Crystal Pite & Khoudia TouréA step-by-step transformation

Published in January 2020clockTime to read: 1m30s
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For hip-hop street dancer Khoudia Touré from Senegal, her mentorship with a superstar of modern dance, Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, impelled her to grow as a dancer, a choreographer and as a person.

by Sarah Crompton January 2020
  • Crystal Pite
    The Mentor
  • Khoudia Touré
    The Protégé

“If I had to find one word to sum up the last two years, it would be ‘transformation’,” says Khoudia Touré, with the broadest of smiles. “I feel I have had to grow drastically, both as a dancer, a choreographer and a person. I can express more within my dance, have more tools, but also have fewer blocks. But also as a person, I have learned to be more confident in myself. So yes. Everything has changed a lot.”

Touré, now 32, from Senegal where she takes part in the collective dance company La Mer Noire, is talking about her time on the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, where she has been mentored by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. The two women have become the firmest of friends as Touré has watched Pite at work in her hometown of Vancouver, where the mentor runs her own company Kidd Pivot, and across the world with different dance companies such as Nederlands Dans Theater, London’s Royal Ballet and Ballett Zürich.

“I love how much she has been around,” says Pite. “She has seen me in all the different phases of what I do, in the middle, beginning and end of a creative process, both with my own company and with outside companies. It has been amazing because I have been able to have all these conversations with her over time. Sometimes there are little stolen moments; sometimes we have dinners. She’s been to my house; she’s met my whole family. We’ve been very close.”

Pite’s own career was helped along the way by informal mentors such as her first dance teacher who handed her the keys to the dance studio and gave her permission to make up any dance she wanted, and later by William Forsythe, who understood that the woman who was dancing in his Frankfurt Ballett was interested in more than performance. In her own career, she mentors more by example than by actually teaching.

“I don’t want to tell her [Touré] how to do anything,” she says. “She is already doing it and already knows a lot. It is more sharing with her how I would approach a particular problem or a particular opportunity. It is up to her to take that and run with it if it helps. Basically, it’s about cheering her on.”

All the hours I spend exchanging with Crystal are hours that guide me incredibly in my personal development. An hour of mentoring is maybe ten years of life.

Khoudia Touré, 2018-2019 Dance Protégée

We are meeting in Paris, where Pite is putting the finishing touches to Body and Soul, a new, full-length work for 40 dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. As I observe her in a dance studio, this quiet, humble woman is effortlessly in charge of the huge cohort of dancers in front of her. Seeing that has in itself been inspiring to Touré. “Watching someone at her level inspires me to do my best,” the protégée says. “She has such a strong work ethic that I felt I had to improve drastically. I really had to put so much more dedication and energy into what I was doing.”

Pite acknowledges the compliment, but turns it back to Touré. “I think she is a natural leader,” she says. “Very clear, precise and deliberate. One of the reasons I wanted to work with her was that I saw strong leadership qualities in her. I don’t know what it is like for her to watch me work with any size of group, but I know for sure leadership is a massive part of what we do as choreographers.”

Where she does feel she has helped actively to expand Touré’s knowledge is by giving her access to the magic of theatre itself. “To work on stagecraft, the integration of light, sound, set and costume design. All those aspects of the work are part of what we can do. She hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to extend her practice so I thought that was something I could help her with, especially because a lot of these things can translate to any scale.”

For Touré, the whole process has been part of what she longed for: a challenge to take her own choreography into a new dimension. “I wanted to be lost,” she says, surprisingly. “I wanted to be thrown in some areas where I had no idea where I was going and where I was open to receive something new. I didn’t want to go into something easy, but something hard so that I could have things to overcome.” The contrast between the large Western theatres where she has seen Pite working and the far more limited structures available in Senegal has been one of the challenges she has faced; her intention now is to use everything she has learned during the mentorship and share it with dance-makers she is working with in Dakar.

“I have been raised with the idea that there is a value in our country and that I could share my chance with others,” she says. “When I get this amazing opportunity I don’t see it for myself, but I see myself as a vessel, as a bridge to create channels between both cultures. I am surrounded by so many young talents, and every time I get a chance to release that and share what I have learned with them, I think it’s a number one priority. In this way, the Rolex programme doesn’t just benefit one person, but the consequences around it are much larger.”

A practical example of this occurred in Paris, where Touré was working on a new piece that will be shown at the Rolex weekend celebrating the current cycle of the Rolex Arts Initiative in Cape Town in February 2020, with Pierre-Claver Belleka, a Liberian dancer who is one of the collaborative co-choreographers in La Mer Noire. He too has been part of the journey of the past two years; the link between Touré and her dancers and Pite’s own company Kidd Pivot has been strongly forged. “I loved the way that she has been able to tap into their knowledge and their mastery and connect with them dancer to dancer,” Pite observes. “I think she has learned a lot from the exchange that they’ve had. It has been amazing: like a matrix of people that I am connected to that she is also connected to now. I am sure that will endure.”

For Pite, too, the relationship with Touré has been enriching. “She has this beautiful grounded confidence and she is compelled to dance, to choreograph, to express and to connect. She is so willing to listen and that is going to serve her beautifully as a creator. I think that is something I would like to work on in my own practice. I always feel I am under so much pressure and have so little time that I have to plough through. I love Khoudia’s serenity and how she is in the world. I would like to learn how to move through life like that. It’s extraordinary.”

Touré has kept a diary to record the progress of her transformative two years, and recognizes that all the ways it has changed her will go on reverberating for years to come. “Its effect has been in two parts,” she says, thoughtfully. “I feel there is definitely all the amount of information, of knowledge, or techniques and skills, of direct and indirect ways to be as a dancer that have been passed on. But the second part of it is the moment that this information confronts my information and from that shock something new is created.

“My culture and Crystal’s culture are crossing. What can be created from that junction? That for me is also very important.”

Sarah Crompton is one of Britain’s most respected writers and broadcasters, commentating on all aspects of culture and the arts. Her work appears in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Times and The Observer, among others.

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