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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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“20/20:Visionary”: Looking Back, Looking Forward

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Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Last weekend (March 18-20) the Atlanta Ballet gifted the city with “20/20: Visionary,” three pieces, including a world premiere, presented at the Cobb Energy Center.

The world premiere, “Playground,” by British choreographer Douglas Lee, belied its name by being a shadowy piece danced between upright, rolling chalkboard set pieces. Prepared for a lighthearted, joyful expression of childhood, I was surprised that the work instead exposed the darker side of childhood memories. There were some light moments, such as the towering billboard inscribed with multiple lines reading, “Jackie must remember the steps” – clearly a humorous aside about Jackie Nash, one of the most capable company members and perhaps the quickest study in rehearsal. There were some easily-seen choreographic devices–a lot of theme and variation, even more pushing around of set pieces–but there were a few exceptional moments as well, including intricate, slow-motion manipulation of a dancer’s body by another dancer.

Pen-Yu Chen & Tara Lee in “Boiling Point.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The opening work, “Boiling Point,” by Darrell Grand Moultrie, was playfully performed at breakneck speed. Dancers are often told to “make it look easy,” and the company took that concept to heart. Highlighted against the men in black costumes, the women wore bits of metallic fabric, providing splashes of intense color and exposing powerful bodies with long muscles. The piece began with the stage space open almost to its fullest, and the dancers running across like a rushing river. They rolled, twisted, turned, and slid like water itself. The choreography juxtaposed synchronicity with counterpoint, traditional with innovation. There was a gargouillade, rarely seen even in classical ballets. The lines of the bodies were critical to the piece, and often layers deep. The flow was almost nonstop, with only an occasional flick of a wrist or toss of a head to provide momentary stasis. The standout was Christian Clark, who sometimes nearly managed to integrate himself into the group but then something distinctive and powerful in his dancing drew the eye to him again.

“Red Clay” from “Home in 7.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

“Home in 7,” a work by Amy Siewert, closed the concert. A portrait of Atlanta, the ballet was a rich tapestry woven from music, spoken word, and movement. Performed in 7 segments to a libretto written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and an intriguing, haunting string score composed and performed by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the dance, too, was a poem, shimmering like summer moonlight on the Chattahoochee. John Welker opened the ballet with tiny explosions of movement “Secrets.” Perhaps the most enchanting segment was “Home of the Braves:” 5 men using baseball imagery, holding their formation as they slid precisely between pitches and catches. “Red Clay” evoked August nights, intolerance, and redemption—Atlanta history, a story familiar to many. I first saw this ballet in 2011, and it has grown in depth as the dancers have matured technically and emotionally. Atlanta loves its ballet company, and never more than when it showcases its home city.

John McFall is ending his tenure with the company at the end of this season. For newcomers to Atlanta Ballet offerings, this will have been a dynamic performance. For long-time supporters, it will have been an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. There are a couple more opportunities to see the company under his watch, and then he will pass the torch to Gennadi Nedvigin, the company’s fourth artistic director. Stay tuned!

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Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Enchants

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© Laura Christian

This year, the Atlanta Ballet marks the 20th anniversary of Artistic Director John McFall’s “The Nutcracker.” Attendance is a familiar holiday season tradition for many area families, who line up to see the changes and improvements that occur each year. While the story of the young girl who receives a Nutcracker-who-comes-to-life is familiar to thousands of ballet fans, there are many versions. The Atlanta Ballet’s production is richly designed and elegantly danced.

Originally a failure in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, “The Nutcracker” is now a holiday staple in the United States. Nobody dances it any better than the Atlanta Ballet, and nobody loves it more than a matinee house full of children! Whether they are watching their peers on-stage; hearing the Georgia Youth Choir singing in the Snow scene from the boxes; absorbing the live music from the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra in the pit; laughing with joy at Mother Matrushka’s children, emerging from under her skirts; screaming with glee at the capering Chinese Dragon; or reaching far above their heads to capture a snowflake, the children are enraptured for the two-plus hours the ballet is on the stage—and the adults are mesmerized right beside them.

Mother Matrushka in Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

There are some elements of this version of the ballet that are not my favorites, but the dancers didn’t make that list. Casting is impeccable, and, for me, part of the excitement of revisiting the old standby is seeing the dancers mature, improve, and demonstrate new abilities. The other part is watching the children captivated by the allure of the Fabulous Fox Theatre, the live music, the dancers, and the dancing—and being enthralled myself.

My list of this year’s positives goes like this:

John McFall has to contend with decreasing audience attention spans as we move further into the age of technology, and he tweaks Act I each year to make it more exciting. It is fast-paced. You may want to see the ballet more than once to catch everything! The foreshadowing during Act I was clear and well-conceived, and had the audience eagerly anticipating the return of the dancers to the stage after intermission.

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Kurtis Blow and the Hip Hop Nutcracker

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A holiday mash-up for the entire family, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a contemporary work set to Tchaikovsky’s timeless music, embarks on an international tour on the strength of last December’s sold-out performances of the world premiere at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA) in New York City. The Hip Hop Nutcracker will make a stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre Saturday, Nov. 28 at 2 p.m.

 

The Hip Hop Nutcracker is directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the all-female hip-hop crew Decadancetheatre in Brooklyn. It is adapted to today’s New York by Mike Fitelson, executive director of UPCA – the work’s original producer – and includes hip-hop interludes remixed and reimagined by DJ Boo and violinist Filip Pogády.

For its stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 28, The Hip Hop Nutcracker features special guest MC Kurtis Blow, one of the founders and creators of recorded rap music.

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