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By Kina Poon
Atlanta Ballet’s new resident choreographer
After an illustrious performing career with Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt and making work for companies far and wide, Helen Pickett is putting down roots. In November, she was named Atlanta Ballet’s new choreographer in residence. This month, AB performs her sensual Petal, adapted for the company in 2011, and will dance her Prayer of Touch in May. Outside commissions will keep her globe-trotting—in the coming months, she’ll be setting or creating works for Smuin Ballet, Scottish Ballet, and the School at Jacob’s Pillow, in addition to teaching at Princeton University, Boston Conservatory, and Marymount Manhattan College. In January, she spoke to associate editor Kina Poon.
At right: Photo of Pickett by Dustin Aksland.
How do you feel about your appointment? It’s like the sum of my life has clicked in one moment, and having clicked so beautifully with [artistic director] John McFall and Arturo [Jacobus, executive director] is just magnificent. It’s a family-oriented place. They wanted this connection, which is a big word for me. It’s such a luxury to have an artistic home, to be able to make plans to speak with directors, banter, have dancers in mind for roles. I feel effervescent, champagne-tickling-your-nose, Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s joyful!
What do you have in mind for your first new piece for the company? I’ve been experimenting with narrative. The next ballet I make for Atlanta Ballet is based on a Tennessee Williams play. I’m very excited. It will be my first full-length work.
The narrative aspect seems to be a natural next step for you. My parents were actors: My dad was on Broadway and my mom was in the soaps. So theater and literature were big in my upbringing. That idea of looking at the human dilemma has been embedded in me.
What are the AB dancers like? They’re courageous. I love collaboration in the studio and they slipped into that without my even asking. They’re a group of gutsy performers—and I don’t just mean physically, although I’m a nutball for technique. They’re ready to go emotionally. There are phenomenal actors in the company. There’s very little ego—healthy ego, yes, which a performer needs. The whole city of Atlanta is on the way up. Everything is ripe and juicy.
John Welker and Tara Lee of Atlanta Ballet rehearsing Pickett’s Prayer of Touch. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy AB.
Tell me about your workshop for budding choreographers that was announced as part of your three-year resident commitment. It’s called Choreographic Essentials, based on what I created with Boston Ballet two years ago. The set-up is a ballet class and then a two-hour Forsythe modalities class, which has good tools for young choreographers as far as getting the brain going. And then, for the rest of the day, which is a three-hour chunk, people break up into groups: Some choreograph, some are choreographed on. It culminates in a showing on the sixth day. I also have four pieces of music for them to choose from. And I make two phrases that everyone has to learn, and they can—they don’t have to—riff on them. So they have a few bases to work from.
Why is giving this opportunity to dancers so crucial? After watching a class I taught at MIT, Mikko [Nissinen, Boston Ballet’s artistic director] left me a phone message asking me if I could choreograph. I could’ve said no. But I thought, I might be crap at it, but I gotta try. I’d like to instill this in young people: just listen and say yes to yourself if there is an opportunity, no matter how small. It makes you a richer artist to go down these avenues. Be reverent to your art. Treat it with kid gloves, make it detailed. It only gets more sumptuous.
Ballet dancers especially need encouragement to choreograph. And there aren’t many of us female voices in the ballet world. As a friend of mine, Thaddeus Davis, says, “If you have the example, you know it’s possible.” Some young women might not know it’s possible to be a choreographer.
What would you say to a woman who is interested in choreographing? Put yourself out there. I’m not saying that it’s always going to be yes, but the nos will make you tougher. Life is full of yes and nos. It’s what you do with that answer that counts.