Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet

By Cheryl A. Ossola 

There might be no better combination of artists than choreographer Arthur Pita and Icelandic music superstar Björk. If you’ve never seen a ballet rave—and who has?—get ready. Pita delivers that and more with his second piece for the Company, an imaginative spectacle that will make you want to jump up and dance.

Why Björk? A partial answer is that Pita never forgot the moment he first heard her music. During his training at London Contemporary Dance School, a friend introduced him to Björk’s album Debut. “I never stopped listening to that first album, which I loved so much,” says Pita, whose favorite music artist, until that moment, had been Gloria Estefan. In thinking about his music for Unbound, he wondered what he could do to make the dancers feel unbound. “And I thought, ‘The music is going to drive them,’ and immediately Björk made sense. The music is so theatrical—it’s big, but in a modern way.” Also, he’d wanted to choreograph to Björk’s music for ages and the timing felt right. And, he reasoned, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson is Icelandic. “I knew [Björk’s music] would mean something to him,” says Pita.

In fact, Tomasson says he’s very happy about Pita’s music choice, which took a fair amount of effort to acquire. No doubt he could see how integral the music would be to the choreographer’s theatrical style. Pita’s Salome, which premiered in 2017, “was very unusual, and different from anything we had done,” Tomasson says. “He is a very dramatic dancemaker; it’s more about storytelling with him. This work is visually interesting.”

SF Ballet rehearsing Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Also interesting is the episodic form of Pita’s new ballet. Björk’s music provides a framework for fragmented stories, dances that are more thematic than descriptive, capturing the essence of Björk’s lyrics. A lone fisherman provides a ghost of a narrative, and also a link to the natural world. Because Björk’s music often references nature, “I wanted to get nature in the piece in a big way,” Pita says. Though the set is minimal and abstract, tall grasses create a focal point throughout the ballet, sometimes serving as a miniature forest, sometimes framing the dance space. At first the grasses “appear magically,” Pita says; then the dancers rearrange them for each section of the ballet, emphasizing humans’ relationship to the Earth. “I want them to feel like they’re nurturing the land.”

Pita sees the fisherman “as the simple human being.” He wears two masks, one smiling, one frowning—an idea that came to him because of a duality he sees in Björk. “She’s this very playful, naughty fairy, dancing nymph, otherworldly creature, which is full of light and love,” he says. “And then you’ve got this very deep, mournful, sorrowful, almost tragedy in some of her songs. So it’s like the theater masks.” The fisherman’s journey ends with “The Anchor Song,” which Pita says he read “as a lovely kind of sailor song. Björk used to live by the water, and it feels like an old folk song.” The lyrics—“I live by the ocean / and during the night / I dive into it / down to the bottom / underneath all the currents / I drop my anchor / and this is where I’m staying / this is my home”—might be a suicide note or a love letter to one’s native land; either way, the song conveys a feeling of peace.

Woven around the fisherman’s tale are snippets of love stories. In “Bachelorette,” the woman is “always somehow left alone,” Pita says. In the song, Björk sings that “she’s ‘a path of cinders’ for the person to step on,” he says. “It’s a beautiful image.” At the other extreme, “All Is Full of Love” is dangerous—“it’s about falling off things and running and catching and being held. Tempestuous, deep-rooted, immense love,” he says. “Hyperballad” is even more dangerous. Paraphrasing the lyrics, Pita says the song is about “imagining ‘what it feels like to jump off a cliff just so that when I wake up I can feel safe with you.’ That’s so extreme.”

Arthur Pita rehearsing his Björk Ballet //© Erik Tomasson

From the fisherman to the pas de deux couples to the pixie-like creature who flits through the action, everyone in this ballet is Björk. “That’s why there are so many solos in the piece—because I wanted them to connect with her experiences,” Pita says. “They all become her.” He sees the solos, whose movements the ensemble echoes, as duets with the audience. In trying to capture the essence of Björk, Pita goes to extremes with his movement, giving the dancers flicks, squats, and lunges along with concave shapes, flung arms, and references to nature—shapes based on flowers, and a step he calls “glicing.” “I gave them a task to slide and glide,” he says, “which is when they skim across the floor, like on ice. Which I really, really love.” There are cantilevered duets with an underwater quality and a classically based octet, set to “Frosti,” that Pita says “should look like a ballerina music box on acid.”

And then there’s “Hyperballad,” Pita’s ballet rave. In rehearsals, he asks the dancers to improvise an eight-count jumping sequence to its pumping, driving rhythm. “It’s a metaphor—jumping for joy, jumping for love,” he says, then tells them how often the arms should change position, how and when to turn in place, how they should make it unusual, “not like something you do in class.” When he pairs them up to practice, he breaks the bad news: there are 36 of those eight-counts. The dancers groan. The song ends with a unison, blissed-out-looking sequence that evolves into a sideways kick step Pita borrowed from Björk herself, dancing in a video of “Hyperballad.” Meanwhile, the couple from “All Is Full of Love” moves into a slow, sinuous, stretched pas de deux, and the pixie-like figure darts past. It’s an enchanting and exhilarating moment.

Ultimately, the ballet is about four things, says Pita—birth, life, sex, and death. “Theater itself is life and death,” he says. “The curtain goes up, it’s life; the curtain goes down, it’s death. Even if you finish on a happy thing, it’s finished. There’s a little death to that in itself.” He finds many references to death in Björk’s songs—for example, “Vökuró,” which he says “feels like the possible death of a child. And ‘The Anchor Song’—‘I’m going to stay at the bottom of the ocean with my anchor.’” The fisherman, walking upstage at the end of that song, turns his happy mask to the back of his head. “Is he leaving that behind and walking to his death, or is he happy?” says Pita. “Is he at peace with walking to his death?”

When Björk sings—about love or joy, sex or death, “it comes from such a human place,” Pita says. For him, “All Is Full of Love” says everything. “It’s such a beautiful lyric—‘You’ll be given love,’ and ‘You’ll be taken care of,’” he says. “What a beautiful message! And people coming together—we have to remember that we do have love in the world.”