2019-2020 season, but of course, was sidelined due to COVID. I’m just curious how far along you were in the process when it got temporarily shelved and what that whole experience was like.
<Arthur Pita> Yeah. And actually, the concept for the piece was quite different. It was a different approach.
When I first started speaking to Stanton [Welch, Artistic Director of Houston Ballet], I was very excited about going to work with the company. I had just done a piece for Access Dance in San Francisco which was quite a dark piece, but it was a great experience. Every time I kind of do something dark, “oh, let’s do something a little bit lighter and a bit more fun” to just kind of release a little bit going from one dark thing to another.
And I proposed a few ideas to Stanton. He loved the idea of Good Vibrations because it’s a song that I’ve always loved and I was like, “I would love to kind of turn the song into a kind of a fantastic 25-30 minutes sort of experience where you kind of just live in the song.”
I was working with Chris Austin, who is the arranger, and we started talking about how we’re going to approach the music and dissect it and how he’s going to take each section and how we’re going to merge everything. Everything was kind of cooking and then, you know what happened [with COVID]. Everyone was having their own experiences and then so I kept talking with Chris and Mark and I said, well, “let’s just keep going. Let’s keep having conversations about what this is.”
And of course, you have time on your hands. And I was looking deeply at the lyrics and watching documentaries about The Beach Boys and researching California surfing and that scene and what was really happening at the time. Then the arranger, Chris, said to me, “Is there any narrative? Because I’m just finding it a bit difficult to go for.” Talking about textures was that same thing. I thought, “Oh, he doesn’t know why it’s happening.” I said, “Well, let me stew on this a little bit.”
I started looking at the song in a deeper way, which is a song where he’s celebrating this woman, basically. And it was a perspective of a young man who’s feeling the vibrations of a beautiful woman, and she’s giving him excitations to grant elation. Then also, I didn’t want anything that just felt so male, female, too straightforward. And at one point I thought, “Do I just put the whole company in bikinis?”
Then things happened during COVID. We’re getting so much imagery of people in hospitals and the health services really going at it. We lost our grandmother. Not to COVID. I mean, amazingly, she died when she was 93. And actually, she did get COVID and she survived it. And then she actually passed away, like, three months later. But it was okay because it’s kind of like a dignified. I was like, “what a lovely way to pass all her family around her.” Everyone was there supporting for that moment in her life. She was a real rock in our family.
I’ve been through this a few times. Often when people are on their deathbed, they often start to see the light and they often start to have visions of people from the past. And, like, did they start talking about it? Oh, someone’s waiting for me. Like they know it’s coming. And I thought, “this is a very, very interesting place.” This is more interesting.
I watched this amazing documentary with Brian Wilson that’s just come out recently for a long journey. And he’s so sweet and so fragile, but so creative and so kind of determined at the same time. He lost also his brothers. He’s the last standing Wilson.
Anyway, there’s all of that in the mix. I just had a strong image of an elderly man passing and looking back at his life as memories. Then that was like the key into how I want to approach the song. Because then I was like, “Oh, the song about this woman that he loves. Maybe she is some kind of angel. Maybe she’s more than just a beautiful hippie chick walking down the street. Maybe she’s beaming light to him the way he sees her.”
Because when you listen to the song, the effect of this person that has on the character of the song is huge. So I want to try and find a way to celebrate that. So that’s how the narrative of the piece came about.
So essentially, it’s a memory piece. It’s an old man on a hospital bed, and he’s essentially having memories of his self as a child, and he meets a surfer girl. And that was the other thing. The whole surfing world opened up to me and I was like, that’s like another whole culture, which is just so fascinating.
<MSB> You went surfing yourself.
<Arthur Pita> I did it because we had this two week break and I said, “Well, Hawaii is not that far.”
So I went to Waikiki and because we’ve been doing surfing in the studio, our version of surfing, and I thought, “I have to know what it really, really feels like.” So I went for a surf and I thought, there’s no way to stand up with this hip and this arm and where my body is at the moment, but it’s all about the size of the board. So I had an eleven foot board and I had this great instructor and he just showed me the three steps, how to stand up. And then he says, “I’m going to push you and the wave is going to come. And when I say go, go.”
And I just did it and I just stood. It just happened. And it was magical. And I think I’ve had quite a few good rides. And then you become addicted.
<MSB> Like then you want to I can imagine.
<Arthur Pita> Yeah.
<Rebecca King Ferraro (RKF)> That sounds like the best research to be doing for a ballet: I really need to get myself to Hawaii.
<Arthur Pita> I really have to understand it.
<RKF> That’s awesome.
<Arthur Pita> Yeah, but that’s how we approached it. So it’s this boy who meets the surfer girl who teaches him how to surf. And then we understand that they grow up and they’re in this relationship. She gives him a surfboard as a gift and they go surfing and unfortunately, they get caught in the big swell and he watches her drown and he loses her.
And then we have the old dying man just experiencing the transition from one point of death into the afterlife. And then in the afterlife, really, it’s all those questions that we’ll ask, what happens? What is it? Do the lights just go out or are there angels? So in my head, I want to recreate what maybe would have been his perfect day. And then I said, well, wouldn’t it be nice when you do die, which we all will eventually, that you just kind of live in your most perfect day, like eternally.
So that is the song. That is when the song eventually comes in and we lead into kind of the union of the two souls. They come together.
<MSB> That’s what I was super curious about musically, because it’s like you’re bringing up some darker themes, but there’s nothing more joyous than that song.
<Arthur Pita> Yes. So when I devised a narrative, then I spoke to Chris Austin, composer and arranger, and he was like, “Okay, because now he had something to go on.” In one section there’s the Drowning dance, and there’s the beach solo and all sorts of things like that.
He’s written a score, so he’s kind of taken it. It’s very interesting what he’s done, and it’s very complex, but he’s taken the Beach Boys song, so we had the rights to be able to quote from the song, but he hasn’t sort of directly quoted it. I guess you have to be a real staunch musician to kind of really get what he’s doing. But he’s maybe taken something and reversed it and then found the notes in there and then played for something and then written something and changed tempo.
So it’s basically a whole new score for the orchestra. But then we also have sound design that kind of goes in and out on top of it, blends the whole thing so that when you get spot, you’re not just kind of having a visual sun in the middle of the day.
<RKF> You mentioned that you’ve really only gotten to start working with ballet a little bit more in the past, I think you said 15 years or so. And this is your first work for Houston Ballet, is that correct?
<Arthur Pita> Yes.
<RKF> So I wonder how the dancers have influenced your choreography and what the audiences will see on stage.
<Arthur Pita> Yeah, absolutely. I mean, these dancers here are just wonderful. So playful. The getting to know each other is always a little bit scary because you think, “Are we going to be completely playful with each other?” And also it’s like you know they have busy schedules and are rehearsing another piece and coming to the studio and you say, “Okay, let’s set a task.” And sometimes dancers are like, “Can we not just learn?”
But I didn’t have any of that. I felt like the dancers have been so playful and so collaborative and really curious and interested and committed. And it’s just been a joy from day one being really lovely. They are just lovely. And they are really inventive dancers. I mean, they really know their bodies and they have both the classical technique, beautiful, strong classical technique, but they can move, they can ripple their bones and it’s just lovely. And they can make friends on the floor and all that kind of stuff. Just glorious.
<RKF> For me, I wonder if because they do work so much with new choreography, Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch also creates constantly on them, if you get the sense that that’s also what makes such a fertile environment for choreographers such as yourself.
<Arthur Pita> Definitely. I think it’s like when someone paves the way and then you get and also, I think, globally, ballet dancers in all ballet companies now are so much more versatile than what it would have been 40, 30 years ago because there’s YouTube and Instagram. So people are also like watching things happening and they imitating it. Are they creating their own language, say, or presenting themselves in different ways. So I think there’s a lot more accessible influence so I think dancers want to be want to be versatile. You definitely get the sense that they want to check their classical checklist and nail down all those classics, but I think they equally likely be a part of the process and creating something new where there’s a collaboration.