Atlanta Ballet’s New Resident Choreographer–A Conversation

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Atlanta Ballet announced their new resident choreographer on November 14th. Helen Pickett, well-known to Atlanta audiences for her works Petal and Prayer of Touch, presented during the 2011-2012 season, will join the Atlanta Ballet family for the next three years. 2013 will see the company reprise her Petal and Prayer of Touch, with new creations coming the following seasons. “I hope to do a full evening, next season or the season after,” she told me during a telephone interview Thursday. “I have the idea. Next I need to find music….For my Dresden [Germany] premiere, I intended to go down a new path. I used video and much more theatre. I want to continue that. I want to tell a story. I started this with Prayer of Touch.” She spoke of “going into my [theatre] background a bit more.”

Helen Pickett’s Prayer of Touch. New Choreographic Voices. May 2012. Photo by Charlie McCullers. Courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

One thing I noticed in speaking with Helen Pickett is that she is very focused; she knows what she wants to do and where she wants to go with her choreography. Everything she talked about came back around to that. I asked her if she had anything special she wanted to say to Atlanta. She responded, “As a new member of the Atlanta Ballet family, I would love more people to support the ballet….We [in] the dance world, and especially in ballet, need to energize a bit more to let the audience know it is far more encompassing than it used to be….We are past the brink of making this more encompassing; we can now be more inclusive. Ballet is now an inclusive dance form. I wish the separation would dissolve more. That’s my current focus: cracking the fourth wall [between the audience and the stage]. The audience should be included—in more sensory systems than the eyes, listening in a different way, reacting in different ways.”

I was fascinated by her reference to “The Atlanta Ballet family,” as this is a recurring term I have recently heard from Artistic Director John McFall, several dancers, and some of the Atlanta Ballet support personnel. Ms. Pickett spoke of the joy of becoming part of the organization. “I am thrilled to have a family in this group of dancers. When I worked with them, they would finish my sentences, choreographically.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

Helen Pickett’s Prayer of Touch. New Choreographic Voices. May 2012. Photo by Charlie McCullers. Courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

I asked her how she viewed creating a new work, and if she approached it differently than re-staging a work she had previously set on the dancers. “I’d rather make something new. But it’s always different. Petal was commissioned here as a finished piece, but I ended up tweaking the whole thing for the dancers so the individual dancers can emerge. We’re not working for comfort here, or to please everyone. You can land in the state of comfort for a moment, but you can’t hang on to comfort too long, or you’ll never get there. I don’t mean unachievable or awkward, but we have to work on the process. It’s getting to know people…I take a long time to cast – sometimes a week, which can seem like an eternity to the people waiting to cast a program.”

Nadia Mara in Helen Pickett’s Petal. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy of Atlanta Ballet

Her method works. Boston Ballet gave her the first choreographic commission in 2005. She has since choreographed all over the globe. In our economically challenged world, with choreographers frequently on hiatus, she is currently in the enviable position of having to delegate rehearsals of her Atlanta Ballet works while she is working with other companies. She has already given the world of dance a prodigious legacy of critically acclaimed ballets. “I feel like the works I made in the past…I was learning. I knew the vocabulary intimately (she trained and danced with Lew Christensen, Michael Smuin, Helgi Tomasson and William Forsythe), but you have to learn how to make a piece. I have always been surrounded by choreographers who placed themselves in the position of the student. So I am a voracious student, and the writing and all the previous work was me just—I have a lot to do, and a limited time to do it, we all do, as human beings. The clock is ticking!”

“At Ballet West, I wrote something about being extraordinary and the urgency of being extraordinary. Devotion to the art I practice, I have that urgency. I gave up a few things in my life, deep things, you make sacrifices—you want to, in the end. When I watch a performer it really comes down to that thing, that urgency that draws me to that particular dancer. The question is why, why that dancer and that is also behind my choreography. I love the why!”

Her work is grounded in ballet, but she goes where few ballet choreographers venture, mixing the traditional ballet vocabulary with contemporary movement forms.

Pedro Gamino, Jesse Tyler, and Yoomi Kim in Helen Pickett’s Petal. Photograph by Kim Kenney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

She points to her philosophy of inclusive dance. “We have this umbrella called ‘contemporary dance.’ It’s really a fusion. We borrow from everyone else. Even when you have influences, you need to do so much research into why you are so drawn to this choreographer. But then, you put your own self into the process as well. This is also how we learn. I wish to see more in-depth works in choreographers and dancers. More old school, like Makarova, Cynthia Gregory and Cynthia Harvey. Many students don’t even know who they are. Why aren’t people taught to be curious? We need to teach more curiosity.” She’s back to the why again.

Sometimes great artists work with tunnel vision, completely focused on the art. Helen Pickett works in the real world, and wants to contribute to it. “It’s about giving something back. I was given so much; I have such a debt of gratitude. Like this residency—it’s such a gift. I can just hope that I give clarity to someone. If I were to be remembered as someone who has given hope: Maybe I’m the only voice who said ‘yes.’ In order to get people to be extraordinary or courageous, you have to say ‘yes’ more than once, so if you have to say ‘no,’ they’ve heard a lot of ‘yes’ first. God forbid it should ever become all ‘no!’ Some people feel ‘no’ holds more reality than ‘yes.’”

In addition to her choreographic contributions, the new resident choreographer will be bringing Forsythe’s work to Atlanta. There will be an annual Choreographic Essentials Workshop, beginning with a ballet class, “because Forsythe comes from ballet,” and continuing for a week. “It’s a mentoring situation, teaching them to choreograph or how to tweak what they have already started. It’s based on the possibility of ‘yes.’”

Perhaps it is through the lens of my own teaching, but I see in Helen Pickett the soul of a teacher, a kindred spirit. She mentors, encourages, promotes curiosity, celebrates learning. She says, “It’s very different than when I was in a company. It’s very common now that people are educating themselves—going to a university—while they are still performing, And you know, it makes for broader minds. It’s a very good place to put oneself. It’s the greatest strength, if you put yourself in a place where there is always something to learn.” I think Atlanta audiences will be learning from her, through her choreography. Personally, I can’t wait to start. Bring it on!

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